An Interview with Megan Abbott

Over at The Atlantic, I interview my friend Megan Abbott about her latest novel, The Fever. A snippet:

I read in an interview that Dare Me was a direct result of themes you explored in The End of Everything.

Yes. I had a character in The End of Everything—a girl who plays field hockey—and I was watching girls play field hockey and they were such badasses. They were barreling down the field and they looked like Lord of the Flies. Watching them, I was so impressed. And I thought that’s where it all goes for some girls. They get all that rage of being a teenage girl out on the field, and that led me to look at other girl sports and I found that the most dangerous for girls with the most catastrophic injuries was cheerleading, which really surprised me. It changed a lot from my day. And it turned out to be this fascinating excursion. It’s a journey from which I never emerged. I still follow that world a bit. They just felt like warriors to me, and it was a really exciting way to think about the anger of girls that age, and the aggression, and the ambition perhaps most of all.

Read the rest here.

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How the War in Afghanistan Became Background Noise

Over at Vox, I write about how the war in Afghanistan became background noise, and how that is often used for political gain. A snippet:

One surprising aspect of the unfolding story of Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner of war, is the public’s apparent interest in again discussing the war in Afghanistan. It’s certainly been a long time coming. Opinion polls and military enlistment figures suggest record lows in the number of Americans who support, pay attention to, or serve in the war on terrorism. As a nation we have internalized our longest military conflict; it has suffused the social, political, and cultural body. The war is not something the nation is doing; it’s simply something that is.

Read the rest here.

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What Happens When You Are Nominated for a Prestigious Book Award

(Not to spoil the ending, but we didn’t win. Let’s just get that out of the way now. I should also clarify that I use the word “prestigious” here for the obvious reason, which is that it is, but also because, in my experience, some awards feel a bit mechanical, all done by email or snail mail or whatever. Look, when that Kennedy majesty touches you, you feel it.)

Last week I was driving in Baton Rouge traffic, which is generally acknowledged (or should be, anyway) as the worst traffic on the Earth planet, which defies logic because Baton Rouge is a provincial town at best. When you drive in, say, Dublin, where the lanes are narrower than the cars, you can at least appreciate that there are millennia of horse-drawn carts and such that dictated the width of the streets, and that just because cars are the latest fad in human transportation doesn’t mean the city needs to change, and if you’re so uppity about it, anyway, why don’t you just take the DART and leave the streets to everyone else. But Baton Rouge? There are no excuses, and worse, there is no public transportation. And worse yet, if only because it’s inexplicable, the people of Baton Rouge are actively hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists. I run anywhere from 5 to 13 miles every single day (and of course there are no sidewalks) and the sneers I get from drivers, who are busy texting while steering their Yukons with their knees, turn me cold. These are people who consider walking—man’s oldest form of transportation—to be weird and uncivilized and deserving of scorn and so they get as close to you as they can without actually killing you, and I am not exaggerating. And so I, not giving a damn, remain as immovable as Bartleby the Scrivener. I’d prefer if the Yukon didn’t hit me, but a man has to stand for something, even if it is a little patch of crumbling Baton Rouge asphalt.

So while I was driving my phone rang, and it was late in the day and the area code was 202, which meant D.C., and I just didn’t feel up for talking work that late in the day and was just going to let it go to voicemail, but then I remembered that if I don’t work I don’t get paid, and so I answered.

“Hi is this D.B. Grady?”

So right away I knew I’d made a mistake because people who pay me know my name, and people who don’t are either crazies on the Internet or publicists who want to blab about their whatever they’re peddling that I absolutely should write about.

“This is David,” I said, and here I would refer you to my previous post on pseudonyms.

“Hi David, this is [someone] from the RFK Center.”

“Oh, hello,” said I, not knowing why the RFK Center was calling me.

“I wanted to let you know that your book, Deep State, is a finalist for the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.”

Kind of a stunned silence on my end.

“Anyway I am just confirming your number. If you win, Mr. Kennedy will call you next week.”

[Note that it was not clarified which Mr. Kennedy would be calling, though to be honest any of them would have been fine.]

“Ah—um—oh—that’s great!” I said. The bulk of my end of the conversation consisted of awkward sounds, the verbal equivalent of a penguin running wildly and flapping its wings in panic.

“So what is a good number?”

Now, see, here’s the thing. I was thrown off because the number she’d called was the best number—the number on which I was then speaking to her—but I was so flustered that I didn’t think to say, “Oh just tell Mr. K to call me on this line.” Instead I kind of flapped my wings some more and explained, honestly, that I have no idea what my phone number is because I never call myself. And so I spent the next five minutes sounding like a doofus and trying to find a parking lot to park and figure out how to find my phone number on my iPhone.

“Would you like to call me back?” she said, helpfully, but I just imagined her crossing my name off the list and jotting in the margins, accurately, TOO STUPID TO WIN OUR AWARD. So I said no, it’s fine, and explained Baton Rouge’s traffic, and I think I went into our shameful lack of public transportation, which I would use religiously (the public transportation), and I think during this time I fantasized about the Metrorail that DCists take for granted and speak ill of, never having lived in Baton Rouge, what with our collective hatred of pedestrians and other people who don’t drive Yukons.

So finally I pull over and figure out my phone number and give it to her, and she asks for Marc Ambinder‘s phone number—Marc being my dear friend and fellow author of Deep State (and, previously, The Command)—so that Mr. Kennedy can call him too. And weirdly I actually know Marc’s phone number though not my own, so that one went a lot smoother. Anyway, she concluded by congratulating me for being a finalist for the book award, and that Mr. Kennedy will call next week if all goes well, but that it’s a real honor either way.

And she was right about that. It really is a real honor for to have been a finalist for the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. (If you’re wondering why I just used that awkwardly formal sentence, it’s for Google to rank the result higher. This business of freelance writing involves a lot of bullshit marketing-think like that. If you want in, get used to it now.)

So we said our goodbyes, and I thanked her, and that was it. And I texted Marc a message that included several exclamation points, and emailed Janet Reid, the great literary agent at FinePrint who sold Deep State to our publisher, John Wiley & Sons, and Eric Nelson, the great (former) senior editor at Wiley (now literary agent at Susan Rabiner) who edited the book, and a few other people, but since I don’t have any actual friends, not that many people.

Here is what happens when you don’t win the 2014 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award: You pull up your Twitter app while sitting with your family at a Japanese restaurant and discover half your friends congratulating the guy who did win, and realize, oh I guess the Kennedy family chose someone else, and then your order much wine to go with your much sushi. And I guess you don’t feel bitter or anything because the odds were long and the winning book was probably really great (I didn’t read it).

But the truth is it is a little disappointing because I think, as Americans, we’re kind of hard wired to want to win—and I wanted to win—and also for unexpected success stories to propel you to the next level in your career, which I could use right about now. But since that didn’t happen, I really am happy to reduce the exciting little moment in my life to a line on my C.V., and I am proud that this book by Marc and me has found such success and the occasional honor. And now I just have to get back to work and write a book that will win the National Book Award, so that this can be a story we all laugh about one day over drinks with the Kennedys.

Anyway, this is obligatory, but I do mean it: Thank you to the RFK Center for short-listing Deep State for your highest honor; and to Adam Rawnsley, my comrade and sometimes-coauthor and the walking encyclopedia that was Deep State’s researcher; and to Marc for being such a great friend and mentor and companion on this three-year literary journey that we took together.

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How to Write a Book on an iPad

Like many writers, I work from home. But I’m very good at not writing, and always looking for an excuse to not-write with alacrity. Home provides those excuses, from desks in sudden, urgent need of organization to laundry piled a little too high to the ceiling fan in unexpected need of vacuuming. (I need not even mention the siren song of the Xbox.) And so when I need to be productive, which is every day, I go elsewhere to work. Accordingly, my actual office fits in a Timbuk2 messenger bag.

I can usually be found at a coffee shop. A solid 75% of my writing is done on an iPad mini, which always seems to surprise people, who seem to associate the iPad more with Angry Birds than genuine productivity. Once you get the right setup, though, the iPad mini really can be a superior alternative to writing on a laptop. It’s light, portable, and there are far fewer distractions that might lead you from your manuscript. When I work from my MacBook Pro, for example, I’m constantly tempted to check my email and scan the news and check Twitter and so on, whereas the iPad is pretty much a one-thing-at-a-time device. (Yes, there are notifications, but I disable them for exactly this reason.)

Here is how to turn your iPad into a dream writing machine.

1. Get a good keyboard.

Back in the days of the very first iPad, I scoffed at the idea of using a physical keyboard. It was against the spirit of the thing – why not just use a laptop and be done with it? And so I soldiered on, pecking slowly against a glass screen maddeningly devoid of a tab-key. One thing that became evident quickly (though I steadfastly refused to admit this) was that when you type 1,000 words on an iPad screen, the pads of your fingers really start to hurt. It almost feels like they’re being bruised from the inside, like your bones are threatening to jut through at any moment. As far as pain goes, this is hardly torture on the rack, but it’s enough of a distraction to be a detriment to productivity.

Eventually I gave in. I first used a keyboard case with the iPad 2, and enjoyed the experience, with one exception: Pages for iPad is not a very good word processor. OK, look, if you’re a high school student and you need to pound out your homework, it’s fine. And Pages is pretty good on Mac OS. But if you’re writing 250,000+ words a year and need things like a robust track changes functionality and 100% .docx compatibility with the rest of the industry, Pages (on Mac or iOS) is just not the droid you’re looking for. Still, I wrote a good 100,000 words on it because there really wasn’t any alternative.

When the iPad mini with Retina came out, I upgraded and also bought a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard/cover to do my typing. The device’s size was both its selling point and my greatest concern. I have average-sized hands, and was afraid that the keys would be too small. But to my surprise (my astonishment, really), it took about a day to adjust to the keyboard. So far I’ve written 50,000 words with only the slightest difficulty. (Specifically, sometimes I overshoot the “q” key and hit the home key, which is the top left key, where standard keyboards keep the tilde.) But even that only happens once every 4,000 words or so. My guess is that unless you have giant fingers, an iPad mini keyboard won’t be a problem. (If that is a concern, go ahead and get the slightly larger iPad Air and a companion keyboard.)

2. Get the best word processor. (Microsoft Office for iPad / Office 365)

It would be impossible for me to overstate how much I love Microsoft Word for iPad. It’s been thoroughly reviewed elsewhere, so I’ll just say that Word for iPad is not merely a great word processor for iPads, or even tablets generally, but is a great word processor for any platform, period. Its compatibility with the Office ecosystem is excellent, as you’d expect. It supports things like extremely long footnotes with no difficulty. Track changes: perfect. The only complaint I have about Word for iPad is its lack of an independent dictionary/thesaurus. (I believe it supports that lousy bubble-style dictionary/thesaurus that Apple integrates throughout iOS and Mac OS, and which is the absolute worst.) That’s a minor problem, though, overall. Microsoft Word for iPad is a masterpiece of software engineering and basically changes the game for productivity on the go.

3. Carry a Livescribe pen, maybe.

I use a Livescribe 3, which is a terrible pen (seriously, the cheap medium-point tips they foist on users is enough to make the whole enterprise a waste, and why is the pen still the size of a Magic Marker if all its former internals have been exported to the iPhone?) but a phenomenal overall service when you’re taking long notes. (Depending on what you’re writing, this might not be an issue. If you don’t do a lot of interviews, you probably won’t need this.) Livescribe is basically in a class by itself with respect to real-time audio/handwritten notes and archiving. I could not do my job without it. That said, its hardware is just badly designed. Except! The stylus on the back side of the pen is the best iPad stylus I’ve ever used. Which leads me to…

4. Get a note-taking app like Penultimate.

I’ve been trying to use a stylus for handwritten note-taking on the iPad since there was such a thing as the iPad. I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve tried a half-dozen styluses ranging in price from cheap to waaaay too expensive, and none have been satisfactory. The experience has generally been like using a dry Magic Marker on college-ruled notebook paper. Meanwhile, Penultimate has been a mainstay app on my iPad that I never quite wanted to give up on, but also one that I could never quite use properly.

Then came the Livescribe 3. As I mentioned, it’s a terrible pen. But it’s one hell of a good stylus. I’m not sure if it’s just the design of the tip, or the way it fits in my hand, or what — your mileage may vary! — but I’m able to take notes with great speed and accuracy in Penultimate using the Livescribe 3. To me, this is basically a miracle. The first time I wrote well, it felt the way I imagine it would feel to sit at a piano and suddenly discover that you’re a savant. So Penultimate is for my lazy time or brainstorming, when I want to jot things and sketch things but don’t really feel like pecking around on the screen or sitting at a desk to type properly on a keyboard.

5. Use Evernote

I do a ton of research, and while I’m pretty good at finding things once, I’m the worst at finding things a second time. To solve this problem, everything I read (of interest) is added to Evernote by way of a browser plugin. It’s the best cross-platform note management software out there (though OneNote is mighty tempting). Evernote makes everything searchable — even my handwritten notes in Penultimate and from Livescribe. (And look, I have the kind of handwriting that even doctors look at and say, “This is illegible. Something is wrong with you.”) Another neat thing it can do: So I read several magazines in News Stand on the iPad, and every once in a while I run across something I want to save. All I do is screenshot the page (press the home and power buttons simultaneously) and then send the screenshot to Evernote. Boom! A searchable, perfect record of a magazine article. (N.b. I’m not sure if you need the premium version to make everything searchable. I subscribed because I use a lot of bandwidth storing things.)

6. Drown out the noise.

Relax Melodies is a white noise app for iOS and Android. Basically, the app contains scores of discrete sounds (wind, fire, rain, vacuum cleaner, birds, etc.) and you mix the sounds however you’d like. (E.g. wind, rain on tent, babbling brook (for that rainy camp-out feel, I guess.)) The reason I really like this app is that depending on where you are, different audio frequencies are needed, and this can help with that. So the braying millennial seated next to you at Starbucks will need to be drowned out with a different sound than will a crying baby. (Well, not so different. You get the point.)

So anyway, those are the apps and tools that I use to write. Because this is just a blog I don’t feel compelled to put a bow on this piece, or come up with some nice summary paragraph. Therefore this is the last sentence.

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Where did the pseudonym go?

Most of my work over the last few years was published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady. This was because there are already at least a dozen serious writers named David W. Brown and I was afraid of being lost in a crowd. Also, let’s be honest: the name is pretty boring. Anyway, I’ve found a lot of success in my career, and things have reached a point where a pseudonym is more of a hindrance than a help. So let’s all agree that D.B. Grady was killed in a bar fight in Guadalajara, and David W. Brown has stepped in to keep the words flowing and deadlines met.

But a note to other writers considering the use of a pen name. Once that name is printed on the spine of a book, you’re committed. This means whenever you go to parties, the host will pull you aside and ask, “So, um, do you want me to introduce you to people as Bill, or do you want to be Scoop Toilson?” Likewise for every interview you do. Emails from Bill Smith will be unread because, well, nobody knows Bill; they only know Scoop. Which means also every subject line of every first letter will be something like “Hi this is Scoop!” Organizations flying you in to events will book the airfare with the wrong name. Good luck getting on that plane, Scoop. Think that’s weird? I once attended a function at CIA headquarters and my companion asked how I’d like to be introduced. (It just seemed like a bad idea to mingle at Langley using a false alias.)

My rule has always been that “D.B. Grady” was just a name they printed on a byline or on a book cover. It’s never been a secret and it’s never been some kind of alter-ego. It was branding. I tried to keep all correspondence and personal interactions with my real name. Still, a pseudonym really does a number on your sense of identity. Shakespeare addressed this theme again and again. It’s why Petruchio insisted on diminishing Katherine by calling her Kate. (“They call me Katherine that do talk of me.” / “You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate…”) It’s why poor Shylock, in that hostile courtroom, stands his ground with the one thing they cannot manipulate or deny, saying, “Shylock is my name.” It is why, in what might be the most romantic scene written in the English language, Juliet urges Romeo to “doff thy name,” explaining, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” And in saying this, Juliet seals the couple’s doom, because she is wrong. As Shakespeare argued throughout his works: What’s in a name? Everything.

Speaking from experience, and with some success under my belt, I submit that pseudonyms are ill-advised. Yes, Mark Twain pulled it off quite well, but you’ll note that he was well known in his time as Samuel Clemens, and that Mark Twain was a nautical term adopted by the author for either for that reason or because of a long-running bar tab in Virginia City. Regardless of its origin, the name was secondary, and not much different than if Stephen King decided to write another novel as Richard Bachman. Likewise, no man named “David Foster Wallace” was born in Ithaca, NY on February 21, 1962. “Foster” was his mother’s maiden name, which he adopted so as to distinguish himself from writer David Rains Wallace. Still, things worked out quite well for DFW, career-wise and as a matter of likely influencing the next century of literature.

So it can be done, but just realize that it can be an unpleasant experience. You’ve been warned.

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11,800 People Sharing in the Existential Agony of Writing

Over at The Atlantic you will find one of the best things I’ve ever written. This year I attended the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and set my observations to paper.

Some behind-the-scenes goodness: The bulk of the piece was written immediately after the conference, on the red-eye from Seattle to Orlando. (The free-flowing wine from the American Airlines first class cabin increased my productivity exponentially.) I filed the piece the following morning from Walt Disney World, and it went back and forth in editing for a couple of weeks. (I first submitted something like 8,000 words, and my editor cut it down, and then I added a few thousand more words, and it was cut some more, and so on, until we found a happy medium. A lot of darlings were killed in the process, though.) I’m very proud of the resulting essay and if ever a collection of my essays is published, this is the star of the book.

A snippet:

It is very hard to explain to, say, your tipsy uncle during a holiday gathering that, no, the novel isn’t ready yet, and yes, it has been in progress for well over three years, and that this is normal—and yes, you are working on it—and that even when the book is finished, it doesn’t just go to the printers and hit shelves a few weeks later. And once it does come out—yes, goddammit, I really am working on it—the first question asked by tipsy uncle is, “Are they making a movie of it?” and, statistically speaking, “they” probably are not, and this news is received as some kind of failure, like the book just wasn’t good enough or something. And then you (i.e. the author) are advised to write a book like Harry Potter, because J.K. Rowling is doing quite well (“She’s richer than the queen!”), and perhaps my favorite of all familial declarations, “I’d write a book but I just don’t have time,” as though a craft you’ve devoted ten thousand hours to honing is something you do because of a light schedule in a tranquil life. This is almost always followed by the  postscript, “I’d like to write it from one of those villas in Tuscany.”

Read the rest here.

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Writing Process Book Blog Tour

Erin Kelly tagged me on some blog post thing, and as a result I am supposed to answer four predetermined questions. Herewith. I’m supposed also to tag four other people, but I don’t know four people and so this thing dies here.

Q. What are you working on?

My MFA thesis. I’ll have something suitable to submit by the end of my program (this summer), but the manuscript I envision is so long and with so many years of revisions ahead that I’d may as well be talking about the design of my flying car. (Oh man it’s going to be silver and have doors like the Delorean from Back to the Future.)

And of course I live on the freelance writer’s thousand word treadmill. Every day you start with a word count of zero. It’s exhausting and demoralizing most of the time. On rare occasions, I feel something like joy at grinding out the day’s words, but mostly it’s like waking with a gun to your head. (Of course these are problems I prayed to have when I was starting out.) On some level, I guess I feel that anything that’s not fiction is just not serious, and I haven’t moved the needle on fiction yet, and the clock and calendar continue to advance with no sign of exhaustion. Anyway what I’m writing right now matters. It’s just going to take time.

Q. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

That remains to be seen, I guess. I’m not even sure of its genre, exactly. I’m most comfortable dwelling in conventional realism, but I have these postmodernist urges that won’t take no for an answer. So writing this novel is like driving a car in desperate need of an alignment. Concerning plot, I’ll just say that my last book, Deep State, was like a profitable research project for this novel. Likewise my heretofore worthless undergraduate degree in computer science.

Q. Why do you write what you do?

I have a deep fascination with the moral ambiguities that come with our global, interconnected society, and the technology executives who facilitate those connections. You can file a lifetime of news dispatches and editorials on the subject, but to really get at the truth of the matter, you have to turn to fiction.

Q. How does your writing process work?

I’m not sure it does. Mostly it involves cleaning the house until there’s nothing left to do but work. The creative process of this story involved exploring each of the main characters, writing ten thousand words or so from the viewpoints of each of them, and deciding who could tell the story in the most interesting way. Then it was a matter of nailing down the major plot points. (The details come as I write, but I need to know where the next milestone is or I just fall to pieces.)

But yeah, a lot of vacuuming and doing laundry. By the time this novel is finished, you’ll be able to build microchips in my living room.

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The Story of the Special Atomic Demolition Munition

In this month’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Adam Rawnsley and I have a story on the special atomic demolition munition, which was a backpack nuclear weapon developed during the Cold War. U.S. Army Special Forces teams trained to strap on the nukes and jump out of airplanes behind enemy lines. Once on the ground, they’d sneak to targets and vaporize them. It was part of the West’s strategy for a limited nuclear war against the Soviets. Adam and I spent 14 months working on the article, which involved countless hours of interviews with the men who carried the Bomb and some incredible documents, photographs, and videos acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. Here’s a little snippet:

Leading up to the operation, during four days of preparation, Army regional experts briefed them on routes of infiltration and anticipated enemy patrols. The team pored over aerial photographs and an elaborate mock-up of the target — a large, slightly U-shaped building. It’s situated in a wide, open area with a roving guard, but at least the team won’t have to sneak inside. Hanging awkwardly from the parachute harness of Davis’s intelligence sergeant is a 58-pound nuclear bomb. With a weapon this powerful, they can just lay it against a wall, crank the timers, and let fission do its work.

You can read it online here.

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On the Literature of Roddy Doyle

Over at The Atlantic, I write about Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, The Guts, how it fits in his larger, masterful body of work, and his esteemed place in the Irish literary canon.

For its part, music unifies Doyle’s work. It’s not just Jimmy Rabbitte, the music-expert-turned-music-producer. Elsewhere, Paula Spencer, in attempting to rebuild her life, works as a housekeeper and office cleaner. In a particularly heart-wrenching chapter, she takes a job on the stadium cleaning crew at a White Stripes concert. The scene is a methodical grinding-away of her pride, and yet also a demonstration of her personal resolve. The White Stripes’ music later becomes a fixed point connecting her to the world, and allowing her to catch up slowly after so many years lost in a bottle.

Read the rest here.

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Running a Marathon

Last weekend I ran in my first marathon. If you had asked me one year ago if I’d ever consider running a marathon, I would have laughed hysterically and reached for the remote control. I’ve never been a good runner, and have certainly never been able to run long distances. When I was in the Army, on my physical fitness test I could always max out the pushups and situps without much difficulty, but my run never climbed much higher than a 70 or so. (My fastest two-mile remains 14:19, and that was 10 years ago.)

I’m not really sure why I decided to do a marathon. There are probably all sorts of subconscious reasons related to my 35th birthday and health and vanity and so on, but my conscious brain has never been interested in that kind of thing. Nor was it a bucket-list situation. (I don’t believe in such lists.) My family and I had just returned from a great trip to Walt Disney World, and while googling around when we got home, I noticed that Disney held a marathon, and that its roster was nearly filled, and there was a link to a training schedule, and that the following week was the start week to go from slug to runner. Anyway in the heat of the moment, I signed up for it.

(Six months later, as it would turn out, on marathon day, I had monster deadlines that weekend and had to skip the WDW marathon. Instead, I ran the following week in the Louisiana Marathon, which is held ten minutes from my house. A recurring theme of my running experience has involved fortuitous timing.)


So anyway I signed up and immediately felt good, because it’s nice to have a long-term goal. I bought an iPod nano or whatever they’re called, and used the integrated Nike+ pedometer on every run from that first day through the last day of training. So I have lots of interesting data.

My first run was on July 8, 2013, in which I clocked a 10:31 per mile on a two-mile run. I remember how little I enjoyed the experience, and how immediately terrifying the thought of running a marathon became. As I would do throughout the process, I reminded myself that it was a long-term goal, and that the stranger on the Internet who came up with the training program couldn’t possibly be lying, because everyone knows that it’s illegal to lie on the Internet.

A few things about my running. The only time I really had (or have) available to run is around 5 a.m., so that’s when I’m usually out there. When I started, it was really hot. Now it’s really cold. I pretty much wore the same thing every day. My old Army PT shorts and a t-shirt. After the first week I bought a new pair of shoes, one size up. (My toes needed a little more room lest my nails would fall off, which sounds pretty awful.) Sometimes I listen to music; sometimes I listen to audiobooks. (I’m still running, thus the tense shift.) At some point I invested in a set of Inspire Pro Yurbuds earphones, which are apparently designed to handle copious amounts of sweat. (My previous set of standard-issue iPod earphones couldn’t handle the sweat, and shorted out midway through a run.) I tried running while holding my iPod, but that was a nightmare. I purchased a cheap-but-reliable armband to wear, and that’s proven pretty great. (Also, the pedometer works perfectly with it, which was a concern.) When it’s really cold outside, I wear a winter cap that I got in Afghanistan, and a soft fleece jacket/sweatshirt thing. I have no idea what common objects around me are called.


I held to one rule: that under no circumstance would I skip a run. Except for two days last month when I had a terrible chest cold of the worst sort, I held to that rule. (So I guess there was a circumstance after all. I was afraid that the cold would get really awful and I’d lose two weeks of training, so it was a trade-off.) I ran in rain. I ran when it was way too hot. I ran when it was way too cold. When we traveled, I ran on hotel treadmills or along mountain roads.

I should clarify here that we’re not talking fast runs. According to Nike+, my average time over the course of 130 runs totaling 682 miles was 10:25. I should also note that the pedometer in the iPod nano is really bad at sprints. There were times when I’d hit an 8 minute pace and have to run an extra half-kilometer just to get credit for running my prescribed number of miles for the day. This was frustrating as the iPod has this great cheerleader feature in which one athlete or another congratulates you whenever you set a new personal time, speed, or distance record. I was robbed of many “I’m [someone who plays some sport]. Congratulations — that was your fastest run yet.”


I always ran the same Four-mile course in my neighborhood. Two miles out, two miles in, for a total of 118 hours, 19 minutes. My average distance was 5.2 miles. (I don’t remember the last time I ran less than 4 miles. That’s my base run.) You might think it gets pretty boring when you’re doing a 20-mile run, and you’re so right. On the upside, I never had to worry about the accuracy of my pedometer. (I was very surprised with its accuracy; even when I do treadmill runs, it manages to keep a nearly perfect pace.) For the most part, I had to run on the road itself; there are few sidewalks in my neighborhood. One thing I learned is that every driver in Louisiana is busy text messaging, and will run you down without hesitation. Anyway, all of this burned a total of 68,528 calories.

I never really got faster, but I did build endurance. Whenever the training program prescribed an increase in the distance of my long run, I was able to keep up, though sometimes barely. At any rate, I took the attitude that if I’m out there running anyway, I might as well make it worth my time.

Marathon day was very interesting. First: I forgot to pick up my “packet” the day before. I didn’t even know what a packet was, so it never occurred to me that it might be extremely important, which it was. It contained my bib number, which apparently has some kind of RFID chip on the back to track my time at various checkpoints.) Note to new marathon runners: be sure to get your packet before the race. The website warned that I would not be able to participate if I didn’t get my packet before the close of business on the day before the race. However, there was a table set up that morning where they distributed them. I lost a couple of hours of sleep worrying about it, though.

On the morning of the race, I arrived around 6 a.m., found a parking spot, and followed a surprisingly large crowd to the starting point. (Something like 1,800 runners participated in the marathon.) Because I have nothing to compare it with, I’m not sure if the race was well-planned or not. It certainly seemed to be. There was a bag check station, where you checked your bag. There were pace runners at the starting point holding signs. Many runners wore headphones, but I went without. I’d learned from experience that after the 15 mile mark, even the slim iPod nano feels like a slab of lead strapped to your arm. I cannot imagine how some people went 26.2 miles wearing iPhones. (For what it’s worth, the first album I saw queued up on an iPhone was the soundtrack to the film Frozen. So it was nice that Disney made an appearance after all.)

MapAbout the race: Just past every mile marker of the race, there were portable toilets and volunteers offering Powerade or water. (Just like on TV, with the paper cups.) Sometimes there were trash cans, but mostly you just tossed your cup after you finished. Every so often, stations handed out energy shot blocks and gel packets. I didn’t train with them, and all the websites said never to try something new while actually running your marathon, but I figured what the hell, and went ahead and used them every so often. The gel went down easy. They have the consistency of peanut butter and come in random fruit flavors. The energy shots were basically cubic gummy bears. It’s going to sound weird, I guess, but it was a lot of fun to chew food after hours of continuous running.

There were cameras set up every six miles or so, and while everyone around me seemed to have some great Facebook pose primed for their photos, I just look tired or bewildered in mine.

I was struck by how many people turned out just to watch the marathon and support the runners. The sidewalks were occasionally very crowded with people, many of whom held signs. “You’re going to finish a marathon today!” was oddly encouraging. (My favorite signs were staggered Burma-Shave-style. “Embrace the pain tunnel,” followed by, “Because it’s coming.”)

My final time was 4:33:28, which seems to be a respectable first-race time. My average pace was 10:27 per mile, which kind of blows me away because my overall average pace throughout my training, according to Nike+, was 10:25. So I pretty much performed exactly on-target. (I guess. Maybe an experienced runner would say those numbers are wildly varied. I have no idea.)

High Five

After the race, there was a food and drink festival where runners could — you guessed it! — eat and drink.

So that’s it. I went from 0 to a marathon in just over 5 months. For what it’s worth, I’m sufficiently recovered that I can run again. I wasn’t sure if I’d lose all motivation after accomplishing the goal, but it seems I haven’t. And I really have learned to enjoy running, which I never would have believed, ever.

I’m not sure who my intended audience is with this post. Prospective runners, I guess. If you stick to it, you really can do it.

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