First, a disclaimer: Jen is an acquaintance of mine. We went to high school together and now live in the same town and see each other at a lot of running events in South Jersey. I won this book at one such running event over a month before the book's scheduled release. The book is an advanced copy, and slight changes/corrections may have been made before its official release. She did not ask me to write this review.
As a runner, I love to read running books. I've read books by such titans of the sport as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Bart Yasso and Meb Keflezighi. But while it's nice to read about the superheroes of the sport - people with real extrinsic benefits for pursuing excellence - it's nice to hear from the rest of the pack. People that will never win a major race. People that juggle careers outside of running with families and other responsibilities and continue to run for the simple joy of competition and finding one's limits. People like you and me. In writing a love letter to the sport of running, Jen has written Fanfare for the Common Runner.
At just 209 pages, it makes for a quick read. It follows the same disjointed narrative structure as the aforementioned Bill Rodgers, whose memoir Marathon Man includes a mile by mile recap of a single race, with every other chapter filling in the blanks of the rest of his life. In Jen's book, she focuses on her PR marathon, the 2013 New Jersey Marathon, by starting each chapter with a section of that race before moving on to other areas of her life. It follows her humble beginnings as a runner during high school seasons of soccer and softball, to the magazine assignment that had her train for a 5k and record her experience, to the unavoidable progression to longer distances and loftier goals.
Jen's running story is not a unique one. Aside from the fact that she writes about it for national publications, it is the same story played out in every running blog out there these days, including this one. Person goes through hard times, person uses running as therapy, person gets sucked into the running lifestyle, person sets, meets and misses goals... person learns life lessons along the way. The strength of the book lies not in its descriptions of various training cycles or races, then, but in the emotional punch it packs. Put simply, this is the movie Inside Out in book form. Jen takes you through the maelstrom that is her emotions with utter fearlessness. Jen's best trait as a writer is her candidness, her willingness to share everything, and this is a no-holds-barred look into the psyche of a runner.
There is pain to be found in these pages; delicate, raw and heartbreaking pain that should force retrospection from even the most emotionally destitute reader. This is as much a book about running as it is about love, relationships and the pain they bring, and Jen lets us in on the emotional toll that breakups have had on her. There is no shortage of breakups here, but rather than wallow in her pain for long, Jen lets running pick up the pieces and makes herself stronger in the process.
There is humor to be found in these pages. Jen explores the loopy thoughts that plague runners during their long runs, the long tendrils of memory and daydreaming inspired by our surroundings and the goings-on of our days that lift us above the monotony.
There is anger to be found in these pages. Here is Jen hating on the city of Philadelphia with a tangible zest. Here she is spitting profanity at a bar table full of acquaintances over a woman's right to just want to get laid. And here she is, with Xena-like fierceness, staring down anyone who dares malign her beloved Garden State.
But perhaps most importantly, there is love and joy to be found in these pages. There is familial love for a mother who has stood by her side through everything. Three weeks after the bombings in Boston, when Jen expresses fear over her mother standing at the finish line of her marathon, the love I see in this moment is a force. And there is the joy that any runner will relate to: that of executing the perfect race. The final chapter, in which she describes the end of her PR marathon, will have most runners nodding and wistfully reminiscing over their own best race and what it was like to derive joy from such a physically strenuous activity.
Jen's writing throughout the book is clean and proficient, honed over years as a freelance writer, though at times it reads like a greatest hits of her articles from the last ten years. Her journalism background comes into play as her own memories intertwine with historical tidbits and current statistics about the sport. Many of these brief interludes identify women's roles in the sport, including Katherine Switzer's role as the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon.
Published by Seal Press, which publishes "groundbreaking books that represent the diverse voices and interests of women," it's no surprise this book is being marketed towards women. With its many tales of breakup woes and its unapologetic feminism, it makes sense. The question becomes, then, will this book appeal to men? Perhaps a bigger question should be, does it matter? Jen brings the perspective of the female runner to the table in a well realized memoir, and shouldn't that be enough?
For what it's worth, I'll pose one final question: do I recommend it?
Running: A Love Story is now available for purchase:
Barnes and Noble
You can also follow Jen here:
Facebook: Jen A. Miller
Also, Jen is hosting a book launch party at the Haddonfield Running Company this Tuesday March 22nd from 6:30 - 9pm. Free and open to the public.