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Running: A Love Story
10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport
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- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
- Trade Paperback $18.99 $23.99 CAD
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In Running: A Love Story, Jen tells the story of her lifelong relationship with running, doing so with wit, thoughtfulness, and brutal honesty. Jen first laces up her sneakers in high school, when, like many people, she sees running as a painful part of conditioning for other sports. But when she discovers early in her career as a journalist that it helps her clear her mind, focus her efforts, and achieve new goals, she becomes hooked for good.
Jen, a middle-of-the-pack but tenacious runner, hones her skill while navigating relationships with men that, like a tricky marathon route, have their ups and downs, relying on running to keep her steady in the hard times. As Jen pushes herself toward ever-greater challenges, she finds that running helps her walk away from the wrong men and learn to love herself while revealing focus, discipline, and confidence she didn’t realize she had. Relatable, inspiring, and brutally honest, Running: A Love Story, explores the many ways that distance running carves a path to inner peace and empowerment by charting one woman’s evolution in the sport.
MAY 5, 2013
I closed my eyes as we approached the staging area. Mom drove, silent. She knew not to talk to me before races, and the only noise was me softly giving directions to Monmouth Park. It’s normally a thoroughbred horse race track, but that day it was the start line of the New Jersey Marathon and Long Branch Half Marathon.
Under my sweatpants and sweatshirt, I wore an outfit I had tested in my sixth Ocean Drive 10-Miler five weeks before: two-toned blue tank top, black compression shorts (and Body Glide spread liberally on unmentionable areas that would otherwise chafe over the next four-plus hours), blue knee-high compression socks, black gloves, Timex sports watch. My yellow visor rounded out the ensemble. On my feet were the blue and orange Mizuno Musha 5s that I hoped would carry me over 26.2 miles in under four hours and thirty-five minutes.
I first signed up to run this race back in 2010. It would have been my first marathon, but I ran myself into the ground and quit halfway through training. That year, temperatures had topped out at a humidity-soaked 89 degrees. This time around, the race was on a freak May cold day, with a forecast high of 53 degrees. If I was planning to blame the weather for not reaching my goal that day, I lost that out. I couldn’t have asked for a better day or better conditions to try, in my third marathon, to put together a race—one where I could take pride in the results, one where I didn’t crash and burn and beg and cry and almost crawl to the finish line in the final miles.
I had eighteen weeks of training in my legs and lungs. I’d prepared using a controversial marathon training method blasted as dangerous, unhealthy, and unproven. It put me, a middle-of-the-pack amateur, through high-intensity workouts, topping out at fifty-seven miles a week—a volume that had sent me into daily naps and two dinners a night. One of my editors—a longtime runner—wished me luck with the training as if I were about to paddle a canoe into the Bermuda Triangle. I ran that schedule fresh out of a breakup with the man I thought I was going to marry, and somehow kept it up through living with my mother, re-settling my home, trips to Seattle, Florida, Las Vegas—white-knuckle clinging to those runs to keep me from falling over the edge into the black tar pit of my mind that kept telling me I was a failure.
I had pushed my body to the brink to outrun my pain. And as I planted myself among the thousands of runners who would test themselves in either a half or full marathon that day, I felt more prepared than I had before my last two marathons. My body was humming. My muscles were in tune. I had panicked before most of the races I’d run in the last seven years—dozens of 5Ks and 10Ks and ten-milers and half marathons—but this time my breathing was steady and I was strong, like a horse set to charge out of the gate.
Except for one thing: Doubt. Would this marathon end like the Philadelphia and Chicago marathons? Maybe I hadn’t rested enough in the taper, or the ankle that was sore last week would give out, or the training method I used really was snake oil, and I’d end up a carcass being picked over by seagulls on the streets of Long Branch.
No, I told myself. No. Stop. That wasn’t going to happen. That could not happen. I had no excuses. That day was do or be humiliated. I had the training. All I had to do was push my mind out of the way, get the hell out there, and run.
Mom stopped just short of the entrance to Monmouth Park. I got out of the car, said goodbye to her with a squeeze of her hand, and walked to the start.
Teenage me would be more stunned to see me at the starting line of a marathon than if I’d grown up to become a mermaid, a unicorn, a professional baseball player, or a mermaid riding a unicorn picking off runners at first base.
I detested running growing up, though “detested” might be too kind a description. How about loathed, despised, hated with the burning of a white-hot fire?
I wasn’t anti-sport. I ran a lot, but that running had a purpose: to chase after a soccer ball or someone with a soccer ball, to get to first base, second, third, home. I was good, too. I was never that big or that tall, but I was stocky and solid, the inheritor of the bone structure of women who, for generations in Italy and Slovakia and Ireland and Scotland relied on their wide hips and matching shoulders to survive both harsh living conditions and birthing the requisite six to twelve children each. I have a huge family on my mother’s side—twenty cousins—so most of the girls and women I knew were related to me and built more or less the same, and I thought all women were like that. I kept up with the boys in games of tag or red light, green light played on the Bellmawr, New Jersey, cul-de-sac where I grew up—or I beat them.
I knew how to throw my weight around, and was proud of it. I started playing soccer when I was five, the kind of soccer where players on both teams herd after the ball while kicking at each other’s shins. I had no qualms about shoving my way through the herd. I was never the fastest player through middle and high school, but I would still be standing, and running, deep into the game. By then, the skinny offensive players on the other team, who were usually given that role because of their speed rather than their stamina, started to flag. While my ball-handling skills weren’t great, that didn’t matter if I could still physically put myself between an offender and the ball, and if need be, knock her over with a well-placed shoulder to the chest. I was a wall of a defensive player in basketball, too, but gave up that sport because I didn’t like playing indoors.
My best game was softball. I picked it up in third grade, made the town league’s all-star team that year and then every year after. I wasn’t the quickest in getting down the first base line, but no one on my team could beat me in the haul from first to third. Having the leadoff batter on third base to start the game isn’t a bad place to be.
Despite all the running in softball and soccer games and practices, I never ran for the sake of running except when forced. That happened either through punishment of laps or suicide sprints for game errors, or from my dad deciding that I needed to get in better shape two weeks before the first high school soccer practice of the year. He expected me to get a scholarship to play softball in college, which is why I went to camps and batting cages in the off-season. Soccer would be a backup if softball didn’t work out, and I needed to be ready for the upcoming season.
I spent most of my summer in a campground at the Jersey Shore with my mom and siblings while my dad worked during the week and came down on weekends. By late August we’d come back home to get ready for the next school year. Those days, I’d be stretched across the couch after a long day of swimming in our above-ground pool that we jumped into via a step ladder, biking endless loops around our town looking for dirt trails, lawn mowing, or, when it was too hot to do anything, reading a book, usually from the Sweet Valley High oeuvre.
“Jenny!” my dad would yell when he walked in the front door, his dress shoes clicking on the tiled foyer floor. “Go run a lap!”
“It’s too hot!” I’d yell back. My father came home from work every day at 5:30 PM, which sounds like a cooler time of day to run, but heat plus humidity plus August in New Jersey meant muck—still—that late in the afternoon. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to be stuck in the 90s until sunset. Going outside was like getting a hot, wet washcloth stuffed into your mouth.
“You need to start conditioning for soccer!”
No, he didn’t call it running. Conditioning. The name comes from the training boxers did to get ready for the ring. “Jog” first appeared in The Taming of the Shrew, but it wasn’t applied to running until done so by New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard. “Jogging” made its way to the U.S. in the 1960s after University of Oregon track coach and Nike founder Bill Bowerman went to New Zealand to meet Lydiard. Bowerman brought the word back with him, and slapped it on his 1966 running book called—aptly—Jogging.
When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, only skinny weirdos in tiny split shorts and calf-high white cotton socks “jogged.” I looked at joggers the same way I did guys who freaked out that my high school chemistry class had Mac computers and/or played Dungeons and Dragons: antisocial losers with bad hair and a special interest in antisocial behaviors, who self-selected to stay away from other people, especially girls.
Running wasn’t exactly popular then, not like it is now. In 1995, there were 239,000 finishers in U.S. marathons and 420,000 in half marathons. By 2014, those numbers ballooned to 550,600 marathon finishers and 2.05 million half marathon finishers.
The 1995 New York City Marathon had just over 26,000 finishers. By the time I ran it in 2014, I was one of more than 50,000—and thousands more had tried to get in (in 2015, runners had an 18 percent chance of making it into the race through a lottery system, according to the New York Road Runners, the nonprofit organization that puts on the race). Back in ye olden 1990s, when Pearl Jam was young and our family computer didn’t have a hard drive, there was no such thing as Couch to 5K or Color Runs, or even regular running groups that would have had people like me as a member.
And by people like me, I mean women. I didn’t see women run anywhere other than my high school’s track. TV coverage of running was mostly limited to the Olympics, and marathons were condensed for broadcast. So even if I caught sight of women distance runners, they weren’t on TV for long. Today, according to Running USA, women make up 57 percent of all U. S. road race finishers, but then? They only dented the sport’s fender. Just 26 percent of marathon finishers were women in 1995, and women didn’t even have their own Olympic marathon when I was born (that came in 1984 when Joan Benoit Samuelson, with her brown short hair plastered to her face by sweat and white painter’s cap in hand, leapt across the finish line in Los Angeles to show that not only could a woman run long distances without passing out, but also that she wouldn’t leave her uterus on the track behind her).
Still, running should have appealed to me. I enjoyed activities that were so boring they blanked my mind, like the solo walks I took on the beach in the summer, and weeding. I didn’t mind cutting the lawn, not just because I made $20 for doing so, but because it was monotonous. I’d spend the time making up short stories, usually about a poor but not impoverished girl saved from an always-tense family by a handsome man who may or may not have looked like Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid.
But running? Never. Why in the world would I want to run just to run? Boring.
Which brings me back to that couch reading about whatever mischief those perfect size sixes Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were up to in that particular Sweet Valley volume. Of the four Miller kids, I was the most athletic, which is why I was pressed to condition while my two brothers played video games in the family room and my sister locked herself in her bedroom to mimic looks from YM and Seventeen and belted along to the soundtrack of Newsies.
“Go. Now,” my father said, nudging me with his foot.
He was not a man to be defied. By the time I was old enough to form memories, I knew my parents as a couple always on the brink of another fight so loud that I’d hide in my room. They’d been high school sweethearts and married after my father finished college. Mom took night classes but didn’t finish because that’s not what women in her strict Catholic family did when there was the possibility of marriage and babies on the horizon. She had four kids by the time she was thirty-one. When my father hinted he wanted a fifth, she had her tubes tied.
When Mom started a part-time job working for a financial planner, this became the axis around which many of their fights turned, and they launched at each other with gusto (my mother might have been at a disadvantage because she was financially dependent on my father, but she had an Italian temper and a spine of titanium and could more than hold her own). My dad said she didn’t need a job and that it looked bad that his wife worked. She said she wanted to work and he should let her. But she wasn’t there during the day to scrub the kitchen floor, clean the bathrooms, or do the laundry at perfectly timed intervals, which threw him into a rage, which threw her into a rage right back, which in turn sent toys flying out the back door and me into my room to blast Meat Loaf on my Walkman and bang on a manual typewriter to get down my latest Prince Eric-inspired story.
So as I lay on that couch trying to ignore my dad but hearing the pressure and volume build into his voice, I knew I had to go or that temper would turn on me.
I put on my sneakers without bothering to change my clothes, then opened the front door into the furnace. A lap was one quarter-mile loop, as measured by the odometer on my father’s Oldsmobile, around the block that surrounded our cul-de-sac.
I did a few soccer stretches in the driveway, then headed off down our four-house street, turning onto Oakland Avenue. That took me past the home of the mean girl who once told me my thighs looked fat when I sat down. Then a right turn past the house with the dogs that threw themselves against the fence as I ran by, to the corner liquor store, then another right onto the Creek Road, which was a two-lane artery between a couple of two-lane roads that served as alternate routes to the Jersey Shore. I wasn’t even halfway there, but already sweat popped out on my forehead and dampened the straps and cups of my training bra.
The sidewalk here was older concrete, pockmarked in places where stones had popped out. Halfway down Creek Road was a convent: the three-story yellow brick residence of the nuns who had taught me up through sixth grade, where I took piano lessons with a scary nun named Sister Anna who had tiny gray teeth and no patience for children (perfect qualities in a piano teacher), where I’d lost countless soccer balls and softballs and baseballs to the yard, some retrieved by climbing onto the roof of our woodshed and jumping over the fence that separated our property from theirs.
By the time I passed the nuns’ driveway, the forehead sweat dripped into my eyes, and my bra felt like a bathing suit top after I had jumped into the pool. Maybe if I collapsed on their lawn, one of the nuns—preferably not Sister Anna—would find me while walking their order’s poodle and hose me down. I didn’t understand pacing. I always started the lap like I was trying to run out a throw to first base, but this was much longer than those 60-foot sprints.
Please, God, just let it be over, I prayed to the statue of Jesus on their front lawn, and put one foot in front of the other, a deep cramp jabbing into my side.
The motion of running itself never hurt. I spent too much time during the summer alternating between body surfing and riding my bike in endless loops to be out of shape. I was strong, and my legs and arms swung along with my intentions, but my lungs could not keep up with the oxygen demand pressed upon them. I short-circuited, gulping for breaths of stuffy air. At least when I biked or swam, I could count on a breeze or the ocean to cool me down. At least when I cut the lawn, I could listen to my Walkman, and move no faster than the mower allowed.
By the time I made the last turn toward home, dragging my feet and wheezing, I was bent over, both sides cramped, sweat running freely down my spine and crack of my butt. My bra and underwear were soaked, shorts and shirt sticking to both.
“Never again!” I yelled when I stomped into the house and slammed the door behind me, then stomped upstairs to strip naked and lie under the ceiling fan until its breeze evaporated the sweat from my skin.
This scene replayed every August before high school soccer season, except my senior year when my parents had separated and my father lived in an apartment near his office. But in those years when he still lived at home, and he’d tell me to do a second lap, I’d strap on my Rollerblades instead and zip out. I didn’t care if he’d get mad—I let my mom deal with him. They fought enough. What was one more argument? It was still hot, but at least I was moving fast enough to stay just ahead of that washcloth.
I skated to Barrington, one town over. They had just covered over their old concrete roads with flat black asphalt. I glided over their freshly paved streets, making patterns and shapes on roads with almost no traffic. Just as when I rode my bike, or swam in the ocean, there was something else there to cool me down. The wheels of my skates gave me freedom to move without putting a vise on my lungs. I could cover so much more ground, all with a gentle breeze lapping over my face. This is so much better, I thought. Why would anyone want to run and go so slow?
The first real runner I knew was Dan, my high school boyfriend. I left Catholic school after sixth grade when my parents paid for me to go to the public high school of Haddonfield, which had better classes, no uniforms, and no girls pointing out that I had fat thighs when I sat down. That’s where Dan lived. We met in math class freshman year, and after months of furtive glances thrown at each other during geometry lectures, he professed his love for me in a card he bought for $1 as part of a student government Valentine’s Day fund-raiser.
When I met him, he was fluffy. His cheeks looked like those of Chip and/or Dale when they shoved a bunch of nuts in their mouths before running away from Donald Duck. Not that this was a deal breaker—I was thrilled to be one of the girls who had a real, live boyfriend to hold hands with in the hallway. I didn’t care what was under his clothes because he kept them on. We were shy, guilty Catholic teenagers, and there wasn’t much groping that first year. When I finally saw his penis, the event was more like an unveiling than a lust-inspired display. It was done in the unfinished portion of my basement under fluorescent lights. I didn’t touch it, not then. It wasn’t very attractive. It looked like a piece of debarked kindling.
I had soccer and softball, but Dan was a golf wunderkind. He went on to be an All-American golfer and a golf management major in college. As a sophomore in high school, he tried out for the cross-country team because he thought running would get him in better shape for swinging and walking and carrying clubs through eighteen holes of golf. I was doubtful. Dan was too short and round to be one of those willowy, antisocial cross-country guys, I thought.
Running unstuffed his cheeks, and by the time I was actually seeing parts of his body unclothed when we were not in his pool, he was compact and lean with a hint of muscles. He was often the sixth man on the cross-country team, which meant that his score rarely counted toward the team’s total, but his coach made him co-captain his junior year, then captain his senior year because his teammates said he was so upbeat about running, even when finishing last.
I could not wrap my mind around his running schedule. I saw no problem with hitting hundreds of softballs off a batting tee, but running six, seven, eight miles in one clip? Especially when most of his cross-country races were under five miles? Lunacy. His junior year co-captain would go on to run for a Division I school and then briefly as a pro—he was running 60 miles a week. One day Dan and a few teammates ran 10 miles. Ten miles! For fun! I’d have rather run right over a rusty nail.
“What do you DO for 10 miles next to the same guys you run with all the time?” I asked him one warm afternoon in June while floating in his pool and waiting for his parents to go to dinner so we could make out.
“Talk shit,” he said.
“What does he do for 60 miles?”
“I don’t know. Think of things to say while talking shit?”
That seemed like too little of a distraction for what I assumed was 60 miles of agony, but I let it go because his parents left soon after, and we threw ourselves at each other. Our time was running out. In a few days, we would graduate high school and he’d be off to start college early, while I was to toil away at my dad’s office before shipping off to the University of Tampa.
Dan was a constant that made high school a flat and smooth experience for me, like floating on the bay instead of getting smacked in the face by ocean waves. Haddonfield could be an isolating place if you didn’t start there right in kindergarten with your classmates. It was and is the richest town in the county, but while my classmates drove Eddie Bauer Limited Edition Ford Explorers and diesel Mercedes to school, I parked next to them in my mom’s Dodge Caravan, beaten down with 180,000 miles. Bellmawr is a town of intersecting highways and a twenty-four-hour post office that at the time was best known as the site of one of the 2001 anthrax attacks. It was a town my classmates were aware of only because they drove through it on the way to their shore houses (except for one classmate whose family’s “shore” house was in the Caribbean). We had a shore place, too, but it was a trailer, inland. I had felt so lucky that we had that place, but when I realized that my friends’ homes were actual houses on the island, I stopped talking about it, and always told them I was busy if they asked me to meet up with them down the shore.
I was not quite a member of the friend group when I first came to school, but as Dan’s girlfriend, I was soon let inside their circle. Dan hadn’t grown up in Haddonfield either—his parents moved there from Connecticut when he was in middle school—but he was part of that crowd more than I was simply by living there, and I became one of the group by proxy.
Being with Dan throughout high school meant that I never dealt with boy angst because I’d had Dan and hand-holding and penis grabbing and tying up the phone line with a conversation that stretched nearly four years. I didn’t know how to date and I didn’t really want to learn. Dan was perfect: smart, polite, respectful. My parents adored him and vice versa. His parents, two former Woodstock hippies, showed me that grown-ups could be married and not throw things out the back door. I didn’t want to let him, or them, go. Of course I wanted to go to college. I had worked through high school to get there, and my mother was adamant that all her children would go, but I was envious of Emily Webb, one of the protagonists in Our Town, because she locked down George Gibbs soon after they earned their high school diplomas (though I could have done without the dying young part).
The night after graduation, Dan gave me a pair of diamond stud earrings, said he’d love me forever, then broke up with me, because . . . college, following dreams, girls, or something. We were both still virgins, at my insistence, which may have had something to do with his decision. Dan was polite, but he was still an eighteen-year-old virgin going into college where a platter of new, non-Catholic women lay ahead.
I was devastated. Plunging me further into despair, the University of Tampa had not been my first-choice school. Despite being accepted to brand-name schools, despite Tampa’s reputation as a big fat zero to anyone north of the Mason—Dixon line, and despite the fact that all the girls with WASP names in my high school class wailed if they had to settle for a place like Colgate, the University of Tampa offered me the most financial aid. My parents didn’t have much money to start. They still had to pay Catholic high school tuition for my younger siblings, and the divorce ripped up what college budget my parents had left in a year when my older brother and I would be in college. They told me I was heading south. I was an angry teenager who couldn’t see that I was lucky my parents had pushed me to go to college and had saved some money to fund it, and that I was lucky to have earned scholarships, too. But in that moment, when my family life was upending, that shove to Florida seemed like a death blow.
I spent my last summer before Tampa filling in at my dad’s office as an accounting clerk for a woman on maternity leave. There, I shuttled from an office with no windows to a file room with no windows. Every night I went home smelling like carbon paper and played witness to my parents unwinding their lives from each other. My only escape would be moving to a swamp. I was, I thought, doomed.
“Are you sure?” my father asked. He was squinting into the sun outside my dorm, a two-story cinder block box full of smaller boxes that held two people each, and one shower/bathroom area per gender per floor. He had just arrived the night before, and that morning I gave him a tour of my room, which was still a mess of boxes and books—including what I’d brought with me from my stacks of books at home, like Where the Red Fern Grows and Bridge to Terabithia, and what I had picked up at the college bookstore the day before.
- On Sale
- Mar 22, 2016
- Page Count
- 244 pages
- Seal Press