Couch to Boston

“. . . performance can be understood as process — as enactment, exertion, intervention, and expenditure. . . . Performance, however, is not limited to mimetic repetition. It also includes possibility of change, critique, and creativity within the frameworks of repetition.”

(Diana Taylor. 2016. Performance. Duke University Press. 8, 15.)


For awhile now, I’ve wanted to chart my progression from an essentially static physicality into a steady long-distance running practice. The Boston Marathon is one of those races that has settled into both a running mythos and high watershed of personal achievement. With that experience now in the books, I’ve finally decided that this is the moment to play scribe to the narrative. Thankfully, it feels like just the beginning. Well, actually, the beginning-beginning starts right about . . .

In the fall of 2012, my eldest daughter, Piay, made the transition to middle school, and among the brand new world of subject-specific teachers and fun electives, was the enticement of school sports teams. Aside from a very brief venture into YMCA league basketball, Piay had not really shown much interest in athletics, certainly not anything nearing the time commitment she had given to art, music, and technology at the time. I was somewhat surprised, then, when she came home and announced her desire to join the Kyrene Middle School cross-country team.

“Have you run a mile in your life?” may have been my response.

The pudding of proof was right outside our back gate as we lived directly on the canal path system running through south Tempe, AZ, a burb conveniently carved into one-mile super blocks. Piay and I dug up whatever was serving as sneakers for the moment and made for the door.

A plumper Avocado. Self-portrait.

There was one very major problem with my plan. After a youth full of little league, then school baseball (running = punishment), steady pick-up basketball, and a brief early-adulthood stint in an ultimate league [prognostication moment: ultimate replaces NFL in thirty years as our collective fall sport obsession], I hadn’t put a single effort into my body for at least a decade.

Yikes. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

From a lithe 142 lbs. at my ultimate league best, I was now tipping the scales at 225 on my best days. My morning roll out of bed displayed every bit of cheese, bread, pasta, and beer that dominated my diet. Middle-aged. Pre-diabetic. High-blood-pressured. Lethargic. That’s the badass dude on his way out the door.

I knew that I was in trouble as soon as we started down the path. Heat, dust, and fat. Keep it together. Keep it together. Keep it together. In order to maintain any composure, I had to shut out everything in my sensory field. And, if I didn’t look over to see how Piay was doing, then maybe I would be invisible to her along with what I could only assume were multiple signs of suffering. So, it was a surprising jolt to my suspended awareness when a whimper followed by an outright cry came from my right.

Piay and her infectious team spirit. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

“Paaaaaaa, I think I’m going to throw up.”

That made the both of us.

In the year prior to this scene, I had taken on a new professional role as curator of the Cross-Cultural Dance Resources Collections, a hybrid library/archive/museum newly gifted to the School of Dance at Arizona State University. At first a curiosity to me and then inspiration, the ways in which dance students communicated research interests and information resource needs to their new “information professional-in-residence” were more physically articulated and enacted than I had ever seen in previous contexts. For this community of scholar-artists, the body was the primary mechanism of knowing and engaging the world. The very shallow (and inaccurate) way to view my situation would be: it was uncomfortable to be an overweight dude surrounded by talented, moving bodies. A more nuanced understanding would be that I was functionally illiterate in the first mode of expression, and everything that I was now reading of dance research literature was telling me in no uncertain terms that this made me detached from a better sensual understanding, from a more developed perceptive ability. It was only a very short step from the new (to me) world of somatic research to the strains of phenomenology most closely followed in dance, primarily that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and successive philosophers.

This is all to say that my personal and professional life were saying to me in concert that it was time for me to pay attention to my body.

The needed alterations to my daily habits were easily ascertained but enacted at pains. With regard to my dietary intake,  Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live  provided the initial argument and guidance for a recalibration towards a primarily plant-based diet and elimination of added sugars that settled well with me. By simply (though with an anticipated period of withdrawal symptoms) applying those changes along with more sensible portions, I lost twenty pounds in the first month (November 2012) and was under 200 by the end of the year for the first time in several years.

As for physical practice, I assumed that I would not be able to run outright initially, so I maintained a new schedule of long elliptical machine sessions, short treadmill jogs, and a weekly spin class. And, finally, there is what I acknowledge to be a necessary component of intellectual engagement with my own consciousness and personal hopes related to the progress of my life. I would suppose that this comes for many people in the form of some variation and/or combination of religious practice, study of doctrine, or intentional spirituality, all of which I respect from the distance of agnosticism. Instead, I have maintained an ongoing exploration, from the most scholarly to popular extractions, of phenomenological research, a branch of philosophy that begins from a post-Cartesian notion that we perceive existence by being a physical presence within it. As with any other such endeavor, there are strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for new thought, but it keeps me resonant, receptive, and active in my mind’s experiences of what has become a very sincere dedication to long-distance running.

In highlights, here is how my transition into running competitively through a series of longer distances and from roads to trails has unfolded:

The Avocado on the New River branch. Photo: Runabout Sports

November 2013: first 5K
October 2014: first half marathon (Hokie Half, 1:29:48 [9th place in 1:22:36 a year later])
October 2014: first trail half (Brush Mountain Breakdown, 1:39:58 [1st place in 1:26:54 in 2016])

The Avocado and an LUS bird. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

April 2015: first full marathon (Charlottesville, 3:13:37)
June 2015: first trail marathon (Conquer the Cove, 4:04:36 [3rd place in 3:20:18 in 2017])
October 2015: BQ marathon time (Chicago, 2:51:33)
November 2015: first trail ultra (Mountain Masochist 50-miler, 8:52:59)
October 2016: Lynchburg Ultra Series, 1st Place Masters winner (HL50K, TM50K, PL50K, MMTR)
December 2016: first 100K (Hellgate, 13:10:56)
April 2017: Boston Marathon (2:50:24)
July 2017: first 100M: (Canal Corridor, 2nd place in 16:36:34)

Aggregated results are also available on my Athlinks and UltraSignUp pages.

The Avocado on the Lake Michigan branch. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

I have written previously about the parallel development of my road and trail running practices. They remain very different experiences for me, and I have only further deepened in my commitment to the trails as I allot my time and energy. It seems now that I will find an interesting half and full marathon combination each year.

The Avocado on the Roanoke River branch. Photo: Jay Proffitt.

In fact, I am in many regards most thankful for the Boston Marathon for having precipitated the road-specific training window that led me to a physically fulfilling and rewarding personal record at the Skidaway Island half marathon in Savannah, GA of 1:17:24 (a PR that lowered my time by more than four minutes). That being said, the Boston Marathon also stands as my final excursion into large-scale destination road races of its sort. I have taken some joy in the history and collective experience of which I was a part by being there, but I am very certain now that the running circumstances as they are satisfy almost none of the instincts and intentions that compel me to run.

Being in Coral 2 of Wave 1 at Boston positioned me to feel a part of some important pre-race activities. Kathrine Switzer’s speech (I could see the grandstand), and the entrance of the elite runners were especially exciting. (It was fun to catch glimpses of Desi, Meb, Jared, and Mike Wardian as they hustled past our corral.) I mostly lack any great enthusiasm for celebrity, though. As for the race itself, the net effect of being so closely corralled with so many runners of similar strides is that you are more or less with a large, unitary cohort of peers that aggregate for a major portion of the course, save for any adjustments due to better/worse preparation that radiate in both directions. So congealed is this mass of humanity that even my watch data was briefly colonized by a heart-rate monitor affixed to a neighbor.

Boston Marathon course near Wellesley College. Photo: Gr5555 (CC-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The spectacle was certainly grand and I was immensely appreciative of the generosity of the city and its inhabitants. But, there were also moments so bizarrely disjunct from the running itself that I often struggled with maintaining my sense of purpose and forward motion. The best example that I can recall may well be the 30+ children bouncing on mini-trampolines as we passed one neighborhood. I am sure that there is a reasonable explanation for that scene. I assume that it would take the librarian in me little time to find out in retrospect. But, I prefer for it to remain the mystery that it was in that moment as we passed.

The Avocado and Daughters on the Charles River branch. Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

Likewise, the enthusiastic (if not entirely sober) students of Wellesley were audience to the race, or perhaps we runners were audience to their annual performance of the scream tunnel, I can’t be entirely sure. The Scream Tunnel has a FaceBook page? Yes, it does. There are so many layers of messed up about this part of the race, I’m just going to say, “wow,” and “huh,” followed by another, quieter, “wow” while looking off into the distance . . . . Has anyone written a cultural anthropology study of that annual ritual? Someone should, if not. I’m serious about this.

In the end, I ran a time that was a PR (just a hair over 2:50) but about four minutes slower than a reasonably set goal of 2:46. I didn’t have much time to be disappointed, though, as the graciousness of Boston washed over me at the finish line and radiated out into the city and all of the way back to our hotel, even among the security personnel in the public transit system. It was a good retirement party . . . the best one, in fact. I’m never going to get pulled back into a similar event (NYC, Berlin, Tokyo . . . ), so major city marathoning had to end somewhere, it was a fitting close. I’ll road marathon again next year, but the race is so small that I’m sure you haven’t heard of it . . . .

Snow Trail Avocado (plus an awesome RD, Josh Gilbert). Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

In the meantime, I look out towards a full calendar of some exciting trail races, run in a body that now arrives at the starting line somewhere between 130-135 pounds and fueled on good, healthy whole foods.

Tropical Trail Avocado. Self-portrait.

My bookshelf, reading list, and writing plan are filled to the brim with inspiring texts and phenomenological thoughts. Post-Boston running life seems pretty darn busy and full, and I’m ready for a run.


Photo: Virginia Pannabecker.

Post-Script. Piay continues to jog from time-to-time, but honestly, the art, music, and technology still wins the day of her heart and mind. She will patiently listen to me go on and on about phenomenology over a healthy dinner or a hike through the woods. In other words . . . her gracious and generous spirit still resides in the story of my running, and her presence remains as much a mentorship to me as I hope I am occasionally a source of guidance to her. Onward, kiddo.

Post-post-script: Some parts of this blog post have been altered in response to direct criticism. My personal view is that the material in question was written lightly and would be received as such by people who knew me. I did not take into account the possibility of readers who do not know me well. Therefore, I have updated content to assume a more distant readership.

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