Does your college application essay feature running? An expert offers a few simple rules for using your sport as your subject.
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
You’re a runner. You’re applying to college. You want to write your application essay about running.
Ask: Is what you’re going to say about running different from what thousands of other applicants might write? Chances are, it’s not.
When I worked in undergraduate admissions at Duke University I read a whole bunch of essays about running. Most of them were indistinguishable, even those that took place in the mind of a runner during a race. By the end of the essay, after far too much time in the prison-house of someone else’s consciousness, I would be screaming to go for a run myself and would have learned no more about the writer than that he had won/lost/finished the race and that it was hard.
Only one of those running essays stands out. It was by a kid who had been a soccer player and used to make fun of the runners with their itty-bitty shorts. After running a 2:10 800m as a freshman, he decided maybe there was something to running after all. He got a nickname, 2:10 Ren, and became a runner, happy to wear the shortest shorts he could find. The essay was smart, funny and self-deprecating. It made me want to get to know him.
When he showed up on campus, I tracked him down and we became friends, meeting for weekly breakfasts at a local diner. I learned that Ren had run a 4:17 mile in high school. When I asked him about why he didn’t write about that, he said he didn’t want to seem like he was bragging. (I mentioned him in a column for Running Times called “Speed Goggles”.)
College admissions officers don’t have a lot of time to spend on each application. After a thousand or so, you feel like you’re reading the same essay over and over. You’re able to boil it down to a simple description (dead grandmother), an equation (running=life) or a word (violin).
When you teach creative writing, as I do, you hear from lots of people who say they love to write. For the record, I do not love to write. Like Dorothy Parker, I love to have written, but I find the work of putting those words on the page far more exhausting than running the gnarliest 50K. Writing requires discipline and patience and multiple revisions. Pick up any running club newsletter or click on a friends blog and you will see hundreds, maybe thousands of words, but most of them are not arranged in a way that makes you want to read them.
In an essay, what matters is not the subject but what you make of it. If you did the Boston marathon as a bandit when you were sixteen, bully for you. (Well, not really, since I don’t approve of bandits.) So what? What does that say about you? Why should I care? You ran the anchor leg of the 4 x 400m and you made up a huge time deficit so that your team could win the state championship? Big honking deal. I’d be more interested if you dropped the baton and lost, because that would give you something to think hard about. Winning doesn’t afford that many opportunities for emotional growth.
TO ESSAY IS TO TRY
We get the word essay from the 16th century French writer Montaigne. His project was to essai, to try to figure out some things about himself and the world. That’s your goal: The “personal statement” required by the college admissions process is an opportunity to explore who you are and where you fit into the world. If you can do that by writing about running, go for it. But understand that you are not writing about running you are writing something about yourself. You don’t have to answer big questions. In fact, once you start sounding like you have the answers, you’re in danger of writing one of those mind-numbing “In society today” essays. Instead, you have only to pose an interesting question and wrestle with it.
Here’s what I believe about writing: We write to make people fall in love with us. If you can’t imagine someone reading your stuff, write a journal. College admissions officers are generally nice people, sometimes smart enough to have been admitted to the universities from which they are now rejecting thousands of applicants, who read huge numbers of files from identically-qualified students. Its a human process. Much has to do with personal preference and the reality of the numbers. There’s nothing you can do if the person on whose desk your file lands loves Eagle Scouts and student body presidents and hates poetry and you happen to be an anarchist poet who never goes outdoors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an essay that will show off who you are and why you would be someone they’d want to meet.
When I work as a college counselor with high school students, I ask them to come up with a list of 20 (yes, 20) possible topics. Usually, at the top of the list is running, or something like it whatever their “thing” is. Then a few more easy and obvious ideas (being on the debate team; parents’ divorce; death of a dog). Then it gets hard, and I encourage them to think about small things that might say something about who they are and what they care about. What do you love? What makes you furious? That’s usually when the list starts to get interesting, and items that they thought were discrete appear to have connections. How is running related to the parents divorce and the death of a beloved dog?
Coming up with a good topic is hard. One of the things we say about my field “creative nonfiction” and the ways it’s different from journalism is that its about something other than what its about. So while running may seem to be the focus, there’s got to be something bigger, more universal, and also smaller, more specific, that the essay addresses. Understanding that an essay has to be about something is hard; figuring out what that aboutness is can be painful. Often we get there by writing.
In your closet you have 15 different pairs of running shoes. What does this say? Are you the girl who is afraid of missing out and who, once she finds something she likes, will stockpile many boxes of the same kind of shoe? Or are you that guy who is always trying something new, and so has shoes that are minimalist, pimped out with LED lights, and bundled up in Gore-Tex? A look into the closet can be a look into the soul. You can write that essay if you use details that are vivid and specific, if everything you tell us could only be coming from you.
TELL A STORY, HAVE SOME THOUGHTS
In a personal essay, getting the tone right is a challenge. Often first drafts are stiff and stuffy, where the writer seems to be wearing someone else’s clothes and looks uncomfortable, maybe even a little fraudulent. I ask my students to write their first drafts in the form of an email to me. Tell me a story, I say. This exercise can help shake off some of the writerly pretentions they find appealing and that make me, as a reader, want to retch. Instead, they tend to write in ways that are more honest and more direct.
One of the best pieces of advice about writing an essay Ive ever heard is from Montana writer William Kittredge. He says: “Tell a story. Have some thoughts.” That’s what an essay is narrative and reflection, layered like lasagna or tiramisu.
Tell me a story. That part is usually easy. Then we have to figure out what the story is about. I ask questions. It will be clear to the writer why what she included was important. It may not, however, be clear to the reader. Connections and implications need stitching, and sometimes unstitching.
A FEW SIMPLE WAYS WRITING CAN GO WRONG
Starting with a Quote
Beginning writers want to reach out and grab the reader by the throat. This can be, for the reader, kind of unpleasant. Beginning writers do it because they don’t trust the reader to be interested, and they don’t trust their own skills to bring her in. So they resort to tricks. But starting with a disembodied line of dialogue without context is usually confusing, disorienting, and just plain annoying. Its a gimmick, and it looks like a gimmick.
Find ways to bring the reader in by being honest and reflective and self-critical. Work hard to come up with a good first line, but don’t make it scream.
Using the Present Tense
I know graduate professors of creative writing who will reject any applicant who sends in an essay written in the present tense. Beginning writers believe that the present tense can bring a sense of immediacy. It can, in fact, create a hyperventilating sense of YOU ARE THERE, but that’s not what your goal should be.
In an essay, the action is less important than the reflection. It’s not the race, its knowing how to feel about it afterward. William Wordsworth defined poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” In fact, if the topic is hot something that is difficult or painful to write about the most effective tone will be cool. Don’t tell the reader what to feel, just let her feel it. The past tense allows you to show yourself as a person who thinks, understands, criticizes, reflects.
Too much dialogue
What is easy to read was hard to write. Many people don’t realize that dialogue requires art and craft to do well and that in real life (which is, after all, what an essay is trying to capture), people don’t say what they mean and often speak at cross-purposes. Fiction writers know that dialogue must do something beyond give facts. It characterizes and captures, it highlights and reveals. In a 500-word essay, you can use it like seasoning: Too much will be overwhelming, but a little bit, a little zest, a little zing, can help.
When you’re writing in the first person, you don’t add much by quoting yourself. You’re already telling us what you think, so unless you said something shocking, you can report it rather than putting it in quotes. And while were on dialogue, I might as well remind you that all you need is “he said”, or “she said”. These are called “dialogue tags”, and we read right over them. We get stuck, however, when the writer calls attention to them: “He whined.” “She squealed.” And we can become derailed when the verbs have nothing to do with speech. “‘You’re hot,’ he leered.” “She smirked.” Or when burdensome adverbs are added. “‘You’re fat,’ he said, cheekily.”
Adverbs are not your friends. They, like exclamation points and clichés and the use of italics for emphasis, are the refuge of the weak and the lazy. Write with strong nouns and verbs. Beginning writers tend to overdo it: Too many adverbs, too many adjectives, too many words. And not only that, too many fancy words. Step away from the thesaurus. Don’t use a word unless you have spoken it in daily life. And don’t use phrases you use all the time. You know what I mean: clichés. Its a fast way to get ideas on the page, to express them in language that comes readily to mind and fingertips. If you must, go ahead and write the clichés on your first draft. Then revise them out with images that are fresher and more specific.
Be aware that often writing can go bad when it looks like creative writing; when you see the effort of reaching for description, all you see is effort. Like running, the best make the work invisible. Be clear, be honest, be natural.
To be Not to be
Any student of history should know about the dangers of the passive voice. If you say that the buffalo disappeared from the plains, or the war was started, you risk letting the bad guys off the hook and not giving credit to the heroes. It can also lead to flat, dead prose. You can spiff up your writing by limiting use of the form of the verb to be. Is, am, are, was, were you know. Finding ways around it will force you to use stronger verbs. And it will make the writing tighter.
My favorite quote, from Pascal, says, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.” Write long and then cut, cut, cut. You do not have a captive audience. Whether it’s a 500-word personal statement, a magazine article, or a book, no one has to finish reading. Your job involves keeping the reader in mind. Every paragraph, sentence, and word has to earn its keep by doing some useful work. Once you get a draft down, cut it by 20 to 30 percent. You can discover the same joy in cutting your work as you can in shaving seconds off your 5K time. No one likes flab.
After you have a draft of your essay, set it aside. When you spend a lot of time reading and rereading what you’ve come up with, you run the risk of memorizing your sentences, lending them the ring of inevitability. You want to let it sit long enough to be able to see it with fresh eyes. Then read it out loud to someone else who has a copy of her own. Listen to where it hitches. Let her point out where you have spoken words you did not write and then go back and fix them. Make sure she can hear your voice coming through.
A bad essay won’t keep you out of college but a good essay could help you get in. More important, it’s a chance to learn how to write about something you love in a way that makes other people understand why you do what you do and who you are.
Orwell Rules (from “Politics and the English Language” — a must-read essay for everyone)
– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Rules to ignore
– Never begin a sentence with “But” or “And.”
– Never use contractions.
– Never refer to the reader as you.
– Never use the first-person pronoun “I.”
– Never end a sentence with a preposition.
– Never split an infinitive.
– Never write a paragraph consisting of a single sentence.
Every high school student should read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and many will enjoy and learn from Stephen King’s On Writing.
Choosing which story you get to tell.
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the September 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
You would think by now I’d know to expect it, but you’d be wrong. The nagging conversation that takes place in my head in the later stages of a race occurs each time as if it had never happened before. Oh right, I think. I know how this goes. But each time, this debate, this discussion with myself, surprises me. It never feels like a rerun.
It goes like this: Who are you trying to impress? Or, more precisely, Who are you afraid of disappointing? When I get to the part in the race where it starts to feel hard, when I want to give up, I talk to myself. Often I’ll get to a point where, if this were a real conversation with a real other person, I’d be so annoyed and frustrated I’d leave the room.
Maybe there are people who are truly self-motivated, who don’t need attention and praise. That’s noble. I am made of weaker stuff. I care what others think about me; I care about how I will tell the story when I have to say, out loud, how things went. For me, shame is a useful motivator. I like to trumpet my successes because it helps me to hear not that I’m better than people think I am, but better than I believe I am; I hate to admit defeat or to recap a bad performance because it plays into my self-doubt. I try to restrain from the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda refrain but it’s hard not to make excuses and stick to Didn’t.
The prospect of telling the story, of having to narrate my body-bruising crashes and scarring burns, my train wrecks, my wall-hitting, ball-dropping, face-falling failures can be enough to keep me going, to make me try harder. The act of having to report — to a coach, to a friend, to a potential lover — that I wasn’t as good as I should have been, didn’t try as hard as I expected to, that I gave up, gave in, collapsed, foundered, is a force that I am not sure I will ever be grown-up enough to ignore.
No doubt this performance expectation was instilled in me long ago, by a father who asked, if I brought home a test with a score of 99, why I didn’t get 100, who edited every paper I wrote in high school and never thought they were good enough, who was generous with things but Scroogey with compliments. No doubt perfectionist tendencies get nurtured like orchids, coming in different colors, different shapes. No doubt some of this has helped me in life to achieve, if not to feel content about, what I’ve accomplished.
Sometimes, when I was leading a race, I would think about the pleasure of being able to tell the story. No need for excuses, for explanations. I won. It’s not usually a compelling tale. Tolstoy famously said that happy families are all alike, and we know that’s not true. They are just less interesting than the unhappy ones. The story of winning is hard to tell without seeming obnoxious and self-satisfied, unless, of course, it comes with the challenges of Odysseus. The irony is that often, when I was leading a race, I would become too interested in recounting it and, like a tragic Greek hero, see fate intervene. I’ve gone off course in a 50K after leading the race for 27 miles. I’ve done that more than once. I’ve gotten cocky and pushed aside the fear of failure only to bring it on.
Even now, when I’m less likely to be at the front of the pack, I still get bogged down in mental debate.
The conversation goes something like this: Go ahead and slow down. You’ve got nothing to prove. No one cares about your times. The difference of two minutes, of 30 seconds, is nothing. You’ll race again and do better. You’ve raced before and done better. This is not worth it. There’s no reason to suffer when there are people in the world who are suffering for things that are serious, not play.
The response goes like this: You can do anything for seven (or 57) minutes. You will feel so good when it’s over. You are strong. You are tough. You are stronger and tougher than those you will beat. You can do better. You will care later. The writer in me bristles as I repeat cliches that coaches and teammates spew to provoke desired outcomes.
At some point, you make a choice. At some point, you stop having the conversation. You make a decision. You take action. You just do it, or you don’t.
Who will I disappoint? Of course, when I start hearing that nagging question, I know that the only answer that matters is: me.
The great essayist Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The truth is, some stories are more useful than others. We make choices that allow us to pick which ones we get to tell.
How the character of a place comes across in its marathon
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the JulyAugust 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine
Think about New York. It’s overwhelming. It’s crowded. It’s noisy. (It used to be dirty, until Rudy Giuliani rode into town.) It’s international, multi-culti, diverse across any spectrum you can think of. Everything is a hassle. There are always long lines.
Think about Boston, with its traditions of Brahmanism and primacy, of elitism and sectarianism. You have to prove you are worthy and show your bona fides. Boston is not a place for the hoi polloi.
Los Angeles, a pedestrian unfriendly city, is forever messing around with its marathon course.
Las Vegas is a place where time has no meaning. This can make it a gamble for certain kinds of events. The year I ran the Las Vegas Marathon there were 26 clocks on the course. Not one of them was at a mile marker.
The editor of Runner’s World France told me that the Parisians have no patience for their city’s marathon. It annoys them. If you are still running when they open the course back up, drivers will follow behind you and honk and curse and make rude gestures.
We all do things in our own image; you can tell something about a person by the way she makes a sandwich, and about a place by the way it puts on a marathon. I was delighted to go to the Singapore Marathon to see what I could see. My friends worried that since I spit and chew gum, I was going to get caned.
Wrong. This is not your father’s Singapore. You can buy sugarless gum behind the counter at pharmacies (it’s seen as a healthy alternative to candy) and spitting is a non-issue. Homosexuality is no longer illegal; there’s a gay bar called “Does Your Mother Know?”
Singapore is the easiest farthest away country I have ever been to. The streets are cleaner than the floors in my house, everything is in English, and the nightlife is hip and cosmopolitan. There are acres of shopping malls offering clothes by the Gap and Armani, providing sustenance from Starbucks and Subway. There are mall rat teenagers.
It’s one of the few remaining city-states, and since the government puts on the Singapore Marathon, logistics are easy. Roads are closed, cops are on duty, and there is plenty of help.
The Sports Council gave 4,000 volunteers specific instructions on how to cheer. The youngsters never seemed tempted to say “Good job”; Singaporeans are not big on praise. Their “Don’t give up!” and “You must finish!” had a hectoring tone, like kids on a playground. Volunteers had been told to “be open-minded, respectful, and possess a positive team attitude.” The rah-rah attitude continued on the 42 kilometer markers, each of which had a sports cliche on the order of “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” Some were in what everyone calls “Singlish.”
On race day the streets of Singapore looked like the Dean Dome during a UNC-Duke game, with nearly everyone wearing a brand new sky blue singlet. When I expressed surprise about this to an expat friend she told me that Singaporeans are accustomed to wearing uniforms. If you give them a shirt, they think they are supposed to wear it. Singaporeans try to do what they think is expected.
The Singapore Marathon started in 2002 with 6,000 runners. It has grown to 50,000, and according to an article after this year’s race in The Straits Times, the national newspaper, is “now one of the biggest marathons in the world.”
This is, of course, not true. There were about 18,000 people in the marathon. The numbers quoted included the half marathon and the 10K. Singapore likes to pump itself up. While there is prize money, the emphasis is on getting folks–even if they’re not runners–out and moving; the average finishing time is six hours.
Singapore, Singapore, is like the big corporate campus of a progressive company. Folks are encouraged to do things that are good for them–to be healthy, active, educated, clean, and to embrace and maintain their diverse cultural identities. They are told to play. (The many leafy public parks are littered with signs that say Let’s Play!) When I asked one of the organizers if they had experienced any race-related deaths, he said, simply, “That is not allowed.”
After centuries of invasion and colonization, Singapore has charted a self-determined and deliberate course. The nation’s financial situation–it’s one of the richest countries in the world–attests to its success. It’s like those American companies where workers begin to think and speak in lingo and don’t even realize it. If you’re cynical, you say they drank the Kool-Aid.
The slogans for the Singapore Marathon say a lot: “Your spirit our inspiration,” “Run your own race” and finally, “Keep Singapore Running”–an intentional double-entendre.
Singapore was nothing like what I had expected. But once I got to know what kind of place it is, the efficiently managed, swag-heavy, orderly and team-spirited marathon was exactly what I would have expected. It’s a long way to travel, but it’s a far more interesting country than I had anticipated.
A runner’s best friend
By Rachel Toor
As featured in the Jul/Aug 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine
Helen is a new runner. She’s eager to get out, starts too fast, and then tries to save face by maintaining that she has to stop–to say hello to a stranger, to notice the view, to pee. Her pace is erratic–mad sprints and slow jogs. She moves in ways that feel good at a particular moment.
This can make her a frustrating running partner, so I know not to invite her along when I’m serious about training. But the zeal of the convert, the thrill of the newbie, is so attractive and contagious that it’s always more fun to have her along than to go alone.
Nearly two decades ago, when I was a new runner–eager to go, starting too fast, getting crabby when I tired–my training companion, Hannah, knew how to keep me in line. She’d learned well from Andrew, the person who had started her as a runner. She’d set an easy pace and I’d follow along. Often, Andrew would go with us; he’d chatter away the miles and make them feel shorter.
Over the years, as I got faster and liked to go longer, Andrew stopped coming with us. When I started going really long, Hannah began to refuse as well. I’d ask if she wanted to go for a run and she’d walk into another room. My running partners were smart about knowing their limits.
I started running because I was a Manhattan intellectual and Hannah was a four-year-old coach potato and we had just moved to North Carolina and Andrew, my boyfriend at the time, encouraged us to get out. Hannah, wise and measured, blossomed quickly into a prudent runner. She knew in hot weather to submerge herself in any stream we came across to cool off, and to drink before she needed to drink.
When we were going long, she knew not to do “dog running”–dashing ahead to smell things, coming back, lagging behind and having to sprint to catch up–and instead kept a steady pace at my heels.
She died at 18, old for a 60-pound mutt. And I lost my best running partner.
In the years since, many of my group runs have included dogs. Last summer I did a 26-miler in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with seven people, Luna, a beagle, and Tallulah, a Cairn terrier (think Toto). Nadine and I entered the canine division of the Snow Joke Half Marathon, though she was disappointed that we were going so slowly, accustomed, as she was, to humans with a quicker pace. Black and white Lewis, sweet, skittish, with only an ear and a half, used to run with us. Then he aged out.
Helen’s mom was an Australian cattle dog who got knocked up (by whom–a pit bull? A lab? A mutt?), arrested, sent to the pokey, and then was taken into a home for wayward bitches two weeks before she gave birth.
I’d been haunting the shelters for months. As is the case when I’m looking for someone to date, I had a long list of Match.com criteria: smart, calm, thoughtful–not stupid-happy–medium size, short hair, quiet, not ball-obsessed, a runner (no smushed-in snouts).
On my 783rd visit, when I described what I was looking for to a shelter volunteer, she told me she’d just fostered a litter and had the perfect dog for me. Even as a puppy, Helen met all of my picky criteria. (No surprise: it’s easier to find a dog than a man.)
Helen’s eight months now. She sprawls when she sleeps and forces me onto a sliver of the bed, parades around the house with my clean socks and dirty underwear in her mouth, rings a bell on the door when she needs to pee or poop, and rings it when she’s bored and just wants to go outside.
She’s too young to run much; I know I need to give her time to grow and mature. But she gets me out the door, even if it’s just for walks. With freedom to choose, I will choose to lie in bed and work–or read novels–all day. Helen reminds me that we both inhabit physical bodies that need exercise and she reminds me, too, that working in spurts is more productive than long slogs.
We go to a dog park with a half mile dirt track around the perimeter. There I do interval workouts while Helen dashes off to play with her friends. We both end up dog-tired.
As she ages and is able to go longer, I will push myself to keep up with her. I have found, finally, the perfect companion and training partner.
The simple/complex issue of weight and running.
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the July 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
Like most people, I have a general idea of what “handicapping” means. But I didn’t fully appreciate it until I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, a biography of the great racehorse. If you’re a horse, even if you weigh half a ton, carrying an extra pound or two is a handicap. You cannot run as fast, even over a mile. Hillenbrand details the tense negotiations about how much Seabiscuit would carry: 124 pounds versus 127. Big money was at stake.
Now, then. Do the math. If 3 pounds makes a difference on a thousand-pound horse over a mile, what will 2 pounds do to a person, an order of magnitude lighter, over 26.2? What will 10 extra pounds do?
Perhaps the dominant health message in the United States is that we Americans have to lose weight. We need to get more exercise, eat better, and make healthier choices. How many times, and in how many places, do we hear this each day? The tabloids and celebrity magazines chart the weights of the people we watch for entertainment; our entertainment industry has churned out programs where we watch people lose weight.
Much of the obesity epidemic, in my opinion, has to do with class; people who are well-educated with disposable income have the knowledge and luxury to make better and healthier choices. As social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, a runner with a Ph.D. in biology, chronicled in her book, Nickel and Dimed, one of the things that changed when she tried to make a living on minimum wage was her weight. After working at Wal-Mart, she was so exhausted that all she could find time and money for was meals at McDonald’s. So to the people who say that fat people just aren’t trying hard enough, I say it’s not that simple.
But middle-aged, middle-class runners are a different story. We tend to be motivated and disciplined. If you know that losing weight will allow you to cut minutes off your time, why wouldn’t you do it?
Because you’re human.
There’s plenty of sports science on the connections between body weight and speed. According to physiologist Mel Williams, while most elite marathoners are at their optimal weight, below which their performance might suffer, plenty of regular marathoners could do well to lose some pounds. The formula he gives is that for 1 percent of body mass lost, you’ll gain 1 percent in speed. While those pipes and pecs might look great on the beach, they won’t be doing much good over 26.2 miles. I don’t have to point out that beer bellies and overly padded hips are neither decorative nor useful.
Easy, right? If you want to run faster, you need to weigh less.
But we have to be careful when we talk about this.
When, for a season, I took a job as a cross country coach at a public exam-entrance boarding school for math and science geeks, I worried about the wrong things. Not that I had no experience coaching, or that I didn’t know how cross country meets were scored, or that driving a minibus with 16 teenagers making fun of you when you–oops–drive over a curb is humiliating. No. What scared me was the prospect of working with girls who had weight and food issues and that I could be implicated in making them worse.
It turned out the girls were fine; they didn’t much care about competing and liked the companionship of being on the team. My concern was for the boys, who were faster, more competitive, and skinnier.
Their bodies were still growing and developing and they needed fuel. But they also knew–being smart science geeks–that extra weight would hurt their performance.
So what do you do? Do you tell them that no, it doesn’t matter? That it matters, but it shouldn’t matter to them until they’re well into comfortably pudgy middle age? Do we keep the information from them until we believe they’re mature enough to deal with it? Do we, Jack Nicholson-like, scream that they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH?
Coaches in all sorts of sports have to figure out how to deal with young people, and frankly, one season, great as it was, was enough for me. But adults have to be grown-up enough to hear these unpleasant words: If you want to run faster, you have to be at your optimal body mass. One coach said, pithily, “Nutrition is complicated; losing weight is easy.” Regardless of food fads, the equation is simple: Calories in have to be less than calories out. For people who are already running a lot, that means opting for smaller portions, realizing that beer and wine count, and not telling yourself that you “earned” that bowl of ice cream.
I keep thinking about those 3 contested pounds on Seabiscuit. Three pounds carried by a thousand-pound horse makes a difference. I try to remember that when I’m reaching for another cookie.
Tangible tidiness can be satisfying.By Rachel Toor
As featured in the May 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
Recently I’ve been annoyed by realist novels and movies that come too close to representing life as it is. Life is messy and uncontained. Life has ragged edges and frayed seams. Life can be hard and at times, awful.
I know all this. I don’t always want to see it reflected in art. Sometimes I want tidy and predictable, clean lines and completed circles. That’s why I like reading mystery novels. And, as of last summer, going to the track.
I’ve never been on a team and have no fond memories of lazing around the infield, puking at the finish line, or building sandcastles in the long jump pit–or whatever real track people do for fun.
Years ago, I would show up on track nights with my long-run guys. Since I refused to follow a program, I’d do whichever parts of their workout seemed fun and skip the rest. I tended to like the warm-up and the cool-down.
My running club had summer track meets, and I’d often go but would rarely run. I’d volunteer to handle the stop watch, or call splits, or cheer for my friends. Once I was hanging out with a collegiate 800m runner who was aging gracefully into his 30s, and when I asked why he wasn’t doing the race he said, “The track looks really big today.” At the time I thought it was a silly comment, but he was serious.
My muscles don’t twitch at a rapid rate. Back in the day, LSD was my drug of choice. Long Slow Distance is what I’m made for. I can go for hours on trails. I can go by myself, or I can go in company. I’m usually happy either way, and I’m usually happy just to be out there.
Long runs can get messy. You can get lost, or run out of water. The person you’re running with may turn out to be a boor. You never know when you’re going to feel like dog poop 15 miles into a 20-mile run. You need to expect the unpredictable and prepare for the worst cases.
It’s not often in life where, when you finish a discrete task, you end with the knowledge that you’ve completed it successfully and well. You might get a fleeting sense of satisfaction if we’re talking about mowing the lawn or doing the dishes, but much of the business of living is messier than that. When I teach a class, write an essay, or engage in a difficult conversation, there’s no real and objective measure of exactly how well I’ve done. If I think I’ve given a terrible performance, but other people tell me it was excellent, who’s right? Am I training my dog properly, or am I blinded by my love for her? There are few times when I know exactly to what extent I’ve succeeded or failed.
To be able to run fast, you have to run fast. I know this, and I know that the best place to run fast is on the track. But while I adore solo ventures into the woods, going alone to the track can feel like entering a dark and smoky bar on a bright, sunny afternoon. You don’t want to go there. At least, you don’t want to go alone.
Bar-hopping afternoons, however, can be a hoot when you’re with friends. Something that could have felt sad and lonely on your own is transformed into a party. So it was that joining a local group for track workouts last summer revitalized me as a runner.
Each Tuesday night, I’d look forward to catching up with Dori and Jaye and Marianne and Keith and whoever else happened to show up. After we warmed up I knew what the workout would be, when we were halfway through, and how good my performance was. Even if I finished last–which I often did–I could still see improvement. The clarity of the clock offers a hint at a more ordered universe, a more tidy life.
Track workouts are broken into parts. While a long run can feel like having to eat a humongous bowl of spaghetti, doing intervals is like enjoying a frozen meal. Discrete compartments. Small portions. You wouldn’t want it every day, but it can be a welcome change, an efficient solution to the problem of dinner.
Literary novels can help us think about the complexities of the world; mystery and detective fiction ends with a tidy finish. You know whodunit and you know why. There’s comfort in that.
There are times and places for messiness, and I would not forgo them. However, the work I do on the track–and the tangible results it brings–is something I’ve come to appreciate. Some days the oval does look too big. But other days, after I’m finished, winded and sweating, it looks exactly like where I want to be, a space where I know, for a few minutes, my place in the world.
Coming to terms with music on the run
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the Feb/March 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
Before setting out for a scheduled 20-miler, I bumped into a neighbor and his dog. The neighbor called his dog by name, and in doing so, ruined my run.
His name is Rio.
For 19 1/2, I had Duran Duran playing in my head. Not the whole song. I don’t know–I’d like to think I never knew–all the words to this song. Just “Her name is Rio and she dances in the sand.” And then, “Da da da da da da across the Rio Grande.” For the last half mile I concentrated on getting to the end so I could finally turn off the radio in my head. But for the first 19 1/2 miles you would not have wanted to be me.
Until recently, when I did my long runs I would use the time to think. I’d work on essays, plan classes I had to teach, even practice unpleasant conversations that loomed (It’s not you, it’s me). I’d save up my problems and look forward to solving them during hours on the trails.
Then I started running faster and doing my long runs at close to marathon pace. That put an end to productive brain-time and, it turns out, led me down the road to mindless repetition of lines from songs I don’t like and can’t remember.
In the past, I’ve sometimes had more useful phrases stuck in my head and have gone over them like a rosary. Before the first marathon I trained seriously for, a running friend, a fast young man, said something I keep with me like a lucky stone. He said: “You will feel so good for so long.”
I take that line out before every long race. I repeat it to myself during the early miles and will it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That short sentence has helped me for years. Or I turn it into a peformative utterance, a phrase where the saying makes it so, like a promise or a pledge: I feel good.
As a writer, I hate cliches, both of word and of thought. But sometimes, when life on the run gets tough, I falter. I say, I can take more pain than anyone. Not even close to true, but the fast young man said that’s what he told himself, and since he won a lot of races, I believe it works. Sometimes I recall a slogan on the back of many cross country team shirts: My sport is your sport’s punishment. Sometimes I think, If this was easy, everyone would be doing it. Sometimes, may the gods of writing forgive me, I think, I’ll rest when I’m dead.
Once I asked a friend how he got through races. In his 50s then and still running speedy 5Ks and impressive half marathons, he said that when he hit a bad patch, he’d remember that he had been expecting it. He would feel bad for a while, but then, he told himself, he knew he’d feel good again. You’ll feel good again, I sometimes tell myself when I want to quit.
During a hard and lonely 20-mile trail race, when I was taking pre-med science courses as part of my mid-life crisis decision to apply to medical school, I made up a mantra that went Mitochondria not hypochondria. I’m not sure, exactly, what I thought I meant by that, and it didn’t even scan well. But it stayed in my head for a long time and, in some weird and geeky way, pleased me.
Mostly, though, a fragment of something–usually a song, but sometimes a line of poetry–starts to play on an endless loop and drives out everything else. If I’m running hard and struggling, I might at some point be able to shift my thoughts to wallow in self-pity and misery. Maybe I’ll conjure a cheeseburger or a piece of pizza or an ice cream cone and pretend I’ll eat that as a reward when I’m finished, even though I know that when I finish a run I almost never want what I thought I wanted when I was running.
This recent training cycle has been good for my running but it makes me dread spending time in my head, so I’ve taken to bringing my iPod with me. At first I didn’t think I’d be able to concentrate on keeping the pace and paying attention to whatever was coming through the ear buds. I was wrong. Music helps. And this may just be me, but books help more. That way, I have lines of good writing resonating in my head.
Goodbye Rio, dancing blah blah blah across the Rio Grande.
The need for an objective look at your fitness
By Rachel Toor
As featured in the January 2012 issue of Running Times Magazine
A couple of years ago I got an email from a famous runner who’s been much maligned, someone about whom everyone has an opinion. He wrote, “In the end, I guess the most important person we need to answer to is the face we see in the mirror every morning.”
It’s one of those things that people say. It’s a cliche. And unlike most cliches, it’s dead wrong.
Think about what happens when you look in the mirror. Many of us tend to focus only on the flaws: I’m getting more wrinkles. Or on what we can fix: How do I get rid of that zit? Or we look only at what pleases us: Hey, it’s a not-bad hair day.
I’ve known average or even plain men who can look in the mirror and say: “Dude, you’re a good-looking guy.”
The fact is, most of us are not our own best judges.
I started running at age 30, jogged for a couple of years, and then I met Peter, who had been the women’s track coach at Duke before Title IX. A grizzled biologist, Peter started coaching me. He’d write personalized progressive programs and most days we’d do the workouts together. We’d go to the track Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on the weekends we’d do long runs from his farm in Durham, N.C.
Old-school Peter believed that you shouldn’t run a marathon if you couldn’t finish in less than 3 1/2 hours. Too hard on the body to be out there longer, he’d say. So he trained me to run a marathon faster than 3:30. It was gratifying, in a way, to be told exactly what to do. I’d always had jobs where I’d have to figure things out on my own. I’m accustomed to many degrees of freedom and an expectation of creativity in most areas of my life; having to follow a precise and rigid schedule was weirdly liberating.
Until it started to feel constraining.
Peter didn’t understand that I couldn’t make running my priority. My job required travel and I often had to miss workouts. When I was injured, I didn’t have access to a pool for the cross-training Peter prescribed. The truth is, Peter’s programs didn’t fit with the realities of my life. My choice was either to change my life or disobey Peter. So I would have him coach me for a while, and then I’d “fire” him. But after some time passed, and I wanted to prepare for a race, I’d come crawling back and he’d write another program as if nothing had changed but my level of fitness.
We did this for a number of years. On long runs we’d discuss politics and science and art and war. He followed the sports medicine literature and reported on recent findings. I understood his training philosophy and understood, too, what didn’t work for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real coach, but any success I had as a runner is due to the fact that I got started with someone as intellectual and rigorous as Peter.
With writing, we generally know what’s working, and we know, too, when something isn’t. We tell ourselves that maybe we’re wrong–it’s really OK. Or that maybe no one else will notice the problem. Because writing is so painful, we tend to let ourselves off the hook. Whenever anyone tells me that they love to write my response is always the same: I probably don’t want to read what you write. Those who care about the craft know that what’s easy to read was hard to write, and know, too, we aren’t our own best editors. Those who care about writing well seek readers who will speak uncomfortable truths and push us harder than we will push ourselves. Once you tell yourself you’re good enough, you won’t be.
Being coached was like having an editor. Peter knew me, as a runner, better than I knew myself. He made it impossible for me to believe my own ego-soothing lies.
Ten years ago I ran my marathon PR of 3:14. After that, as my times started slowing, I found other ways to make my running meaningful. I’d lead pace groups, or escort friends for the last 40 miles of their 100-mile races. I’d help beginning runners by getting them out the door for jogs. During this time, I’d still tell myself that if I wanted to run fast, I could. I was simply choosing not to.
For the past few years I’d stopped running hard. So when I was invited to the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) “Adult Running Retreat,” I said No thanks. Bill Pierce, Ed.D., one of the authors of the book, Run Less, Run Faster, had extended an offer to come and have my fat measured, my VO2 maxed, and my lactate pushed to its threshold.
At a glance, the program looked like the running equivalent of the Twinkie Diet, a painless way to get faster. I’m skeptical of the quick and easy fix. I didn’t want to run less. I cherish my junk miles; they were keeping me somewhat sane.
That the program had been featured in Runner’s World led my hard-core friends to think it wasn’t for serious runners, and some lingering, recondite part of my self-image was hard-core. It was easy to say no.
But I got to know Bill Pierce when I gave a talk at Furman University, and I’d met his co-authors, Scott Murr and Ray Moss, and I knew these guys were nothing if not serious runners. Pierce, the long-time chair of the Health Sciences Department, is the kind of guy, intense and disciplined, who can make others feel twitchy about their too-human ways. He stopped eating junk food in 1984 and has never since looked longingly at cake or ice cream. His wife, a business professor and high-level administrator, cooks healthy low-fat meals and stores them in weighed-out portions.
Pierce and his co-authors created a running program. Amby Burfoot profiled it for Runner’s World in 2005 and Rodale published the book Run Less, Run Faster in 2007. It’s sold more than 70,000 copies and has been translated into German and Portuguese. The second edition will be out in April. Pierce is also a kind, smart and interesting man. Talking to him made me curious about the program, and so, as an experiment, I decided to check it out.
Twice a year, in March and May, 16 adults come to the FIRST retreat. This isn’t running camp; it’s more like corporate boot camp. The attendees are well-dressed, well-heeled and serious about knocking minutes off their marathons. Many have started in the last few years, often around a milestone birthday–40 or 50. Nearly everyone has had injuries. They arrive with specific goals, often to qualify for Boston or bust out a PR. They tend to be folks who were never on a team, never had the benefit of coaching.
Greenville, S.C., in March looks like spring. The Furman campus is country-club beautiful, with a palette of flora that shocks and delights. This is a place you want to come to.
But not to lie flat and have the DEXA machine take the most revealing pictures you can imagine of your body. This is so far from porn that you’d have to pay people to bootleg copies. You get a picture of exactly where your bones are dense and a breakdown of your body fat by region. I expected my overall percentage to be low and it was–at the good end of excellent. But after years of referring to my skinny ass, I was surprised to learn the largest portion of my blubber is in my butt. This made me want to do squats.
To analyze my gait, a perky professor of physical therapy pawed over my body, measuring angles of repose and extension. Then I had to get on a treadmill to run while being videotaped. This wasn’t so bad.
The bad part was the VO2 max test. A number of times I’ve been offered to have this expensive test done on me for free. I’ve always declined, because 1) I’m not convinced it’s a useful measure, and 2) It’s freaking painful.
Before you show up at the retreat, you’re supposed to fill out an extensive questionnaire. I refused to keep a four-day food diary. I don’t need to be told that my diet sucks; I understand that Cheez-Its and Tootsie Rolls aren’t at the base of most people’s food pyramids. So I missed out on the personal analysis that parses your diet.
When it came to answering questions about my running–which had been the equivalent of Cheez-Its and Tootsie Rolls–I was almost as unforthcoming.
In other words, I went with a bad attitude. We could say that it had something to do with the vagaries of a complicated life, including a recent breakup with a bad boyfriend, or we could say that it’s because I am recalcitrant and intractable. Plus, I kept maintaining, I didn’t care about getting faster.
I was wrong. The data showed, to my horror and humiliation, I was even less fit than I believed. My VO2 max score embarrassed me. The tests did show, however, that I’m capable of pushing myself hard. One of the indicators is the RER, the respiratory exchange rate. The fastest male runner and I tied for the highest scores in the group, both of us needing help off the treadmill at the end of the test. My lactate had gone crazy-high. So even though I was out of shape, I was, like most serious runners, capable of withstanding plenty of physical pain. This is something I knew but had forgotten.
Since I’d read Run Less, Run Faster before the retreat, I knew the program: three high-quality running workouts a week, two cross-training sessions, and some strength and flexibility thrown in. The idea is that you go hard every single time. The cross-training should be non-weight-bearing and intense–biking, rowing, swimming. The book is fat with tables that, based on your 5K time, give you the exact pace for each workout: Tuesday track, Thursday tempo, and Saturdays long and at a specific pace, faster than most people do their long runs.
Over the weekend I learned, to my surprise, that I wanted to get faster. During the retreat, I beat my test-predicted times and Bill had to keep adjusting my workouts. This pleased me. It almost made me want a do-over with the VO2 max test.
I came home committed to training and decided to exploit Pierce’s kindness. I had agreed to run on a Corporate Cup team for the Bloomsday 12K in Spokane in May and asked Bill to help me for the six weeks before the race.
He pointed me to specific tables in the book for a schedule, which I sort of followed. When the weather was good. After each workout, I’d email him the results and he’d make encouraging comments and adjust the times as I got more fit. At first, I refused to go to the track, and took my Garmin to the dog park for repeats on the trail. I told myself that because I was running on an uneven dirt surface and having to dodge bounding dogs, my intervals would translate to faster track times. When I suggested this to Bill, he was polite.
When, toward the end of my tempo runs, I wanted to slow or stop, I’d remember that I was going to have to report to my coach. I wanted not to disappoint him; I wanted, in fact, to run harder than he thought I could. So I pushed.
My Bloomsday time was only 5 seconds slower than two years before (back when I was training and still cared about time), and good enough for eighth place in my age group. My pace was about a minute faster than my VO2 max test 5K pace. In other words, I’d gotten fitter faster than I could have believed. I was running no more than three times a week–and not doing cross-training.
Two weeks afterward, I ran my fastest marathon in seven years, without proper training, and qualified for Boston 20 minutes under my age-group time. In my prime I would have considered the result a bad day, but now I was thrilled.
What I’d learned over the first two months is my endurance far exceeded my speed. This wasn’t a surprise, given that I’d been running long and slow for years. And I remembered what I already knew: Each workout has a different purpose. I needed real speed work, which meant going to the track and not the oval at the dog park. I found a group who did weekly workouts coached by the girls distance coach at running powerhouse Mead High School. Having other people to suffer with helped a lot, and being the slowest person on the track was a good motivator for a competitive overachiever.
The tempo runs were hard, but achievable. The long runs were unlike any long runs I’ve ever done. Slave to my watch, I watched each mile tick by with an anxious desire to beat the pace I was supposed to be running; these weren’t the Sunday morning outings I’ve done in the past. Now I was running with a purpose.
The point of the FIRST program is to get rid of junk miles and use the cross-training days to get off your feet and work your heart. I understand the reasoning but can’t follow the plan. I hate water and cycling hurts my butt. So I took the days off and ran only the workouts, with an occasional dog-accompanied trot and lots of hilly hiking. I’ve come to understand that my hard runs have to be hard. Because they are, I was often too tired to go every day. I prepared for the next one by resting.
It was painful to accept that if I want to meet goals, I have to forgo opportunities. Because I’m still me, however, there were some things I “had” to do. Against Bill’s advice, in July I ran a 50K in the mountains of Montana, and did a Ride and Tie race on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Trail running and horseback riding weren’t good for my training, but they soothed my psyche.
At the retreat, I’d told Bill I had no running goals. I was never going to beat my marathon PR, and I didn’t care about running shorter races. But the more I trained, the more satisfying I found it. Knowing exactly what I was supposed to do each day made life seem less chaotic. Meeting or exceeding the times mattered not because I was working toward some goal but because I liked reporting in to Bill. I loved that there was someone else who cared about my running. During my Bloomsday training I went to hear New Yorker writer Susan Orlean talk about her forthcoming book. She said to get it done, she paid an editor to call her every day just to ask how the work was going. At a different point in my life, I would have found this nutty.
The most important part of my post-FIRST retreat experience has nothing to do with physical results. It was the reminder of the value of coaching; having someone invested in what you do is the best cure for slacking off. Being accountable to Bill has remade me as a runner. I’m entering my 50s as fit as I’ve ever been and think of myself, once again, as an athlete in training.
I’m now excited to go to the track, and to do my long runs so hard I spend the afternoon whimpering. I’m competing again, eager to race, not just pay for a bib number and socialize. The required discipline has seeped into other aspects of life. My writing production has increased with my lactate threshold and my house is less messy.
Some puritanical part of me believed I shouldn’t have to ask for help, especially since, after two decades of running, I thought I knew all this stuff. Needing a coach seemed a sign of weakness. Somehow I managed to listen to Bill with a beginner’s mind. I would ask him questions I knew the answers to, but tried to convince myself I was wrong. I couldn’t dismiss what he said: If you trust someone enough to have them coach you, the least you can do is follow their advice (well, most of it).
What I learned, other than the obvious insight that if you want to run faster you have to run faster, is that being secure enough to ask for and receive help is a hallmark of growth and maturity. You receive a more realistic image of yourself than the one in the mirror. Sometimes it’s hard to face, but most of the time it feels like a gift.
Postscript: I finished the Tri-Cities Marathon in 3:31:20, 21 seconds slower than my target time. The woman in third place beat me by 13 seconds. I couldn’t tell if I should be disappointed. I decided no.
I loved going to the track. I loved the sense of being a serious athlete again. And, of course, I loved having a coach. In my younger years, I would have thought the gap between 3:29 and 3:31 was as wide as the Columbia River. Not now.
Running’s toll on the body
By Rachel ToorAs featured in the December 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine
Catherine Deneuve, actress and legendary beauty, apparently said that when a woman gets older, she has to choose between her ass and her face. You can’t, apparently, save both from the depredation of aging.
No one needs to tell this to a woman runner.
Like most if not all women, there are parts of my body I hate (my legs are bowed, I don’t have a waist, the feet are hideous), but generally I don’t spend much mental time on how I look. As I enter my 50s, I’m as fit as I’ve ever been. My body is hard and my little muscles ripple. But whenever I start to feel good about myself, I remember a quote from Guy Ritchie, who said that sleeping with his ex-wife, Madonna, was like “cuddling up to a piece of gristle.” I may be the only one to appreciate me.
But I am starting to notice the toll the past two decades of running has taken on my appearance, especially my face. I’m trying not to let it bother me. But the truth is, it does.
In many ways, being active and athletic imparts youthfulness. Fitness indicates vitality. There’s a reason the metaphors for youth have to do with ripeness. As we age, we shrivel and shrink, and running doesn’t help with that.
Most runners spend a lot of time outdoors; the elements are not benign. We get weathered. Our skin starts to look like a topo map, layered and mottled, replete with contour lines and weird geological features like mini mounds and craters, especially the sun-exposed parts. Especially the face.
This can serve to make men even more attractive. Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Robert Redford continued to get roles as romantic leads at grandpa-age. Even younger guys like Daniel Craig and Thomas Haden Church can get away with looking older and still be hot. Other than Harold and Maude, I can’t think of a lot of movies where you see 80-year-old women in bed. Or 40-year-old women who can move their Botox-frozen foreheads.
I suspect that many–perhaps most–male runners don’t think about the possible deleterious effects of our sport on their looks. The guys I know pay obsessive attention to their bodies. A tire around the middle can be identity-threatening, and a few excess pounds can provoke sorority-girlish “I’m so fat” laments.
But cheeks hollowed out by the miles, parentheses around the nose and mouth, elevens between the brows, crow’s feet so big they could belong to ravens–I wonder how many men even notice these in the mirror. When I think about the faces of my running friends, all handsome men (aren’t our friends by definition people we find attractive?), I love their creases and crags. They look, especially those with boyish miens, more manly. Wrinkly women do not look more womanly.
In fact, my friends, the men, think that running makes them more attractive. One believes that it’s helping him keep his hair–more circulation to the scalp. Others note increased blood flow to appendages, where hardness is not simply a matter of vanity. (Some of the more honest dudes mention fear of becoming less fit lest they Bob Dole-out.) Some guys don’t even know that they have wrinkles; some feel wizened and distinguished by them. Many have told me that when they go to reunions, their classmates wonder if they’ve dipped into the fountain of youth.
The great irony is that so many people start running because they want to look better, and, in particular, to lose weight. As we pass 40, men continue to reap the cosmetic benefits of being athletic while women can end up looking, well, haggish. At a certain age, the tradeoff for a cute body is a less-cute face. Things start to sag. Jiggly bits get more jiggly.
Arguments about the gendered cultural constructions of beauty are familiar and cliched. Americans are used to seeing rich and powerful–albeit fat and bald–men with luscious young, under-achieving women, and think: That’s a typical attractive couple.
As with many things, Ben Franklin weighed in on this issue. In an essay that could be called “Why You Want To Be Cougar-Bait,” he instructs a young man on the choice of a mistress and explains why older women are preferable. His list of reasons includes:
“Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.”