Personal Record: Now Playing

By February 29, 2012April 11th, 2014Running Times Magazine

Coming to terms with music on the run

By Rachel Toor

As 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.