Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Breathing Space: S-l-o-w Running Songs

Normally, I power up my runs by listening to songs from my bounce-n-go playlist, but now that my training runs are starting to grow longer, I'm seriously starting to question the wisdom of my decision to go all bubblegum beat all the time. In fact, for every additional mile added to my long, Friday run, I become more certain that any playlist worth its bites should offer the runner pockets of peace, a quick break, a bit of breathing space.

And while an audiophile friend of mine once told me that including sleepy music on a running playlist made about as much sense as popping quaaludes before going to the gym, I say any song with a clear beat
can be turned into a potentially powerful running ally. Particularly if you love the song. Particularly if it gives you a lift.

Here are the top ten breathing space songs on my list with a disclaimer: my playlist may be too hard wired to my tics to be much use to you on your run, but hopefully you'll like the music and think about a tune or two that moves you in every way a runner can move. And if you've never considered using breathing spaces in your playlist, maybe you'll start today. Note: Click on the purple to go hear the songs.

1. All My Days by Alexi Murdoch
Alexi Murdoch is the heir apparent to Nick Drake (if you don't know either of these names, stop reading and listen to 'All My Days' before you go any further. Now that you're back, scroll down this post to listen to "Time Has Told Me." There, now don't you feel like your day is so much better than those combined nine minutes and twenty-four seconds have any right to make it?) Call me a sucker who falls for handsome men holding guitars, but I can't help it. Breathy and wounded tenors make me feeland here's the technical term for itall floaty. And in the middle of a long run when you'll take a lift anyway it comes, floaty works.

2. The Beauty of the Rain by Dar Williams—When you get right down to it, the message of this song is pretty much, stop being a jerk, you jerk. But Dar (can I call her Dar?) says it with a melody that hallows the message and a chorus about falling rain that's so lovely I end up feeling like the jerk for trying to boil the song down at all. Another floater of a song.

3. Just Breathe by Pearl Jam—Grief can make you forgot to be thankful you ever loved hard enough to make losing hurt so much. The lilt of the guitar and the opening verse of "Just Breathe" remind me to be grateful that I've known so many fierce attachments in this life:
"Yes, I understand that every life must end, aw-huh.
As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, aw huh.
Oh I'm a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love
Some folks just have one, yeah, others they've got none, oh, oh
Stay with me.
Let's just breathe."

4. Mercy of the Fallen by Dar WilliamsThis song came to me at a time in my life when I had the anti-Midas toucheverything my fingers tapped turned to shit; every choice I made was a mistake. The lyrics invoke us to follow our north stars, promise the mercy of the fallen, and swear weall of ushave guiding stars inside us. In this cynical age, a buoying song like this isn't for everyone, but it definitely played like it was written for me, and it buoys me still.

5. P. S. You Rock My World by the Eels—My husband put this song on a mix CD he made for me when we were dating. The song wound up on our must-play list at our wedding, but by the time it came up in the rotation, we happened to be ministering to wedding guests at different tables. We didn't stop and go dancethat would have been rude!but we caught each other's eyes and smiled. Or I should say I smiled because Mike's more of a smirker. But I knew what he meant. How can you I run anything but strong with the kind of man in my corner who reminds me how "a happy man takes a walk"?

6. Strangers in a Car by Marc Cohn—I can't quite put my finger on what it is about this song that draws me in, but there's a longing in the rising piano and the story of a girl taking the kind of risks I was never brave enough to take myself. And yet for all the song's longing, the way it swells in me feels like a reminder to be bold. That and a reminder of how lucky I am to have never been shot in the head. Unlike the singer of this song.

7. Summer Highland Falls by Billy Joel—I'll admit these aren't the most uplifting lyrics in the world. But the piano sure wants to be hopeful. And though I could create an involved explanation about why I find a song that ends with the narrator standing on the ledge of his life uplifting, the real reason I love listening to this song while I run is because the piano's so beautiful, that the only lyric I ever seem to catch is the word "euphoria." So in my warped brain, then, this melancholy little song's about runner's high. Did I give the disclaimers about all interpretations being the product of my overactive imagination? No? Then consider yourself so disclaimed.

8. Time Has Told Me by Nick Drake—Being part of a couple that has a "song" always seemed a little giggling school girl for me, but when the perfect song found Mike and menot a good song, not a great song, but the absolutely perfect song for uswe didn't fight it. When "Time Has Told Me" clicks on during a run, it can actually feel like Mike is taking over for my feet for a spell. You don't axe a song like that from your playlistI don't care how slow it is.

9. Unwanted Guest by Alastair Moock—This song's an anthem for everyone who's battled depressionsometimes again and againand come out the other end, safely. The bounce of the guitar carries me in a way that makes me remember driving on country back roads as a teen, all the windows down, the cassette deck blaring "I Am a Rock." Except that "Unwanted Guest" is more musical, more lyrical, and more hopeful than "I Am a Rock" ever was. The contest wasn't even close.

10. The Weary Kind by Ryan Bingham
—Because even though we've all known plenty of those weary kind days, somehow a crackling alt-country voice singing about it can make them feel that much less weary. Even going uphill.

Catherine Elcik is running her first marathon to raise money for a scholarship fund for Grub Street, Inc, and independent writing center in Boston, MA. Sponsor the run at


  1. cool! The Nick Drake is indeed beautiful, but way too mellow for my running. I need something with kind of belting vocals. The Dar might do. :)

  2. Wrong song list for belting vocals, I'm afraid.