Selected Essays


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JAMA – Apostrophe by Rachel Toor

From JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association

Because of the specialty you chose, and by dint of your personality and the way you practice medicine, I’m sure this letter will be familiar to you; just another missive from a bereaved family member of one of your patients, gushing gratitude for the care of her beloved (good feelings have to find a place to go, in the mix of the displacement of death and vexed family dynamics and often, I suspect, get planted on physicians, whether deserved or not); just another pile of clichés and the inanities we say and think in times when our thinking is muddied by grief.

The Gift of Being Coached

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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.

The Colossal Crack

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A story of peaks, canyons and trying to out-pace grief

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the June 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

She died four weeks after she heard her doctor tell her she had three weeks to live. My mother was nothing if not compliant. She had been ill for four and a half years. I spent every vacation, every break, traveling 13 hours through three time zones and four airports going to see her. From her home in upstate New York, I would run to the drugstore, the grocery store, the library. And I would run on the hills and trails of Ithaca, with a group of friends and by myself.

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Personal Record: Shirtless Days

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Do you know this runner?

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the March 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

He is across the street, coming toward me. In a sideways glance, I see him. In a moment, I know him.

His legs are unshaved, and the muscles and tendons ripple. He has scrawny, sculpted arms, a bony, hairless chest and flat stomach. His belly button barely makes an indentation. His ribs are too prominent. You could count them; he doesn’t wear a shirt. Not in the summer. He wears running shorts–one color, usually dark, split up the side.

He sweats but doesn’t drip. He never stinks.

His hair is long and floppy, his skin weathered but not tattooed. He does well in school, less well with girls. He is good at math. He reads. He pays attention. He can seem nervous, ill at ease. Often, he is.

He eats like a linebacker. He is mindful of his weight, notices a couple of extra ounces, but is unaware of how his body looks, only how it performs. His body is an instrument. He knows how to drive past pain, to hold in what is difficult. He tells himself things that he will never say aloud. In his mind he sometimes beats his breast, but more often he thinks he deserves to suffer. When he has an orgasm, he doesn’t make a sound.

In groups he is reticent, offering an occasional gentle joke, a clever aside. When he has a girlfriend, he will talk to her about his races only if pressed. When she asks how he did, he will say, “It was good.” He waits for her to ask the question. Yes, he responds. Yes, I won.

Running will be for him something special, something sacred. He will not talk about it with civilians. He will not, in fact, admit how much of his time training takes up, afraid he will be seen as less serious about the other things he takes seriously.

As he ages, his body will retain that look of the teenage boy, all slim hips and underdeveloped upper body. He will crop his hair, now speckled with gray. His face will become longer, and lines will etch themselves around his eyes, but not from smiling. Cheek bones will jut. (Note: On men this manifests as rugged, athletic and outdoorsy; women do not fare as well in the modifier department.)

He will continue running, even as his times slow. He will continue competing, but will not linger after races to collect age-group awards. Instead he will head off to warm down, maybe running the course again, maybe running home. He will not talk about how fast he used to be, or, when he does, it will seem as if he’s talking about someone else.

He will remember, though, what it was like to run fast. He will remember, though it becomes hazy, what it was like not only to be at home in his body, but to have a home in the world.

Things will never be that plain again. The simple formula, the ticks of the clock, the purity of measurement, the pleasure of having a rival, the clarity of a finish line, this is what he will miss. He will not be able to say that this is what he is missing, but he will feel it. He will feel it every day.

He will excel at some career. His work ethic has been set from early days at cross country practices where he beat himself up to stay with others, where he labored to surpass his teammates.

He will garner professional successes the way he collected trophies; caring and not caring about the material markers.

His wife will become fleshier and more interesting. His coworkers will marvel that he manages to stay so fit. He knows that he is not fit, not really. Not compared to who he used to be.

He fears–but will not admit–that at some point he may no longer be able to run. He knows that he will continue to slow, to be felled by injuries from a lifetime of doing his body little good. He knows that time is not on his side.

He knows a lot.

What he doesn’t know is this: he is beautiful.

When he runs he becomes that floppy-haired loose-limbed boy again. When he is in motion, he celebrates himself in all the ways that words fail, especially on hot days when he glides shirtless through summer streets, unselfconscious, unaware, wearing nothing but side-split shorts and the pride and pain of making himself run as hard and as far and as fast as he can.

My Left Tackle

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By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle for Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, July 27, 2007

I am in the market for a left tackle.

I do not play football, nor do I watch. But recently I read Michael Lewis’s new book, The Blind Side, which uses an SUV-sized young man as a vehicle to look at race, class, and football in the South. Along the way Lewis explains how left tackle became one of the most highly prized — and paid — positions in football.

Here, in my limited understanding, is what happened: Lawrence Taylor.

When that linebacker came on the scene, teams needed to protect their quarterbacks, lest LT and his ilk crush them like cigarette butts. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, so when they pull back, twisting and turning to make million-dollar passes, their left side becomes a broad-shouldered, wasp-waisted target. Keeping those expensive quarterbacks safe, Lewis argues, became an unsung, rarely noticed, but important and lucrative job.

Someone who allows you to do what you do best. Someone who protects you while you take risks. Someone who guards you from dangers you can’t see.

Who wouldn’t want a left tackle?

Those of us who write have more than one blind side. Our twists and turns of mind make us vulnerable to sacking. Our focus often narrows. Who protects us?

Editors, of course, and agents. The review process used by scholarly presses and journals can ferret out weaknesses in manuscripts before the permanence of publication. But what about when you’re still practicing? Suited up, perhaps, but not ready for a big game?

Graduate students have coaches. The mentoring process, when it works, can be a series of drills and exercises to develop intellectual muscles. But what about after grad school, when you’re out there on your own, in a job, in a new place, with people who you may or may not feel are on your side? Who will shield your academic flank?

The problem comes from the realities of daily academic life. There is never enough time to do the teaching, advising, and writing that is part of the job; finding energy to help a colleague often gets lost between the intention and the undertaking. Asking someone to read a paper, an article, or a book manuscript is, let’s face it, an imposition. No one really wants to read unpublished work. And the effort that goes toward polishing someone else’s work is often, even if asked for, underappreciated.

As I pointed out in an essay last year, most of us wouldn’t show our work if we didn’t think it was good. What we want, if we’re being honest, is the correction of some typos and a pat on the head. Once someone notices problems, we have to fix them, which is hard work and not as much fun as scrubbing the toilet. But for most of us, once the initial sting of good and right criticism has passed, we put our heads down and get back to work. And we are thankful to the reader who has saved us from ourselves.

But what if we each had a bunch of readers? If we met regularly with people we respected, regardless of field? If sessions were “conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory”? Every Friday night, starting when he was 21, Benjamin Franklin brought together 12 men from disparate backgrounds to discuss matters of the day. Every three months, one of the members of the club, known as the Junto, was required to offer up an essay, prefiguring, in some oblique way, the writing workshops of today.

In the mid-1990s a quartet of English professors at Duke University formed a writing group. Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons, Cathy Davidson’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Jane Tompkins’ A Life in School, and Marianna Torgovnick’s Crossing Ocean Parkway were the result. Those women read one another’s works in ways that made each memoir better and more accessible to larger readerships.

Here’s another Duke story. Some 30 years ago, my friend Peter Klopfer trained for a marathon with three other middle-aged academics. During their weekly runs, they took turns talking about their fields. Henry, a physicist, explained how quarks were discovered. Peter, a zoologist, lectured about mother-infant attachment. Seth, a topologist, would draw mathematical figures in the dirt when the group stopped for water, and Orrin, a geologist, would drive the course the night before in order to coordinate his talk with appropriate geological illustrations.

The questions they asked one another, Peter says, were in many ways more helpful and interesting than those they would get from their departmental colleagues.

While some small part of me recognizes that not everyone’s idea of bliss is covering 20 miles on a Sunday morning, the idea appeals because, like Franklin’s Junto, the members were from different disciplines. They forced one another to speak beyond jargon, to explain, without dumbing down, the complexities and implications of their work.

There are, I know, dissertation-support groups and departments where junior faculty members meet to share work. There may even be places where posses like Peter’s — with senior people from across disciplines — meet. If so, I’d like to hear about them.

Because such sharing is, I believe, the way to produce scholarship that is good and readable and that transcends the monograph. It’s the way to find smart readers who will remind you that nothing goes without saying, that coded language is the refuge of the lazy and the weak, and that people outside your field may well find your material interesting, if you help them along the way.

Most university press editors are not schooled in the disciplines in which they publish. When professors whose work I was interested in publishing at Oxford University Press asked me where I had done my training in classical studies, I was happy to reply that I hadn’t been trained in the classics, but in publishing. That, I argued, worked in their favor. Most people know how to talk to scholars in their own disciplines.

I am perplexed by those who do not seek trusted readers. One friend, a professor who thinks of himself as a writer rather than an academic, seems proud that he never asks anyone to read unpublished work. How much better would his books be, I wonder, if he did? If someone asked him to move along more briskly, or suggested cutting self-indulgent passages?

Bartering has become a lost art. If we keep in mind that asking someone to read a manuscript is a burden, it’s good to come armed with a reward. (Cookies work for me.) The nature of a writing group is that of a collective. It functions if everyone gives according to her abilities, and gets according to her needs. I’ve been in groups where people show up only when their own work is being discussed. That is called mooching.

What if we thought of ourselves as teammates, each bringing different skills, but all invested in the game of making books and scholarship as good as they can be?

There are a lot of people on a football field. Each has a job — even if it’s taking two steps and knocking the fluff out of someone. Though it can be bruising, having the fluff knocked out of your writing is not a bad thing. Especially if there’s someone wearing your colors to help you to your feet.

If I ever found my own personal left tackle — someone to ease my way and protect me from being squished — I would probably marry him. There’s a reason left tackles are so expensive; good ones are hard to find. Universities are replete not only with beefy football players, but with the kinds of people who can help protect our blind sides. We need only seek them out, be brave enough to ask for help, and then offer something in return.