How did you come up with the idea of using the JFK 50-mile race as the backbone for ruminating on modern civilization, memories, purpose and endurance?
For endurance runners, the annual JFK 50-Mile is an iconic race. It was originally inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s call for Americans to become more physically fit in a dangerous age, and the first running took place just three months before Kennedy was assassinated.
The JFK is the oldest and largest ultramarathon (out of about 550 ultras each year) in the country. I got the thrill of my life by winning it in 1977, so it has a special place in my heart. The course this race follows also evokes vivid memories of our country’s history, as it passes the Civil War battle sites of South Mountain, Maryland Heights and Antietam and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
It was the perfect venue for exploring both our turbulent past and our now incredibly challenging future.
Who was your primary audience? Runners?
In order to properly market a book, publishers and bookstore managers like to identify the genre or “niche” it belongs to. I wanted to write for everyone who is alive and values life! Of course, I had to be practical, so my solution was to build my story around a rather dramatic competition I had entered in 2001, just nine weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
That was the year I turned 60, and I was feeling not only the huge anxieties many Americans were feeling that fall, but the sense that I had entered the autumn of my own life. So, while the primary audience is runners, many of the people who have responded strongly to this story are nonrunners — people who’ve been caught up in the environmental drama and the growing global threats that now affect us all, as well as the prospect of personal decline we all face as we grow older.
You’ve got a lot of experience as a runner and a writer who writes about running. What fresh perspective opened up for you as you wrote this book?
I began to understand that running isn’t just a special interest of a small segment of the population, like playing the violin or collecting rare coins. Running is a fairly universal capability of healthy and fit people, or at least it was until civilization made us increasingly sedentary. It’s a basic element of many, if not most, major sports. And it’s basic to children’s play.
For many years, I had written about running as a competitive sport, but as I worked on this book I began to think of it more broadly as a practice of fundamental human capabilities — endurance, patience, the ability to envision the results of hard work and practice — that apply not just to sport but to almost everything we do.
What is your favorite part of the book? Are there any passages that you thought worked particularly well?
I particularly like the opening chapter, about the start of the race (“Boonsboro: Dawn”); and then chapter 7 (“Antietam Aqueduct”), about the conundrums of sport, war and redemption; and chapter 11 (“Taylor’s Landing”) about how consciousness can turn arduous hours into memorable moments.
What was your writing routine for “The Longest Race”?
As a retiree, I no longer had to commute to work in D.C. Of course I had to reserve time for my family and household (and for my running) but beyond those needs I worked on the book dawn to dusk, virtually every day for about three years. I’ve never had writer’s block, so my challenge was to channel the rush of memories and epiphanies into a manageable story.
Long-form writing isn’t always easy. What was easy for you about writing this book? What was hard?
The easy part was gathering the material — from old issues of Running Times and World Watch magazines, archives of newspapers, and my own mementos and memories. The hard part was wrestling all that material into a readable and well-documented story.
When my literary agent first considered the manuscript for publication, it was fraught with digressions and ruminations. But she directed me to a publisher who asked me if I’d be willing to restructure the narrative to hew more tightly to the JFK race. I did, and to my amazement, instead of marginalizing the deeper themes, that rewrite actually strengthened those themes. It brought into clearer focus the natural connections between the challenges of an endurance foot race and the striving of the human race.
Did you learn anything about yourself while writing this book?
Oh, yes. I learned that even after having made my living as a writer for 45 years, I still had a lot to learn in my late 60s. I also came to understand that what was happening to my knowledge of writing was also happening in every other area of my life: my relationships with family and friends, my grasp of science and history, and my hopes for the future.
Somewhere in the book I make the wry comment that when you stop learning, you’re dead. And, most importantly, I realized — not with regret, but with some surprise and fascination — that the more I learn, the smaller a fragment my knowledge appears to be of what’s out there to be known.
One of the rewards of growing older (or slower) is a growing humility.