Out of Thin Air – Thinking about What I Read

I was reading Vern Gambetta’s blog the other day, and one of his recommendations was Out of Thin Air by Michael Crawley. When he makes recommendations like these, I take the time to look at the titles. When I did, Crawley’s book intrigued me enough to buy the eBook. Thank you, Coach Gambetta, for your recommendations. I have a feeling that at some point this year, I will read each of them.

Needless to say, I thought Out of Thin Air was an excellent book.

I finished reading Out of Thin Air the other day and have been reflecting on what I read since. Admittedly, I don’t have a lot in common with either the writer or runners (who are all elite runners), I still felt a pull and a shared interest. I wanted to say kinship, but that would be presumptive and not accurate. I do not have experience with the lifestyle or sacrifices that elite runners must make to succeed in this sport. 

For me, at least, running is less about competition with others or earning money in the sport and more about the competition with myself and a few running friends that I train with. I might think that I am competitive every once in a while, but realistically I don’t have the drive to do much beyond the local level in my age group. Although the dreams do still happen from time-to-time. I think that is the appeal of books like this. we all still have dreams about what it would be like to be a good runner.

Many who read Out of Thin Air will initially think of it as the Ethiopian version of Running with Kenyans. Yes, there are some similarities, but this book spoke to me differently than Running with the Kenyans did. I think this sentence is a good example. 

“It (Ethiopia) is a place, in short, of magic and madness, where dreaming is still very much alive.”

Out of Thin Air – Michael Crawley

While Running With the Kenyans did speak to the athlete’s dreams, it didn’t, for me at least, take into account the athlete’s beliefs that there is something more to running that Out of Thin Air attempts to convey to the reader beyond improving their lives or become great runners.

Sometimes I think that all runners dream about what it would be like to take a year or two and train like this. Take ourselves out of the comfort zones we have created and have the opportunity to see how much we could improve our running or grow as a person by going to train with an elite running group, whether in Africa or in our own Country.

A quote from Out of Thin Air that I keep coming back to:

“With running you have a chance to change your life.’ This is something I will hear again and again when I ask my running friends why they run. ‘To change my life.’ Deciding to become a runner means to reorder many aspects of your life in a way that will make this possible and runners therefore often define themselves against other young men trying to make a living in the city.”

Out of Thin Air – Michael Crawley

A lot of what I read in Out of Thin Air appeals to the old-school runner in me. They take me back to a time in my life when running was simpler and perhaps once upon a time, my dreams more significant. Even now, when I now run more for fitness, I still get delusions of grandeur or dreams not based on the reality of my chosen lifestyle. Maybe there is still time left to tweak my running philosophy or training methods, and a few other changes in my life will allow me not to dream as much and do more.

That elusive BQ perhaps.

That is the sign of a good book. It makes you think and even dream again.

Training Nuggets

Running with intuition and creativity, and knowing when to focus on slowness rather than speed, are important skills and are the foundations upon which everything else is built. By running in a way that lessens the stress on joints and minimises repetitive movement, people are able to do more, as Tsedat is keen to emphasise. And this, in turn, allows people to do crazy things sometimes.

The value of having a goal to work towards, of having friends who share your desire to ‘bring change’ together, and of putting health and vitality first. The ways in which the runners sought to ‘change their lives’ – through making every run different, by seeking out adventure in what they did and by attaching value to particular environments around the city – were also ways of focusing on the process, and maintaining interest and enjoyment from day to day.

Out of Thin Air – Michael Crawley

What did I learn?

Even at age 63, I still dream about doing something like this. Going to another land, immersing myself in their culture to see what I will learn and/or improve myself as a runner. Even if it never happens, I can live vicariously through the writing of others.

That is what this book is to me, a chance to dream once more. 

To think about things that are possible, if I am willing to do the work.

No, I will never be an elite athlete like those in the book and have no illusions of that becoming reality. However, on a more pedestrian level, I want to do more with my running and believe that I can even as I get older.

It occurs to me that a large part of what keeps us running are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and that crucially these stories are oriented towards the future.

Out of Thin Air – Michael Crawley

I want and need to run with others again once the pandemic is over, which will help me be a better runner than I can be on my own, to be a part of a team where I can give back to the running community and smile at others’ antics and dreams. Maybe even help them find answers to making dreams more than something that would be great to do, but never take the time or believe in themselves enough to take that chance.

The book has given me ideas to incorporate into my own running and why I run.

Which is a good thing.

Out of Thin Air is a book that I will be buying the paper version as well. I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be one of “those books” that I read at least once a year to remind me that it is okay to keep dreaming, even in my sixties.

Yes, it is well worth reading.


  1. Having read it now and then let it simmer for a week or two to find out what really stuck with me… My thought through the early pages was that the Michael Crawley guy would turn out to be the most interesting and most fully developed character, and I still feel that way for the most part. While he’s an engaging story teller and there are some great anecdotes about other runners as well as himself, it struck me in particular that principles he saw in the Ethiopian approach to training–following feet, going somewhere “to be changed,”–are ones he was already following in his own life. He recalls earlier trips to India, South America, China, and France, to become someone he couldn’t become in Britain; and the reason for this visit to Ethiopia was to change himself in a big way: to become a Doctor of Philosophy.

    The other big lasting impression is the ideas from sociology and anthropology, There’s a quote early on, “Disenchantment is the distinctive injury of modernity,” setting the world of reason and rational expectations again enchantment, against “magic and madness” and the mysterious forces and agents that runners (not just Africans!) pay respects to. Later he brings up, “‘illusio,’ the process by which people make their activities and actions meaningful to themselves,” and explains that “illusio” is related to “ludus,” Latin for “game.” (I’ve come across “ludology” in other reading as a term for scholarly work on game playing. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that the first recorded use of “ludology” was by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the popular book Flow, which Crawley mentions in a different chapter. Apparently books of this sort face a legal requirement to reference Flow.)

    I just think there’s a lot of food for thought there–about running but also about the many other things we do; what scenarios we expect to play out as we get deeper into the thing and what the possible rewards might be. Personally, and specifically about running, I’m probably better as a recreational runner for having lost a lot of my illusions and gotten over some of my enchantment about what running would be or should be. There’s also Jack Daniels, PhD, and his familiar throwing-eggs-at-a-wall metaphor, and I’ve learned–a valuable lesson really–that I will always be one of the eggs that breaks. But as a non-elite non-pro, success in running for me means continuing to be able to run. I only really lose if I become injured (which happens sometimes!) or discouraged or disinterested. I might even have a better chance competitively as attrition thins out the field over time, if I can go on running in a way that works for me in my world.

    I don’t want to make my comment longer than your review, not least because I’ve also lost much of my “illusio” about writing, but it was a really good read and I’m glad you brought the book to my attention.


    • Tim – you can write as much as you want, I enjoy reading your writing, you make me stop and think from different perspectives than I would usually – which I believe is a good thing. I am glad that you enjoyed the book and I have a feeling that is one of those that in a year or so, that I will go back and re-read. It probably will not be a great the next time. Much like Running With Kenyans or other running books that I loved the first time around and found rather blah the second time around. 🙂


      • Many thanks for the kind words, Harold. Yes, it will be interesting to re-read it and see what effect it has a second time through. And on the chance that you didn’t low-key online stalk the author the way I did, I’ll mention two blogs he kept briefly, “mikerunsawayfromhome” and “acceptableintheighties”, both followed by wordpress.com. They’re interesting in their own right and they offered a bit of extra context for Crawley’s visit to Ethiopia.

        I haven’t read Running With Kenyans yet. I might have to give that one a go as well.


      • I didn’t look at his blogs, but will now that you have let me know about them. I actually enjoyed The Way of the Runner a bit more it gave a peek into the Japanese culture and running world that I had no clue about. I will be re-reading that at some point in the next few months to see if the second time around it is as good as the first one.


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