Book Review

In recent years, I have, for the most part, avoided reading books about running. I was once a competitive distance runner, but injuries and health problems forced me to give up racing and, for long stretches of time, running at all. So when I decided to read Markus Torgeby’s book The Runner, it was with some trepidation. The book, a first person account of Torgeby’s years spent living and running in the remote Swedish wilderness, centers itself around the concept of wellness—what it is and how we achieve it, both physically and mentally. The subject matter hitting so close to home, I was nervous I might read something that was true and, in all likelihood, unsettling. In the end, Torgeby’s account of his wilderness experience prompted me to consider not only how we pursue wellness, but if the process of writing can be as profound an experience as the activities we write about.

The Runner, Four Years Living and Running in the Wilderness was first published in Sweden in 2015 as Löparens hjärta. In October 2018, the English translation by Karl French came out in the United States from Bloomsbury. The book opens with a series of vignettes, scenes from Torgeby’s childhood on the island of Öckerö, and follows him through his college years in Jämtland. In these passages, Torgeby recounts his mother’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis, his own encounters with illness and injuries, disappointing races, and his persistent feelings of restlessness—all of which lead to his decision to live alone in the woods near Lake Helgesjön. The ensuing pages focus on Torgeby’s day-to-day living in the wilderness: what he eats, where he runs, how cold it is outside, and if he will have enough firewood to last the winter.

For readers who have read other books about trail running or living in the wilderness, the story will feel familiar—a runner’s take on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, if you will. The classic elements are all there: disillusionment with modern society, transcendentalist musings, the pursuance of a lifestyle grounded in simplicity and self-reliance. In the chapter “Tanzania,” Torgeby also recounts his time spent living and training with an elite African team on Mount Meru near Arusha, calling to mind narratives such as Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Of course, Walden gets a shout-out too–the book prompting Torgeby to consider “doing something like that.”

At its best, Torgeby’s writing is straightforward and self-aware, textured with details such as “the familiar smell of reindeer skin and smoke” and “dank marshes with low willow trees.” At times though, the writing strays past simple and moves directly to distractingly colloquial. For example, Torgeby tells us that his coach often looks “really” tired, and that he has to do “really” tough interval training, and that the jellyfish stings “really” hurt. To be fair, though, we don’t seem to demand that books tagged with the “Sports & Outdoors” or “Health & Fitness” labels meet high literary standards. For his part, Torgeby claims only that this is a book about “how you can use running to become a better person.”

Still, there are sections in which the writing carries the story well. Throughout, Torgeby depicts himself more human than hero, examining what makes himself tick without fear or apology. For instance, Torgeby tells us how, when his grandfather criticizes him for not helping his mother get up from the sofa, he lifts the older man up and throws him out the door.

“If you come back, I’ll hit you properly,” I say and slam the door shut.
The tears are running down Mum’s cheeks.
“You shut up,” I say. “No more whingeing.”

The sections in which Torgeby writes about his mother are especially compelling, but I was also drawn to the sections in which he reflects on his own well-being. Interestingly, when discussing physical health, Torgeby uses specific labels to address the subject matter at hand. He tells us, for example, that his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, that he takes medicine for amoeba and hookworm in Tanzania, and that he comes down with pneumonia in India. However, when discussing mental health, Torgeby tends to avoid using labels, letting the descriptions of his thoughts and feelings stand on their own. Early on, for instance, he tells us how “up there in my head there’s this constant grinding.” Later, writing on hunger, weight loss (he lost twelve kilos in six months), and his relationship with food, he says it feels as if “I am standing in the darkness at the bottom of a well and I see the freedom and the food up there, but the walls are slippery and I can’t climb up.”

One gets the impression Torgeby might find labels in these contexts constrictive, much like the compression stockings he ditches on a run along the Swedish mountain range. There is the persistent social stigma attached to most mental health labels, for one thing. But perhaps Torgeby, like many authors, steers clear of using labels because the complex landscape of mental health doesn’t easily lend itself to neat, one-size-fits-all boxes. In its descriptive, open-ended examination of wellness, The Runner stands as one example, at least, of how to write about mental health, as well as an example of how our vocabulary for discussing this subject is still developing.

Ultimately, The Runner did for me what any running book, arguably, should: it made me long to be outside running. It also prompted me to consider if the joy of putting words down on a page, of pondering the complicated questions about health that surfaced while writing this review, can compare to the joy of running. Would we be—as another nature writer has said of the life of the mind—“hard put to call it living”? I find myself unable to disagree with anything Annie Dillard writes, but I like to think that the artistry of both the athlete and the writer are meaningful. Torgeby’s writing leaves some room for criticism, but in the implicitly constructed parallel between these two artistries, the book accomplishes its stated purpose of showing how running can make one a better person. In content and method, The Runner asserts that whether it be by exploring our physical and mental limits, or considering how we carry on in light of them, the process of questioning our human nature is the only way to find, if not answers, a sense of purpose.

About the Reviewer

Elizabeth Boyle received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and education, respectively, from the University of Illinois. She is also a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. Formerly, she was a Division I cross country and track and field athlete and assistant coach. She now works as a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.