Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Running Away, by Robert Andrew Powell

Most runners, at some point will hear wisecracks from their non-running friends along the lines of "What are you running from?" or "I only run if something's chasing me." Haha, so funny.  In Running Away, Robert Andrew Powell's memoir of his year of running, embraces, in a way, the idea of running as a means of getting away--from poor choices in his past, from failed relationships, from a desire to live up to his father's expectations for him.  He reveals a lot about running, but mostly he reveals himself while discovering himself.

Suffering from a painful divorce and some ugly breakups, as well as a bit of aimlessness in his career, Powell looks to his father for inspiration.  Powell's father, a successful businessman, took up running as an adult and within a year had qualified for and run in the Boston Marathon.  Powell decides to attempt to emulate that accomplishment, so he gets rid of everything that won't fit in his car, packs up and drives to Boulder.  There he rents an apartment in an old chicken coop, joins a local running club, and begins his training.

I won't spoil the book for you by telling you whether he accomplishes his goals of running a marathon and qualifying for Boston.  But his running odyssey is one that many runners can relate to.  He's pretty honest about not liking to run.  He writes, "I don't like to run.  I can't pretend I do.  I don't much like pain, really." When his running partner exclaims that there's nothing he'd rather be doing than running on a cold morning, Powell "spends the rest of the run exploring everything I'd rather be doing," including staying in his warm bed, watching college football on TV, eating pizza and brownies.  "Nowhere in this vision is there a sixteen mile run in the freezing cold."

What about the runner's high?  "No, I've never experienced  transcendence during my training. . . . I have noticed how wonderful it is to stop running."  But in spite of his ambivalence toward running, it's inspiring to see the dedication he brought to his training, most of the time, anyway.  He trained hard, ate well, lost a lot of weight, and shaved minutes off his pace.  His account is a reminder that even an out-of-shape, middle-aged guy can get fit and fast if he works hard at it.

As for his non-running life, well, it's frequently entertaining, but not so inspiring.  He has a gift for capturing the spirit of a place.  His move from Miami, "lawless, a state of nature," to Boulder, "an exclusive gated community, catered by Mexicans," gives plenty of opportunity for him to comment on the contrasts between the two places.  He is quite open about his personal failures.  He lives in the shadow of his father's success.  His chicken coop is a soon to be demolished anomaly in a neighborhood of new, expensive homes.  He notes, "If I'd worked hard and hustled and taken advantage of the head-start my parents gave me, I could have lived in this neighborhood, too."  Alas, as a freelance journalist in a dry spell, he's fallen short of the ambitions his parents had for him.

His writes about his career being a bit stagnant, but his love life is downright rotten.  Although he married young,  that's no excuse for his running around on his wife.  Most every man, I'm sure, notices other women, but the way Powell talks about actively seeking them out and flirting with them, at work and even at dinner parties he attends with his wife, is appalling.  Maybe I'm naive and this is common.  Then when his flirtations lead to rendezvous, the extent to which he and his lover travel to visit one another to carry on their affair is mind-boggling to me.  At the time of this writing, he is single, and presumably has learned his lesson about the costs of infidelity.

Ultimately, Powell's year in Boulder is not primarily about his training for a marathon and the discipline with which he approached his running.  More than that, it's about getting his life back on track.  I couldn't help but be a bit envious.  Most guys who are approaching middle age and seeking to retune their lives would not be able to pull up stakes and relocate across the country to spend a year training, with no real means of income or support.  In a way, that sounds pretty great.  I can't drop everything and go run like Powell did, but I can get a good laugh out of his adventures, and draw some inspiration for my own retuning.  Running away isn't the only way to get back on track; sometimes just running is enough.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher of the complimentary electronic review copy!

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