Friday, April 30, 2010

Crap People Don't Tell You About Running: #4

In your stocking feet, you might be the love child of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but the second your sneakers hit the pavement, the intricacies of counting out anything beyond the simple one-two rhythm of your breath are beyond you.

As I set out for today's long run (just seven miles, but double-digit treks start in two weeks), I decided to calculate the mileage up and back down the hill that starts at my front doorthe idea was that if I could run an exactly equal distance beyond the halfway point of my route, my iPod would tell me that my seven-mile run was finished at the bottom of the hill, and I could stop running. In other words, I was doing my best to make sure I could walknot runup the quarter-mile hill that feels more like a mountain after I've covered enough miles.

If you ignore for a moment the way cutting out the one real hill on my route outs me as the raging wimp I am, you'll see that my theory was sound. Or would have been if I hadn't gone and run the full quarter mile beyond the halfway point. Worse, I didn't even realize my mistake until my iPod started to count down the homestretch way too early.

I was so quick to blame the iPod for miscalculating my mileage that it didn't even occur to me that the fault may actually have rested squarely with my own calculations until, exactly half a mile from home, the realization washed over me like a second wind: when adding distance to a round trip run, you sorta need to remember to add just half the total extra distance you want to go. Because when you add all of it, you end up turning around and retracing those steps. Which is precisely how I found myself a half a mile from home instead of the happy little quarter mile I'd been hoping to be.

Crap People Don't Tell You About Running #4: Jogging robs your brain of the oxygen it needs to solve complex math problems. Like counting. And addition.

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

But I Have Promises to Keep

With just 96 days to go until I run my marathon, you'd think injury would be the most worrisome thing on my mind (particularly given that three weeks into training, I've already fallen twice). Despite this, my biggest worry isn't physical, but fiscal: will I raise the $2150 we need to fund all four scholarships?

In the first 16 days of training, Run for Grub has raised $867, but while I'm gratefully showering karma points on everyone who's donated, my mind keeps wandering to the $1,283 left to be raised. To the 96 days left to raise it. To the mental math that tells me those figures translate to roughly:
  • $91.64 per week,
  • $0.56 per hour, or
  • less than a penny a minute.
Less than a penny a minute, people! Somehow the amount seems less daunting now, which is my cue to remind you that donations can be made with a credit card payment at

Want a suggestion about how to sponsor? Take a look at some of the options I've cooked up below:

YOUR BASIC FLAT FEE. Showing your love with a flat fee remains the easiest way to pledge, but read on for a few of the more fun ways to get involved (or scroll to the end for the basic per mile sponsorship amounts).

CONSOLATION CONTRIBUTION. This sponsorship level was detailed in a blog post about my second fall--ten bucks every time I go down like the proverbial ton of bricks. Two falls so far, and 96 chances to go kersplat again. Do you dare bet on a klutz?

DOUBLE DOWN. Even after reading my FAQ page, you remain skeptical about my ability to finish the race. I get that. So take the bet. Give me half of what you're planning to donate now and put DOUBLE DOWN in the comment field. On August 1--the day after I successfully finish the marathon, thank you very much--you'll make good on your bet by wiring the rest of the money or risk the wrath of the metaphorical goons I'll send to collect.

VIRAL CHALLENGE. Make a donation and pledge to go viral by getting ten people in your life to match your amount. When those same people ask you why on earth they'd give money to help some crazy lady they don't know run a marathon, tell them it's not about me, it's about how much Grub has meant to you. Then shoot them your best puppy-dog-would-like-table-scrap eyes. Said eyes are especially effective on mothers and animal lovers.

COOLEST ALTERNATIVE MOTHER'S DAY GIFT EVER. You've been there, done that wtih breakfast in bed, the flowers, the lunch out at an impossibly crowded restaurant. This year, ask your brood to show how much they appreciate you by making a donation in your name to the school that's meant so much to you. You can also tell them that we at Run for Grub firmly believe that your brood should tell you about said donation with an impossibly cute handmade card delivered along with breakfast in bed. Complete with a tulip in a bud vase. Because you deserve it, mom.

PAYMENT PER POSTS. Did a blog post I've written connect with you in some way? Make you laugh? Make you think? Make you dig out your Ramones album to listen to Beat on the Brat for the first time in more years than you'd like to admit? Grub Street's all about making us the best writers we can be, so make your contribution about the writing, too. I'll take my cue from iTunes: $0.99 for the everyday posts; $1.29 for the ones you really liked.

NOVEL IDEA. This one's for the people who know the lady behind the run and have expressed concern that training for a marathon and blogging about the process would eat into the time I have to revise my novel. This one's simple--a dollar a day for each day I write at least a page on my novel. The numbers will work out like this: $96 for 96 training days for (at least and hopefully more than) 96 pages. It should be noted that this is not a cumulative sponsorship-- for example, if five people choose this sponsorship category, I'm not on the hook for ten pages a day. That would be madness. For me anyway. More power to those of you who do manage that kind of productivity.

YOUR BASIC PER MILE SPONSORSHIP. As a first-time marathon runner, I'm of the firm belief that my miles are worth about a million dollars a piece, but there's a recession on, so I'm willing to negotiate. Here are some sponsorship levels:
  • A penny per mile = $0.26
  • 10 cents per mile = $2.62
  • A quarter per mile = $6.55
  • 50 cents per mile = $13.10
  • 75 cents per mile = $19.65
  • A dollar a mile = $26.2
  • Two dollars a mile = $52.4
  • Four dollars a mile = $104.8
  • $10 per mile = $260
  • $48.97 per mile = $1283
  • $1,000,000 per mile = $26,200,000
I know that the sponsorship level list gets kind of hope-springs-eternal toward the end, but you never know when a lonely heiress looking for a good cause is gonna happen along...

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

Grub Tales: Steve Almond

Steve Almond is the author the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life came out on April 13.

RUN FOR GRUB: How did you learn about Grub Street?
STEVE ALMOND: I must have been one of the first instructors hired by Eve. This was, gosh, 1998? I don't even remember how I learned about Grub, but the first class I taught was so full of amazing writers that I was sold. (That class included Ellen Litman, Jane Roper, and Jami Brandlihow's that for a bunch of hotshots!!).

RUN FOR GRUB: What's your most magical Grub Street memory?
STEVE ALMOND: I'm sure it was that first class. I was so astonished by the talent. I was like: "Now why am I teaching this class again?"

RUN FOR GRUB: What was the best advice you ever received at a Grub Street event?
STEVE ALMOND: I believe it was Chris Castellani who told me to "Hold on loosely, but don't let go." Words to live by.

RUN FOR GRUB: Have you ever complained at a bookstore because the manager wasn’t stocking enough books by Grub Street writers?
STEVE ALMOND: Constantly.

RUN FOR GRUB: What are the best three running songs of all time?
STEVE ALMOND: I don't run, so I can't tell you. And even if I could tell you, that would just be what gets me psyched up to run. Everyone has their own aerobic anthems.

RUN FOR GRUB: I'm reading your treatise on what you call your drooling fanaticism and I have a questions: Do my musings on the music I’m using to train qualify me as a drooling fanatic? If so, is there some kind of membership card I can tuck into my wallet between my license and Mastercard?
STEVE ALMOND: I'm not sure that's something you'd want to flaunt. Besides, Drooling Fanaticism is really a matter of how music makes you feel at a particular moment, not a lifestyle decision. But you appear to need validation, so I will provide it. I hereby pronounce you, Catherine Elcik, a Drooling Fanatic, Private First Class. Now hit the dance floor and give me ten!

RUN FOR GRUB (mumbled): Yes, sir...

Editor's noteIf music has ever kicked your joy up a notch, salved your sadness, or made you feel like you had no choice but to listen to this one amazing track again and again and AGAIN, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a must for your library. Click here to make it yours!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writing Lessons from My Inner Runner

This morning I ran three miles at an average pace of 9 minutes and 45 seconds per. This despite telling myself, not so many months ago, that I should probably make peace with the idea that running a 10-minute mile might just be a personal pipe dream. And yet while I was distracted with the excitement of starting my official marathon training, I went and got fast. Fast for me anyway. Because though I know that in a lot of running circles a 10-minute mile places me firmly in the snail category, it's downright hare-ish when you compare it to the runner I was at this time last year.

I should say that nothing about this morning's run screamed personal best. Running downhill, I entertained the same fantasies I always do about having been transformed into Cathicus, Greek Goddess of Fledgling Runners. Going uphill I either get totally freaked out by the complete and utter appropriateness of the lyrics of the song currently playing—this really ain't no place to fall behind, Mr. Ryan Bingham, is it?or taunt my inner hypochondriac with the idea that the burning in my quads isn't lactic acid at all but a sign that my muscles have entered into an alarming frayed-rope-like state. And yet even weighed down with all that mental chatter, I still paced faster today than I ever have.

Mayhaps I should get out of my own way more often.

Like so many bloggers, I'm a bit of a ruminator. Will I? Won't I? Should I? Shouldn't I? I'm exactly the kind of person who keeps perusing displays of thingamahoozits for months after I've already bought that very thingamahoozit. So it should come as no shock to anyone that when people ask me how my novel's going, I tell them, "slowly." It's a lie. It would be more truthful to tell them: "The pace of my revision makes glacial progress seem like an Olympic luge by comparison—thanks for asking!"

What if the writer in me took a cue from the runner?

The runner in me keeps track of her progress, but she's not beholden to false goals. The runner in me will run 10-minute miles if and when she's good and ready. Are you taking notes, oh, writer in me? Because how many birthdays have to go by before writer-me stops promising herself that this will be the last year she has to put finish the book on my list of goals.

The runner in me knows that if I look beyond today's mileage on my training schedule, I risk suffering existential vertigo by reminding myself how quickly my long runs trip over into double digits (I'm up to ten miles as of May 14). Instead, the runner in me focuses on the mileage for today's run. Once I'm on the street, it's all about putting one foot in front of the other. Tunes help. What if the writer in me stopped casting ahead to the murky second half of the book and turned her focus on the scene she was revising today? Wouldn't those scenes add up quickly? Wouldn't she find herself revising her way past the black hole she was worried about in pretty much the exact same way the runner in her left the ten-minute mile in the dust today? Why yes. And yes to you, too, Mr. Bingham. I will pick up my crazy heart and give it one more try.

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