JULY 22, 2014
SPORTS, psychologists have long understood, are like languages. If exposed as children we acquire native fluency, and the laborious, complex movements required for swimming or ice-skating or horseback riding become rote, as unconscious as speech, and require a minimal amount of attention. Learning a sport as an adult, on the other hand, is far more difficult; it requires a massive recalibration of both body and mind, as well as a great deal of instruction: books and videos, paid coaches and camps, and, of course, years of practice. Time and money can narrow the gap between the former and the latter, but rarely does an adult move with the same innate adroitness as someone who learned when she was young.
Occasionally, however, an athlete discovers his hidden talent only after he’s reached adulthood, as though the sport had lain dormant inside his muscles for decades. Such was the case with Robert Andrew Powell’s father, Tom, who didn’t start running until he was nearly 40. Within a single year, he’d qualified for and completed the Boston Marathon in under three hours — ridiculously fast for a novice runner, even by today’s standards, and in 1977, fast enough to warrant a six-page feature in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Tom’s heroic feat both commences Powell’s engaging, often hilarious memoir, Running Away (New Harvest / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and looms over the entire book. The father is an imposing, eclipsing figure in the author’s psyche, a model of mid-century American industry: thoroughly Midwestern and devoutly Catholic, an army veteran who put himself through school, married young, fathered four children, and bootstrapped his way to the top of the upper-middle class — all before fashioning himself into a marathon runner. He’s the kind of father that sons look up to as children and hope to become as men.
But Robert has failed to measure up. At 39 — the same age his father was when he started running — he’s divorced, childless, and broke, renting month to month in a seedy hotel in Miami’s Little Havana, where “homeless men sleep in the shade under Interstate 95 [and] [h]uman excrement darkens the sidewalks.” Spurred by the memory of his father’s “superhuman” achievement, a few pithy quotations about hard work and perseverance taped to his bedroom wall, and a single New York Times article declaring Boulder, Colorado, the running capital of the world, Robert gives away his furniture, cashes in his 401(k), and heads west, ostensibly to train for the Boston Marathon, the very race in which his father triumphed 30 years earlier.
Installed in Boulder, Robert joins the local running club, and immediately finds himself immersed in the city’s quixotic running culture. Among the gaunt and wiry “native” runners, Robert’s body appears as “hulking as a bricklayer’s,” and nearly every runner he encounters greets his quest with skepticism and incredulity. When he meets up with a former high school friend, he learns that 16th place in the Boston Marathon qualifies a runner as “okay” in Boulder, given the number of world-class marathoners who live and train in the city. Boulder is moreover home to a number of distance running heroes, including several former world-record holders and, most importantly, to Frank Shorter, who won gold at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, a silver in 1976, and who ignited “a running boom” that emboldened a generation of erstwhile couch potatoes — including Robert’s father, Tom — to take up the sport.
Frank Shorter is a substitute father figure for Robert, the symbol of greatness by which subsequent generations are measured. He serves as both a mirror and model for the author. As Powell pursues Shorter, angling first to meet him at a speaking event and then for an interview at his home in the Boulder foothills, the champion appears increasingly eccentric and to be leading a life eerily similar to Powell’s. Twice divorced, estranged from his father, isolated from his friends in his expansive hilltop compound, Shorter has spent the last decades myopically focused on exposing the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports and lobbying for former East German runner Waldemar Cierpinski, who beat him in Montreal, to be stripped of his gold medal for drug use (which would retroactively award Shorter the gold). Shorter’s broken-record crusading against steroids, along with his own lost gold medal, transforms the seemingly untouchable Olympian into something of a cautionary figure. The once-beloved hero, the father of the sport, has become Balkanized by a singular, untempered obsession. It’s therefore a relief when Robert finds himself coming around at the end of the book, no longer as fixated on Boston or as entranced by Boulder’s Subaru-infested neoliberalism, and instead yearning to return to the life he left behind in Miami, to recommence his journalism career and his love life. Though the future of both — work and love — remain vague as the story draws to a close, Robert himself no longer seems so directionless.
Stories of journalists besting their midlife demons by embarking on athletic conquests are abundant. For swimming there’s W. Hodding Carter’s Off the Deep End, for cycling there’s Mike Magnuson’s Heft on Wheels, for semiprofessional football there’s Bob Cowser’s Dream Season, and, for almost everything else, there’s A.J. Jacobs. The trajectories of such tales follow generally similar arcs: the demons are exorcised, the gods are humanized, and if the writer as pilgrim learns the hard way that a zany idea isn’t enough to reach the pantheon, he nevertheless discovers that discipline and sacrifice reap their own rewards. Powell’s conquest is distinguished by his examination of the socioeconomic status endemic to running (in addition to the physical demands of marathon training) — specifically the Masters-level running favored by affluent white professionals. Perhaps most admirably, he doesn’t deny his own stake — and thus, his complicity — in the contradictions of the subculture. Running is Robert’s deliberate attempt to instill in himself Franklinian, upper-middle-class character: good sleep, good food, moderate alcohol and internet consumption, and fiscal prudence — even though devoting a year to marathon training makes fiscal prudence all but impossible. His compulsion to run is entwined with his upbringing in a prosperous Midwestern suburb and his father’s professional, athletic, and familial successes; it is through running that Robert hopes to reboot his career and accomplish, at long last, something worthy of his father’s respect. “Live like a clock,” Robert’s coach tells him at their first meeting. “That’s the best advice I can give you. […] There’s something to be said for a routine life.”
Robert internalizes his coach’s prescription to adopt the routinized habits of a marathoner, but he also ironically, at times wryly, notes how much disposable time and income running seems to require. For an activity as ancient and fundamental to human survival, running seems to require a great deal of expensive equipment, including a Subaru, Volvo, or Audi station wagon. He also notices Boulder’s conspicuous absence of poor people, except at the McDonald’s, where no real runner would deign to eat anyway, and he explicitly links Boulder’s running fanaticism with the city’s larger preoccupations with health and wellness. The economy is virtually recession proof; the local high school sells Vitamin Water and Rice Dream vanilla pies instead of soda and candy; young children sell origami instead of lemonade. In one of the funniest episodes, Robert accompanies his neighbor, a massage therapist who’s never seen a football game, to a “contemplative movement” class at Naropa University’s Paramita campus (housed, importantly, in a corporate office park near a bank), where he’s encouraged to “shed [his] linear thinking” while the other men and women in the room grunt and writhe and gesticulate orgasmically. There’s a smugness to Boulder’s liberalism, Powell observes, that’s downright conservative, and running seems to fit hand in glove (or more appropriately, sock in shoe) with the exclusionary ethos. His Boulder address elicits fawning gasps at the races he enters, as though his residence confirms his status as a “real runner.” Real runners, he learns, are distinguished from “T-shirt runners” by their racing singlets and neon flats and their eschewal of iPods. It’s not just the mountain air and abundant sunshine that make Boulder the running capital of the world.
Powell’s insights about the socioeconomics of running remain by and large anecdotal, woven into his narrative but never receiving the full attention for which they beg. He notes the financial sacrifices he makes to train — the retirement account he’s cashed in and the consumer debt he’s accruing — and he’s painfully aware that several of his running club teammates have amassed enough wealth to retire young, but he never directly addresses running’s place in less advantaged demographics, how distance running fares in communities that can’t afford fancy cars and private coaches. Powell might have employed his skills as a journalist — skills more on display in his previous two books, This Love Is Not for Cowards and We Own This Game, both of which explore the relationships between sports, race, and money — to more thoroughly critique the discrepancies and elisions undergirding running subculture. Likewise, Powell spends a great deal of time agonizing over his lost loves, guiltily ruing his divorce and the two failed relationships that followed; however, all three women remain less than fully formed, more like phantasmal regrets than real people he loved and lost.
Such shortcomings are ultimately small. Running Away is not a journalistic investigation or a training guide or a tell-all indictment of the people who wronged him once upon a time, but rather a memoir, a highly personal story of one man’s conquest of an elusive goal: to overcome bitterness, to make peace with his failures, to measure up to his ghosts. Accordingly, the book climaxes not with a victorious win, the tape broken against his belly as he lifts his arms in the air, but rather with his father waiting at the finish line of Robert’s first marathon, taking his adult son in his arms and whispering the four words all boys long to hear: “I’m proud of you.”