Robert Andrew Powell’s new memoir details his efforts to qualify for the Boston Marathon at 39, the same age his father was when he qualified. Liam Day had the chance to talk with the author about running, writing, and his relationship with his father.
I suspect that running a marathon is on many of our bucket lists. I know it’s on mine, though I despair of ever being able to cross it off the older I get. The challenge—running 26.2 miles—is great enough that it would force us physically beyond what we do in the normal course of our lives, but accessible enough—compared to, say, climbing Mount Everest—that it is easy enough to imagine we could do it.
When we do visualize running a marathon, it is most likely not the months of training, the long runs on the weekend, that we have in mind, but the moment we cross the finish line, and the feeling of achievement it would bring, that we imagine. It was precisely that moment which led Robert Andrew Powell, author of This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez and We Own This Game, to write his latest book, Running Away, a memoir of training to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
At the age of 39, Powell, recently divorced and feeling somewhat adrift, decided to change his life by setting himself the goal of qualifying for the oldest annual marathon in the world. He moved from his home in Miami to Boulder, Colorado, something of the capital of American long-distance running. He joined a running club, found a trainer, and completely changed his eating and sleeping habits to accomplish his goal.
For Powell, however, the goal of running Boston was more than just a goal, it was an attempt to gain insight into a man whom he had known his whole life, but in that vague way that the children of older generations, when familial responsibilities for men resided predominantly in putting food on the table, only ever knew their fathers.
“My father was a Great Santini-type,” Powell says, referring to the Pat Conroy novel about a marine fighter pilot and his family. “He was a self-made man, the first person in his family to graduate high school.”
“His work was a mystery to me. He was in management consulting, but he didn’t talk about it. He worked hard and brought home the money.”
He was also overweight and smoked three packs a day. However, just as his son would, Powell’s father decided at 39 that he would start running. He stopped smoking, started training, lost weight, and, more remarkably, qualified for the Boston Marathon within a year.
When I asked Powell about his father’s rather unbelievable achievement, he explained, “My father had a natural aptitude for running. Once he lost the weight, he had a runner’s body. He weighed about 125 pounds.”
For obvious reasons, the Boston Marathon looms large in the Powell family history. It is why the author set his sights on the venerable race, which, unlike the New York Marathon, runners must qualify to compete in by completing a sanctioned marathon in under a certain time. For 39 year old men, that time is 3 hours and 10 minutes. For those of you interested in the math, that works out to approximately 7 minutes and 15 seconds per mile for 26.2 miles.
Powell chose the Myrtle Beach Marathon in South Carolina as his qualifier. His father was in attendance. “It scared me to have him there, but when I crossed the finish line, he embraced me and whispered in my ear that he was proud of me. I burst into tears. That moment was why I wanted to write the book, to explain the emotion of it, to provide the context that would help someone else understand why that moment meant so much.”
This is in keeping with how Powell prefers to write. When I asked him about his next writing project, he would only say that it had to do with golf. “I don’t want to put it out there what a project is about, because then I have to write to that. I want to be free to let the organic moments bubble up. I try to be honest, try to be original.”
Though his third book, Running Away is Powell’s first memoir. “I like to read memoirs, but didn’t think I would ever write one. They’re like getting a tour of another person’s brain. The memoirs I like best, such as A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese, chronicle struggle. They confront failure. Talese is a winner, of course, a literary lion. Yet in that book he aches to write just one more big story, and he conveys how painful it feels to keep coming up short.”
Failure looms large in the life of another man Powell met and interviewed during his time in Boulder, the great American marathoner, Frank Shorter, who took gold at the 1972 Olympics, but silver in ‘76. The winner that year, East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski, was known as a steeplechaser, not a marathoner. When the Berlin Wall fell, files from the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police force, revealed an extensive drug program for the country’s Olympic athletes, casting a cumulonimbus cloud of doubt over Cierpinski’s win.
“That Shorter didn’t win the gold in ‘76 eats at him. It may have ruined the rest of his life,” says Powell. “He was a self-taught runner. He used what he called negative examples of how not to run. In a way, I used him as a negative example.”
When I asked him whether he plans to run another marathon, he said no. “I don’t have the personality for it. My father is a Type A, I’m more like a Type L. I’m going to continue running, though. I’ll try to run a half-marathon every year.”
“When you’re running a marathon, and you get to about mile 14 or so, you start to wish the guy who ran all the way to Athens (with the message that the Persians had been defeated) had dropped dead at mile 14 instead of mile 26.”
Robert Andrew Powell’s memoir Running Away is published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. You can purchase a copy at Amazon.
You can read an excerpt at The Good Men Project here.