Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Stephen King's novel featuring a world-class runner

No, this isn't me trying to channel my favorite all-time author and come up with a bunch of crap I think he'd produce in the unlikely event he turned his talents to the realm of distance running. This is a review of an actual book, titled Elevation, which was published at the end of October and which I ordered yesterday on Kindle and read in its entirety last night. (The print version is only 146 pages, making it more a novella than a novel.)

Stephen King has officially been a novelist for 44 years (Carrie, his first, was published in 1974) and a writer of short fiction for over half a century. Still, it was far from inevitable that he would eventually write a story that includes a primary character who not only runs marathons, but is an Olympic marathoner who takes part in a Turkey Trot in Maine that serves as one of the story's major turning points.

I'll try to get through this without too many spoilers, but some of these are inevitable.

The story unfolds from the point of view of Scott Carey, a web designer who works from home in the town of Castle Rock, a fictional burg that, like Derry, has figured in numerous King works. At the outset, Carey has experienced a recent and wholly inexplicable weight loss, dropping from a recent high of 240 pounds on his 6' 4" frame to under 200 in a little over a month. He eats more than ever but the pounds just melt off him. This has a strong flavor of Thinner here, but with significant catches. For one thing, he looks just the same as he did at his peak weight, paunch and all. For another, his weight is exactly the same whether he's naked or encumbered by clothing, heavy boots and even a few rolls of quarters. On top of that, despite little exercise, Carey has begun to experience every symptom of being in better shape, and feels something akin to a manic level of energy at times. He decides to enter the annual Castle Rick Turkey Trot, although his motive for this is sociological rather than athletic. (I won't go into the entire plot, but it centers on Trumpism and practiced opposition to same-sex couples.) Carey wants to challenge Dierdre McComb, a member of perhaps the only out-in-the-open lesbian marriage in Castle Rock -- but not to stick it to the heathen; instead, he's on her side and wants to use the competition as a means of getting into her good graces, as the Boston-area transplant and upstart restaurateur McComb is weary of the flames from longtime locals and trusts no one.

Anyway, I have to pick apart the details King contrives about the runners and and the race in which they take part.
  • McComb placed fourth at the 2011 New York City Marathon and qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon but was unable to take part because of a broken ankle. She elected not to try for the team in 2016, and is now a serious but scaled-down version of her former competitive self. So far, so good.
  • The Castle Rock Turkey Trot is a 12K. That is an unlikely distance for a small-town Thanksgiving race, though not one that strains credulity. 
  • The race takes part on the day after Thanksgiving. While some T-Day runs occur on days other than Thanksgiving itself, almost all of these rogues are held on the weekend before or (less commonly) the weekend after. I don't think I've ever heard of one that is staged on Black Friday.
  • The entry fee is $7 for out-of-town adults, $5 for town residents and $2 for young children. A lovely but highly unlikely scenario, this. 
  • The race has 800 entrants, and King says that at the start, the entrants were lined up on the road for close to a quarter of a mile behind the line. That would have to be one narrow road. A two-lane road could probably accommodate rows of 20 people, and 40 such rows would consume maybe a meter per runner. That would fit the field into a stretch of pavement only a tenth as long as King's vision.
  • The way the race plays out is hilariously off. When people get tired, even near the front, most of they don't just low down; they quit and lay gasping on the side of the road. And for the first mile or so, this former world-class runner who has designs on winning this 12K to stick it to the redneck townies is behind one or two dozen people, apparently because she is pacing herself. In a non-prize-money Turkey Trot with 800 people in northern Maine, that caliber of athlete would be at or near the front the entire way even if taking it mostly easy. She is portrayed as someone who still runs every day.
The story is an uplifting one; it's kind of a cross between a righteous but kind man absorbing the costs of others' evils and exaltation from a deed well done, which I suppose are related themes. And the goofs King makes aren't crippling, but funny. They stand out only because he is such a capable storyteller overall and probably wasn't worried about the ~1 percent of his readers who might notice divergences from the reality of the competitive running world to fact-check his ideas.

It's a great read for $9.99 on Kindle.

Against a background of ever-shifting recreational priorities and levels of distaste for my own lack of overall ambition, I've figured out a running scheme that seems to work for me.

In deciding just how much and how hard I need to run to add value to my life, I have to consider the following factors: Competitive goals, general health, vanity, and sanity.

If I were training to race, I would have to be putting in at least 8 to 10 miles a day to make the kicks to the face I would still take in races worth it, even if these races were all free of charge and close to home. But I think that I have put my relapses in the past two years behind me and have fully accepted being a jogger again. Winning the masters division in low-level races as I did a handful of times this year is akin to having the sharpest memory in a home for Alzheimer's patients, or being the most well-groomed hobo. It's so goddamn stupid it borders on the pathetic.

I only mention "overall health" because this seems to be a reason other people exercise. We live in a society where people do a lot of things in the interest of often distant or hard-to-quantify aims, like saving enough for retirement and living to see my grandkids grow up. These are noble enough but are actually well outside anyone's control in most cases. I don't think running does anything to ward off serious diseases or prolong life, as is popularly held. If I thought running was likely to make me live longer I might actually do less of it. As for better health metrics (e.g., lower blood pressure), these are useful only in that I feel better on a moment-to-moment basis when they numbers are favorable.

The mot popular reason everyday people in the U.S. exercise is to look better. At one time I was a useful enough runner to be in the lead pack of small, meaningless races and have a real shot at the Olympic Trials Marathon, so in those days I was arguably something of an athlete. This has not been the case for a long time, so perhaps I am not among the ranks of those who merely hopes to reap aesthetic benefits from working out, e.g., avoiding weight gain. In my case, I tend to not gain any weight when I don't exercise, and according to some of the shit that other people release from their faces, I would probably look better, not worse, if I did. And I no longer harbor occasional morbid concerns about weight anyway. Regardless, I am old and decidedly not on the market, so the idea of trying to keep myself from visibly going to shit via exercise doesn't exactly have its claws in me. (I was never an Adonis, but some mornings I look in the mirror and think to myself, "When the fuck did that happen?") While I liked my training sessions with Colleen at the local gym in September and October, I cancelled my membership -- which was as much of a pain in the ass as these places always ensure that it is -- and have returned to doing nothing at all besides sitting or lying when I am not actually moving.

That leaves mental health as my sole reason for physical exercise. It is an absolutely vital one, but luckily, a little goes a long way in this area. I've kept my streak or running days since returning from New Hampshire on Halloween intact, but have averaged only about 25 to 30 minutes a day since then, occasionally getting above 40. I have stopped using my GPS watch for the most part because I have moved from simply not being curious about the data to actively resisting knowing anything about it. But those 25 to 30 minutes with Rosie are exceptionally valuable and usually fun. Rosie clearly loves it. I think that if I were to up this to 60 minutes a day, I would add a little more value to my life, but at that point that marginal costs would clearly exceed marginal revenues. So, for now, a half-hour it is.

None of this would be remotely contentious if I had done the wise thing years ago and not made running a major part of my professional life as well as a high-end hobby. I love my mom and she has almost always steered me right in life, in terms of my overall outlook on the world and my personal aims and issues. But I sometimes wish she had never suggested I join the cross-country team in 1984, because that wound up leading me to waste countless hours on this shit -- writing bad articles for magazines and websites, contributing to pointless books, running my mouth online as if I know what I'm talking about or even really give a shit. And actually, I do give a shit about other people's running because despite my present ennui I remember what it was like to care that much. But my situation was always different. I did my best running while working full time, but I spent a lot of time underemployed and justifying this on the basis of stupid-ass running goals. The people I advise have their overall lives together and are not vagabonds who have poured everything into running because they decided to become drunks rather than finish medical school or otherwise take the coward's way out of life.

No doubt this looks much like the whiny pile of regrets of every middle-age type who believed he fucked up his life (which I did, though not through running) and won't get his younger years back for a do-over. I plead guilty. I have almost nothing to complain about now in terms of my vocational and personal life considering all of the hell I put myself and others through for a long time, and I have some fantastic friends who tolerate my foibles and polemics. Yet here I am, regularly unfurling screeds that will soon be indistinguishable from each other.

When I sobered up a little more than two years ago, if you had told me at that point that I would still be booze-free at the end of 2018 with X amount of money in the bank thanks to legitimate work-from-home endeavors, I would have forcefully declared that I would have put aside money-amassing work for a while and would be working on a novel for hours a day until it was done. Instead, as things stand, I have in excess of X saved, but my writing is limited to my work life and this pointless dreck and I default to watching Netflix and pissing away my life on social media. Unfortunately I am content with this even as I hate myself for it. It's a weird, mostly detached kind of loathing, more objective than really troubling, like hating the taste of a certain kind of food or music. I offend myself in a sensory way, maybe. Also, the past two years have revealed just how useless, avaricious and nasty most people in charge of the U.S. are, and I often hope it all ends in a massive nuclear holocaust, since that's as close to Hell as reality offers and humanity as a whole deserves it. And before you go accusing me of sadism, most of us wouldn't feel a goddamn thing, and it's not like we'd all he hanging out in some metaphysical purgatory regretting how bad we fucked it all up. We would merely be clearing the way for...well, come to think of it, not a whole lot of nice things I can come up with on short notice here.

And no, this isn't the holiday blues talking. I despise Christmastime for the most part, but I am just as cynical the rest of the year, as anyone who pays a modicum of attention to this garbage knows.

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