How I Trained For a Marathon Using Mysteries

This is a guest post from Julia Pistell. Julia is a writer in Hartford, Connecticut. She is the host of the podcast Literary Disco, the Director of Writing Programs at the Mark Twain House, the co-founder of Sea Tea Improv, and an occasional radio producer and guest for WNPR. Check out more of her work on www.juliapistell.com. Follow her on Twitter @echochorus.

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It was a brutal goal, really. Running 26.2 miles that fall. In high school I was always the last one to finish the mile in the presidential fitness test. I have a memory of some dumb guy making fun of my heavy breathing as I rounded lap three, and slowing to a walk so he wouldn’t hear me struggle any more. I was the book nerd, dammit, athletics weren’t my thing.

But more than a decade had passed and everything had changed: I became obsessed with meeting this goal. 26.2 seemed possible in a big race, with friends and loved ones and water stations along the way. The only problem was the training. Physically, it was tough, but mentally it was tougher. It was boring. There were only so many times I could listen to my 90’s mixes, and the whole time I kept thinking about how much other work I had to do. There were books to read out there, back in my warm, inviting house.

It all changed when I once forgot to load my music and instead clicked on Gone Girl, a book I’d received as a free download for trying out Audible. Until that moment I didn’t care for audiobooks; I wanted the real paper thing in my hands. But now my hands were busy clutching water bottles. I put on Gone Girl and started running, and I kept going for over an hour.

Who was this guy? Who was this woman? What was even happening with this story? I had to know. I made a rule: no audiobooks unless I was running. I was not allowed to sit in my house and finish a chapter. Every time I couldn’t stand not knowing what would happen, I put on my sneakers and ran out the door, chasing Amy.

I ran my way through Gone Girl. I ran my way through In the Woods and The Likeness. I ran through Stephen King’s Maine, Agatha Christie’s trains, Sherlock Holmes’s London. I even interval-trained my way through the entirety of The Pillars of the Earth— a more than 30-hours-long audiobook.

Rules emerged: for a book to be worth running through, it had to drive me. Instead of turning the page I had to put one foot in from of the other, an act that took so much effort, the story had to be worth it. Mysteries worked better than quiet, contemplative books; tangled plots worked better than re-reads where I knew everything that had happened. Finding out whodunit was the ultimate refueling station.

My runs got longer. I got stronger, driven by what I was good at: reading. My own curiosity was my personal trainer.

I ultimately made it through my marathon, crushing my expected time by half an hour. For that run, I took the headphones off, able only to focus on the mystery of my own life: was I athletic enough for this? Was I capable? Could I wrap up the lifelong mystery of whether or not I was athletic without some deus ex machina?

I was capable. I did solve that particular mystery. But as always, books took me there.

Do you work out to audiobooks? Which are your favorites?

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