Summer Reading 2016: Running — A Love-Hate Story

Confronting and conquering fears and self-doubts both about running and about life

While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry — with a New Jersey connection.

In “Running: A Love Story,” Jen Miller writes a memoir that will resonate for many, illuminating the appeal of a sport that has seen explosive growth in recent years. It’s an honest tale of how her relationship with running changes as she navigates life: relationships, career, and struggles with health and body image. The following excerpt from early in the book describes the beginning of the New Jersey Marathon, a race she describes in detail throughout the course of the book.

New Jersey Marathon — Mile 0

After the half marathoners started their race, I sat on the bench of a picnic table and listened to a mix of twelve songs that were played on every radio station at that moment but hadn’t grown stale to me yet.

I ate half a granola bar. I checked Twitter. There were no lines for the Porta-Potty, and I hit them once, then twice. I pulled off my sweats and stuffed them into the clear plastic bag I would check, ate the other half of the granola bar, and sat back down on the bench.

Police with German shepherds patrolled the start area, and a helicopter buzzed overhead. This race was less than three weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. I’d been searched before I entered Monmouth Park, and the finish line was already cordoned off. There would be no wall of screaming fans there to pull me through to the end. Mom planned to hand me a Clif Bar at mile 19.5, then drive to the finish line so she could stand as close to it as she could, despite me begging her to stand anywhere but there. It’s not that I thought anything would happen—this race was too small a target, especially when a 32,000-plus-person race was running through Philadelphia in the Broad Street Run on the same day. But my heart was still raw
after the bombings, not just because of heavy sorrow, but because the targets of that attack were people like my mom. I couldn’t lose Mom. I didn’t want to take a chance even if it was a slim one. But she ignored me.

I closed my eyes again and turned up the volume of my iPhone so Icona Pop blasted in my ears. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve never been big into warm-ups. I didn’t get the point when I was about to expel so much energy in a race. Shouldn’t I be saving it? I maintained this despite what every running coach and every running expert has ever told me since I started running in 2006, and then writing about running for “Runner’s World” and “The New York Times” in 2010. I wasn’t going to change anything on race day, especially this one, when I was about to attempt conquering a distance that had vexed me three times before—once through injury and twice through terrible performances.

I peed one more time, stuffed my phone deep into my bag, slid a sleeve of Clif Shot Bloks—the package already torn slightly open—into my pocket, then hustled over to the gear-check trucks, because I knew they’d pack up when the national anthem started to play. Today the anthem was followed by “Sweet Caroline,” in honor of Boston (it’s the Red Sox’s song). Around me, runners were dressed in neon or shades of blue and yellow, some wearing shirts that read Boston: United We Run , which had been sold at the expo. I tried not to cry. In the last seven months, Superstorm Sandy had destroyed my favorite place in the world, and my favorite sport had been subjected to terror. And that wasn’t even getting into the mess I’d made of my personal life in January.

I was in the last of four corrals. Each corral received the same treatment: A bugle played out “Call to Post,” a cheeky reference to the race starting at a horse track, followed by a recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” played at the exact moment the front of the corral crossed the starting line timing mat. I’d heard the same song at the start of the Chicago Marathon.

That’s when tears pricked my eyes. Not just because of that song in that moment at that time—we were about to run through towns that had been picked up and chucked aside by Superstorm Sandy, and Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” about Asbury Park, which we’d run through twice, but on the street parallel to the ocean instead of the boardwalk because the boards were floating somewhere in the
Atlantic. No, tears pricked my eyes because I knew what lay ahead.

This wasn’t my first race or even my first marathon. I wasn’t going in blind. I knew what was coming: Pain. Anguish. A vise squeezed onto my legs, lungs, hips, and everything else in between. The always hovering threat that I’d poop my pants. And the finish line, where I’d either revel in the glory of crushing my goal time or not. And after eighteen weeks of beating my body into shape for this moment on this day, what if I failed? What if, with all the bad decisions I’d made and how terribly my life had gone in the last seven months, I still couldn’t get this one thing right? “D CORRAL!” an announcer called. We shuffled forward, a swaying mass of nerves and energy with a slight sheen of terror.

“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream …”

And we were off.