Running Through the Pain

In The Long Run, Catriona Menzies-Pike delves into the history of women’s marathoning while considering the sport’s impact on her own life after unimaginable loss.

Grete Waitz crosses the finish line of the L'Eggs Mini Marathon in Central Park on June 2, 1979 (Associated Press)

In 1998, when Catriona Menzies-Pike was 20 years old, both her parents were killed in a plane crash. “It could be worse, I reminded myself,” she writes in her new book, The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, “but actually, this was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.” In retrospect, she notes, the platitudes she heard were the same kinds of things people tell long-distance runners: “Just keep going. It will all be over soon. You’ll get there.”

This framing of grief as an endurance sport underpins The Long Run, which is an elegant and erudite jumble of different things. The author’s own experiences of learning to love running almost by accident are interspersed with sections of cultural criticism, and a surprising history of women’s running as a sport. Menzies-Pike quotes everyone from Boccaccio to Baudrillard while analyzing the fraught record of women participating in an event that was long considered dangerous and harmful to fertility. But the most resonant parts of her narrative deal with her own personal loss, and how tightly it becomes interwoven with her experiences as a runner.

Menzies-Pike, the editor of the Sydney Review of Books, joins a well-documented list of running’s literary defenders. Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell, and Don DeLillo have all written about the sport.  In his 2009 book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the Japanese author Haruki Murakami contemplates the activity alongside his lifelong habit of writing, and how the two endeavors relate to and support one another. As Menzies-Pike notes, “Stories about running are often like this, in that they’re about something else. They are tales of shape shifting, of the desire to shed one skin and step into another.”

Less frequently dissected, though, is how often people turn to running as a salve for grief, to impose order on chaos. Ida Keeling, a 102-year-old runner from Harlem who’s the current record-holder for American women aged 95 to 99 in the 60-meter dash, began running in her 60s after both her sons were murdered. Fauja Singh, widely considered to be the world’s oldest marathoner, also started running after the death of his wife, son, and daughter. “It’s my guess that the structure of training programs is what leads so many avowed non-runners to attempt marathons when their lives fall apart,” Menzies-Pike writes.

In her case, it wasn’t an immediate impulse at all. In her 20s, Menzies-Pike recalls, she did all the things that people orphaned far too early do: She buried herself in work, “got wrecked as often as I could,” and fled to countries on the opposite side of the world. At that time, she notes, “running would have seemed too literal a response. All I wanted to do was run away from my life.” It wasn’t until she was 30, returning to Sydney after a long period of travel, that she first set foot on a treadmill, so often the gateway drug for runners. “I was used to the sensory world yielding pain and fatigue,” she writes. “Now I was aware of my limbs and of my lungs, of the sweat dripping down my neck and the thudding rhythm of my feet.”

What Menzies-Pike only obliquely alludes to, but what many runners have likely found, is that running can be a relatively healthy and culturally sanctioned form of self-harm. In the midst of emotional pain that feels overwhelming, there’s something powerful about feeling physical pain instead—the kind that can be managed and identified and remedied. Describing one particularly arduous training regime, Menzies-Pike writes, “The aftermath of loss is exhausting, repetitious, and often very, very dull—and so is training for a marathon. But endurance can help turn elusive sorrows into something tangible, like aching muscles and blisters. Such pain can be easily described.”

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How many women have turned to running to obliterate the shadow of something else? It’s hard to say, because, as The Long Run explores, the history of women running is very poorly documented, and the history of women running for pleasure—toward something, as opposed to away from it—is even less so. It wasn’t until 1984 that a women’s marathon was included in the Olympic Games, and prior to 1960 the Games included no race for women longer than 800 meters. There were plenty of women who crashed men’s races, though, as Menzies-Pike details: Violet Piercy, who ran a marathon course in England from Windsor Castle to Stamford Bridge in 1926. Merry Lepper, who hid in the bushes at the start of the 1963 Western Hemisphere Marathon before joining the course. Kathrine Switzer, who became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry in 1967 after registering under her gender-neutral initials.

Menzies-Pike is interested in these women but she doesn’t seem to feel a particular kinship with them. Running, for her, is a personal affair, she explains, and the running community’s obsession with speedwork and intervals and accoutrements often leaves her cold. She’s particularly biting on the subject of women’s races—many of which, she argues, have become commercialized and marketed almost to the point of meaninglessness. The first chapter features her recounting an event in Sydney titled She Runs, which she notes is festooned with pink: “magenta, fluorescent pink, cutie-pie baby pink, stripper pink, and every shade of princess pink that’s ever tinted a plastic hairclip.”

If it’s occasionally contrarian in its commentary, The Long Run is fascinating in its consideration of history. Menzies-Pike summarizes the origins of recreational jogging in the 1970s, which coincided with a new understanding that exercise was a means of self-preservation.  She touches on cultural portrayals of women who run, from Ovid’s Daphne to House of Cards’s Claire Underwood. Running has a particular significance for women, she argues, because so often they need to escape, and “running for pleasure can be a safe simulation of these desperate flights,” she writes. She considers the TV trope of the jogger who happens upon a crime scene, and laments how running exposes women both to danger and to the gaze of onlookers. “It’s never neutral for women to run,” she states.

In her detailed analysis, Menzies-Pike sometimes seems intent on picking holes in an activity that gives her so much fulfillment. But in the second half of the book, she loses herself in the simple pleasure of running, recounting marathon training and long runs and the first time she ran 26.2 miles. “Most of the time I didn’t worry whether I was refashioning patriarchal history or not,” she acknowledges. “I was just too tired.” Her descriptions of her marathon experiences, and of how she sensed her parents in a hallucination of dehydration and fatigue, are gorgeously written and extremely moving. The day after her first marathon, more than anything, she’s elated, feeling both acute pain and a newfound sense of potential.

It’s here that The Long Run is at its most insightful, as Menzies-Pike weighs everything she’s experienced and concludes artfully what running has come to mean to her. “If there’s any analogy to be drawn between marathon running and enduring grief,” she deduces, “it shouldn’t turn on one great exhausted clash of will against circumstance. It should accommodate a million training runs, aches and doubts, stops and starts, setbacks, tiny advances, odd connections, and, ultimately, not triumph, but joy and renewal.”