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First-person running article

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by DGRollins, Jun 23, 2007.

  1. DGRollins

    DGRollins Member

    I was asked to write a first-person article on my experience at a local 10k race. It’s not something that I have a lot of experience at (running or writing first-person stories). The article has yet to be published. Any suggestions for improvement would be appreciated.

    The assignment landed on my desk with a thud. Well, at least it felt that way. Like most things these days, it actually came to me via e-mail, but in my mind there was a dramatic thud. An emotional one anyway.
    I was to enter the Tom Longboat 10k run and write a first-person story about my experience. The run was in two days. Not sure if they had the right person, I wrote a quick reply: “You are trying to kill me, right,” I asked hopefully.
    Sadly, I was the intended recipient of the e-mail.
    So, two days later I found myself sweating profusely through the first minute of what was sure to be a 90 minute—if I was lucky or could flag a cab—ordeal.
    With my throat feeling like I was gargling sawdust, I began to scan the nearby fields for an escape route.
    Suddenly some of the livestock looked promising. Knowing that there was a rodeo coming to the area I thought that I might be able to convince my editor that a first-person account of me riding a bull might make a better story.
    If it bleeds it leads, they always say. Think of the possibilities: “Local sports writer gored by bull” the headline would read. It could work.
    Alas, I knew it wasn’t to be. One kilometer down, I only had one option.
    I had to keep running.

    Not a runner’s body
    Those that have met me will likely understand that I don't really have what one would call a runner's body. I'm, to put it charitably, a little…rounder than most people you would see at a 10k.
    OK, I admit it. I'm tubby. Not a lot, but a little. And I'm terribly out of shape. The great irony of sports writing is that you spend so much time watching sports that you don't have time to take part yourself.
    Whereas I once played recreational hockey, soccer and basketball weekly—and worked out four times a week on top of that—now I more or less just eat at Taco Bell.
    Sadly, as I trudged along, slowly, through that first kilometer of the run, I came to the realization that there wasn't going to be a bean burrito anywhere in my near future. Rather, the next hour of my life promised cramping, sweating, sore feet and some serious soul searching.
    I'm sure the organizers of the run would appreciate the soul searching part. After all, the stated goal of the run was to convince people to become more active. Using the example of Tom Longboat—a Six Nations man who for a period of time early last century was the greatest distance runner in the world—it was thought that people may be inspired to take better care of themselves.

    A worthwhile goal
    It's hard to argue with that. It would be a worthwhile goal anywhere. And considering that studies have consistently shown that Aboriginal Canadians have, on average, higher rates of obesity than non-Aboriginals, and that as a country Canada has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, period, it probably wouldn't hurt any of us to go for a run now or again.
    Now, as a sports writer I know first-hand that Six Nations is a fairly active community. With about 3,000 people taking part in at least one program offered through the Parks and Rec department, many people are already buying into the idea of an active lifestyle.
    Still, as good as the 3,000 number is Parks and Rec director Cheryl Henhawk told me that she would like to see it grow.
    "It comes down to resources," she said. "I only have one full-time staff. It would be nice to have more so that we can offer more."
    However, she said that she was ecstatic with the turnout at the run.
    "It's great to see this many people out," she said while cheering on the late finishers. "We're happy with how the day went."
    As she should be. With more than 150 people taking part, it was an impressive ribbon of complimentary white and purple Tom Longboat t-shirts making its way along the roads around I. L. Thomas school. Many were running, some were running and walking, a few were biking or rollerblading, and some just walked.
    It was all good, really. Not everyone can be the next Tom Longboat after all. His was special talent that only comes around every couple of generations. That's why the run Thursday wasn't a race. There were no timers and no first place ribbons. Henhawk said that's exactly the way that it should be.
    "I don't know," she said when I foolishly asked who the first runner to cross the line was. "That's not really the point."

    What was the point again?
    Ah, the point. I must admit that while huffing and puffing my way up one particularly nasty hill I was having difficulty understanding what exactly that point was. I know that if my car suddenly, magically appeared on the horizon I would have had difficulty resisting the temptation to jump in and "finish" the race in it—pushing down the accelerator, that's exercise, right?
    And then I saw it. A simple purple sign strategically located at the top of the hill. "Challenge yourself," it said. "You're almost there!"
    I've never been one for the Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil inspirational gobbledygook, but there was something about that sign. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the sight of so many others struggling up the hill, but at that moment those words were exactly what I needed to see.
    "Damn right," I thought. "I can challenge myself. I can finish this run!"
    And I did—slowly.
    After talking the night before with my better-half Andrea (who recently completed the Ottawa half-marathon and was having a good laugh at my expense when I told her that I had been asked to run in the event), I employed the time-honoured "five and one" strategy of long-distance running. For every five minutes I spent running, I would walk for one minute. Also on Andrea's advice, I only ran for half the distance, choosing to walk briskly for the last half (you are no good to me dead of a heart attack was what she diplomatically said the night before).
    She's a smart one my Andrea. Understanding your limitations and devising an exercise program that fits within them is key for anyone looking to get back on the fitness wagon. Mixing walking and running is highly recommended for novice joggers. The recovery that walking provides allows you to train longer and to run longer distances. It also helps to prevent you from hurting yourself—no pain, no gain is an antiquated concept that is universally rejected by those that know what they are talking about.
    Those that properly build their running capabilities through a walk-run strategy will be motivated to stay with the sport longer. Soon, instead of walking for one minute for every five minutes of running, you will stretch things out to ten minutes of running before walking.
    Eventually, a 10k run won't be daunting at all. Depending on your age and current fitness level it could take as short as 10-weeks to go from being a non-runner to being able to reasonably run that length of race.

    Out of control
    Not that running is the be-all for everyone. Beyond my extra "padding" on my waistline, an old soccer injury makes distance-running challenging for me. But, as I completed the last few kilometers of the event, I understood that things had gotten too much out of control.
    I not yet at the point where I need an elevator to go up a flight of stairs and people aren't yet pointing and staring at me on the street. But, I'm not happy with myself for letting my fitness level slip to the point where I legitimately have to consider whether it is safe for me to try and run 10k.
    I work long hours, but so do lots of people. Like we've always been told, it really does only take 20 minutes a day to get and stay healthy.
    As I was chastising my too tubby self I started to look around at the other participants. I wondered what brought them out. Were some, like me, forced? Were others there in an effort to jumpstart themselves into a healthy lifestyle? If so, was it working?
    And then I spotted him--a young boy, maybe 10 or 11, running erratically along the route. I say erratically, because he was running at full speed up the course, stopping, turning around, and then running just as fast back to almost the same point that he had started at. His mother drove beside him in a SUV, encouraging him.

    Remembering when it was fun
    Not that he required much encouragement. As the rest of us huffed and puffed, he carried on full, lengthy conversations while sprinting along the course. It was clear that to this boy running wasn't exercise so much as it was a form of transportation.
    Watching him got me thinking about my childhood. How I used to get up on a Saturday morning and play tennis for two hours, then road hockey for four more, all as a warm-up to my soccer game in the evening. I remembered the pure joy that activity used to give me and I longed to go back to that point of my life.
    At what point in our life does taking part in a physical activity become work and why does it have to happen? Maybe I can't ever bring the type of energy to an activity that the young boy was, I suddenly understood, but there was no reason that I couldn't bring the same enthusiasm.
    Above all else, the young boy was reminding me of an essential fact about physical activity—it's fun. A blast, really, and it has the potential to bring joy, purpose and a tremendous sense of achievement to our lives.
    It was with those thoughts in my head that I turned the final corner of the course. With the finish line in view I broke into a light jog, looking to finish the event with a little style. Then suddenly a smile broke across my face—I had challenged myself and I had been successful.
    It felt amazing.
    Crossing the finish line I spotted the young boy again. He was walking towards me carrying a new volleyball.
    "Look what I won," he exclaimed to me. "Isn't it awesome!"
    Stopping, I took the ball and held it for a moment, spinning it in my hands as I looked it over.
    "It is awesome," I said, "really awesome."
    In our X-Box world it was a relief to see a child legitimately excited by something as simple as a ball. And at that moment I had no doubt that the boy would make good use of his new toy.
    It was just a ball, I understood, but I had hope that it could be an instrument for so much more. It could lead to a healthier life for the boy, it could help keep him out of trouble and, just maybe, in time, it could help him become a hero and a role model for his community.
    Yes, it was an awesome ball indeed.
  2. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member


    Thanks for posting and taking on this challenge of writing first-person. These things are tricky because there is a thin line between a good first-person and a bad first-person piece.

    You story is not bad. You have plenty of areas that are quality first-person stuff.

    The stuff I liked was how you felt when you were running. It was descriptive and really put the reader in your shoes.

    What I didn't like was what seemed like to me an excessive background story on yourself as well as certain instances like "I've never been one for Dr. Phil gobbledygook" or lines like "she's a smart one my Andrea."

    This was throughout and, for me, it didn't resonate. While you were apart of the story, I would have liked it centered around something else, like what goes into training for a 10k... this was the graph where I thought: This was your angle!

    "As I was chastising my too tubby self I started to look around at the other participants. I wondered what brought them out. Were some, like me, forced? Were others there in an effort to jumpstart themselves into a healthy lifestyle? If so, was it working?"

    With this as your centerpiece, you lede be descriptive about how you felt during the race, then talk to other competitors, hard core runners, casual runners, etc. As you had it, your lede about getting the story might work if you audience was journalists, but it isn't.

    Best example I can give is Tom Verducci's story on being an umpire last spring training. He had a beautiful balance about working as an umpire, but it was more about the umpire world than Tom Verducci being a umpire.

    I guess that is how I would approach these first-person stories. It's more about the actual event or angle of your story than it is you. I think you did this well for portions and other portions it was too much self-centered.

    Again, considering the challenge it was good, but not great. Thanks again for posting and good luck.
  3. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    Sorry, Dawg, but I respectfully disagree.

    He was given TWO DAYS notice to run this race. I thought the first-person stuff was perfectly appropriate. Information about what goes into training for a 10-K run would NOT have fit, in my opinion, because that's not what this story is about. It's about an out-of-shape guy running 6.2 miles at the drop of a dime. So his girlfriend telling him he's of no use to her after a heart attack is appropriate, because this guy's going from sedentary to 6.2 miles in 48 hours. And I can totally see the hokey YOU CAN DEWWWWWWWW IT poster resonating when you're exhausted and looking for any inspiration to continue.

    Tom Verducci's story worked because he's Tom freakin Verducci. The guy is an outstanding athlete and has covered baseball for 20-odd years. He has the contacts and the experience to provide the umpire's take.

    DGRollins could only provide the take of a couch potato who decided to run 6.2 miles on the spur of the moment, and I thought he did a great job. I really, really enjoyed this...quite possibly b/c I see a lot of myself in the author. When DID exercise become a chore? Why can't we enjoy running around as much as we did as kids? Why can't we find the time to get in shape? I bet there's a lot of people in DG's audience who felt the same way. Along those lines, the kid with the volleyball at the end was a great way to tie everything together.

    This was really good stuff, DG. Thanks for sharing.
  4. John

    John Well-Known Member

    It ran on a little long for my taste, but overall I liked it. There was a lot of good stuff in there. It reminded me a little of a Lewis Grizzard column -- and all he ever did was drink and smoke -- about running the Peachtree Road Race course at 3 a.m., just to prove that he could do it.
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    DG -

    Thanks for posting.

    I'm going to land in the middle of the comments posted so far. I think the piece is fundamentally sound, but could be a little tighter - and a little more tightly focused. A few quick observations:

    - I've found over the years that most readers aren't very interested in why I might be covering a story. They just want the story. This is a pretty good general rule, except in the rare circumstance where the story's origin actually impinges on the story itself, i.e. "I never thought I'd be living as a cannibal and then writing about it, but when my plane crashed in the Amazon and I was left with nothing but a notebook, a pencil, and the succulent haunches of my seatmates, what was I to do?", etc.

    - Which leads me to this: You never explain why the story was handed to you on such short notice. If you raise an issue in a piece, do so only because you intend to resolve it.

    - Which leads me to this: Try not to ask questions in a story that you're not going to answer. As DPDH points out above, you ask these questions rhetorically -
    "As I was chastising my too tubby self I started to look around at the other participants. I wondered what brought them out. Were some, like me, forced? Were others there in an effort to jumpstart themselves into a healthy lifestyle? If so, was it working?"- but never answer them.

    - Which leads me to this: The most compelling component in any story is never the 'how', but the 'why'.

    - I think I might have flipped a couple of sections and ended the piece with some version of the "We're happy how the day went" quote.

    - As an exercise, you should come back to this piece a year from now, read it down and see what you think. Could it be 25% shorter without losing any impact or information?

    - First-person pieces, even humor pieces, are very tough. In addition to being virtuously honest, the writer must be an astute observer and recorder of his or her own mental and emotional state. I think you succeeded terrifically well in the first regard. In the second, I'd say you could dig a little deeper into your own consciousness the next time you do something like this.

    This was a solid effort and a good job and you should be proud of it.

    Thanks again.
  6. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member

    I completely repsect where you're coming from, BYH. Aside from Verducci's contacts, the way he balanced placing himself in the story with the story of being an MLB umpire is what I thought all first-person stories should try and duplicate.

    Again, DG does that very well at times. And you're right, given the two days to prepare does limit what angles he can take. I agree. I didn't really think about that when I was posting.

    I guess I've seen too many first-person stories or columns where writers go way overboard with the first-person stuff, so I'm very skeptical of these things.

    DG did a great job a lot of the times throughout the story, some parts I think fell short. But overall, still a solid effort.
  7. BYH

    BYH Active Member

    I completely agree with that. In fact, that's why I clicked on here...kind of like "Oh boy. This doesn't sound like a good idea." I would never, ever hammer a guy for posting his stuff on this board, but I read it expecting the usual first-person fluff.

    Instead, I found it to be really good.
  8. DGRollins

    DGRollins Member

    Thanks guys. I appreciate the effort...

    I agree it could have been a bit tighter. I likely would have trimmed down the "five and one" section quite a bit if I had longer on this (I had to turn it around in 48-hours. Ideally, I think, you should step away from a story like this for a couple days before the final edit).

    I was never entirely happy with the lead. This is actually the third form it took in the writing process. Again, it came down to time.

    The boy with the ball anecdote was actually my starting point, for what it's worth. I knew I wanted that in the story, wrote it, and then tried to find a way to bring it into the story. As I was writing it became apparent that it was my ending--I worried that it might be a bit too hokey, but I'm actually pretty happy with that portion.

    I'm glad some of you enjoyed it. It was fun to write. It wasn't fun to "research," but I did go out and join the Y yesterday (much to Andrea's delight!).

    Question: I'm wondering if I should include this in my clips? I'm not sure if a first-person story would make the right first impression...but I do think the story illustrates some of my strengths as a writer...thoughts?
  9. dawgpounddiehard

    dawgpounddiehard Active Member

    Yeah! I'd include it in your clips. It is just another way you can showcase your writing ability along with gamers, features, enterprises and profiles.
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