Archive for the ‘Running’ Category


The big 5-0

May 29, 2023

As my 50th birthday approached (earlier this month), I contemplated my recent upswing in fitness (from “deeply dreadful” up to “moderately dreadful”) and wondered what I might do as a celebratory birthday run.

My first idea was what the ultrarunning community would consider to be the obvious option. How about a 50-miler, i.e., one mile for each year? It seemed feasible in theory; I could cover 50 miles in a day if I gave myself long breaks of walking or complete rest. Still, I doubted that I’d enjoy the last 20 miles. Perhaps a voluntary self-prescribed birthday ritual should have less joyless slogging than that?

If 50 miles was too much, how about 50 kilometers, i.e., one kilometer per year? This seemed like a much more palatable distance, probably doable as one continuous run. Still, it would require a huge chunk of a weekend day — probably at least 4 hours to do the run, then another hour to shower and eat, then a couple more hours to nap away some of the exhaustion…

My third idea was even less stupid. What if I celebrated with a pure run commute all the way from my North Seattle home to my Everett workplace, some 20-plus miles north of home? (I had done this commute 10 or 20 times on a bike, but never on foot.) My birthday would fall on a Wednesday, when I didn’t have to teach until 12:20pm, so if I started early enough I could finish at 9am or so (with a carefully contrived attitude of casualness: “Yeah, I just run-commuted from Seattle — NBD…”), enjoy a leisurely Starbucks breakfast next to campus, and let the day unfold from there. And carbo-loading could be accomplished at a birthday dinner of homemade pasta the night before.

As the pieces fell into place, I asked my one semi-regular running companion, Uli, if he’d be willing to join me. Like me, Uli is well past his prime as a competitive athlete; he turned 50 last year. (My present to him was a WHITE RIVER 50 shirt modified to say “the WHITE RIVER guy is 50,” as seen in the pictures below. The back of the shirt lists a bunch of fake sponsors such as Cologuard, Geritol, Viagra, and Old Balance.) Nevertheless he is still fit enough to easily handle any birthday challenge I could dream up. He said yes.

The final logistical issue was the planning of a specific route. Uli determined that if we used Highway 99 extensively, we could cut the total run distance down to 21 miles, but he preferred a somewhat more picturesque route of about 22.5 miles. Since he was giving up several hours of his day to accompany me, I was happy to let him make this decision.

After all of the planning, the run itself was fairly straightforward. Our legs held up fine, maintaining a comfortable pace of about 8 minutes per mile aside from hills and stops; Uli’s navigational skills kept us on track; we chatted about our usual topics (glory days, marriage, kids/dogs, ADA-compliant curb ramps…); and my wife and youngest son gave us a bagels-and-water aid station about two thirds of the way through.

We arrived more or less on schedule at Shuksan Hall, where we posed with some evolutionary forerunners.

“We may be old, but we’re not dead yet!”

Then I changed and headed over to Starbucks, while Uli ran to the bus station to catch the 512 back to Seattle.

It was a nice run with just the right amount of joyless slogging, which is to say none at all.


Will I ever race again?

October 2, 2022

Different aspects of running are enjoyable to different people. My favorite encapsulation of this basic fact comes from Don Kardong in the essay “Collision Course” as published in his 1985 book Thirty Phone Booths to Boston. Kardong, a Stanford alum, recounts a “fun run” at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), where electrons are brought remarkably close to the speed of light, the one true speed limit in the universe.

(As a side note, I have a family connection to SLAC: my cousin Knut is an engineer there, as his father Knut was before him.)

Here is the key passage:

“…I thought of something that had once happened to me at a Sunday fun-run back in Spokane. The organizer had always stressed health, cardiovascular fitness, and easy running, and was dismayed at those of us who ran fast.

“On that morning he cornered me after the run, striving to be good-natured, and said, ‘What are you doing, running like that? This is a fun-run, you know.’

“I looked at him, and said words that came back to me as Brook and I sprinted along the electron path at SLAC.

“‘It’s fun to run fast,’ I told him.”

Yesterday while running, I found myself thinking about Kardong-running-at-SLAC thinking about Kardong-running-in-Spokane. It was almost time to drive up to my son’s ultimate frisbee jamboree in Burlington, but I had time to run 3.5 more miles. I could take the blue loop, or I could take the red loop.

OK, I’m being melodramatic; the blue loop and the red loop are the same loop. What I really mean is, I could do the loop slowly, or I could do it hard.

In the context of my current casual training schedule, this might have been just about the least consequential choice imaginable. There was no yesterday’s run to analyze, no tomorrow’s run to worry about, no race on the horizon.

Nevertheless, as I weighed the options, I found myself interested in the outcome. If there was no incentive whatsoever to run fast, aside from fun, would I choose speed over comfort?

Reader, I chose red. To be specific, l opted to time-trial the 2.2-mile Jackson Park perimeter loop, with 0.6 miles of jogging on either end.

On the tough Jackson Park terrain, recovering from a mild respiratory infection, I struggled through the lap in 15:14 — barely under 7-minutes-per-mile pace. Still, that was 44 seconds faster than the 15:58 I had managed three weeks earlier. I jogged home depleted but happy to have made the effort and to have gotten encouraging-under-the-circumstances results.

It’s this sort of experience — infrequent these days, but still recurring — that makes me think that someday — maybe next year, maybe the year after that — I will once again toe the starting line of a local “fun run,” determined to make the fun as concentrated and as brief as possible.


Unsafe at any speed

August 22, 2022

Another academic quarter of teaching (Summer 2022) has just ended, meaning that it’s time for me to make another quixotic attempt to get back in shape, eat more healthily, get adequate sleep, etc. etc.

Often I like to kick off these attempts with a modest track workout like 4x400m, just to see what my new baseline is. At the moment, though, I’m so unfit that I don’t think my body can handle the track. Instead I’ve had to find excitement in the time-honored tradition of out-of-shape city dwellers everywhere: running for the bus.

The most dramatic version of this occurs when, trying to get home from Everett, I arrive at Everett Station just after the 512 bus leaves for Seattle. This sounds hopeless, but the 512 has to snake its way out of the station and go through a couple of traffic lights to reach its first stop, about four blocks away, on 34th and Broadway. Sometimes if I get to Everett Station within 30 seconds of the 512’s departure I can still beat it to 34th.

Such was the situation today. With some help from the lights, I managed to reach that Broadway block about even with the bus, flailing my left arm as it passed in the hope that it would stop for me. It did! I had made up the stagger!

My satisfaction lasted for about one second. “That was really stupid of you!” the driver greeted me. “This bus comes every 10 minutes!” (Not true; it’s every 16 minutes.) “You should have waited for the next one! All you did was slow me down and make me late!”

“I’m sorry,” I panted.

“No you’re not!” the driver replied. I fumbled with my bus pass. “The card reader isn’t working — just sit down!”

“Uh, yes — I am sorry,” I said, a bit more sharply.

“No you’re not!” the driver insisted again. “You were thinking only of yourself!”

I considered proposing that I might be a more competent judge of my own emotions than a public-transit employee who resents customers for daring to come aboard. Not wanting the road rage to escalate any further, though, I stayed silent.

Every comeback has its hiccups, right?

Maybe next time it would be safer to just go to the track.


Cycling Next to Sara Hall at the World Athletics Championships

July 19, 2022

My wife and I just spent a long weekend at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. 

For most of the visit, I felt rather like a track-and-field tourist, interested in the sights and sounds, but not particularly invested in them. I saw a few old running friends, but felt no strong connections to the athletes competing. Many of the names familiar to me — Johnny Gregorek, Joe Klecker, Eilish McColgan — were familiar mainly as offspring of runners who were famous back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was more attuned to the running scene.

And then this morning there was the women’s marathon. My wife was keen to see as much of the race as possible, so, like a few dozen other attendees, she and I rode our bicycles alongside the marathoners for several decent (2-mile) chunks of the race where this was feasible. It was a nice way to experience the race — a big change from standing in place while the runners stream by — but still felt a bit touristy. I could imagine a guide saying, “To the left of your vehicle you can see Sara Hall, the former American record holder in the half marathon, currently in 9th place…”

By mile 24, Sara, now the lead American, had advanced to 6th, about 20 seconds behind Angela Tanui of Kenya. As she turned onto Centennial Boulevard for the last time, about 50 of us mounted our bikes again and started the final cruise to the finish. Sara’s husband Ryan was among us, pulling over every minute to bark out exhortations (“16 SECONDS BACK! YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE!”), then weaving through the peloton to reach the next pull-over point.

The cyclists around me seemed to share Ryan’s sense of urgency. They abandoned their previous generic, polite cheers in favor of slightly unhinged shouts and shrieks. A chorus of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reached a volume that might have alarmed the Kenyan runner just ahead.

To a casual fan, the hubbub might not have made much sense. Sara no longer had a shot at a medal, and there was no formal team competition to magnify the importance of exact times and places. Did it really matter whether or not she caught the 5th-place runner?

We in the peloton knew that, for Sara, it most certainly DID matter. When you are a serious competitor at a race that is important to you, you want to walk away from it knowing that you gave it everything that you had. To get to that point, you engage in all kinds of desperate negotiations with your body as it withers from the effort. Just one more mile and then you can have some Gatorade! Just half a mile and then you’ll get a nice downhill!

Often the final deal to be offered is, just try to catch one more person. Just this one last person.

Today, Angela Tanui was Sara Hall’s one last person, and we knew it. We knew it because we had made this plea many times before to our own faltering bodies in our own sub-world-class races.

We also knew that such contracts are between an athlete’s brain and their muscles, with spectators only getting a 1% stake in the deal, if that. But if Sara was going to keep working on her 99%, we were damn well going to do what we could with our 1%. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Half a mile to go. 5 more seconds to make up.

I’m not the most overtly patriotic guy, but I found myself joining in the chanting, solidarity and sentimentality finally overcoming shyness. U-S-A! U-S-A! It’s what everyone else was chanting, so it’s what I needed to chant too.

Sara pulled ahead and finished in 2:22:10, five seconds ahead of Tanui.

Had we made a difference? Had we willed her to 5th place?

Perhaps not, but we had been there with her, and it felt great.



June 5, 2019

So, on the one hand, life is great. My wife is great… The kids are great… I have a great job that allows me to pursue my passion of forever reinventing the wheel (where the wheel, in this case, is the undergraduate anatomy & physiology curriculum).

On the other hand, work has been all-consuming. I’ve been sleeping way too little and not exercising at all.

This morning, while running to catch the bus, I tripped and fell, scraping my left elbow and right knee, and ripping a giant hole in my pants.

Running used to be something that I did a lot of on a daily basis for fitness and for pleasure. Now, if I break into a run for 50 yards, I injure myself and destroy my clothing.

I’ve got to get back on track.


On gentleness

November 26, 2017

If you can, be kind;
If not, at least be gentle.
Both are goals to keep in mind,
But only one is fundamental.

Personally, I think of kindness as positive support of others, and gentleness as an avoidance of negative words and actions.

On my good days, I try to be kind. When I am sleep-deprived and/or stressed out, I ask myself only to be gentle. This mindset is obviously not the stuff of sainthood, but it’s a way to get through the day.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am feeling thankful for, among other things, a wife who is especially gentle, and a son who has made excellent progress in this area. (I’m referring to the 11-year-old, not the 10-month-old, who mostly ignores our frequent exhortations to “Be gentle!”)

Even gentleness can be irksome sometimes. For many years, I sort of turned up my nose at “Run gently out there,” the sign-off of Whidbey Island runner John Morelock in his many Internet posts and columns for UltraRunning magazine.

For me, running is first and foremost about self-improvement and competition rather than the community and the environment. I mostly aspire to run swiftly, boldly, determinedly, etc. “Gently” is not among my top 10 running-related adverbs.

Presumably, though, John wanted people to be gentle (when running) more or less in the way that I want to be gentle (when not running). In any case, if there was an appropriate time to debate his diction, that time has passed. John died of abdominal cancer on February 5th.

Rest gently, John Morelock.


My interview of John L. Parker, Jr.

July 15, 2015

As a young runner growing up in the 1980s, I got most of my inspirational reading from a small Florida publishing company called Cedarwinds. Cedarwinds was founded by a former miler and would-be novelist who, unable to convince existing publishers of the merits of his first manuscript, decided to print the darn thing himself … and the rest is history.  Once a Runner became a cult classic and, eventually, a New York Times bestseller.  A sequel, Again to Carthage, appeared in 2007; the prequel Racing the Rain was released yesterday.  In anticipation and celebration of this latest book, I conducted an email interview with the author, John L. Parker, Jr., after meeting him at a very nice Fleet Feet Seattle event in May. I hope others find the exchange below an interesting addition to other Parker interviews that can be found online, such as those by Benjamin Cheever and Gary Cohen.

GJC: When you referred to yourself as a novelist at the Fleet Feet Seattle event I attended in May, it sounded weird to me because I think of you mostly as a nonfiction writer (and yes, I count your political speechwriting as nonfiction) who once wrote a novel in your spare time (and then eventually generated a sequel decades later). Am I giving short shrift to the novelist part of your resume? Is “novelist” a central part of your identity?

JLP: Until recently Harper Lee had only published one novel and I’ve never had any problem calling the author of To Kill a Mockingbird a novelist. Now I’ve written three of the things, one of which has been in print for almost 40 years and been translated into eight or nine languages.

So yes, I think of myself as a novelist.

GJC: OK. If we go back to the birth of Once a Runner, how did you get started as a novelist?  Had you taken any creative writing classes?  Did you have a writing mentor? Did friends give critical feedback on drafts?  Or were you mostly blazing your own path?

JLP: As an undergraduate, I was admitted into the advanced creative writing seminar at the University of Florida, led by Smith Kirkpatrick and Harry Crews, both published novelists. The writing program at UF had a little known but remarkable pedigree, having been influenced and guided at various times by the likes of Andrew Lytle, who founded the program, as well as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Robert Frost.

Anyway, I attended the weekly seminar for several years, even after I was in law school.

Once I started Once a Runner several years later, however, I was on my own. For better or worse, I felt my subject matter was too esoteric for outside advice to be of much help. Also, I really didn’t know who I would have asked. Most of the book was written in North Carolina, where I was pretty isolated.

GJC: Do you remember absorbing any particularly important lessons from this writing seminar?  Did you produce any writing in that setting that gave a hint of things to come?

JLP: I learned a great deal in the program, though both Kirk and Harry would often say that they couldn’t really “teach” anyone to write. They were there to try to guide us as we taught ourselves. So we met every Thursday night in building D in the old section of the UF campus, read each other’s stories out loud, and tried to figure it all out together.

From Kirk the most important thing I learned was that every story needs what he called “a backdrop.” By that he meant that for a story to have real gravitas it needed to be played out in front of a larger canvas, even if that context is only hinted at. For instance, you could write a story in which a man and woman meet one evening at a friend’s house and fall instantly in love. If the characters have any real depth, it could be an okay story even if they are completely isolated in time and space. But what if you find out that she is recovering from a suicide attempt and that he will be getting up at five the next morning to drop bombs on Frankfurt? A bare bones plot springs into three dimensions.

From Harry I learned, as he put it: “Every story is an ‘action.'”  By that, he meant that something needed to happen. We were not into deconstructionist navel gazing in building D.

As for my own work in the course, I occasionally got a kind word from Smith or Harry for one of my stories, but then, I don’t think anyone even got into that program unless Kirk or Harry thought you were capable of writing something publishable.

GJC: At the Fleet Feet event I attended, you emphasized that novels (yours and others’) are rooted heavily in real-life people and events. You said that novel-writing is basically the construction of a narrative arc out of real-life components. (I am paraphrasing.) Can you tell us a bit more about how this construction process works for you? I’m partly wondering whether you tend to start with certain personal experiences and imagine how they could be arranged into a story, or whether you tend to start with a flight of fancy and then bring in relevant personal experiences as needed.

JLP: I usually start with real characters and/or events, and weave them into a narrative. In doing so, I do not feel constrained to describe the characters or events accurately, although many times the details may be fairly true to real life. Also, I don’t feel limited to real chronologies, nor do I feel any compunction about blending two or three real people into one fictional character.

What comes out at the end of the process may not be recognizable to people who actually lived through the events that inspired the story, although they would surely recognize some of the details. The main point of my talk is that if you’re reading a novel and you encounter highly unlikely situations, or truly outrageous characters, you’d better think twice before proclaiming that the author has way too active an imagination. Often those events or characters turn out to be the most factually based events or characters in the story. That was exactly the point Bob Shacochis was making to the radio interviewer that I mentioned in the talk.

GJC: You have encountered many skeptical reviews of Once a Runner and Again to Carthage. Which aspects of these books have drawn the loudest or most persistent howls of disbelief, in your estimation?  Quenton Cassidy’s 60-quarters workout? Football coach Dick Doobey’s utter stupidity? The physical assault and hallucinations that occur during the Olympic Trials marathon?

JLP: In my talk I probably exaggerated the number of incredulous reactions those plot points have received, but I’d say the 60 quarter workout has been met with the most disbelief. Bill Rodgers told me it was the only part of Once a Runner he found unrealistic. If I had heard about it from someone out of the blue, I might not have believed it myself. But I in fact did it, in my junior year.

GJC: What prompted you to do that workout, anyway?  I’m guessing that it wasn’t your coach’s idea.

JLP: I almost did the workout by accident. I did the first 20 and didn’t feel all that bad. Normally, that would have been the end of the workout. But I was training alone that day for some reason, and it occurred to me that if I could manage to finish another set of 20 quarters, it would be almost unheard of. After I finished the 40th, although I was truly done in, I immediately began to toy with the idea of one more set. By the time I finished the mile recovery jog, I had decided to try it.

I knew it was crazy, but at the same time, it was a thrilling kind of a challenge, just to finish an unprecedented workout like that.

My mentor and coach, the Olympian Jack Bacheler, was horrified when he heard what I’d done. He was completely opposed to “stunt” workouts like that, and for the most part I agree with him. I certainly don’t recommend that young runners consider training this way. I was lucky I got away with it without any lasting damage.

GJC: So is it fair to say that this workout did not have quite the same significance to you as it does for Quenton Cassidy in Once a Runner? The workout struck me as arguably the climax of the novel, in which Quenton gives himself fully to his running and his coach and realizes his true capacity for self-punishment.

JLP: Yes, you could say that.

GJC: Many Once a Runner fans know that you tried to find a publisher for the book, couldn’t, and wound up publishing it yourself in 1978 — a full 25 years or so before the self-publishing industry really took off. How did you do it, in terms of logistics?  Did you buy a printing press and set it up in your basement?

JLP: No, but I set the type myself. In those days you set type on a phototypesetter, a huge machine that actually burned each letter onto a sheet of photographic paper that then had to be developed. It was a long, arduous process. Every line that had an error in it had to be re-set, then literally cut and pasted over the erroneous line. In fact, that’s where the phrase “cut and paste” comes from.

I was lucky enough to have a friend who owned a graphic design shop, and he allowed me to work on the book after hours. I spent several weeks of all-nighters getting it done. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

We had a firm in Jacksonville do a press run of 5,000 copies, which I found out later was actually a pretty big first printing. The average first novel released by the big publishing houses in New York sell 3,000 copies on average.

As it turned out, that was just the first of many printings.

GJC: Both the world of publishing and the world of running have changed a lot since the 1970s. If you had been born in, say, 1980, and graduated from college in 2002 or so, with an athletic trajectory similar to what you had in the 1960s and ’70s, do you think you would have published a Once a Runner-like book by now (2015)? Why or why not?

JLP: I have no idea if I personally would have done it, but surely someone would have. For one thing, traditional publishing houses are much more open to books about running than they were in the mid-70s, when the success of Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running was a total surprise to them. For another thing, self-publishing is hundreds of times easier to do now that it was then. You have to remember, there were no personal computers then, no such thing as “desktop publishing,” not to mention no Amazon or ebooks.

When you think about it, the odds against Once a Runner ever seeing the light of day, much less becoming something of a success story, were incredibly slim.

GJC: We talked at Fleet Feet Seattle about how your old rival Jack Nason was unhappy with the portrayal of his fictional counterpart Jack Nubbins in Once a Runner, and how this reaction surprised you (but later led you to pay tribute to him in Again to Carthage). Have other real people reacted to their Once a Runner or Again to Carthage characters in ways that surprised you (and that you are able to share)?

JLP: Jack Nason was one of the few important characters in the books who was portrayed almost exactly as he was in real life. Some old teammates were mentioned in passing in the books, but they were not fully developed characters and I haven’t heard of anyone reacting negatively to being mentioned that way. The same goes for well known runners of the era, like Frank Shorter or Benji Durden, who appear pretty much as themselves. As far as I know, most of the guys were thrilled to be included. The high jumper Ron Jourdan used to call me several times a year, right up until his death recently. He was clearly the model for Ron “Spider” Gordon, the high jumper in Once a Runner, and nothing seemed to make him happier. He was the guy in the book who was sort of nonchalantly clearing 6-6 indoors on a sandy floor and a makeshift landing pit, stoned out of his mind. This was something I actually witnessed, more than once.

GJC: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but I don’t know the answer, so here goes. Why the three-decade delay between Once a Runner and its sequel, Again to Carthage?  Were you initially unsure that you wanted to do a sequel?  Were you just busy with work that paid better than novel-writing?  

JLP: After I finished Once a Runner, I assumed I would never write another novel about running. I had put everything I knew or felt about the subject into the book and couldn’t imagine that I would ever have anything to add to that.

As I grew older, that perspective changed. I found myself thinking about Cassidy’s life after his college years, and wondering what kinds of themes I might find there worthy of another novel. It took a number of years, but eventually it all began to come together in my head.

The idea for Racing the Rain came much more naturally. Most people would find my own childhood growing up in Florida somewhat out of the ordinary, and my early athletic career was certainly not the typical All American sports story. There seemed to be some material there. Additionally, the readership that had slowly grown around the other two books made me think there would be some interest in Quenton Cassidy’s early years, the kind of childhood and adolescence that would make him into the person he became.

I wrote one sentence that I thought would be the opening line in the book. It ended up being placed later in the story, but the moment I wrote it I knew I could write the novel.

GJC: That sentence could be the basis for a fun reader contest, in which they have to guess which sentence it was. Anyway, you said at Fleet Feet that a lot of being a good writer is just noticing the interesting things going on around you. In writing Again to Carthage and Racing the Rain, you were able to draw upon many additional years of noticing things. Has your skill in doing the writing itself also improved since Once a Runner? If so, how did that affect Again to Carthage and/or Racing the Rain?

JLP: I hope I’ve become a better writer over the years, but that really is for others to judge.

GJC: I’m wondering what you can tell me about the titles of the books of the trilogy.  For example, each title follows the formula of: Important Word + Less Important Connecting Word + Important Word. Is that just a coincidence? Does that pattern have a rhythm that you like?

JLP: Apparently it does, though I hadn’t really thought about it in that way.

Racing the Rain was first suggested by Susan Moldow, the head of Scribner, after she read the first part of the book. Of course she was exactly right. I had been calling it all kinds of things up until then. It was much later that I Googled it and found out there was a similar title for some popular doggie book (The Art of Racing in the Rain). I suggested changing mine slightly, to Rain Racer, but Scribner didn’t want to change it at that point.

Once a Runner always seemed an apt title to me, based upon the traditional fairy tale’s opening phrase “Once upon a time…” To me that said that this was a story about a runner, a novel rather than a how-to book. Such a book hardly existed at the time. Well, there was The Olympian, by Brian Glanville, and there was Alan Sillitoe’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, but that was about it.

Again to Carthage took me awhile to come up with. My tongue-in-cheek early working title for it was, of course, Twice a Runner. I toyed around with different ideas over the years while working on the book. I loved the “Again to Carthage” idea, but I had already used it years before in a magazine essay about athletic comebacks. It finally occurred to me that there was nothing to prevent me from using the same title for the novel, particularly since it was indeed a story about a comeback.

It paints a particularly evocative image for me, this line from Shakespeare, of Dido, the queen of Carthage, standing on the wild sea banks and pining for the return of the Trojan hero Aeneas, with whom the goddess Aphrodite–his mother–had caused her to fall in love.

GJC: Very interesting! In my original copy of Once a Runner, which I no longer have, there was a disclaimer along the lines of, “The author is aware of certain anachronisms in this book…. To those who have ferreted them out, a hearty ‘well-done’!”  Would a similar message befit Again to Carthage? I’m thinking especially of the fact that Quenton winds up training for and competing in what seems to be the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials, which, as you know, doesn’t fit with other details indicating that he competed in a Montreal-like Olympics (1976) and then retired for quite a few years after that. You must have felt there were compelling reasons to make Quentin’s goal the 1980 Trials rather than some other race. Maybe you wanted to be able to draw upon your intimate knowledge of the 1980 Trials? Maybe the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympics made for a tidier story that could end at the Trials, without the necessity of an Olympic epilogue?  Am I getting warm?

JLP: Yes, that constrained time window has always been a problem. In some of the earlier editions of Once a Runner, the first chapter specifically refers to the Montreal Olympics. But beginning (at the very least–it may have changed even earlier) with the Scribner hardcover edition, it simply says “The Games,” keeping it intentionally ambiguous.

According to Racing the Rain, Cassidy graduates high school in 1965. His senior year of college would therefore have been 1968-69. That would make Munich in 1972 the most likely candidate. That allows pretty much everything else to fit. He could have come back (while the Vietnam war was still going on) and finished law school by 1975, then been in his law practice for several years before hearing the siren call from Mount Olympus once more around 1978.

The one thing that doesn’t work out with that scenario is that in Once a Runner Frank Shorter is referred to in 1969 as the marathon gold medalist, which wasn’t the case until 1972. I guess that would be one of those little anachronisms that I mentioned, so a hearty “well done” to me!

But to answer your further question, yes, the plot of Again to Carthage was always going to pivot around the 1980 trials, because to me they perfectly represent the triumph of political idiocy over the higher ideals the Olympic Games have exemplified since the Classical era more than 2,000 years ago.

Carter’s pathetic boycott simply punished our own athletes for something another government had done: invade Afghanistan. And, oh irony of ironies, guess who also ended up invading Afghanistan some 20 years later?

But to this day Carter doesn’t appreciate what he did to our athletes. Whatever his other qualities, when it came to sports, Carter was always the equipment manager.

GJC: As you’re pointing out, Again to Carthage continues Once a Runner’s theme of incompetence, corruption, and/or stupidity on the part of bureaucrats and administrators.  Given that anti-authority streak, I want to ask you what you think of TAC’s and USATF’s governance of track and field in the United States over the past four decades or so?

JLP: I’m not really qualified to comment on any specifics; I simply don’t keep up with that kind of thing. My intuition is that the politics of track and field in the U.S. have just gotten nastier and nastier over the years, and that the last people athletic officials have any concern for are the athletes. But that is based on just my own superficial impressions and what little I can glean from news accounts and from friends who are closer to the situation than I am.

The critique implicit in the three books is really based on my own personal experience with the athletic department at the University of Florida many years ago, as well as my general impression of the kinds of people who like to run things in this country, athletics included. And, if you want to know what they are like, just try to remember the people who ran student government in your high school.

GJC: So Racing the Rain also includes some administrative villains?  I’m imagining, say, an assistant principal who wants to expel Cassidy for missing class to compete at a big meet.

JLP: Actually, a lot of this book is about bad coaching more than bad administering.

But a further complication late in the story is Cassidy’s mentor’s possible connection to a double murder. The mentor, by the way, is a complete wild man who lives off the land far away from civilization and is very closely modeled after a real historical figure. And the double murder was based on a historical crime as well.

GJC: I look forward to reading about that! OK, last question. In Again to Carthage, Quenton explains the fulfillment of serious running: “When you’re a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending…. It is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you’re doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward an agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn’t that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?”  My question is, do you think Quenton can feel as happy and fulfilled after retiring from serious running as he did pre-retirement? Is there anything that can replace running in getting him to that “spiritual state”?

JLP: That passage really only pertains to someone still in their youth. After a certain point in your life, no matter how much you may strive, you can never again hope to be in that “process of ascending” he talks about in that letter.

Your question is actually dealt with somewhat in Racing the Rain. In a passage that discusses Cassidy’s affinity for the waters he grows up around, the ocean and the rivers, in addition to the rest of the natural world he is surrounded by, the narrator hints that Cassidy will find many forms of fulfillment in his life, that running, diving, paddling through that world is perhaps the most fulfilling way to relate to it, both during his youth and afterward.

GJC: Thank you for the interview, John, and good luck with the release of Racing the Rain!


Ultrarunners need to stop stigmatizing DNFs

August 6, 2014

Many ultramarathon runners talk fondly of the “ultrarunning community,” a diverse cohort of individuals united in our enjoyment of running absurdly long distances. We talk with each other, cheer for each other, and console each other, as kindred spirits do. We’re like a big, happy family with an abundance of eccentric, aerobic aunts and uncles.

But there’s at least one issue that brings out our petty, mean-spirited side: dropping out of races. We feel compelled to judge those whose performance is recorded as Did Not Finish (DNF), unless the DNF is attributed to a medical emergency or simply running out of time.

A perfect example is provided by Andy Jones-Wilkins. AJW is widely and perhaps rightly considered an inspiring ambassador for the sport of ultrarunning. I’ve met him; he’s a nice guy. But he once wrote a long blog post making insinuations about 5 elite runners (Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka, Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey, Dave James) who had the gall to drop out of races.

1. Scott Jurek at Western States: I respect and admire Scott Jurek as I am sure most of the readers of this blog do. However, when he simply stepped off the trail at Devil’s Thumb this year a little of that respect drifted away. I would have thought the 7-time winner of WS would have gone a little further, dug a little deeper, tried a little harder, and given a little more before cutting off his wristband. Not to be. He dropped. Hal won. Game over.

2. Anton Krupicka at Leadville: This guy is an icon in the sport and really has not done a whole lot to deserve that status. But, he has won Leadville twice, torched both Rocky Raccoon and American River and this past year broke the Course Record at White River. Nonetheless, he dropped this year at the Fish Hatchery after leading Leadville for 70 miles. My son Logan, a huge Anton fan, was devastated. I know his quads were thrashed and he couldn’t walk another step. But, I recall another immensely talented, iconic Coloradan facing the same predicament back in 2004 and he struggled to the Finish only to ultimately finish the job the next year with a Course Record.

3. Geoff Roes at Miwok: I can’t really hold this dnf against him too much as his 100 mile Course Records during the balance of the year speak for themselves but in the most competitive sub-100 miler in the country I was quite surprised that Geoff cashed it in while still in the lead. I assume he was suffering mightily but a struggle to the finish and an 8th or 9th place finish would have spoken volumes. Maybe next year.

4. Dave Mackey at Western States: Nobody expected this. Nobody. Returning to Western States for the first time since 2004 and seemingly in the best shape of his life most prognosticators saw Dave as the man to beat or certainly a force to be reckoned with. Reduced to a walk on Cal Street he chose to end his day 78 miles from Squaw. I am sure he had his reasons but with Scott dropping at Michigan and Dave at The River, Hal had a cakewalk to the finish. More power to him. And, perhaps, to the rest of us as well.

5. Dave James at Western States: This guy has been incredible this year! On fire, actually. 13:05 100-mile split in Cleveland, a huge Course Record at Javelina, hell, he even did a 14:30 100 miler on New Year’s Eve just for kicks. But, he bailed at the Big Dance, hard. Dropped like a bag of potatoes before he even entered the Canyons. Why? I don’t know. But, to get it right in this sport you need to finish what you start. Hopefully, that’s coming in the year’s ahead.

In the comments, I called out AJW on his judgmentalism:

Losing respect for someone based on a DNF without even knowing (or caring about) the particulars of the situation is just plain silly. AJW, you (and others) make the unfortunate assumption that everyone else should have the same racing goals and values as you (e.g., “dropping out is almost always wrong”). Anton explained in great detail on his blog why he dropped out of Leadville, and if all you can muster in rebuttal is to cite the example of Matt Carpenter, well, that’s exactly the point I’m making. Anton is not Matt Carpenter and should not be expected to behave identically because he has his own goals and his own values.

AJW responded:

I did not intend to pass judgement on Anton for dropping. By all accounts he did the right thing and I know he spent considerable time and energy trying to continue his race…. And, just to be clear, I was not judging Geoff, Dave, Dave or Scott either. I know they all had very good reasons to dnf (stomach, heat, injury, etc…) I was simply saying that, as an observer of the sport and a lover of the sport, I was disappointed that they dnf’d and I was wishing that they hadn’t.

To which I said:

When you say you’re not judging these folks, I’m afraid I don’t quite buy it. “A little of that respect [for Jurek] drifted away” when he dropped out at WS? If you lost respect for him, how can you claim that you’re not judging him? Likewise, regarding Roes at Miwok, “a struggle to the finish and an 8th or 9th place finish would have spoken volumes.” You mean that struggling to the finish would have indicated great things about his character; the obvious implication is that dropping out indicates less-than-great things about his character…. You are indeed judging these people, whether or not you can admit it.

So why am I rehashing a four-year-old argument, aside from being a prisoner of my own ultra-stubbornness and ultra-persistence? Well, (home of a weekly column by AJW, by the way) just posted two pieces on DNFs: Your Ultra-Training Bag Of Tricks: Handling The Dreaded DNF (by Ian Torrence) and To Finish, Or Not (by Jessica Hamel). Both are interesting and well-written, yet both propagate the notion that a DNF is something to be avoided at all costs.

Torrence’s post begins,

Did. Not. Finish. They’re an ultrarunner’s three least-favorite words.

This may well be true. But couldn’t our three least favorite words be … oh, I don’t know … “thunder and lightning”? “Eggplant for dinner”? Sure, dropping out is often a major disappointment, but it’s not always the worst thing that happens at a race.

Hamel writes,

Elite runners are often scrutinized for their decision to DNF, especially when it comes at a time when they appear to be in a decent physical condition. These moments often result in “he/she could’ve walked into the finish” responses from the crowd. If the back of the packers can finish in over double the time and in worse condition, then why can’t elites push through their low moments to avoid a DNF?

The attitude summarized by Hamel is not necessarily her own, but it is prevalent. So I will answer the rhetorical question of why. They can no longer reach their goal of setting a PR. They’re not having fun anymore. They’re saving themselves for another race. They’re saving themselves for a tough upcoming week at the office. There are a million reasons, none requiring validation by a jury of peers. With few exceptions, ultrarunning is not a team sport, and ultrarunners are not professional athletes. The 99% of us who are hobbyists should be free to pursue our hobby in whatever manner gives us the most fulfillment and pleasure. So: can we as a community stop assuming that DNFs are, in general, tragedies of the highest order? Can we as individuals stop feeling so defensive about our decisions to drop out?

I hope so.


Best DNF ever

April 15, 2014

About 46 miles into Saturday’s Mad City 100K, I slowed to a walk.

For a minute or two, walking felt AWESOME! But then even that became difficult, and my race was over. I got a ride from the arboretum aid station to the start/finish area, reported my status to the race director, and took shelter in a friend’s vehicle.

It was a disappointing outcome, to be sure, but it felt different than my past racing failures (e.g., Mad City 2008). This time I was more ready to accept the result, less worried about whether it was “fair” or avoidable. I began the race aware that it would be hard to reach my very specific goal of breaking 7:20; I took my shot; and I came up short. It’s a shame, but it’s no Greek tragedy.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get to this point. And congratulations to the Mad City finishers, especially women’s winner Pam Smith and the five (!) men (Zach Bitter, Joe Binder, Nick Accardo, Jim Sweeney, Kevin Grabowski) who did go under 7:20.


Mad City 100K preview: I’m running it. So are some other people. Any questions?

April 9, 2014

On April 12th I will run the Mad City 100K — my 27th ultramarathon, but my first since 2010.

Much has changed over the last four years. Here’s one telling example.

Before my 2010 ultras (Rocky Raccoon 100, Mad City 100K, White River 50), I researched the competition and wrote detailed race previews.

Right now, all I have to say is that I’m glad to have gotten in some decent (though unorthodox) training, and I hope to break 7:20. If I succeed, I’ll probably place in the top 5, though probably not in the top 2.

… And it will be nice to see race director Timo and his wife Ann, my Williams College classmate Pam, and my uncle Scott and aunt Katrien.

… And I hope that the thunderstorms predicted to hit Madison on the 12th hold off until mid-afternoon.

OK, I’m done. Really.