Running is about more than just pounding the pavement. It involves sliding into the proper state of mind. Getting into the groove. You have to reach far down to find that delightful slice of Zen that comes only when you breathe deeply, your thighs burn, and your heart thunders.
CNN correspondent Tom Foreman’s new book, My Year of Running Dangerously, chronicles his journey from occasional jogger to ultramarathoner over the course of the year. If this sounds crazy to you, you’re not wrong. 10% rule be damned!
Over that year, Tom ran the Mardi Gras Half Marathon, the Publix Georgia Marathon, the National Half Marathon, the Gettysburg Marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, the Parks Half Marathon, and the Stone Mill 50. This book isn’t a how-to about the technical aspects of running and training, although Tom devotes plenty of pages to discussing road racing and trail running, all with a characteristic self-deprecating sense of humor.
Tom writes candidly about how his family life, relationships, and responsibilities as a CNN journalist covering the 2012 presidential election fit around his training and racing. He does all this with a sense of humor and honesty about his struggles and self-doubt. “Doubt,” he writes, “is a constant companion of distance runners.”
Tom’s inspiration to begin his year of running was his young daughter’s ambition. On Thanksgiving, his 18-year-old daughter Ronnie – then a freshman at Georgia Tech – asked him to train for a marathon with her.
Naturally, Tom’s relationship with Ronnie is central to his story. Tom writes about Ronnie as an admiring father: it is Ronnie, even more than Tom, who is the voice of wisdom in the book. Ronnie’s voice of wisdom becomes evident when she sets ground rules for marathon training with her dad: 1) be honest, 2) whatever the schedule calls for, we do, 3) no one gets left behind.
Tom’s work with CNN required him to train in unfamiliar places, and sometimes during odd hours of the day. He recounts a long run in the Las Vegas area when he got lost after dark. I couldn’t help but chuckle and nod my head with understanding as he described the apocalyptic scenarios that entered his head while he was unsure of his location or if he would ever make it back:
I gauged the angle of the asphalt by impact, and guessed where my next step should fall. I knew I could easily miscalculate, break an ankle, and tumble off into a ravine. If I went down out here I would not be found until the next day at the earliest, long after the cold and critters had done their worst.
Halfway through his book, Tom begins training for the Stone Mill 50, a 50 mile trail race. Ultramarathoning, especially on trails, presents unique challenges. Describing the long miles and hours required to prepare for the race, Tom writes, “It was like making time to watch Gone with the Wind each morning before breakfast.”
After initially struggling with the cuts, bruises, falls, and hills that vexed him as a new trail runner, Tom draws inspiration from Thoreau. He learns to enjoy his daily date with the trails of Maryland, even if those days are occasionally interrupted by phone calls of breaking news relating to Iran’s missile and nuclear programs.
Besides the daunting mileage and technical trails, in his ultra training Tom encounters a struggle familiar to many of us in the distance running community: finding balance. He realizes that his wife Linda – while she is patient and encouraging – is really tired of his absence and his incessant running chatter. On a visit to Atlanta to see Ronnie, she provides this wisdom from her own marathon training experience and her aerospace engineering studies at Georgia Tech:
You can put the biggest engine you want into a rocket, but if the rest of the spacecraft can’t handle all that energy, it’s going to blow to pieces. You’ve got to have balance. I realized after I finished the marathon that running one is not so tough. Doing it without letting the rest of your life fall apart is the challenge.
Tom adds additional insight to this thought:
This is a thought that is often overlooked in all the inspirational running books and websites. Plenty of writers talk about mind over matter and about runners “willing” themselves to the finish line, but precious few address the possibility that maybe doggedly chasing a goal is not enough.
The last several chapters of the book are devoted to what I’ll call the best race recap I’ve ever read: Tom’s recap of the Stone Mill 50.
Before the race, Tom reflects on the experience of Edison Peña, a Chilean miner who was trapped in a mine in 2010 for 69 days during his marathon training. While underground, he continued training, and ran the New York City Marathon less than a month after being rescued.
Tom discusses the mental battle that is the 50 mile trail race, the camaraderie of the ultra community, his pacing errors, and a few notable characters he encounters. He contemplates a DNF, resolves to “forcefeed (himself) like a pet lizard,” feels pain down to his bones, falls in streams, and at 40 miles describes himself as looking like “Larry King emerging from the desert.”
I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil his account of the Stone Mill 50. When I read it, I felt concerned and a little nauseous at times. I laughed, I winced, and I felt the highs and lows of the experience as if I were there with him.
After the race, Tom’s younger daughter Ali asks him why he ran the Stone Mill 50. In his response he tells Ali, “I stopped getting through my days, and I started getting into them. I guess I ran this race because I didn’t want that to end.”
Through experiencing this year of running dangerously, Tom and his entire family gained a love of running – all four of the Foremans are now running distance races. Yet, from Tom’s experience with the Stone Mill 50, his family gained valuable perspective:
Running isn’t the dominant force in our household. We like it, but primarily because it helps us enjoy our lives more than we have for some years…We all do a better job of putting aside our daily challenges and frustrations to enjoy our fleeting moments together…We laugh more, hug more, and dance more…
This is the real reason I love running like an idiot against the miles, against the calendar, and against the odds. Running puts me in touch with the moment, and reminds me how each one is rare and precious…
I run to show my daughters that life is worth more than just living. It is worth living deeply and passionately, in a way that looks forward and sees an endless road – inevitable and ideal.
As much as Mr. Foreman’s book is about running, it’s also a book about relationships. Tom is candid about his struggles to find balance between running, work, and family/friends. Ronnie understands this struggle and often gives him advice based on her own perspective and relationships. Tom’s wife, Linda, perseveres in encouraging him even when she’s sick of all the time he spends training, and Tom works to find a balance that works for his marriage. Their youngest daughter, Ali, is the the clever voice of non-running wisdom. Her witty quips remind Tom that his training is his choice, and he should enjoy it!
If you’re a distance runner, an aspiring distance runner, love someone who is a distance runner, or enjoy inspirational stories with a dose of humor, I recommend that you check out this book.
Will you be in Atlanta this weekend (October 17)? If so, make plans to see Tom Foreman at 10:30 am at the Tech Square Barnes & Noble store for a discussion of his book + book signing! Event details here.
Note: Penguin Random House provided me with a review copy of this book. I did not receive any additional compensation for this review. All opinions about this book are my own.