Strong at the Broken Places
Strong at the Broken Places by Clayton Lindemuth is a rich, gritty psychological exploration of the soul. It is, at its heart, one man’s alchemic transformation.
Nick Fister is an ultra-runner, taking on races of fifty to a hundred plus miles in one go. To say this is an extreme sport is an understatement, and Nick spends a lot of time training. We join him as he is about to start the Badwater 135, a race of 135 miles through Death Valley and up Mount Whitney. As his race starts, he gets the news that his crew chief, Floyd Siciliano, has been found dead. He spends the rest of the race attempting to evade a stalker, keeping the police from dragging him out of the race for questioning, and musing over all the things that led him to this moment.
For Nick, Badwater 135 turns into an alchemic inferno. It is one race he leaves far different than when he entered. We learn, through his musings as he paces the miles, the things in childhood that shaped and warped him and about the near past that broke him further. As a boy, Nick randomly received a package containing a gold marathon medal. When his abusive father found it, he told Nick he wasn’t worthy of even accidentally owning something like that and proceeded to make his son run back and forth down the driveway in crappy shoes with a rifle trained on him until he reached the distance of a marathon. Long after his father was done with the bully tactic, Nick kept running, to prove he could. He ran thirteen miles and learned many valuable lessons, the greatest being that imagination and will keep you going long after the body says stop. From this, the foundations of a career are launched.
The entirety of the Badwater 135 race is a powerful cycle of personal transmutation. His Calcination event began on the plane to Vegas, with a devastating letter from his daughter, Tuesday. Through the run, Nick undergoes Dissolution, as his musings begin to lead him to understand how his behavior has affected his family. With all his intense training and retreating into his running to avoid things, he neglected his wife and daughter, which had terrible consequences. He meets his Shadow on the run, a man sharing his exact name who had been stalking him for a time now, and he begins to more honestly experience his own emotions. The run itself provides the frame for Conjunction, as Nick travels mile upon mile with only himself for company. He begins to marinate in the truth of recent events and his role in what happened.
Fermentation is a literal “dark night of the soul,” as he runs through the night and experiences more and more physical and mental distress. He’s running hobbled and has been abandoned by his remaining crew, with no new food or water in miles. Distillation comes when he realizes how much he’s missed out on by being who he is, by admittedly seeking strife and fostering anger because that’s what he converts to will in his running. That’s his fuel. And Nick decides he’s done with that. He wants peace, and normality. He wants to feel he is worth something on his own merit. Coagulation ends the race. Nick finds support and finds himself changed. Despite further injuries, despite wrangling his Shadow more than once, Nick goes from the self-centredness of needing the win to fulfill a hollow sense of self-worth to stopping to urge his rival back to her feet to finish the race. Even after he finishes, he goes back to Nova and continues to urge her up, to finish when she’s so close, and when reporters come to pester him, he steps out of the limelight, telling them Nova is the next big thing and instead looks forward to the life he wants to build.
I didn’t really like Nick for much of the book, even knowing why he is the way he is. His childhood sucked. His adulthood sucks. He’s in a loveless marriage and burrows into his training as a way to keep people out. He admits he thrives on strife and bitterness because he turns it into running energy. And yet, despite not liking him, I was pulled into his story. I wanted to know him and what shaped him. I was invested in seeing this transformation through. Lindemuth did a magnificent job with this intensely personal story. I learned a lot about ultra-running, too, which I’d never heard of. This just sounds too intense to be real, but the author himself does it, having a longest run of 73 miles. This intimate knowledge showed itself in the attention to detail and depth of description.
If you like stories of personal transformation, check this gem out!
|Page Count||267 pages|
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