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Adventures: > How To Write A Running Article

  by Peter Holleran

      Before I proceed need it be said that I am talking about TRAIL RUNNING?! For me, the track and the road get boring real fast (“where we’re going we don’t need - roads” - Christopher Lloyd). The only exception is writing about something exotic like the Badwater 135 - that’s another story altogether. Unique and imaginative, that’s my bag. The 10k’s and such are important, and need coverage, but are a task for someone else. There are different rules with that kind of writing, which basically involves lots of facts, figures, and technical details - and, in the absence of near-record times or something equally dramatic (such as a miler slipping on a banana peel and getting bitten by a pit bull, but after trailing the leaders by half a lap uncorks a sub-50 second final quarter for the win), much more work to make interesting . Not so, however, with trail running. In this piece, therefore, I will share the requirements, the specific steps taken, and the inner processes that go on when I draft such an article - the present one included. I warn you, however, that none of what I say may work for anyone else (presuming it works for me, which I leave for the reader to judge) - but then again, it might.

      First of all, one must run, at least to some degree obsessively, and especially at odd hours, and in weird or interesting places, in order to get material. I call “odd”, or droll - and as positively gauche as wearing white after Labor Day - 8 or 9 in the morning, which just happens to be the time for most races. "To talk the talk, you have to walk the walk." In other words, you can’t talk about it if you don’t do it. One needs to explore hidden byways, and be on the lookout for interesting, colorful characters, or, at least, TRY to make your ordinary friends seem that way. One’s best ideas, moreover, will often come on a run (as Nietzche said, “never trust an idea you get while sitting down”) when your brain synapses are firing full speed, creating remarkable, uncanny, and and unusual connections that are brilliant, or at least seem that way. If later on when you have rested, washed, and eaten, these ideas don’t sound so hot, wait a day and go out on a run again and you will find they are lucid and inspiring all over again! You will also see things and meet people in unique ways you wouldn’t otherwise experience.

      Look and listen for unusual anectodes about other runners, and blow them up into the most shocking and scandalous affairs that you can. Sprinkle your article with as many names and as much gossip as you can. Most importantly, make everything sound much more interesting than it really is! For example, writing “at mile 50 of Western States I started feeling the effects of dehydration and my shins were sore,” is o.k. as far as it goes, but saying, “I crushed the competition by learning esoteric techniques to conserve and recycle my urine like a desert rat - send $ 5 for details!” is much more attention grabbing.

      Jot your ideas down as soon as you get back to your car, and then again when you reach home. Do not get distracted - the ideas will then take over and expand from little seeds into dimensions unheard of whilst you are in the shower. Inspiration is fragile. Protect and nurture it well, before it slips into oblivion and is gone.

      Scratch out a catchy title and an outline of key ideas while they are fresh, even on scraps of toilet paper if need be. Never, ever think that that is indeed all they are worth - have no such doubts - the more ridiculous and outrageous the ideas sound the better they probably are and are an indication you are on the right track. Keep the faith. We get too serious about times, splits, workouts, self-improvement, etc., and need a refreshing perspective from time to time. Besides, to have fun is the thing, don’t you think?....hmmm... “I think, therefore I am; at least, I think I am” (the Moody Blues) - you know what I mean? Not yet? Read on.

      Now comes the most important step. One must look for what is known in the trade as a “hook” or “gimmick”. Song writers, especially from the 1950’s, were the masters of this art form: “dom dom dom dom, dombee doobee dom dom dom dom dom” (Come Go With Me, the Dell Vikings), “ram a lam a ding dong” (the Edsels), “bobbity bop o bobbity bop bop, rama lang, a dinga dong ding” (Blue Moon, The Marcels), “dom doobie doo dom dom, whoa oh...(Tonight I Fell in Love, The Tokens), “shodop and shobeedo” (In the Still of Night, The Satins), and possibly the most famous hook of all time, “dun dun didi dun dun didididit dun dundit dun didit didit ditit doh.. know.. why..”(I Wonder Why, Dion and the Belmonts). “Doobie doo’s” and shoobedoo's were especially good. Similarly, the writer will look for something quirky that sheds sarcastic, amusing, perverse, or philosophic light on our human condition/ predicament. I often put these up front , using either a comment by a famous person, whether runner or not ( “The Dipsea - that’s impossible” (Russ Kiernan), a definition: (“Carnage” : slaughter, massacre”), or a movie clip (“I coulda been a contender” (On the Waterfront). You can also imbed directly in the title something puerile (“Double Dipsea DIRT”, or “Rivers WIPES Out the Competition” (hey Beavis... heh heh, heh heh... he said wipes!)), catchy (“Close Encounters”), or hyperbolic (“Darryl Beardall: First Man to Run to the Moon?”) etc.. Exaggerate as much as you can, use metaphor, simile, non sequiturs, glittering generalities, card-stacking, ad hominen attacks (with a smile, of course) , in short, all forms of artistic license as well as propaganda techniques we were warned about in high school! [I realize this may draw a blank from some people, and I now it may be hard to believe, but I assure you that all this and more used to be taught in public school].

      Another nice device is to find news articles that you can refer to or link inside your article that have shock appeal. Recent examples used have been headlines like “Croc Eats Jogger”, and “Deer Gores, Kills Man, Attacks Runner. “ Readers of all kinds love tragedy, but even more they love hearing about and singing the blues. Just remember, however, that one of the cardinal rules to observe when writing about the blues is that the terrible event must be something that happens in certain locations and certain ways only. Breaking a leg in a skiing accident in Aspen or while running down Steep Ravine may be tragic, but it isn’t the blues; breaking one because an alligator been chompin’ on it is. Falling down and spraining an ankle in Marin, even if it costs you the season, is not the blues, either; meeting that fate after getting whacked with a whiskey bottle thrown from a pickup truck while running past a dumpster in Memphis is. And it goes without saying that anything you can get the electric chair for in places like Memphis or New Orleans can generally be categorized as the blues. (Getting a citation from a park official can be made interesting, if one is creative and has nothing better to do, but it ain’t the blues either. I confess to having been guilty of this faux pas).

      Another literary artifice is to humorously, where possible, try to point out the absurdity of exercise as little more than a distraction from facing our inevitable mortality (“All these workouts I am doing don’t mean s__t. I’m going to croak just like the rest of you” - Walt Stack) while also showing the glory and inspiration in the running experience (“seeing the sunrise I was filled with gratitude and humility for finishing a race in such a beautiful location, among such wonderful people, etc.”). This gives your articles depth without scaring everyone away. The humor part is key. As George Bernard Shaw said, "If you're going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they'll kill you." If no one understands, don't worry, they will - maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.

      Now, listen closely, please. I will now let you in on perhaps the most major secret to my writing, for what it's worth. It is to go with the flow of whatever the brain conjures up, no matter how perverse or demented it may seem, or even is. You see, when I mentally rehearsed the above-mentioned words, “but also show the glory and inspiration in the running experience”, my next, thoroughly sarcastic thought was - “IF ANY!” This then took me deeply into the matrix via a series of limbic conections to connect with the following lines of pure gold, “to all the Munchkins and their descendants - IF ANY! - then, let the joyous news be spread, the wicked old witch at last is dead!”, which I will in turn file for the future as a lead-in to an article about a long-reigning female champion who gets knocked out of the #1 spot! See what I am getting at? This is an important part of writing. “Chain, chain, chain... chain of ...consciousness, or babble. That way you invoke the unconscious and give the people what they really want, but won’t admit, which is also how tabloids sell so many copies.

      Finally, when the thrill is gone, and you start to get sick of going over your material again and again, it is time to submit it for publication. You can only chew on a bone so long before having to let it go, casting it as bread upon the waters for an eager public to puzzle over, enjoy, chew further, and extract its marrow. Once you do so, however, an emptiness may set in. You feel drained of creativity and sit there in amazement wondering where your bright idea came from, how you managed to write what you did, and if there will ever come a time when you will get any more ideas. Have no fear. The answer to that is revealed through a famous example of Brahms and Mahler standing on a bridge. Brahms remarked that all the great musical works had already been written. Mahler replied, “look, here comes another wave!”

      Our running club presently has over 750 members, yet we only see and hear from the same 50-100 most of the time. Where are all the rest? Please show us your faces, and share your unspoken stories. Let them come in, in wave after infinitely diverse wave. If you entered an out of town race or visited some exotic locale, submit an account. It doesn't have to be a blockbuster. A simple report or human interest story will do. Don’t worry if you are fast enough, or your story good enough. Most of us feel that way, but what’s that got to do with anything?   Send in your stories, we need them. We need you. We..are..you.

      I hope this was useful. Now, time for my medication.....