Oxygen Debt Book Review: A Satire on Running and Life

Oxygen Debt bookYour exhaled breath doesn’t go very far on a super-heated summer day. It parks itself in front of your face in a suffocating mess of carbon dioxide and the stale odor of partially-digested whatever-you-had-for-lunch. I first imagined that this smothering sensation is what Oxygen Debt’s main character, Clay, feels in each waking moment. Clay doesn’t, though, as he’s much too dumb. That doesn’t preclude Oxygen Debt’s readers from espousing Clay’s abandoned emotions, taking a wild ride along his fetid life path, and feeling instinctual relief when it is he, and not you, who is beaten to a near-death pulp with a bowling ball.

Oxygen Debt is a story about a man who becomes a runner for the singular purpose of chasing the tail of a woman named Karen. Karen is a fast runner, leggy and lean, and she possesses a sharp mind that’s highly prized by her employers. At first blush, she seems like a good focal point for Clay’s devotion. She’s not, though, and you can feel pretty quick that something about her just ain’t right. Clay chases Karen; Karen chases a demon the reader isn’t meant to fully understand; and the two run themselves into the deepest recesses of human psychosis. Oxygen Debt’s two main characters get lost, real lost, and there’s no happy ending like in big-screen movies.

When I snapped this book shut, I shuddered. This is a work of fiction, but it feels real. There’s no shimmer-y gloss, as the reader is ground-level immersed into Clay and Karen’s R-rated lives. You can hear the demons screaming in Karen’s head as she runs, and you want to shut your eyes and look away when Clay reaches into his pants yet again to pleasure himself.

I’m a big picture girl, so, when it’s all said and done, I can’t stop myself from trying to let Oxygen Debt’s message filter out of the chunky bits leftover from Clay and Karen’s obliterated lives. Without the exorcising qualities of therapy, we all remain indebted to some long lost moment of our lives that didn’t go well the first time around, our own demons. I think Oxygen Debt reminds us to pay back, whether doing so is for the purpose of loosing those demons of history, to keep your current karma bank full, or for the organic value of being more than a selfish human being.

Don’t take Oxygen Debt too seriously, as it’s mostly a good satire of  bachelorhood, the world of the redneck, the selective cruelty of humanity, and, perhaps most relevant to most of us, athletic endeavoring gone one step too far. To enjoy this read, you’ve also got to embrace it as a first, self-published novel: ignore the peppering of grammar and punctuation errors and don’t focus upon your wish that the editor had a heavier hand [Edited: Oxygen Debt’s additional printings have been edited and are now error-free.]. Cede to author Duncan Larkin’s experimental writing forms and, on your next run, make sure to look over your shoulder to see what debt is chasing you.

About Oxygen Debt, author Duncan Larkin says, “I dreamt up Oxygen Debt while running 100-mile weeks. To get to that kind of mileage while keeping a full-time job and doing my share as a single parent, I was forced to run at night. At the time, I lived in Connecticut and ran down narrow roads with just my headlamp in front of me. I started thinking about being chased in all that suffocating blackness. At that moment, Oxygen Debt was born.”

You may purchase Oxygen Debt here.

Oxygen Debt Giveaway [Closed]
We gave away a signed copy of Oxygen Debt and an iRunFar Headsweats hat to Alisa for leaving a comment describing her craziest, beyond category race/workout, something that’s a sane person’s comparable to the Clay and Karen’s midnight marathon that wraps up the novel. The contest was judged by author Duncan Larkin.

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com’s Senior Editor, the author of ‘Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,’ and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world’s wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 17 comments

  1. Trail Clown

    Sweet review, me thinks you have a running book in you yourself some day. My craziest running adventures were all during graduate school, which I attended at night. I would leave work in Malibu (CA) and run the Los Liones trail up into the Santa Monica Mountains, then slog along in the dark (yes, mountain lions were deciding whether I was an alien with a head lamp, or a suitable snack) until I dropped down into the smog valley of Encino, where I would sprint on city streets to get to my office-building-esque "university". I would change back into my regular clothes in the bathroom, and sit for 3 hours listening to a lecture, all the while smelling like an ultra runner and sitting in close proximity to fellow students. Then I would take the city bus home (on which I was now one of the best-smelling persons :) Ah, those were the days…

  2. Blair

    I the only workouts I've done which even I consider crazy were running with the flu along the streets of a Cape Town, South Africa suburb while studying at UCT and while on safari 'running' a mile severely dehydrated with nothing in my stomach and wondering if the impala and monkeys were actually real or if they were something far more dangerous. Interesting runs nonetheless.

  3. Blaine Moore

    Great review, looks like an interesting read.

    I'm not sure what my craziest race or workout is; I've had my fair share. Running 50 miles in the desert? Running a 50k on an out and back 2 mile stretch of road in the middle of the day in 97 degree heat with 90% humidity? Trying to run 1 more mile every day over the previous day for a month of high mileage? So, to make things easy, I'll settle that by describing my most recent crazy workout/race series:

    There's a 3 race trail series at Bradbury Mountain near where I live. I'd set the course record at the first one (a 6 miler) and did all right at the second race (a 9 miler), extending my series lead to 3 minutes going into race #3.

    Race #3 is a 12 miler that has a lot of gnarly single track on twisty, turny trails with a lot of switchbacks. While training on the course, 4 weeks before race day, I lost my footing and managed to avoid any serious damage by letting a tree stump stop my head from hitting the ground. Lost a fair amount of blood and got a hefty E-R bill, but no real damage. So, back out to do more training runs before the race.

    2 weeks before the race, I wasn't alone this time, which led to tripping over a root in the middle of a flat trail. I'm not one to fall much this time of year, but despite the lack of blood or bruising I landed on my wrist and tried giving myself CPR. This led to a cracked rib.

    So, along came race day. My head had healed, my knee and elbow were mostly healed (from the day I hit my head), and my rib was only aching enough to be annoying. Trying to navigate those trails at race pace (or as close as you can manage to race pace) is a trick, with trees whipping by and obstacles all along the path. The last 3 miles involve a section called the "O" trail where you can see people through the trees, sometimes right next to you, but you have no idea if they are gaining on you, maintaining, or falling back because they might be 3 yards behind you or they might 2 miles behind you and you'd have no idea. (This stretch of trail is contained within just a few acres of land.)

    I managed to break the course record, but unfortunately there were 6 others who did so ahead of me. At least I won the 3 race series, though. Second place was right behind me around mile 6.5, but I managed to put a 5 minute gap between us in the last few miles to win by 8 minutes over all.

    As part of my prize pack, I got a case of beer, plus another case of beer as part of the team win for the day. By the time I left the park, I'd shared enough bottles out to teammates to only come home with less than 3/4 of a case. Lots of mixing and matching and giving away.

  4. k8

    It was not technically a "work out" but a game of survival when I was a youth director and went to the BWCA with a bunch of 9th grade boys and we were outrunning a straightline windstorm with canoes and packs on our backs. Wicked exhilarating.

  5. Bryon Powell

    I could probably fill a book (though thoroughly less exciting than Oxygen Debt) about crazy running adventures. However, if I add one, it might as well be my first.

    Back in spring the 2002, I was just about to make the leap into ultrarunning. At the time I shared an apartment in Washington, DC with two roommates. Late on a Friday evening, I start putting on my running clothes, filling a water bottle, and adjusting a headlamp that I'd purchased during my lunch hour. They had no idea what to think… though they should have been tipped off that something was up when I began laminating a map with clear packing tape.

    You see, I was carless and I wanted to volunteer at the Bull Run Run 50 mile at the outer edge of DC's Virginia suburbs. The race was put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, a trail running club that I'd started running with on occasion. I emailed some friends in the club as well as the race director to see if someone could give me a ride. No one could.

    Fortunately, there was an obvious alternative. Run to the race. So I set off to do so. Granted, I'd never run any of the planned route on the far side of the Potomac. Regardless, I left the apartment around midnight and headed off on familiar streets. The route took me through Georgetown while a Friday night's debauchery was in full swing. I felt very out of place… and completely badass.

    After crossing the Key Bridge, I was instantly on virgin (and Virginia) territory. … cliff hanger… more tomorrow!

  6. Bill Gentry

    My buddy Jeff Newton and I ran a 41-mile portion of The Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park to commemorate his 40th birthday back in 1997 or 1998. Early February. We shoved off at 4:30 a.m. in a light, cold drizzle, with enough food and drink to last 4 hours, which was gonna be fine because Jeff's wife was meeting us at Loft Mountain to refuel. Problem was that the Drive got closed to vehicle traffic b/c the light drizzle turned to snow and ice. Next problem was, pre-cell phone days, we didn't know that. Until a park ranger told us. After we had been out of food for an hour. So, being ultrarunners, we did the only smart thing: we did the final 3 hours in six inches of fresh snow without any water. Or food. Total time: 7 hours, 41 minutes. But oh dear Lord was that large thin pepperoni pizza at the end good. And the three beers. And the small bag of chocolate donuts.

  7. Noah

    Great review! Early this year I was running three runs in 24 hours to get ready for the Palmetto 200 (my first relay race). I was trying to get ready for my three runs (morning, day and night). I work full time and have a son, so I was running before work, at lunch and then in the middle of the night. I was also getting ready for my first 12 hour run in July so I was amping up my mileage.

    I will never forget those few months. I was delirious at times, but the experience was amazing! I am now training for two marathons in November (Indy and Valley of Fire, NV) for my 40th birthday.

  8. Tarzan Sutton

    One of my craziest run: I ran from my house to my in-laws house, what I thought would be a "run thru a storm", turned out to be a run during a tornado! About a mile from their house the wind kicked up and it got all dark like it was the Second Coming! About a 1/4 mile from the house, 80 mph winds and trees falling everywhere, raining sideways, felt like needles and the wind that sounded like Hell itself was erupting from bowels of the earth. I got to my in-laws and opened the screen door and it got ripped off the hinges I got inside and ran right down to the basement where my family was taking shelter only moments before! Maybe not as wild as others, but the scariest run of my life. But I tell you, I really felt alive during that moment!

  9. Alisa

    In training for my first ultra (JFK 50 Miler) my friend, Sue, recommended an out and back marathon that would entail a 4 mile road section to 3 miles of creek crossing bushwacking,a solid climb up Tuscarora Summit on trails, crossing Route 30 in PA at a blind curve, them bombing down the other side of the summit on an asphalt road. Turn around, run it back. The night before I had what I thought was food poisoning (turns out I'm allergic to shellfish). Determined not to stray from my training plan, I set out on the 4 mile road stretch that would lead to the bushwack. With nothing in my stomach, this portion alone felt like a marathon. Driving out to meet me, Sue would comment "You looked awful already." Sue met me for the bushwack and the climb. As we approached the Route 30 crossing, I was desperate for nourishment and recounting to Sue the instructions I had given to my husband who was to meet us at the top for our only aid. Sue fell silent. Then, very quietly, said "Now, don't cry, but you gave him directions to the wrong summit." A stream of tears and expletives carried me down the mountain to the turn around point. Trudging uphill, my now very confused husband had realized my mistake and found Sue waiting at the top of the mountain. He found me downhill and delivered the needed calories and water. I slumped into the back with the door open, hung my head and cried. At this point a state trooper drove by very slowly as my husband kicked me out of the car because his bar stool was getting cold. As I was slogging my sorry ass uphill, the state trooper stopped and asked me if I wanted to report anything. We made such a miserable couple, he assumed I had been the victim of domestic abuse. He really couldn't understand that my misery was of my own design. You've gotta love a sport that makes you look like you've been beaten by your husband. I ended up finishing that run, learning a lot about mental fortitude and the will to keep going. But the high point came just a few miles from the end, bushwacking for the second time when my friend Sue stopped dead in her tracks, pointed to a rock and said "watch out, this rock is slippery!" AS OPPOSED TO THE 10,000 OTHER ROCKS WE'VE CROSSED IN THE CREEK TODAY?!?!?! My friendship with Sue survived, the marriage didn't. And I did finish that first ultra (and now about 95 more and counting….)

  10. Jenny Handy

    In January of this year I had a baby and decided I had plenty of time to get ready for the 24 Hour Adventure Trail Run held in May in Virginia. I didn't take into account that I hadn't run in 3 months due to complications. I showed up the night bfore the race to check in and meet the other racers. Saturday morning we woke up to very hot weather. Not something I do well in. I decided to take it slow but as the day wore on it only got hotter. Sometime during my 3rd loop I became extremely dizzy, hot and nauseaus. Not a good combination. I had to keep stopping to sit down, pour water over my head and rest. It was not a good situation. I finally made it back to the aid station to sit down for a minute. Then I decided to take my shoes off and found blisters so big I couldn't get my shoe back on! Not to mention that a lack of Bodyglide caused me serious chaffing in some rather unpleasant areas. I decided at that point my race was over. I was disappointed but stayed anyway to see everyone else finish. I can't wait to go back next year!

    Jenny

    Stanardsville, VA

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