My first introduction to writer Jen A. Miller was in October 2015, when the New York Times published “Crossing the Finish Line 25 Pounds Lighter” on its Well blog. In spite of steady marathon training, her weight had crept up over the years. She topped out around 160 lbs. when, instead of signing up for another marathon, she decided to sign up for the Fifth Avenue Mile with a goal of finishing under 7 minutes. She worked hard all summer following a wholly different kind of training plan that included 400 m sprint repeats, stair climbing at a stadium, and lots of weight lifting and leg presses, etc. She also cut back on, but did not eliminate entirely, alcohol and carbs. It worked. She lost more weight than she expected to and demolished her goal by 28 seconds. 28 seconds!!
Six months postpartum at the time, I was exactly 25 lbs heavier than I wanted to be, and on the verge of getting serious about getting back into shape. Miller’s no-nonsense, unemotional “yes, I want to lose weight because it’s time to lose weight” attitude appealed to me. No apologies, no excuses. No over-thinking required.
As I began my own physical transformation I kept tabs for Miller in the Times and looked forward to eventually reading her memoir “Running: A Love Story.”
Finally, I thought: A running memoir by a smart young female writer that delves into some of the running life topics that aren’t covered in marathon training, diet books, and biographies by professional athletes. Mainly, the self-loathing and destructiveness that can sometimes lead a young woman to seek out running as a socially acceptable form of self-torture. Many young women will freely tell you, boast even, that they run because it relieves stress, it helps to clear the head, and they love the rush of endorphin. Sure. But what she won’t tell you is that she may also be running off the calories she consumed partying the night before, the cellulite she perceives in the mirror, or the memory of the one time a cute guy pinched a roll on her waist… and winced.
It only gets worse after leaving the relative comfort and security of the college years. As Miller puts it, “I felt like I was swimming in an adult world without having grown up… Maybe if I lost weight, I could overcome the gaps in my knowledge of being a woman.” And of her first serious post-college relationship, “Running needed to be a part of my life then so I could show Steve what I was willing to do for him. I didn’t enjoy the miles like I used to.”
When that toxic relationship ends, her relationship with running changes too. Miller, who like myself is a lapsed Catholic, notes that her “long runs were the closest she came to going back” to Church. She says she is sick of herself and her own whining. She’s mad. A lot. This is a woman who flirted with different forms of eating disorders at various points. I think Miller would admit that her relationship with running was not that healthy:
“I wanted to run the same thing over and over again until my feet bled.”
“I wanted to punch running in the face.”
“Over those eighteen weeks, I became a machine. I pushed everything else aside and focused on two things: work and running.”
The book culminates in her completion of the 2013 New Jersey Marathon. She reflects on the turbulent period of her life that led her to that finish line and says, “Running is a part of my life now… it is an important part of that life…. I’m not trying to break any personal records. I just want to be out there, and be.” But, of course, she does go on to break a major personal record and write about it in detail in 2015, the Fifth Avenue Mile, a truly a remarkable accomplishment!
“I live a small life now in a small town with a small house and small dog, and I am content. I don’t know if I could have reached this point in my life without running but I’d rather not know.” This is an unusual and unsettling comment from a beautiful and intelligent published author in her mid-thirties. The world should be her oyster, right? Evidently she does not (or didn’t) think so.
Interesting that she chooses the word “small” to describe the features of her “content” life. Not quiet, peaceful, or comfortable. Small. Aside from the obvious weight and body image associations of the word “small,” the passage also made me recall a comment a therapist once said to me, years ago. She said that I kept my circle of intimates “small,” and contented myself with “small” goals, as possibly a consequence of feeling depressed and anxious. It enabled me to navigate life’s challenges without feeling overwhelmed in my vulnerable state. I didn’t particularly like myself very much at the time.
Anyway, I think she probably does have a better idea of the role running has played in reaching this point in her life. I think she may also know she has more work to do to process some stuff and learn to love herself. I’m skeptical about her claim of contentment with small. Jen A. Miller could achieve big, even great things if only she believed it!
So I would say read the book if you, too, have a complex and fraught history with running. Read it if you’re female, read it if you know a young female runner. Read it if you’re looking for someone other than yourself that’s made running her church and her form of meditation. It’s a well-written book by a great writer. But it’s no stroll in (Asbury) park.
Any great runner reads to recommend?
Have you read Miller’s book or her other writing in The New York Times or Runner’s World? How about her piece of called “Running as Therapy” ?
Have you encountered the dark side of running as a woman?