In the middle of Jen A. Miller’s memoir, Running: A Love Story: 10 Years, 5 Marathons, and 1 Life-Changing Sport, the story starts to read like an extended submission to Boston.com’s Love Letters feature. But while a protracted description of her personal love life may discourage some readers who just want running tales, it in fact sets up Miller’s journey of self-discovery and redemption as running becomes her constant companion.
The book unfolds over nine chapters; each begins with a snippet of Miller’s experience at the 2013 New Jersey Marathon before returning to a chronological narrative. Miller begins the memoir by describing her self-esteem and body-image concerns and her parents’ divorce that would lead her to be conflict-averse, factors that would shape her future relationships. The remainder of the book is devoted to major relationships with three men: an alcoholic, a potential soulmate who abruptly dumps her for a job in another state, and someone who tries to control every aspect of her life. For Miller, running started as a component of each relationship and later became an escape.
I was first eager to pick up Running: A Love Story after reading an excerpt on The New York Times Well Blog that depicts her running to lose weight with help from an unbalanced diet of alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. This combination leads to her passing out in the middle of the run. It wasn’t the suffering that attracted me, but the shared experience of falling in love with a sport that can heal and help overcome adversity.
It’s her relatability that makes Miller’s account compelling and a perfect complement to the canon of running books written by (or about) the sport’s titans such as John L. Parker Jr.’s impeccable Once a Runner. Miller is a skilled but not elite runner; she is not Quenton Cassidy striving for the Olympics or Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar dueling in the sun. While she admittedly has the money and professional stature to lead a life a grad student can only imagine, it is refreshing to read about a runner whose dedication competes with jobs, relationships, and responsibilities. Its contemporary setting is a nice change of pace from other popular running books. Dated references to 60s musical culture or the Vietnam War are replaced with mentions of Guster, Pete Yorn, the Boston Marathon Bombings, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2008 recession.
Although Miller depicts a love affair with running, the language she uses isn’t always romantic. Miller delves into her experiences with depression and alcohol abuse and includes her irreverent and entertaining internal monologues she has while running on topics like pain, poop, puke, and sweat. Instead of poetically and confidently building the lead up to a big race, Miller pleads “please God heal” after feeling a pre-race muscle tweak—a feeling not at all unfamiliar to your average runner. In addition to the frustrations of her relationships, Miller relates the infuriating process runners face when having to restart training from ground zero after injuries and other setbacks.
That being said, I think she devotes a bit too much time to some of her human love interests and misses an opportunity to dive further into the training grind of repeats, tempo runs, and long runs. While I appreciate her frank descriptions of the protective powers of Body Glide, I wonder if she was sponsored by Clif Bar & Company since Clif Bars and Shot Bloks are mentioned repeatedly (edit: she’s not). There are also some odd interjections about topics like the minimalist running trend, sugar content of Gatorade, and therapy.
At one point Miller offers a sentiment shared by most runners: “I wish I could say that everything about my running life after that race was perfect, but running is rarely a perfect sport.” In the same way, her writing is not always perfect. Some will be turned off to what other reviews deem to be “crude” language—sometimes it’s less Love Letters and more Sex and the City.
During the portrayal of her second relationship, I put the book down to Google other reviews, particularly from female readers, to see if we were on the same page about some of Miller’s subject matter. Surprisingly, reviews I found were even more critical, admonishing her for not accepting responsibility for her failed relationships and her initial satisfaction after completing her first marathon and not having the desire to run another.
In the end, I wondered if these critics actually finished the book. Although it’s a slow burn, Miller recognizes her personal flaws and how codependence and enablement exacerbated relationship and personal problems. She also transforms as a runner and concludes with a series of paragraphs that pack an emotional punch, condensed here:
But my running is different now. I’m not running away from anything, or toward anything. I run because I like it. I’m not trying to beat my body into a specific shape, or trying to run out my problems. Running is part of my life now, like writing and dog hair on my couch or clothes…I don’t know if I would have reached this point without running, but I’d rather not know. It’s a cleanser for my mind, body, and soul…For so long, I thought that running was a Sisyphean task. With that race, on that day, when the medal of a spinning New Jersey was placed around my neck, I realized I was wrong. Through running, I am the phoenix, reborn. And I will keep turning to running, and being reborn, until I can run no more.
Finally, I have to say that perhaps my favorite aspect of the book was Miller’s mother, an ever-present source of support at almost all her races, whether waiting to hand off mid-race snacks or greeting her at the finish with a hug. Like her final opinion on running, Miller’s explicit appreciation of her mother comes late in the book. But with an ironic proximity to Mother’s Day, it’s a reminder that runners don’t always need a mythical Bruce Denton coaching their lives and that a free printed training schedule and the consistent encouragement from a friend or family member can be just as effective.
Matt Moore is a second-year AFE student for whom training for the Chicago Marathon is one reason to get up in the morning. You can contact him on Twitter @boxman37 and catch him on the airwaves along with Katherine Pett every Saturday morning at 8 a.m. on WMFO.