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Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time Paperback – October 22, 2013
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Q&A with Caleb Daniloff
Q. How did you come up with the idea to run marathons in all of the places where you used to drink and behave badly?
A. I wrote an essay for Runner’s World about how I used running as a sobriety tool and it came out a few months before the 2009 Boston Marathon, which I had signed up for. Boston was my first marathon and I felt like I’d be conquering something with it, though I wasn’t sure what. Then I happened to notice that Burlington, Vermont, where I’d lived for a number of years, hosted a marathon four weeks later and I thought it might be interesting to run through that old stomping ground. It seemed a shame to waste all the training I’d done for Boston on one race.
Both Boston and Burlington were places where I did some heavy drinking, so what started as a way to carry my training over to a second marathon became something more. Then I found out that Moscow had a marathon a few months after Burlington, and New York a few months after that. And so it went. It was almost like the races presented themselves to me.
Q. You write that running didn’t help you quit drinking, but helped you survive sobriety. Can you explain?
A. Quitting drinking is one thing, a very hard thing, but navigating sobriety is another beast altogether. It’s lonely, depressing, panicky, insecure, frustrating, at times enraging, and hopeless-feeling. It’s starting over, giving up dreams as well as delusions. There’s a big hole you’re suddenly facing. It’s figuring out who you were, who you are now. It’s about making amends, and ultimately finding a sort of peacefulness or reconciliation. It takes a long time and you can beat yourself up pretty well along the way. But at some point, you have to stop, accept the loose ends and the things you can’t change, try and be a positive force, and live your life.
Q. And running filled the hole?
A. There were many years of stagnation and operating from fear. Running gave me back a sense of forward motion, the courage to take action, to move through things rather than around them. It brought richness back to my life.
Q. Why didn’t you go the AA route?
A. I used to get in a fair amount of trouble because of drinking. I was ordered to plenty of AA meetings, group therapy sessions, and psychiatrists offices. Those settings were like punishment to me and groups had always made me feel claustrophobic and panicky, certainly without a drink in my hand. Those feelings were still there when I quit, maybe even more pronounced. I also believed, rightly or wrongly, in muscling through, in a certain Soviet-style stoicism. I’m sure there are AA folks who would claim I went about sobriety the wrong way. Who knows, maybe I’d have moved farther faster in an AA setting. I have nothing against AA and I’d never discourage anyone from going. I have stolen bits and pieces of its philosophy over the years, but I don’t believe in One True Paths. AA people talk about eventually reaching the stage where one neither regrets nor shuts the door on the past. I neither regret, nor, clearly, have I shut the door on my past.
Q. Is running really a spiritual activity?
A. For me, it is, or it certainly can be. Because running is physically demanding, there is simply no room to bullshit yourself. You come to face to face with who you are. It’s you at your essence. You can sort through problems, answer nagging questions, witness creative thoughts bubbling up. The repetitive rhythm can become mesmerizing and you achieve a kind of presence or awareness, and feel certain truths. It’s freedom from yourself, and from the world. Something magical happens within that space.
Q. What role did your parents play in trying to get you help for your drinking?
A. They confronted me and forced me to see psychiatrists. “The drinking” was an ongoing issue, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground. But theirs was mostly a punitive approach, which fueled me to act out even more, especially against anything and anyone I deemed the slightest bit authoritative. Eventually, I became more secretive and put greater, albeit not always successful, effort into covering my tracks and minimizing my exposure. There were many years of distrust and distance on both sides.
Q. In the book, you consider whether former drunks can truly be happy again. Have you been able to answer this?
A. Until four or five years ago, I was doubtful. I figured the low-level misery was simply punishment for all the negative impact I’d had. To feel joy was somehow disrespectful to those I’d harmed. The general discomfort was just and something I’d have to live with, a fact. But at some point, you realize you weren’t put on this earth to be a vessel of quiet suffering or negativity. You can and you must earn permission to be happy again, to feel joys, to feel life. It might take a while to get there, but you have to try. Life is just too short. To do otherwise is to continue living a wasted life.
Q. Do you consider yourself recovered?
A. By my definition and standards, yes. Or pretty close. You never really fully recover from anything.
Q. Would you ever take a drink again?
A. Sometimes when I think about never drinking again, it breaks my heart. So I tend not to think in absolutes. I used to give myself these deadlines: ten years and you can have a drink; be sober as long as you were drinking; run a marathon for every year you drank; run a 100-miler and you can crack a beer at the finish line. But convincing myself that I have that option almost makes it easier. I just keep putting it off. I have no plans to drink. I’ve been sober almost 14 years. I’m used to it. And there is a part of me that fears what might happen. I’d hate to throw all of this away.
Q. What if you couldn’t run anymore? Does this worry you?
A. It used to. But these days, you can run in almost any condition—legless, armless, blind. If my joints start acting up, I’ll consider Vibrams. I also do yoga and there’s always swimming, which I used to love. As long as I can stay active and sweat and pump my heart, I’ll think I’ll be OK. Though, in my view, nothing beats running.
Q. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
A. Letting it go. It’s my first book and I desperately wanted it to be perfect and annoyed my copyeditor with multiple last-minute changes. I continued to revise it in my head; I know I can make it better, just give me another chance. It’s easy to lose perspective when you’ve been working on something intensely for several years. But you have to let it be, imperfections and all, and move on.
"A vital, honest, and arresting account of one flawed runner’s emotional and spiritual renewal with each step toward the finish line."
—Booklist "In an engaging voice, the author brings the courses alive for readers. He replicates the physical demands of running such courses and the barriers, mental and physical, that need to be broken through to get to the finishing line. He interweaves the story of each race with memories and dialogue from the past, and he is candid about his childhood problems and his competition with his marathon-running father. Confidence in the future lends appeal to this deeply personal memoir."
—Kirkus Reviews "Daniloff’s unblinking, ultimately triumphant account of his journey from mean, hopeless drunk back to humanity and himself—through distance running. It’s a searing tale of spiritual redemption—one marathon, one mile, one brave, difficult step at a time."
—Steve Friedman, co-author of New York Times bestseller, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Path to Ultramarathon Greatness "Caleb Daniloff once poured everything he had into his drinking, and it nearly killed him. Then he poured everything into his running, and he was saved. Now he pours everything into writing about both, and we are graced by the result. Running Ransom Road is a brave, necessary, and uncompromising book."
—John Brant, author of Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon
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Top Customer Reviews
Daniloff divided his book into chapters describing seven races he had run, starting with his first marathon - the Boston Marathon, which he entered through a charity, and ending with Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. The described races are not all the races he had run - only the ones that he had chosen as important, connected in some way with some periods in his life. He lives in Boston, so Boston was quite obvious... And he was born in Washington. Going on with the races, Daniloff describes his past and this memoir serves as his catharsis. He writes honestly about very painful and shameful events from his past. I think not everyone would have courage to do it.
A son of a journalist, Daniloff moved with his family where his father got a job as a correspondent. The move to Moscow when Caleb was in school, had a great impact on the life stability - his sister decided to stay in the US, he did not know the language, the reality of the Soviet Russia was dramatically different that the American dream, and at the end his father was arrested by the KGB, accused of being a spy. Daniloff, always a rebel, experimented with drugs and alcohol, and eventually found himself an alcoholic and struggled with the addiction for fifteen years. He claims that running was essential for his recovery and profound changes in his life - now, with a stable job and happy marriage, he seems to be a fulfilled man.
Catharsis aside, the book is also a great book about running, the famous marathons (Boston, New York and Marine Corps) are rendered faithfully, but with a personal twist. Daniloff writes about his emotional and physical state during each race as well as describes the courses, the potential pitfalls and challenges, and his preparations. I liked also the inclusion of smaller, local races (it would be hard to find a marathon in Gill, MA, where Daniloff went to boarding school), which have a special flavor to them and are a tradition for many people living in the area. The chapter about the Moscow Marathon was especially interesting - the hilarious description of the race contrasted vividly with Daniloff's memories (so silmilar to mine from Poland at this time) and his meetings with old friends, now so much distant.
Initially, it took me a while to get used to Daniloff's slightly chaotic writing style, but then I got into the rhythm of his prose, which probably reflects his personality (I think he is a person I would like to meet and chat for a while). And yes, I believe him - distance running (like any sport, probably, which requires time, discipline and passion) can change one's life to an unimaginable degree. I am happy it changed his in a way it did.
The result is perhaps my favorite book on marathoning. It is certainly the one with the most dog-ears on my paperback copy, and definitely the one which spoke most personally to my experience as a marathoner and recovering addict who is constantly running to stay just a few steps faster than the addiction demons nipping at my heels.
The author visits marathons located in key locations related to his history of addiction; Boston, New York, Moscow, and his place of birth, Washington DC, among other races. The book shoots back and forth from past to present, linking the author's current thoughts and goals of running to his past life of self-destruction. The author recounts and reflects on his alcoholism, fighting through an understanding as his legs fight to keep moving towards the finish line. Yes, he is the very unlikely marathoner, considering the extent to which he dedicated his life to drinking. The goal is partially to break the 4 hour barrier, but also to break through to a better understanding of himself, and come to something close to peace with the wreckage of his past.
Each chapter is a race, and we experience the intriguing mindset of the author journeying through 4 marathons, and three races in an 18 month period
What is wonderful about the book is that Daniloff is a gifted writer first, or at least that's what shines through, and his personality is one which has all of the interesting jagged yet fragile edges of an addict, and with all the determination and stubbornness of a distance runner.
The metaphors he uses are tremendous, and I am thinking that a handful of writers could make a living off the scraps of metaphors Daniloff has come up with but never used.
And there isn't a marathoner out there of all speeds who won't connect with his writing descriptions. I've always felt if running could be fully described, then it wouldn't be running but something much less, as it's effects escape meaning that words can give. Daniloff describes the joys of running in a spectrum of phrases that came close, and more importantly, it was clear that he "gets it"- as running elitist as that sounds. The near stream of conscious running descriptions rival those of any running book, and are fresh, subliminal and poetic.
All of this, but you'll also find the mundane yet near universal experience of navigating a pee in the bushes at the beginning of a marathon, the importance of body-gliding one's nipples, and the constant runner's math all of us do trying to push our body past the finish line in some arbitrary time trying to prove we're worthy.
Yet, this is certainly not a technical piece on running. Not until the end, in fact, does the author realize the importance of keeping an even pace through a marathon to get his best result (when he speaks of `banking' time, you can't help but scream "no, don't do it!) But I think this is what keeps the novel honest and raw. Once you start getting into lactate acid threshold levels and tempo runs and marathon pace runs and Yasso 800-ing and McMillan-ing, something is partially ruined that can't be gained back. The author would turn from garage-band runner into an overly produced piece of work. How different all of our runs might be if we never bit the technical running apple.
Rather than a lesson on how to run, it's an inward, honest self-reflection of a private world that is fragile, longing for something different, yet, as he describes in one interview "in love with this alienation" that addiction brings. The sense of loneliness continues even in his recovery, where he does not share deep experiences with sponsors and other recovery folks, and, in fact, laments changing relationships with past alcohol-imbibing friends. It is a solo descent into his addiction as well as a solo ascent to recovery. At the same time, there's the silent connection to both runners and the spirit of the run itself.
I particularly enjoyed the Boston and New York marathon stories, one I have ran and the other I am preparing for, but the Moscow experience of doing a marathon is one not to be missed. Cultural differences do impact marathon aid stations.
If you've read a ton of running books, you may not have read one like this, and if you've read a ton of self-discovery books, where there's a final AA speech in front of a crowd, and you get your token, and then your spouse appears at the back of the room, and everybody cries, and true love lasts forever, and a REM song plays. No, this is not the one either. Illuminations and epiphanies sprinkle down during runs, and they are received with a questioning uncertainty of one who is always running to figure out who they are. This is what life is, this is especially what recovery is, and as the author states, "No longer do I run from my demons, but with them." but the run must go on, since, " you never outrun your demons, but if you maintain forward motion you might just get them to tire a little."
Mark Matthews, author of Stray and The Jade Rabbit