Capturing the Essence of the Sport One Race at a Time
If you read about running, you've probably read a few articles penned by Jen A. Miller before. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runner's World and ESPNW, Miller regularly shares observations, insights, personal accounts, runners' stories and more. Having been in the sport for ten years, we caught up with Miller recently as she shares her experiences running and writing, as well as what lies ahead.
Running USA (RUSA): First and foremost, why did you first start running? What was the appeal?
Jen A. Miller (JM): I ran my first 5k 10 years ago as of June. I ran it for a very simple reason: because a magazine paid me to run it. I was a new freelancer then and pitched them the idea. It was supposed to be a funny story about someone who hated running but was going to train for a 5k and, to do it, use an online running coach (back in 2006, wasn't as common as it is today). I did much better than I thought. I ran a 22:12, good enough for third in my age group, which in turn won me a mug and a $5 gift certificate to a place where tacos were $6.
The story never ran (although I have all my notes, which is why I was able to put my 5k splits in my book). The magazine staff changed, and the new regime didn't want the story. The experience, though, showed me what running could be. I didn't really "get it" until I trained for my first 10 mile race a year and a half later. Once I started running longer than five miles, I realized that it was probably the best way for my brain to take a break. That first 10 miler was in 2008 - right after the recession wiped out half of my income. I needed a refuge, and running was it.
RUSA: When did you first start writing about running?
JM: Aside from the magazine story that never ran, I wrote my first New York Times running story in December of 2010 (even though I'd been writing for the paper since 2006). It was about my first big running injury - dead butt syndrome. As soon as the doctor told me what it was, I knew it was a story. From there, I started writing about running for a lot of places, including Runner's World and Running Times (RIP). For three years I was the running columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I loved that column (and I'd like to think some of the things I reported on, like issues with the Philadelphia Marathon, lead to real changes that are happening in that race this year) but when the Well section of the New York Times expanded their running coverage, and asked me to be a part of it, I started doing that instead.
RUSA: You've written a lot of great articles on the sport. Are there any in particular that you are especially proud of?
JM: I really loved two pieces I wrote for espnW this year: one about how women have changed running, timed to the Olympic Marathon Trials, and a profile of Bobbi Gibb. Both showed how much women have given to the sport, which I think is a major reason it's more inclusive now - and Bobbi's just an incredible person. I feel so lucky that I got to spend the day in Boston and Cambridge with her.
The most star struck I've been in writing about runners wasn't a pro but when I interviewed Michael Palin from Monty Python for Runner's World. He was the first writer and runner I'd really talked to at a time when I hadn't really thought of the connection. A lot of what he told me then has stuck with me.
I also wrote a story about what role caffeine could be playing in finish line heart attack deaths. This was a hard one to sell, but I found an editor who believed in the piece, and in me. A lot of people brushed aside my findings, but I know that it did change some people's minds and stopped them from downing energy drinks at the starting line and then compounding the effects by taking caffeinated supplements on the course throughout the race. Worth it.
And of course I can't go without mentioning #whorepants. It's seems silly, but it gave women a chance to talk about being harassed, and it's also a way to laugh at what is sometimes a very scary thing.
Then there's the essay that showed me there might be an audience for a book about my experiences running: in March of 2014, I published an essay in the Times called "Running as Therapy." Not only was my inbox flooded with emails from people saying how running helped them too, but it was the very very very very short version of what became Running: A Love Story and the response told me maybe it has a shot. Two months before, I'd locked myself into a hotel room at the Jersey Shore - a room with a window facing a very angry and cold ocean - and wrote the very terrible first draft of the book (and I mean really terrible. All that I wrote of a chapter that ended up being excerpted in the New York Times was "THIS CHAPTER GOES HERE") While I was preparing a proposal for the book, I squeaked out that essay, and it was published a month before I started meeting with agents.
RUSA: Earlier this year your latest book, Running: A Love Story, came out. What was the inspiration for writing it?
Part of it was practical: I had what in the publishing industry people called "a platform." I wrote a lot about running, so why not write a book about it? That could have taken me a lot of places, but I went with memoir because I thought that, especially given the reaction to that last Times essay, I had a story to tell that would interest a lot of people. For the most part, I was right (except for the person who didn't like my book because she didn't like what happened. Hey I didn't like a lot of what happened either!)
RUSA: You've traveled around, met tons of runners and obviously have your hand on the pulse of the sport. What trend is really sticking out in your mind right now that those in the industry need to be aware of?
JM: Two things: first, amateur runners are becoming more aware of and bigger fans of pros - and I don't just think it's a post-Olympics bounce. When I was in New York the weekend before the marathon, I mentioned Molly Huddle's name to a bunch of runners at a bar, and they all went gaga about the fact that I'd run with her. This is a good thing. The more engaged runners are, especially in a sport where we can run the same races at the same times as pros, the better it is for the business of running.
Second, as your own numbers have shown, running is contracting. I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing on the business side - anyone who jumped into the sport to make a quick buck without caring much about runners will go. But that also means races need to be much more in tune to what runners want, and keep in the forefront that we are customers who can take our dollars elsewhere. That doesn't mean spending a ton of money on swag or charging a lot - some of my favorite races this year were are dirt cheap trail events. But knowing your customer, and being in constant communication with them is key.
Part of that means having a crisis communication plan in place in case something bad happens. A lot of races had mistakes this year (I ran one of them), and the ones who came out looking best are those that communicated quickly and openly with runners and the media about what happened. You can't keep runners in the dark when you mess up. We just won't come back.
I fully expect a chunk of races to shut down in the next five years. It's inevitable when there are fewer runner dollars to go around.
RUSA: What's up next in your writing and running adventures?
JM: This has been an insanely busy year on both fronts. Running wise, I did three marathons and my first ultra, and two of those marathons and the ultra were this fall. Yikes. I just ran the New York City Marathon, so right now I'm taking a bit of a break and hiking a lot more than I am running. I'll be doing my local Turkey Trot per tradition, but that's it on the schedule. I'm eyeing up a few things for 2017 but I have no firm plans yet except to run the Ocean Drive 10 miler in March. That was my first 10 miler that really got me into running. This will be the tenth year in a row I'm running it.
Writing wise, most of the same for right now, though traveling so much this year reminded me how much I like travel writing, which was one of my main channels of work before running took over. I spent an awful lot of time in 2016 promoting Running: A Love Story - which isn't a bad thing because people kept coming out, and it's still selling. I expect that to continue next year (I already have two January events about to be locked down).
There's another book out there somewhere, but my brain needs a bit of space first before I can write another proposal. And maybe publishing another New York Times essay that's the condensed version of the book I want to write to see if anyone likes the idea!