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I have run nearly every day since I was a teenager. Was I 15 or 16 when it started? I’m not sure. I don’t really remember who I was before I became a runner.
Running is how I understand myself and my approach to life — as a marathoner (23 and counting) and as a writer, which are sort of the same thing.
I’m the deputy sports editor at The Times, which means I mostly help guide our coverage and work closely with reporters, trying to instill a concept nearly every runner embraces: that we can be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. While I manage plenty of articles about traditional stick-and-ball sports, I am particularly drawn to ones about international and endurance sports, including running. I occasionally assign those to myself, especially articles about runners who aren’t very famous, though in running success and fame and egomania don’t correlate the way they do in other sports, which may be why I like covering it.
Running serves so many purposes for me. It’s a way to stay fit, yes, and a way to wage the unwinnable battle against aging. If I can keep lowering my personal record in the marathon, which I got down to 3:15.58 in 2017, then I’m not getting older, right? If each year I can qualify for the Boston Marathon, then maybe I have cheated death just a little bit more.
I play that existential game with numbers, tracking my splits on my GPS watch. But more often than not, as I run my mind drifts to my other obsession: writing. I often joke that I do my best writing when I am running, only I’m not kidding.
On a typical day, I am up around 6 or so, and I will spend an hour or 90 minutes writing and thinking before heading over to Central Park for my usual jaunt of seven and a half to 10 miles, depending on how I feel. Only occasionally am I joined by a comrade or two, even though running is now an immensely social activity. I am most often alone, sorting through my thoughts, trying to find the words that flow so much more easily when I am in motion than when I am staring at a screen. There is a mystical quality to running that brings your mind to places it otherwise would not go.
For more than a year, I struggled with how to tell the story of my new book, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed.” The answers — the voice, the tense, the structure, the actual meaning of the narrative of Bob Larsen, the largely unknown American distance running coach, and the hippie runners he turned into national champions in the 1970s — came to me on a series of morning runs during a Christmas week vacation to Rome in 2016. While my wife and children were sleeping, I ran along the Tiber to the 1960 Olympic Stadium. There, I circled the track in the footsteps of the barefoot Ethiopian champion Abebe Bikila, and the story flowed.
On my usual run in Central Park last month, I formulated the rough draft of an article about Sarah Sellers, an elite marathoner who somehow manages to train while also working nearly full time as a nurse anesthetist. She believes this work/work/life balance makes her faster. So do I.
My family understands why I often return from a run and then grab the closest pen and paper to scribble notes before the small revelations drift away. Reporters who write for me have grown accustomed to hearing me say, “I thought of something about your story while I was running this morning.”
The runners among them understand. Runners’ minds work in similar ways, even if their legs don’t. I have never met a marathoner who didn’t want to run faster, if only to end the pain sooner. We all relish those moments when people accuse us of being a little crazy when they find out we go on 20-mile training runs before work.
Yes, we are. And we love to find commonality in the pursuit of that edge of sanity, whether or not we are fast. I played college tennis but would never think of discussing with Roger Federer my problems returning a serve. His issues with Rafael Nadal aren’t in the same universe as the ones I experienced against studs from Colgate and Hamilton.
And yet, long-distance champions, including Meb Keflezighi, Des Linden, Abdi Abdirahman and Deena Kastor, have all happily indulged me in long discussions about their training and mine, about my marathons and theirs.
“We all experience the same pain, we just experience it at different times,” Abdirahman told me over coffee last fall, while we were both training for the New York City Marathon.
I think about that sometimes while I am running. And now I have written about it, too.
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