The Obsessed Fortysomething Runner: Long runs and audiobooks

I’m no Ryan Hall, but if you put aside Hall’s vastly superior speed and endurance, this commercial captures what outdoor long runs are like for me:

Well, except I wouldn’t be listening to either The Odyssey or Moby Dick.

What makes for a good audiobook when you’re going for a long run? Obviously, the answer is dependent somewhat on each person’s particular reading tastes, but it’s not as simple as “good audiobooks” = “books I like reading.”

My fiction tastes are, um, let’s just say “non-literary.” I like epic space operas, thrillers (techno- or terrorism or both), and mysteries. You can find lots of audiobook versions of novels in those categories at, a site that I check every day for the Daily Deal. For a while, we had an Audible membership, where for a flat monthly fee, you get a credit that can be used for any Audible book. We were getting a lot of kids’ books (think The Magic Treehouse) for our boys to listen to, but it turned out that the regular prices on those audiobooks were cheaper than the monthly fee.

Result: I ended up getting a big stockpile of audiobooks, because big space opera or sci-fi novels that run 900+ pages in print also cost about a gazillion dollars in professionally narrated audio versions.

Over the past year, I’ve listened to about 110 hours of audiobooks while running. (It would be even more hours, except I have my smartphone set to playback at 1.25 times the recorded speed. It still sounds pretty normal at that speed, whereas 1.5 times makes it sound funny.) That may sound like a lot of time, but in terms of numbers of books, it’s not. 900+ page books take a LONG time to read out loud.

– Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson (~43 hours) (techno-thriller)

– Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson (~17 hours) (sci-fi/cyberpunk)

– The Whole Truth, by David Baldacci (~11 hours) (conspiracy thriller)

Gulp!, by Mary Roach (~8 hours) (science non-fiction)

– Star Wars trilogy (radio dramatization) (~13 hours) (sci-fi/fantasy)

– Pandora’s Star, by Peter F. Hamilton (~37 hours) (sci-fi/space opera)

– Judas Unchained, by Peter F. Hamilton (~43 hours) (sci-fi/space opera) [just started this]

With the exception of Gulp! and the Star Wars trilogy, I’ve read all of these in print. (Well, being the sci-fi pop culture nerd that I am, I’ve also read the novelizations of the original trilogy, but the radio dramatizations add quite a bit of material not in print nor on screen.) And I’ve read two other books by Mary Roach, enough to know that she’s my favorite science writer. The upshot is that I’m pretty familiar with the stories, so my perception of enjoyment is driven heavily by the aural experience (as opposed to the visual one), which in turn is dependent on the performance to some extent.

And it turns out that listening can be quite different from reading. I like Baldacci’s books a lot, enough that he’s on my list of authors whose books I tend to get as soon as they are published. And among his books, The Whole Truth is one of my favorites. Yet, the audiobook was . . . disappointing. It wasn’t terrible, and the narrator did, on the whole, a decent job. However, the descriptions and dialogue sounded terribly corny, which is not how I remembered the prose reading.

Now, a really good narrator can truly elevate the audiobook. Cryptonomicon is one of my all-time favorite novels, a long saga covering the World War II era as well as the present day/near future (well, near future of 1999), with intertwined families of math/computer science nerds (the Waterhouses) and derring does (the Shaftoes), all about encryption, data havens, gold treasure, Nazi U-boats, and how we won World War II. The audiobook was narrated by William Dufris, who among other performances, originally voiced Bob the Builder in North America. Dufris is a really talented vocal actor, clearly distinguishing the enormous cast of main characters, and even minor celebrities in the book, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I was a bit let down to discover that Snow Crash (also by the same author) was not performed by Dufris.

So, there you have it, some thoughts about long runs and audiobooks. Hey, I need something to compete with the treadmill + TV combination!

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