Friday, March 7, 2014

Ultra by David Carroll

For anyone who doesn't know yet, Ultra is the winner of the 2013 Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction.  I was a second round judge in this category and I have to admit that a book about running didn't appeal to me very much and I put off reading Ultra until it was the only one left to read.  And then, I couldn't put it down.  I was literally riveted and read the book in one sitting.

Told within the framework of a post race interview, Ultra tells the story of Quinn Scheurmann, 12, who has just competed a 100 mile race called the Shin Kicker 100, in which runners have 24 hours to complete a course that takes them through some pretty rough terrain.

Originally, Quinn and his dad were supposed to race together, but even though his dad isn't there, he decides to run the race anyway.  His dad had gotten Quinn interested in running when he was 8 years old and discovered that Quinn had "superpowers" that enabled him to keep running long distances without getting tried the way most runners eventually do.  Quinn's body doesn't produce lactic acid, the stuff responsible for the 'brun' you feel while exercising.

Quinn is running with the support of his mother, little brother Ollie, who is also Quinn's pacer, and best friend, Kneecap.  His friendship with Kneecap has really been tested the past few months before the race, as Quinn withdrew more and more into himself,  But she stuck by him anyway, even giving him her small, light cellphone at the beginning of the race, replacing his mother's old clunky weighty phone.

Along the race route, Quinn meets two people.  First is an elderly man called the Dirt Eater (his t-shirt says Eat My Dirt on the back of it), who advises Quinn to drop out of the race.  The other is a middle age lady cop named Kera, who tells him he is going to love running the 100 mile course.  Two very different people who ultimately impact Quinn's race.

But along the way, what goes on in Quinn's head is what will keep you reading.  Conversation with his absent dad, regrets about things done to hurt Kneecap, hallucinations of all kinds.

And as Quinn begins to wonder what he is running to or what he is running from, his real work, the work of healing, of coming of age, of coming to terms, unfold.  It all comes together at mile 97, when Quinn reaches The Shrine.  The Shrine is a pile of rocks containing a metal box that says:
For runners left behind,
And for those who give us courage, 
We give thanks at The Shrine.

That Quinn finishes the race is already known, but how it happens is well worth the journey with him.

A hand drawn map of Quinn's 100 Mile Race (courtesy of David Caroll)

I had never heard of a 100 mile race before I read Ultra, but David Carroll is an experienced ultra marathoner, so he definitely knows what he is talking about as far as the details of the race is concerned.  Yet, as prepared as Quinn was for his race, all kinds of unexpected things go wrong and Carroll has so carefully detailed these things that you know if either happened to him on a distance run or he witnessed it happening to a fellow runner.  Either way, it gives very realistic ambiance to the novel.

At the beginning of each chapter, we are told the mile that Quinn has reached so we never lose our sense of bearing in the story, as we track Quinn's progress.  The interview that frames the story breaks into Quinn's narrative intermittently, providing not just more information, but also some relief from what could become overwhelming emotionally.

Ultra is David Carroll's debut novel and he has done a wonderful job of it.  It is unfortunately not the easiest book to find for US readers.  It is published by Scholastic Canada, and sadly, Canadian books are not always as widely distributed in the United States as American books are in Canada, which means we miss out on a lot of good books.  However, you can order Ultra from and I get nothing for posting this other than the satisfaction that someone may buy this really worthwhile Cybils winning middle grade book.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was provided to me by the Cybils award

Scholastic provides a useful discussion guide for reading Ultra in the classroom, homeschooling, or book group.

And if you are curious about lactic acid and how it makes Quinn a kid with "superpowers" you can find more information HERE

This is author David Carroll finishing a 100 mile race
wearing Quinn's number "Lucky 13"


  1. ULTRA is definitely on my reading list, now. I keep seeing this title pop up in various conversations and you have piqued my interest. Thanks for the post.

  2. This review was such an interesting read for me Alex. I too was the 2nd round judge on the NF category for Cybils. And like you I had the bird watching book at the bottom of the pile. I was pretty surprise to find it there. But from page 1 I was hooked. I kept reading it and never stopped reading till I realized I was at the last page. The book also won the NF award from Cybils. So now after reading your review, I am heading to the library to find this ULTRA. I hope they carry it.
    -Reshama @ Stackingbooks

  3. It is indeed a book for teens and grownups! Thank you for shaing it at Kids Lit Hop!


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