Tag Archives: Boston Marathon

Why Boston Rules The World: Musing on My Run in the Marathon

(This blog also posted today on the Innovation & Tech Today magazine website; I serve as the editor of the magazine.)

UnknownSome quick thoughts on the convergence of running, technology, and one of the greatest and most inspiring sports events to ever take place …

I just returned to San Diego from Boston, where I ran in my fourth Boston Marathon. This year, the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay took on far more meaning, gravitas and stature than any previous marathon, here or anywhere else in the world.

When April began, I was planning to run Boston – in 2015. I was eight weeks into a 16-week training plan that would culminate in re-qualifying at the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 1. So, my intention was to be race-ready and to peak on June 1. Not that I had time to do it any other way. I’ve spent this month finishing the rewrite of one book (Just Add Water, the biography of Clay Marzo to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015); proofing the galleys of another (When We Were The Boys, Stevie Salas’ memoir [which I co-authored] of his days as Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist on the 1988 Out of Order Tour, to be published by Rowman Littlefield in September); and lining up the Summer issue of Innovation & Tech Today.

However, an amazing email came my way that proves, again, the absolute power of networking in business and in life: four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, who is a friend, offered me his invitational entry. So, with 12 days’ notice, I switched gears and flew back east, taking my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time legs with me.2014-04-21 09.17.35

Thanks to last year’s tragic bombings, the entire world watched to see what would happen in Boston. More than 1,000 media outlets were on hand, along with 36,000 registered runners and a crowd exceeding 1 million. They came to honor the survivors who were running or walking, to take that glorious run to the finish line down Boylston Street themselves, and/or to celebrate determination and resilience – and to stare down those cowards who would try to disrupt our way of life. In this case, a massive celebration of fitness at the world’s oldest footrace, one that poured an estimated $200 million into Boston. Not bad for a three-day Patriot’s Day weekend.

I ran Boston before large crowds in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Never has the crowd approached the fever pitch we experienced in 2014. “For a few hours, we got to feel like rock stars,” I told my friend, Stevie Salas, who is a rock star. We were treated like rock stars, too, from police who high-fived and thanked us for coming, to strangers in cafes and restaurants who saw the distinctive medals around our tired necks and bought us meals or drinks.

images-1Along with runners, media and spectators came one of the largest rollouts of law enforcement and surveillance technology ever presented at a public event. More than 3,500 uniformed and undercover officers from a dozen agencies (including the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security) were on hand. They were vigilant, their eyes always scanning the streets; they reminded me of Secret Service agents. A few locals even questioned the massive police presence (really?). However, the police were not only very friendly, but also openly thanked us for coming to Boston to run, then started asking individual questions about our race. In their eyes, we were all in this together.

The cops’ sincerity and welcoming attitude amidst incredible security goes on from there. As we pushed toward the finish line, many high-fived us and cheered as loudly as the spectators. A Brookline cop leaned toward me at mile 24, when I was visibly struggling, and yelled, “You’re f****** awesome! Keep pushing! Own the finish line!” Talk about being caught up in the moment. (BTW, thanks to that officer for getting me going again…)

I’ve been to a lot of sports events. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were over-the-top accommodating. My spine is tingling just writing this — one of many times it’s tingled as the enormity of the journey into Boston starts to open up each and every little experience as the days pass.

Early in the race, I ran next to two of about fifteen NYPD officers in the field. Before passing them (one of the things you can do on a race course, if not on the road!), I mentioned how cool it was that they were running. “We’re also on duty,” one told me. How smart is that, to have fifteen on-duty officers in the middle of the pack?

The technology was impressive. Drones, streetlight-mounted cameras, scanners, robots and the latest in law enforcement equipment covered every bit of the course. Before we boarded shuttle busses to the start, we runners were scanned, too. So sensitive was the scanning that I was questioned about a tube of chapstick and two packs of energy gels. Normally, one might think, “over reach”. Not in Boston. Not this time.

Consequently, out of one million people who poured into the Boston area and along the course, one person was arrested. For public drunkenness. And only two unattended bags were picked up (neither harmful). That is a mind-boggling statistic.images

The other bit of eye-catching technology came from the running shoes themselves. If you ever want to see the very latest in shoe technology, go to the staging area or starting line of a marathon. Especially a prestigious race like Boston.  Every new shoe from every major manufacturer was on the line. You would think marathon shoes would carry some weight, since you need cushion, heel and arch support, side stabilizers and aeration to cover 26 miles, right? Not five years ago, the lightest halfway decent marathon racing flat was about eight ounces. Well, I showed up with 5-ounce Mizuno Wave Sayonaras… and didn’t suffer so much as a blister on the hot, dry day.

However, the shoe story of the day came from a company not normally considered a player among running shoes. It was Skechers, more popular for their Joe Montana-endorsed (and very good) walking shoes. A few years ago, Skechers made an interesting move when they signed then 35-year-old Olympic medalist and New York Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to an endorsement deal. Meb, a San Diego resident, was a household name to millions of runners but seemingly past his prime, a good way for Skechers to make an imprint in a very lucrative market with plenty of turnover. Let’s face it: runners go through shoes almost as fast as Lady Gaga switches hairstyles and outfits.

Unknown-1 A funny thing happened in Boston: Meb made the largest imprint U.S. marathoning has experienced since Alberto Salazar broke the world record in 1982 and Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in LA in 1984. Now 38, Meb became the first American in 31 years to win Boston, a victory magnified by the significance of this year’s race. Now everyone in the sports world is asking themselves, “What technology did Skechers build into those shoes to make someone as esteemed as Meb feel comfortable enough to race in them?” (And no, it wasn’t just about the money side of his endorsement deal; ask golfer Rory McIlroy what happens when the new equipment doesn’t work right.)

That’s the beauty of running shoe technology: just when you think it’s tapped out, something new happens. Just three years ago, Newton was known as a town on the Boston course, the place where a fig bar was invented, and the last name of a mathematician who was clunked on the head with an apple. Now, it’s one of the three top-selling brands.

It’s going to take awhile to recollect every moment of the six days I spent in Boston, and the events surrounding the Marathon itself. Thank God I’m a writer: I can write down the moments and then unfurl the scenes as they happened, and how I felt.  I can recollect all the conversations with runners, officials, fans, media and cops, and turn on my memoir writing afterburners to make some sense and order of them. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to, at least not yet. It’s like picking stars out of the universe. Right now, best to immerse in that universe where, for one day, everyone came together and joy and positivity ruled.

2014-04-28 05.58.09

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Cruising the L.A. Times Festival of Books (part one)

festival of booksblog 1(This is the first of two blogs from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It also serves to launch a new companion blog, http://366writing.wordpress.com, which will be my daily account of one writer’s life and activities. The Festival of Books blogs will appear on both sites; after that, I will continue with a variety of pieces on this site while keeping the daily account on 366writing.)

Here’s a quick trivia question: Which author with a name recognizable to millions lists as her most influential writers such titans as Joan Didion, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dyostoevsky, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, most notably, the late short story master Raymond Carver?

I’m sure you can come up with plenty of good guesses – such as, your favorite authors. After all, many working authors of renown in the late 20th and early 21st century were influenced by all or some of these writers.

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But what if I told you that this particular author made her first splash in a much different way, as America’s teen cinematic sweetheart in the classic 1980s movies Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club?

"When It Happens to You" author Molly Ringwald

“When It Happens to You” author Molly Ringwald

Hard to believe Molly Ringwald is now 45, but there she stood, resplendent on the LA Times Festival of Books main stage at USC, being celebrated for the passion that burned within her well before becoming a movie star: writing. She read a chapter-story from her bestselling novel-in-stories, When It Happens To You, and answered audience questions with a fresh openness that doesn’t happen so often at these events.

What struck me most about her work was its depth and quality: this was no actress cashing in on her entertainment platform to get a book out. You could sense Didion’s astute observation, Hemingway’s sparseness, Fitzgerald’s intimacy and Carver’s incisive delivery in her work, yet it was exclusively her voice. That takes years of practice. As Molly said in response to a question about when he knew her work was ready, “I just wrote and rewrote and worked on it and then let it sit there until I felt my voice was good enough to bring it out.”

In so many words, she described what makes the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and other major book festivals, such celebrations of the written word. For two days, more than 150,000 people converge upon the USC campus – a quite stately setting for the festival. We were there all day Saturday to see author friends, meet with our agent briefly, shop the booths, and listen to speakers like Molly and former Wonder Years star Danica McKellar, whose “Math is Cool” stream of books might be one of the best things going for the self-esteem of teenaged girls.

We also dropped in on panel conversations, which to me are the hidden treasures of these and any book festivals. Book writing is about storytelling, and the stories behind the stories are often treasures of their own. As good as books might be, you won’t get them within the pages, or sometimes even in interviews with the authors. You will get them in these panel discussions, when guards and sales pitches are down and high-spirited interaction is the name of the game. And the LA Times Festival of Books moderators are experts at it.

So many things happened at the Festival of Books, which took place on a day the LA Chamber of Commerce baked up in their dreams: sunny, 80 degrees, the Exposition Park Rose Garden in full bloom across the street, and people of all ages completely celebrating the joy of creativity and good books. The Tumbler vehicle from The Dark Knight was there, as were perfectly costumed members of the Jane Austen Society. The USC Trojan marching band opened the Festival, while a third-grader won a $500 Barnes & Noble gift card in a coloring contest. Funny: I don’t remember prizes like that when I was in third grade. Maybe I would have colored more between the lines! Check that – writers spend their time outside the lines, approaching their subjects sideways and from the back as often as straightforward.

Everyone was also celebrating the end to the tragic week and manhunt in Boston, none moreso than the young lady working the Harvard University Press booth. She flew in Friday night from Cambridge, where the bombing suspects shot and killed an MIT campus officer before getting into a nighttime shootout with police. “I am so happy to be here,” she said, her body visibly decompressing. “No one ever needs to have a week like that. It was wicked weird to drive to the airport in Boston on a Friday without any cars on the road. None.” Added Southern California Writer’s Conference co-director Wes Albers, the author of a great crime novel, Black & Whiteand himself a longtime San Diego police officer: “The stakes were way too high for us not to succeed (in apprehending the Boston suspects).” His comments clearly showed the sense of brotherhood all law enforcement officers felt this week.

Getting right back to the fun side of the weekend, I heard a few great stories (for which books have been written) during a fine panel discussion on “Nonfiction: A Singular Passion”:

• Did you know the federal duck stamp contest program is one of the U.S. government’s most profitable ventures? Duck hunters must purchase a stamp for their licenses every year. The stamp is designed from the winning painting from 250 to 300 artists. The government spends $850,000 to run the contest, and receives $25 million in annual revenue. 98 percent of that money is invested into restoring wetlands. Since being initiated in 1930, the program has resulted in restoring wetlands the size of Massachusetts. And oh yes, The Wild Duck Chase author and Orange Coast Magazine editor Martin J. Smith added,  the vast majority of duck hunters favor background checks as a form of gun control – unlike half of the U.S. senators (all fearful of the NRA), who ignored 90% of the public’s preference the other day (that’s another story).

• The best-tasting taco, according to OC Weekly food editor Gustavo Arellano, the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, is at a taco truck in Santa Ana. He just spent three years canvassing every good Mexican restaurant in the country for his book on the history of Mexican food in the US; he knows.

• Did you know that, while he made marijuana illegal in the United States starting in the 1930s, Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Anslinger – the J. Edgar Hoover of his department – helped Coca-Cola continue to import coca leaves from Peru for its product, even though the importation was explicitly banned by an international treaty? It’s quite a story Richard Cortes dug up — but the blowback he felt is what we heard on the panel discussion about his new book, A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola. “When I matched the letters from Anslinger to Coca-Cola, and called Coca-Cola for comment, I heard complete silence on the phone … they didn’t appreciate it very much,” Cortes said.

These are the tidbits that come from panel discussions – and the authors’ stories about how they find out these delights. Behind it all, they said, are stories about people and social issues far beyond tacos, duck stamps and crooked federal officials. And that’s what makes the books that we come to book festivals to buy.

(NEXT: More from this non-fiction panel – and a wild ride from four top-selling fiction panelists who threw away the typical “how to write a novel” guidelines long ago).  

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The Morning After … From This Boston Marathoner

Normally, the morning after running a Boston Marathon looks and feels like this: a smile that no one can wipe off your face, an appetite that keeps crying for more food, fresh memories of the faces and sights of the past 26.2 miles, a phone that won’t stop ringing or pinging with text messages, and stiff legs that would protest very much if they saw stairs, or any uphill or especially downhill grade.

Most of all, there is the sense of achievement and satisfaction that a dream of years or decades, backed by months of hard, lonely miles on roads and tracks, came true at the most storied of all marathons. I can’t tell you how many great conversations I’ve had on the Boston course along these lines, before the Newton hills quickly took the wind out of our talking moods.

Running_01I’ve rejoiced in the Boston “morning after” on three different occasions – 2005, 2007, and 2009 – and I plan to experience it again in 2014.

But right now, like the rest of America and the running world, I have a different feeling this morning. One of sadness. Shock. Anger. Disgust.

This is not how it is supposed to feel. It is supposed to feel like it did yesterday morning, when I watched the Boston Marathon elite race online, saw the parts of the course I’ve come to know well, and marveled at how Rita Jeptoo made up a 90-second gap in the span of three miles to win her second women’s title going away; or how Lelisa Desisa waited until 800 meters from the finish, before outkicking his two pursuers to win the men’s title by just five seconds.

It’s supposed to feel like it did in 2005, 2007 and 2009, when I turned onto Boylston Street, pushed the throttle one more time with the last of my energy, smiling and hurting all at once, and drove 600 meters to the finish. Like the other runners, I was privileged to run the ultimate gauntlet – tens of thousands of cheering spectators packed like sardines on the sidewalks and viewing stands. In 2005, those fans included my mother, brother and sister-in-law, whose birthday we celebrated beforehand. They cheered me in from the exact spot where the first bomb went off, twenty yards from the finish line, after I’d seen them 10 miles earlier at Newton Lower Falls.

From the exact spot where the first bomb went off. I can only pretend to imagine what the 4:10 marathoners felt when, so close to achieving their dream, they heard the concussive blasts and saw the smoke – and in some cases, were blown to the side as by a hard wind. It’s not supposed to feel like this.

I watched this year’s race with memories and pride, a Boston Marathon t-shirt on to mark the occasion, hoping the ten friends or so in the race would have great days. The thing about Boston is this: The hardest work is in qualifying to get there. If you don’t run a qualifying time, you don’t go, unless you’re a superb fund-raiser. I’ve raced Boston hard, all three times, setting my personal best in 2009, but it’s always felt as much a celebration as a race. So I knew my friends were welling up inside, so happy to be there, thrilled to see spectators along all 26.2 miles spanning eight towns, maybe snapping photos with their smartphones. The guys would be thoroughly stoked when they came upon the Wellesley girls at the 12-mile mark, the co-eds more than happy to bestow everything from a hand-slap and scream of support to a fat kiss. All would be thrilled when they crested Heartbreak Hill and came upon the Boston College co-eds, who might even run up and naively but good-naturedly offer a beer to a passing runner (as one did to me in 2007).

Now, my friends and 24,000 others have to head home with a different picture in their minds, one that I pray and hope will be erased in time by their achievement. It’s not supposed to be like this.

I also watched yesterday’s race with building anticipation. After three years of dealing with injuries and an on-again, off-again attitude toward my own running (thanks, in part, to focusing on the many great high school and middle school kids I coached), I’m marathon training again. I just ran 18 miles Sunday, my personal homage to the Boston field, my longest run in two years, and felt the engine really roar yesterday. With my qualifier in Montana still three months away, a 20-minute 5K under my belt, and early long workout paces tracking below the 3:35 I have to run to get back in, I’m licking my chops.

So this morning, I planned to begin the visualization process for the 2014 Boston, to start bringing the reality of the race home. Marathon racing is 80% mental, and it starts well before race day. When you race a marathon, the last things you want to deal with are surprises – or any major changes to how you planned out and visualized the race.

Instead, on the suggestion of fellow Boston Marathoner and good friend Kathryn Van Arsdall, I found myself running an 8.26-mile memorial run in my black Boston Marathon windbreaker – 8 miles for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died yesterday, and .26 to commemorate the length of the marathon. One friend, Southern Indiana running ace Tim Roman, did the same – and added two steps at the end for the final two-tenths of a mile. It is not supposed to be this way.

Yesterday was four years since my last Boston – which happened to be my last marathon. I’m now committed to having one last flurry of races, and have even coaxed my great high school track and cross-country coach, Brad Roy (who ran Boston in a near world-class time of 2:22 in 1979), into coaching me. Seems things have changed the past four years – starting with recovery time and foot speed – and Brad’s guidance is already proving huge. After the Missoula Marathon in July, I will race my hometown run, the Carlsbad Marathon, in January. Then, next April, one year from now, Lord willing, I’ll be feeling the exquisite joy of another completed Boston, just outside my 55th birthday.

But when the 25,000 other runners and I gather in our corrals in Hopkinton on Patriot’s Day 2014, the mood will not be quite as festive. We’ll have our race strategies, ways of celebrating on the course, levels of excitement, and joys and feelings of achievement. However, if I know the running community, I know hearts will still be heavy and prayers will be plentiful.

Then, when we head into Boston a few hours later, we will smile, laugh and cry as we charge down Boylston Street, hear the cheers, cross the line and receive our unicorn medals. We will walk to our designated buses to grab the gear bags we left behind in Hopkinton. In my case, I will then hop the fence (cramps and all), and find my sweetheart, Martha, amidst the throng. She knows the feeling; she competed in the 2002 Dublin Marathon. I’ll indulge in my favorite post-race drink – a Starbucks hot black tea. After that, we’ll head on to a celebratory dinner with family members who live in the Boston area and New England — a few of whom might meet up with me earlier for another Boston Marathon tradition, our 30-second photo session, as I run up to the Exxon station just beyond the halfway point in Wellesley.

That’s how it’s supposed to feel. And when it does, we can begin to erase the horror all of us are now feeling.

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15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons (part 2)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of my two-part series that compares 15 points in common between the writing process – particularly book and extensive projects – and running marathons. Actually, it’s 18 points in common, but who’s counting?)

“The race begins at 20 miles”: Years ago, a friend, journalist and veteran marathoner said this to me. While most people might crash and burn at 20 miles (or before), serious marathon racers dig in the final 10K. So it is with book writing. The last leg is often the hardest. You’re tired, you’ve lived with the subject for months or years, and you want to be finished. But this is the most vital part of the book, next to the first chapter. Focus more intently than ever, tap emotional and creative reserves, and power through to the finish.

Enjoy the solitude: If ever four groups of people know and understand solitude better than the rest of the population, they would be runners, writers, artists and monks. We spend countless hours alone with our words. Enjoy the quiet time; enjoy the ideal atmosphere it provides you to create, think deeply, and work. Not everyone gets this chance. Ask someone who works in a cubicle or workstation all day. The material percolates in solitude. The more you can enjoy it and immerse in it, the more you can produce – and the more cohesive it will be.

Push the hills: One of the best road racing strategies is to push hills hard – and then surge for 30 meters or so at the top. All authors know there are many uphill climbs in the long course of writing a book – struggles with scenes, characters, getting the right information, fluid narrative description, etc. Some days, we feel like we can write anything; on others, our sentences feel like back roads clunkers. We all hit them; we all wonder how we’re going to get to the top. The answer: one word at a time. Push past the obstacles, while holding to the greater vision for your work. Write hard to keep the momentum going.

Increase focus as the race progresses: The same thing has happened in every marathon I’ve raced. For the first eight miles or so, runners talk to each other, compare strategies, talk about favorite runs they’ve ever taken, maybe shoot photos of the crowd (if they carry smartphones, which many do — not me!) and truly enjoy being out there. For the next eight miles, the focus tightens, paces become locked in, and the talking lessens. For the final ten miles, there is very little talking and very deep focus. Good authors take us deeper and deeper into their stories, a reflection of their increased focus as they deliver the goods. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t hit too many aid stations: One of the myths (and, actually, physical dangers) of long races is that it is important to drink at every aid station. NOT SO. When I run marathons, I only drink six times – roughly once every 4½ miles. Everyone has their number, but point is: don’t take too many breaks. This applies directly to writing. Momentum and rhythm are everything; when you’re on a roll, stay on it. If you must, take only small breaks when writing books to recharge, but never more than a week or two. Long breaks are a no-no, unless you’re between drafts.

There will be pain: To borrow from a surfwear manufacturer’s 1980s ad campaign, Every marathoner knows the feeling. It starts at about 15 miles, hits fully at 18 to 20 miles, and envelops you the final 6 miles. PAIN. We know it’s coming when we toe the starting line, but we know how to handle it – by reaching down and taking the race one stride at a time. Likewise, book writing can be (and often is) emotionally painful and mentally taxing, especially tell-all memoirs and novels with characters exhibiting emotions that grab you from the page. When you read scenes like this, you know the writer is feeling it. Embrace the pain, and turn it into your ally. Use it to drive more deeply within yourself, opening new thresholds of possibility for your writing – and greater perspective as a person. The more you can work with writing pain in all its forms, the more deeply touched readers will be.

Head down; one step at a time: This extends from the last comment. I ran the 2009 Boston Marathon with moderate plantar fasciitis. In other words, the last five miles were hell. However, I nearly held my earlier race pace because I pulled my cap over my eyes like I was in the ‘hood, looked down at my toes, and took it one step at a time. That’s exactly how I write books; by adopting that technique, I’ve gone from being a good starter to a good finisher. Keep your head down and write one chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time – and one sentence at a time. This approach becomes especially important when revising and self-editing, when you make sure every word fits and every word counts.

Finish strong: One of the best ways to ensure good race results is to finish strong in each training run, picking up the pace at the end. Likewise with book writing. Good final chapters sew up the story or subject, and leave readers feeling: a) like they want more; b) wholly satisfied; or c) Googling you for more books, or for more perspectives based upon the great book you have given them. Reach down and give it everything you’ve got in the last chapter – just like a good racer.

Celebrate!: When we finish something as monumental as a book, or a marathon, it’s time to celebrate! Then take at least a week off from writing of any kind … your batteries will definitely need to be recharged.

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15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons

(Part 1 of a two-blog series)

Just finished watching the Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, with the athletes running the last of those 70.3 miles right by the house. Now, gearing up for this weekend’s Carlsbad 5000, the world’s fastest 5K road race. And, in two weeks, the marathon world turns its focus to Boston for the Boston Marathon – which I plan to run for the fourth time in 2014.

Running_01Speaking of marathons, authors often compare writing books to running marathons. The usual line: “Writing a book is not a wind sprint, but a marathon.” They often don’t really think about why that is (except that writing a book usually takes a long time, along with all the mental energy you can muster). I speak about this when teaching workshops. Readers and writers alike can gain great insight into how your favorite stories come together, and how the author got there, by drawing comparisons to the most celebrated of all long-distance races.

Since I’ve run eight marathons, along with writing ten books and ghostwriting seven others, thought I’d share 15 points in common between marathons and the writing process. Lace up your shoes, boot up the computer, and toe the starting line. Away we go…

Enter the race well prepared: Marathoners know better than to enter a race ill prepared. If they are not prepared, they will become very intimate with agony. Most marathoners train for 12 to 16 weeks, and work out every nuance of the race in their minds before lining up. Same with writing. Make sure your research, thoughts and rough outlines are in place before firing the starting gun for Chapter 1. Let the material mentally percolate for weeks, even months. Play out the scenes or sequences in your mind. Move them around. Sketch them out. Then write. The better prepared going in, the better the finished result – and the happier the reader.

Read the Race: All races are different. The courses, competitors, dynamics and conditions change from race to race. So does the way you feel, what you think is possible, and how you will run the race. Likewise, all stories are different. They require different approaches, paces and characters. That goes for subjects, too, especially when writing non-fiction books and interviewing. When interviewing people, read their faces and expressions, and listen for what is not said as much as what is said. Go into every article, book or story knowing it will be unique – and read it as it unfolds.

Vary your pace: A lot of people thinking racing marathons is a matter of finding a pace and sticking with it for all 26.2 miles –  or bob at skywalker-lores until fatigue and sore muscles slow you down. Not so. Good racers change their pace several times, pushing hills, speeding up for a half-mile in the middle, surging at the end, or even throwing in a 100-meter pick-up just to change the stride. It helps – a lot. Likewise, good writers vary their pace within a book, switching from fast-dramatic-action sequences to slower-thoughtful-contemplative scenes. They do it within dialogue, as well as the way they write sentences. Changes in pace reflect real life. Vary your pace.

Enjoy the process: About 10 years ago, during an arduous 20-mile run in the desert mountains above Tucson, ultramarathon star Pam Reed told me something: “It’s going to hurt, you know it’s going to hurt, so just relax and enjoy the process.” Likewise, whether writing or reading, enjoy it! Writing is very hard work, but what could be a better vocation than sharing stories and subjects with a reading audience? And communicating directly with them through the written (or electronic) page? Feel the creative buzz. Write from a place of love – love of process. No matter how tough the work, try to enjoy every moment. Trust me: readers will notice, and beg for more.

Make tight, well-angled turns: Road races often feature a lot of curves and turns – sometimes, hairpin turns on out-and-back courses. Good racers know to stay clear of the inside on hairpin turns, to swing a bit wide, lean into the turn, and then find a direct line to the next straight section. So it is with writing transitions from one scene to another. Make your transitions lean and mean. Lean into them, using the momentum of the prior scene. Write tightly, carrying us into the next scene, but don’t write them abruptly unless that is part of the dramatic tension of the story. Learn the art of the turn. Write transitions, metaphors and similes that connect – instantly. My all-time favorite comes from the late Los Angeles Times sports columnist extraordinaire Jim Murray, describing a picky home plate umpire: “He had a strike zone the size of Hitler’s heart.” That’s the art of a well-run turn.

Pick your way through the crowd: Good racers know how to anticipate traffic on the course, and pick their way through runners without breaking stride.  Likewise, as an author, you will have a crowded field of other writers in your genre. Distinguish your work by content and voice, identify the crux of every scene among the myriad thoughts pouring through your mind, and run to the exact sentences and words to best capture your scene. And do so without breaking form.

Make your move: Commit yourself fully: At some point in every race, runners make their move to ensure the best finish. They pick up the pace, tap into their inner reserves, and lay themselves out. These surges are beautiful to behold. And readers love it as well. When you commit to a character action or a line of argument or discussion in a non-fiction book, commit fully. Give it everything you’ve got, the fruits of all the hard research, interviewing, deep thinking and planning. Write every sentence as though it were your last. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to “save it up for a knockout punch.” Be like Ernest Hemingway: pour your blood, sweat and collective life experience into every sentence you write. Commit fully.

READ PART 2 of “15 Common Points Between Writing & Running Marathons”

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CELEBRATING A JOURNEY OF WRITING AND LIFE (so far)

This week, my life partner and sweetheart, Martha Halda, and I will be returning to my alma mater, Carlsbad (Calif.) High School, where I will be inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame. The news of my nomination and induction came as a big surprise, but in receiving this award — along with five other CHS grads, two of whom I attended high school with — I’ve thought deeply about what this honor means.

First of all, the honor isn’t given lightly. With our induction group, CHS will have 25 members in its Hall of Fame (out of approximately 50,000 different students who have attended since CHS opened its doors in 1957). These include highly successful and influential people like Robert Stromberg, who won the Academy Award for production design on Avatar and is directing the upcoming adventure movie, Safari; Greg Nelson, my old Boys Club coach and inventor of the Don-Joy knee brace; Dr. Sally Melgren, one of the top ophthalmologists in the country; and Sal Masekela, a familiar face for more than a decade to millions of action sports fans who have tuned into the Winter and Summer X Games on ESPN.

Among those being inducted along with me is Patti Regan, who recently was featured as one of L.A.’s top 50 businesswomen. Our families grew up together on Basswood Ave. in Carlsbad, so that makes the day a little more special. Meanwhile, Martha and I went through all 12 years of grade and high school together, so having her there completes what will be a very sweet day.

High school is a where we’re supposed to study intently and zero in on our career aspirations. What I realized while thinking about the Hall of Fame is that I’m still doing the same things I was doing in high school — writing, distance running, listening to music, and mentoring. I began my professional journalism career while a junior at CHS in 1976, ran on highly successful cross-country and track teams, and tutored other students in Latin, writing and social studies. In a day and age when so many high school students feel aimless and are not necessarily getting good life/career direction from their overwhelmed teachers, this above all else feels very gratifying.

I was one of the lucky ones. The early and mid-70s were watershed years for diverse education and teachers who tried anything to get through to their students. Testing was a once-a-year inconvenience. The man who will introduce and induct us, Tom Robertson (known to countless thousands of thankful students as TR), was one such teacher. In 1973, while futilely trying to teach our freshman English class the romantic poets (Wordsworth, Longfellow, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.), he realized we were, well, clueless freshmen. He switched gears, and brought in a stack of records along with printed lyrics. These weren’t just any records or lyrics; they contained the music of Cream, David Bowie, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and others.

For the next six weeks, we listened to music and studied the relationship between the lyrics, their meanings, and the feelings and thoughts evoked by the musicians as they sang them. When we returned to the romantic poets, we suddenly understood what they were conveying.

Almost 40 years have passed, but on the few occasions I’ve seen TR since high school, I remind him of this brilliant move and thank him for it. During those six weeks, my love of poetry, writing, music and innovative teaching crystallized. I knew I wanted to write publicly like these musicians, I loved the beauty of language and imagery conveyed by poetry, and I knew music would always be central to my life. By the age of 17, I was writing poetry, writing professionally, and writing regular concert reviews for The Blade Tribune (now North County Times), where I worked as a sportswriter. I was also the sports editor for Excalibur, the high school paper, and won the San Diego Union staffer of the year award for high school students in San Diego County. The paper’s advisor? TR.

Talk about the impact one teacher can make! Talk about the value of a single teacher in unlocking the doors of one’s potential!

I never forgot this. Many years later, my teaching opportunities came, first through writers conferences and workshops, later as a high school track and cross-country coach, and more recently, as a writing professor at Ananda College. I always looked for the opportunity to bring out the very best in my audiences, athletes and students — even if they could not yet see their higher potential. I also employed this approach with many of the more than 100 authors whose books I have edited or ghostwritten. The experiences with my professional writing and college students, along with the authors with whom I have worked, have built the measure of much of my life to date. When I think of my Ananda College students, for instance, I am filled with love for them as people, and admiration for their wonderful writing talents. Our class sessions resonated with mutual love, respect, and a deep desire to become the best writers, editors and people we could be. They pushed me as hard as I pushed them.

Meantime, my career has been quite an adventure aboard my pen, whether through newspaper writing, magazine writing and editing, book writing, scripting videos, or website writing and blogging. I have worked with the Apollo astronauts, great sports champions, Olympic gold medalists, iconic filmmakers like George Lucas, top business leaders, the men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, surfing’s ASP World Tour during its formative years, great artists and artisans, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musicians like Jefferson Airplane’s/Jefferson Starship’s Marty Balin (he wrote the mid-1970s megahit Miracles, among many other great songs), American Idol-launched stars like Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, marathon superstars like Bill Rodgers (four time Boston Marathon champion), innovative healers and spiritual leaders of many different faiths, and medicine men in both South America and Native American traditions. I’ve also run three Boston Marathons after renewing my love of running at age 40. This included a number of training runs with Bill Rodgers, with whom I formed a friendship about five years ago.

The book I just co-wrote with Dr. Steve Victorson, The Champion’s Way, sums up what my drive has always been: to take the measure of someone’s greatness, find out how they got there, and tell the world about it. And, hopefully, integrate a trait or two within myself along the way.

Now, 36 years and quite a few books into my writing career, here is what I have learned: Nothing is more gratifying than knowing you made a difference in someone’s life through giving of yourself without consideration of reward. The happiest people are those who give selflessly to others. This has been my goal with every client, author, student or fellow runner with whom I have worked. When you ask me how many books I’ve worked on, I’m just as likely to say, “I’ve edited more than 130 books” as to give you my own book count. Giving to others is what makes us great human beings.

So on Friday, when I walk onto the stage at a packed assembly at Carlsbad High School, I will do something long overdue: I will give TR a handshake and a hug, and thank him for unleashing the writer within me. While I have had other great teacher/friends over the years (Steve Scholfield, Dr. Bev Bosak, Dr. Don Eulert, Dr. Madeleine Randall and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder top the list), TR started a ball rolling that has defined my life.

When it comes to greatness, what can top that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 Random Thoughts About Writing

While watching snow fall the other day in mid-April in the Sierra Nevada foothills — what some would call a highly unusual occurrence, what I would call part-and-parcel of the new climate in which we live —  a few random thoughts about writing, writers and our love of putting feelings, thoughts and observations to words:

1)   With the Boston Marathon’s latest running Monday (an event I’m proud to say I have raced three times), I always think of the similarities between running a marathon and writing a book. Both are long processes that we start with tremendous expectation and energy – sometimes, too much energy. How many potentially good books have fizzled out because we put everything we had into them in the beginning, only to burn out? Runners who started their marathons too fast can answer that question. How do runners deal with those middle miles, the 10- through 20-mile marks, after their initial adrenalin wears off and they need to push forward and conserve energy at the same time? Writers can let them know; it’s called the middle chapters.

And finally, how do you tie up the loose ends and conflicts in your narrative, and bring the book to its conclusion? Ask any marathoner who has successfully covered the final 10K of the 26.2-mile race; some even say “the race begins at 20 miles.” I agree: for running and for books. No matter how tired we are, how sick we are of the material, we have to summon our deepest reserves of creativity and energy, focus even more intently, and write or run to that finish line — well.

2)   In 1987, when Guns N’ Roses burst onto the national scene as the best American rock band since Aerosmith (and, some would say, better), who would’ve thought that their tall, rangy, rowdy bass player would evolve into a fine, evocative writer? Yep, you’re right: I didn’t raise my hand, either. But sure enough, as G&R takes its long-deserved place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bass player and ESPN.com columnist Duff McKagan releases his memoir, It’s So Easy … and other lies. If you want to read a hard-hitting memoir about the rock music world and its excesses, actually written by the musician (and written well), grab this book. You will be delightfully surprised. Duff is one of the true success stories in rock music – as in, he successfully navigated some perilous waters to enjoy the life he now experiences with his wife and two daughters. The opening chapter alone is priceless — setting up his daughter’s 13th birthday party — and finding out he’s gone from rock star to “I want you to remain invisible from my friends.”

3)   There’s another Imagebook we need to read, not only because of its fine, incisive journalistic reporting with a crafty narrative non-fiction writer’s voice, but because of its pressing subject matter: Eaarth, by Bill McKibben. I’ve been reading articles and occasional books by McKibben since he wrote End of Nature in 1989, when I was doing some environment and food-based work for Earth Save. Eaarth is something quite different; it speaks of what has already happened to the planet from global warming and our addiction to fossil fuels, and what is coming. What struck me, through the tremendous writing and journalism, was not that McKibben was sounding the same warning call we’ve heard for years from others — but that the time is at hand. All you have to look at is the month of March: 15,000 high temperature records were set in the U.S. alone. Gas is $4 per gallon. What polar ice caps? I can’t wait to see him at Ananda College, where I teach, on Tuesday morning, and at his appearance with poet Gary Snyder Tuesday night in nearby Nevada City. As writers, we have the power to help create a more sustainable future with our hands, in more ways than one. This is a great and necessary read.

4)   The other day, I was talking to my advanced writing class about what really matters in education and in teaching the subject of writing. With so many great books on writing readily available at Whispernet speeds, it’s silly to constantly try to reinvent the wheel of material — though I can give it shot through two writing books of my own and 35 years of in-the-trenches journalistic, writing and editing experience. We hit upon two of my most near-and-dear perspectives on the teaching of writing, and of education at large:

a) The greatest task – and accomplishment – of all teachers is to instill a lifelong love of learning in their students, reinforced and expanded daily; and

b) Any good writing teacher meets the student at their present stage, takes them by the hand, and expands their horizon and possibility — and shows them how to continually take chances that tap the treasure of the truly insightful, innovative and meaningful. However we do it, that is our goal. Nothing less.

5)   I’m now wrapping up the novel that’s taken me forever to finish, Voice Lessons, about a rock music legend/legacy from the late 1960s whose reformed band becomes huge once again, in large part because of the protagonist’s daughter, a great young singer. In the midst, his other daughter, a love child lost to him in the early ‘70s, reappears in his life. This has been an incredible experience, as I wove through my characters through two quite separate but equally rich experiences — a fifty-year swath of American music and its deep-seated place in our culture; and what happens when relationships break … and then mend many years later. Will be shipping it off in a few weeks … look for it in 2013.

6)   Am getting ready to write a narrative nonfiction piece on the place where I teach college — the heart of California’s Gold Rush Country. What has struck me is that, from where I sit, there are four types of gold in these thar Sierra Nevada foothills: a) the gold that ignited the fever that changed this place, and America, forever (and there’s still plenty in the rivers and quartz veins); b) the inner gold, with some deep spiritual practices informing many residents and communities here; c) the intellectual gold, in this area where many scientists, educators and thinkers live simple, land-based lives; d) the literary gold, brought forth by numerous authors. Really going to have fun with this one.

7)   We’re having one of my favorite activities here at the college on May 8: our second literary night. If every elementary, middle and high school would have one or two of these nights per year, in which students read their writing to a receptive audience, then I feel more kids would get into writing. The written word comes alive when you put voice, emotion and presence to it, and nothing does that more than live readings. Four of my students will be using literary night for their oral final; that’s how important I feel it is. We’ll also have other readers from the student body and faculty. More than anything, we’ll celebrate our stories, poems and the beauty of writing itself.

8)   A fantastic writing book to pick up, if you want to work on diving deeper into the essence of your stories, characters, subjects and yourself: Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. What a gem.

9)    If you haven’t already joined, welcome yourself into our Word Journeys — Resources for Writers group on Facebook. This is a great group: more than 400 authors, editors, publishers, publicists, agents and educators sharing their love of writing, along with a diverse array of traditional and digital publishing tips. Best part of this group? Since I know just how tough it is to market books, you can post your new releases in the group and give us links to them – as long as you don’t go advertising billboard on us! We’d love to see you there.

10) Finally, a challenge to all of you to literally write the spring: Write about green subjects, growth, expansion, spirit, community, friendship, love … all the subjects that cause mind and heart alike to expand in both depth and perspective. See if you can tap into the energy of the spring and write pieces that resonate with growth, promise and bounty. 

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