How to light the fire inside
Plus races in New York City, across Illinois, Big Sur, Snow Canyon + the North Carolina Outer Banks
“All runners are tough. Everyone has to have a little fire in them, that even in tough times, can’t be turned off.”
— Shalane Flanagan
“Winning doesn't always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.”
— Meb Keflezighi
Late last summer, I stumbled across a Twitter thread I couldn’t get out of my mind.
Its writer was Keri Blakinger, then a reporter for the Houston Chronicle who now works for The Marshall Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization that covers the criminal justice system in America.
Amazing career, right?
But in the thread — which you can read in full here — Blakinger tells the story of how, ten years ago, she ended up in a New York prison after being arrested with 6 ounces of heroin.
How did she end up there? (Even more importantly, how did she claw her way out?)
Her childhood and early teen years must have seemed like a dream to anyone on the outside. By high school, she’d become a nationally-ranked figure skater in pairs and later, she would go on to study at Cornell University.
But when she was 17, her skating partner dropped her. Unable to find another partner — there are always more girls than boys in competitive skating, especially in high school — she spiraled into a deep depression.
That depression led her to experiment with drugs, and an attempted suicide during her first year at Cornell — she jumped off a 98-ft.-high bridge and (miraculously!) survived.
I’ve been drawn to Blakinger’s story ever since I came across it last year. We spoke by phone at the beginning of this year for over an hour, and it was a fascinating conversation. But, to be honest, I’ve struggled with how to write it.
In the end, I decided that there’s no one better to tell her story than Keri herself, in her own words:
Here is the rest of the thread, picking up where that tweet leaves off:
It was only a couple weeks after my 2010 arrest — probably before I’d even fully detoxed from the heroin that landed me behind bars in the first place — that I started running.
At that point, I’d been chain smoking and shooting dope every day for almost 10 years. I’d tried bumbling my way through college and ended up at Cornell, walking a tight line between oblivion and success.
But in the end it fell apart — or I fell apart. And, by late December, I was sitting in jail, riddled with regret and cooped up all day in a cinderblock cell. So I started running.
Even in my teens, as a nationally competitive pairs figure skater, running was not something I excelled at: instead, I leaned toward the Stairmaster and rowing machine when it came time for off-ice training.
Running seemed like such a slog — and you didn’t get anywhere. It felt pointless. But jail forced me to reconsider what I considered pointless, both in exercise and in life.
The first ~10 months of my time I spent in the county jail. It was a small facility and unlike prison, there was no gym. There was a tiny blacktop square, where we could go for an hour and a half every day.
Instead, I ran inside the cell block, where I’d used a legal notepad as ruler to guesstimate the length of my “track”: 40 feet.
Every day, after the crossword, I would run in circles, checking off the half miles and the miles on a jailhouse to-do list, wanting to reassure myself I could still finish things.
Then, I went to state prison — where I no longer had to run in circles. There, I could run in place. The Albion gym had treadmills, in front of a glass window overlooking the grounds.
If I held my head up high and squinted, I could almost block out the razor wire.
Some people run for the scenery, or the fresh air, or the rush of endorphins, or the accomplishment. In jail, we had none of those things. There, running was simply putting one foot in front of the other, no frills. No wind, or sky, or landscapes.
After ten years of drug use, I’m not sure there was much left in the way of endorphins, and there was certainly no sense of accomplishment — because you did not, after all, go anywhere.
But you could do this: You could find a way to put one foot in front of the other, for four miles, every day.
When I got out, I kept working out. I went through CrossFit and ClassPass phases. But this year, I started reading through my jailhouse journals, trawling through my past as I’ve started writing about it.
They say the past is a foreign country and for me that feels so true — it’s a place where winter is always coming and every closet is filled with skeletons. Sometimes, they still rise up from a fog of the past, rattling bones as they spill out into nightmares and waves of anxiety.
And so I run.
Last night, I woke up every half-hour with dreams about things I wish I could forget. It was a rough night, and I know I still have a lot to work through. My heart is still racing and I'm trying to breathe my way through the anxiety.
But right now, I’m about to go running, and when I do I will think back to my runs 8 and 9 years ago, and think about how much easier it is now.
Today, I’m no longer running in place. There is scenery. And I can accomplish things. I may even have some endorphins again.
Months of training — and years of recovery — have gotten me here. Some mornings it doesn’t feel that way. But time has made a difference. I have to remind myself of that.
And that’s what I’ll be thinking about when I run this morning as I run down the tree-lined streets of the Museum District and the sun-drenched paths of Hermann Park.
I don't always know if I'm running from a past or running to confront it, but some mornings best I can do is put 1 foot in front of the other, & remind myself that works.
As previously stated, I am a bad runner. But last week I signed up for my first half-marathon. Wish me luck.
I’m not sure I’ve read a more powerful story in a long time. Keri stepped deep down into a dark place, but she found her way out. It was not guaranteed, at any point along the way. At all.
But she found a way. I find her story even more inspiring in light of what we’ve all been experiencing this year — and hope you do too.
As always, keep in touch and let me know what’s going on with you.
👉 If you’d like to dig deeper, Terry Gross interviewed Keri back in 2018 for her NPR show Fresh Air, which you can listen to here.
🐕 Read her story, “My Dog Didn’t Forget Me When I Went to Prison”
Virtual | Oct. 17 - Nov. 1, 2020
The New York Road Runners announced last week that their famed NYC Marathon will be virtual this fall, with four pricing tiers that offer guaranteed entry to next year’s race, access to the NYRR coaching lab, and a 60-day subscription to Strava, among other benefits. Registration opens next Tuesday, July 28 at 12:00 p.m. ET.
Free - $175 | Sign up here
Virtual | By Sept. 30, 2020
Compete either as an individual or as part of a team of up to 15 runners in this quest to run the equivalent of the distance entirely across the state of Illinois. You’ll be raising money for the Illinois Nurses Foundation as you run; individual runners will have 70 days to complete the 210 miles east to west (or 390 miles north to south), while teams will have 30 days.
$34.99 and up | Sign up here
Virtual | Sept. 1 - 30, 2020
Run all the races that would normally take place over the weekend at California’s Big Sur International Marathon — a 5K, 12K, 11-miler, 21-miler and a full marathon — anytime during the month of September.
$55 - $65 | Sign up here
St. George, Utah | Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020
Surrounded by red rock cliffs and sand dunes that tower over the desert floor, the trails and roads within southwestern Utah’s Snow Canyon State Park are the scenery for this breathtaking half, which Runner’s World has called one of North America’s best. The point-to-point route starts at the trailhead for the Red Mountain Trail, one of more than 30 miles of trails within the 7,400-acre park. Throughout the course, you’ll run through a place where “majestic views and the subtle interplay of light, shadow, and color dancing across canyon walls evoke strong emotional responses from visitors.”
$65 and up | Sign up here
Nags Head, N.C. | Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020
A run through the island where the Wright Brothers made history on this remote stretch of North Carolina’s Atlantic coastline. Starting from the midway point of the full marathon, you’ll run the first couple of miles through Jockey’s Ridge State Park, home to the largest sand dune anywhere on the East Coast. Later you’ll make your way through miles of unspoiled coastal wilderness and make a brief, steep run over the bridge that links the long, narrow Outer Banks with the mainland, taking in views of marshes as far as the eye can see and fishing boats chugging out to sea.
$85 and up | Sign up here
Great running reads
‘Soul’ Runners Will Make Running Stickier. This may strike you as a little bit of inside baseball on the running industry, but I thought it was a fascinating look at how the pandemic is changing what runners are looking for and what they’re getting from running.
“What we used to call lurkers are now actually coming to that call to action to actually get engaged now and say, ‘Hey, since I don’t have to be there in person and I can still engage with the group and everybody’s on the same playing field now, this is more of an incentive for me to go out on my own, and I can still virtually be connected with the community.”
Think You’re Not Made For Running? These Runners Say Think Again. A wonderful article by my Twitter friend Amanda Loudin, whose interview with fitness coach Morgon Lattimore hits on an uncomfortable truth: “Too many people are intimidated by running, looking at marathoners, Ironman finishers and really fast athletes. Instead, look at your own life and start where you are.” It’s time to change that.
“I came to the sport for weight loss, but it took reframing my mindset to stick with it.”
How to Stay Motivated Without Races on the Calendar. People are getting really creative with designing new running challenges for themselves during the pandemic. Exhibit A: the Zenobiathon, a marathon route made up of 21 laps along a single street in Denver, Colo.
“When you take the standard road or trail race off the table, it becomes an opportunity to figure out what else fuels you.”
With Pandemic Keeping Them Apart, Runners Embrace Virtual Races. By the end of this article, you hear the runners interviewed acknowledge that virtual races really aren’t as fun as the real thing. (And who’s arguing with that?) But, while we’re still in the middle of this, technology is delivering us some pretty amazing ways to connect with one another.
“Everything’s pretty much been wiped off the table and we’ve had to regroup and reassess and find things to look forward to that aren’t traditional.”
A song to run to today
Want to hear all the songs we include in our newsletters? Our full playlist contains 7 hours, 12 minutes of music to run to.