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Going the Distance: A Reading List on Running

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As the sun washes the sky pastel, my feet clip in an even rhythm down the street and my breath settles into a ragged cadence. Swallows dart out from beneath a bridge, swooping through the new morning. When my Garmin lights, notifying me of a mile, I press forward. As the time stretches on, the sear in my hamstrings heightens and my lungs seek air. Hunting down the same elusive times I do nearly every morning, I run until I hit the six-mile mark where I ease up, allowing my legs to rest.

When I return from my runs, I record the distance and splits from each individual mile. I have been doing so for 13 years. When I line my records up on the floor, a profile of my former self takes shape. When I was merely 13, for example, I recorded that I started running at 7:11 AM, and ran eight miles in 59:21, averaging a pace of 7:25. My records sometimes list complaints: “Legs felt like bricks,” “legs hurt,” “windy,” or “toe bled a lot,” and still the mileage remains consistent with my training plan, the splits even.

There is a theme in my journals — and in my daily pursuit of distance — of the identity I’ve found in running, one that thrives on equal parts pleasure and pain. Running requires diligence that often borders on obsession, and, in chasing faster times and longer distances, I perpetually push my body to the brink of what is possible, until I teeter on the precipice of harm.

I used to find community in my high school team, and, for a short time, as a Division I athlete, but now alone, I find solace in several exceptional essays that open conversations about the limits of the body, of developing an identity through running, and, mostly, why any of us run in the first place.

1. “Running Towards My Father” (Devin Kelly, LitHub, June 2017)

Devin Kelly opens his essay with a description of his father, who is out for his daily three-mile run.

When he runs, my father’s breathing hustles to a rhythmic grunt punctuated by each footfall, accompanied by the swish of his nylon jacket. I have never seen my father bend or stretch. Before he runs, he takes off the clothes he does not need and begins, simply, as if a bird did not have to flap a feather before flying.

Kelly deftly weaves together his father’s running habit with his own pursuit of long distances, exploring failure, connections between running and writing, our identity as “creatures of longing,” and accepting pain, describing the sensation of “knowing how to dance along the thin line that is where your mind meets your body, about listening and being generous to yourself, about adjusting and re-adjusting, about, like so much else, trust.”

2. “How Running Ruined my Relationship, Killed My Faith…and Saved My Life” (Allison Stockman, Narratively, April 2018)

Allison Stockman, at 15, meets her first boyfriend who, while running, “had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine.” So begins their romance, one complicated by her Mormon faith.

I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.

Throughout this essay, one that opens with a doctor prescribing Prozac and a 20-minute daily run in an in-patient psych ward, Stockman makes clear the ways that religion, running, and identity are linked in complicated — and often heartbreaking — ways. Running becomes both a lifeline and a metaphor, a way of making sense of an arduous personal transformation.

I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life.

3. “This Man Expects to Run a 2:50 in the Boston Marathon on Monday” (Lindsay Crouse, The New York Times, April 12, 2018)

Tim Don, at 40, had spent the majority of his life pursuing excellence as a competitive athlete, which not only gave him sponsorships and a career, but also much of his identity. When he was hit by a car during a pre-race bike ride, he suffered a hangman’s fracture, breaking his C2 vertebrae. Immobile and in pain, he made it clear that “a return to competition was his only option.”

In this harrowing story, Lindsay Crouse chronicles Don’s will to not only run the Boston Marathon, but run it in under 2:50. In order to reach the starting line, Don’s doctors equip him with a halo device, one in which titanium pins are screwed directly into the skull. Don’s story is one that raises questions about how far a person can — and should — go to pursue a sport:

Is his drive to compete again — the same drive that enabled him to record the world’s fastest time in one of the world’s most grueling races — fueling an incredible comeback? Or is he risking his health in pursuit of athletic feats that may no longer be attainable?

4. Amelia Boone is Stronger Than Ever (as told to Marissa Stephenson, Runner’s World, June 19, 2018)

Amelia Boone, who won the “World’s Toughest Mudder — a 24-hour nonstop obstacle course race – in 2012, 2014, and 2015,” was known as the “Queen of Pain” in endurance running for pushing the limits of bodily discomfort, course difficulty, and distance. There seemed to be no end to what Boone could accomplish with what she describes as a vicious internal pressure to never let herself fail:

I felt so much external pressure to keep winning. You have to keep winning, Amelia. You have to keep winning. What happens when you don’t win anymore? I felt like I had to put on this persona: Amelia’s a badass. Amelia will power through. This was an image I lived in for years, and it never felt comfortable to me.

After suffering a femur fracture, Boone attempts to return to competition by cross-training with unmatched intensity. But instead of finding herself back on the starting line, she ends up with a stress fracture in the base of her spine, and is finally forced to reconcile the disparity between the voice in her head telling her to chase perfection and the limits of her body. In this candid, moving essay, she addresses the importance of dismantling her own veneer of perfection to find true, lasting strength.

5. A Marathon, a Goal Time, the Sublime, and a Wolf (Jeanne Mack, Medium, November 2017)

Jeanne Mack, in an essay chronicling her training for the New York City Marathon, articulates the way in which long distance running asks us to press against the borders of everything we believe possible.

In literature, the concept of the sublime is something equally beautiful and terrifying; it is awe-filling. It’s something so great, infinite, or obscure that it’s inconceivable. This fall, that, for me, described the marathon distance. It towered somewhere in the sky, above anything else I’d tried to accomplish before.

Mack, who trains mostly in solitude, explores the tension between the recommended splits she hits during training and the inherent knowledge of her own potential. In isolation, she proves her strength time and time again to herself, communing with her body and the world around her during runs. Always, even in light of too-quick splits or a wayward GPS, she finds a way to surge toward her goals, what she terms “the edge of the sublime.”

6. The Immortal Horizon (Leslie Jamison, The Believer, May 2011)

Set at the Barkley Marathons, a race notorious for its difficult terrain, length, and mysterious entry procedures, Leslie Jamison illuminates how myths and stories are created while asking, why do we run? Jamison explores obsession, redemption, control, willpower, and pain, circling the idea of long distance running as if she was a hawk, wheeling closer and closer to the heart of the sport as this eleven-part essay progresses.

The persistence of “why” is the point: the elusive horizon of an unanswerable question, the conceptual equivalent of an un-runnable race.

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir of running and illness.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from David Dayen, M.H. Miller, T. Cooper, Caren Lissner, and Michael Adno.

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The Big Unsolved Mystery of Little Marjorie West

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Four-year-old Marjorie West was snatched by someone (…or something…?) from a Pennsylvania park in 1938. Her case remains one of the oldest unsolved mysteries in the U.S. and theories still abound — did a she-bear take her? A wildman? Is she still alive? Caren Lissner details the case’s history and the media frenzy it created for Narratively. The tale includes shoulder-to-shoulder searches, John Walsh’s Stranger Danger, and there’s even a mention of professional wrestler Ric Flair.

Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.

If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.

Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.

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To Reflect, To Love, and To Protest: A Pride Month Reading List

Celebrating Pride Month offers us the opportunity to reflect, to love, and to protest. This year, queer folks around the country mobilized and protested, carrying signs calling for the end of ICE and separating families at the border, anti-gun violence, Black Lives Matter, anti-police presence, and President Donald Trump’s impeachment. I take pride in the increasingly mainstream intersectionality of the LGBTQIA+ movement. For me, the energy of Pride motivates the intense volunteer work I do year-round. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of need, but Pride reminds me that there’s a whole community of LGBTQIA+ folks and allies who have my back. Below is just a sample of the excellent stories and interviews I read throughout June.

1. “I Found God at Queer Summer Camp.” (Jeanna Kadlec, Narratively, June 2018)

 

This essay stunned me from its first paragraph, and it inspired me to create this reading list. Jeanna Kadlec does a brilliant job explaining the layers of trauma ex-fundamentalist Christians grapple with daily, but her essay is shot through with joy, wonder, and hope. As my Southern, Christian college professor would say, I commend it to you. If you’d like to learn more about A-Camp after reading Kadlec’s essay, there’s a delightful roundtable of counselors and campers sharing their experiences.

2. “What It Means to be Trans & at the Beach in America.” (Lia Clay, Refinery29, July 2017)

I rejoiced in these beautiful photos and the accompanying meditations about cis allyship, the inadequacy of safe spaces, body positivity versus dysphoria, and establishing conscientious boundaries.  This is the first summer I’ve thought seriously about what I’d like to wear and how I’d like to be perceived at the beach. Last summer, I bought a pair of robin’s-egg blue swim trunks, but never wore them. I’m still not sure what to wear on top. A bikini with a t-shirt over it? A binder? Maybe I’ll wear something else entirely, something that hasn’t been invented yet. May these photos inspire you to have your freest summer ever and wear whatever fills you with comfort and confidence. Check out “14 Photos of New York’s Queer Beach During Pride” from Them, if your heart craves even more queer joy.

3. & 4. “I Detransitioned. But Not Because I Wasn’t Trans.” and “Why is the Media So Worried About the Parents of Trans Kids?” (The Atlantic, June 2018)

Skip the The Atlantic’s misguided attempt at a timely cover story and read Robyn Kanner and Thomas Page McBee’s thoughtful responses instead. Hire trans people to report and write trans stories, please.

5. “Journalist Jenna Wortham on Cultivating Community for Queer People of Color.” (Taryn Finley, Huffington Post, June 2018)

Jenna Wortham is a force of nature, a podcast host and tech reporter who balances creating brilliant work with enforcing her own boundaries and self-care. Interviewer Taryn Finley describes Wortham’s work “as a salve for the marginalized.”

6. “Heteronormativity is the Ultimate Karaoke: An Interview with Chelsey Johnson.” (Leni Zumas, Tin House, March 2018)

Chelsey Johnson is the author of one of my favorite books, Stray City. It’s a novel about Andrea Morales, a young queer woman living in ’90s Portland grappling with an unexpected pregnancy and shifting definitions of family and community. It’s a book imbued with warmth, one I wish I could read again for the first time. In this interview with Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks, Johnson discusses “counter[ing[ the canonical coming-out story,” shopping for vinyl, her inner queer-theory critics, and how “the story of a straight white man fucking up” became Stray City.

7. “Meet Me at Cuties: The Queer-Owned L.A. Coffee Bar that Puts Community First.” (Molly Adams, Autostraddle, May 2018)

In this delightful interview, Iris Bainum-Houle and Virginia Bauman, founders of Cuties, discuss implementing and enforcing community guidelines in a queer-owned retail space, the day-to-day maintenance of a small business, and their advice for opening a business of your own. As a human who doesn’t drink, I treasure queer-owned gathering spaces that don’t make alcohol a priority, and I look forward to visiting Cuties next time I’m out west. (Related: I would absolutely pull a Stephanie and try to convince my friends to reenact The Planet of The L-Word at my local cafe.)

Longreads-centric Pride Month Reading List:

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Jennifer Gonnerman, Evan Allen, Britni de la Cretaz, Jen Banbury, and Gordon Edgar.

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How American Women’s Pro Baseball Kept Lesbians in the Closet

Elise Harney, pitcher for the Kenosha Comets, refreshes her makeup between innings as teammate Janice O'Hara and another player look on. The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were required to look their best whether on or off the field, and received "charm school" training to teach them how to maintain that feminine look. (Getty Images)

“A League of Their Own,” the film starring Rosie O’Donnell and Geena Davis, told the story of a women’s professional baseball team that played in an all-girl league in the 1940s and ’50s — a time when many gays were still in the closet. Partly truth, partly fiction, “the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.”

At Narratively, Britni de la Cretaz looks at the history of lesbianism in early pro women’s baseball and at the beautiful, lifetime love stories the film chose to ignore.

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

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Feeding Our Kids, In Fatness and in Health

Illustration by Hana Jang

Lots of public health work in the U.S. focuses on the “obesity crisis” and how poverty and fatness intersect. But what stereotypes are we internalizing about poor parents and fat kids? What does it feel like to be a fat person doing this work? Harmony Cox, a fat food justice activist, tells us in her essay at Narratively.

We were discussing the neighborhood, and how we could help people here get healthier food. Creating access to healthy food is my job, but it’s also my passion. It’s how I pay my bills and find an outlet for my frustration with a society that allows the poor to suffer. I was hoping to hear some optimism. Instead I got this:

“Nobody would eat it. Everyone around here is just so… fat.”

I felt the folds of my belly pushing against the table. I felt familiar shame burn the back of my throat, bitter as a $7 coffee.

She went on, “The kids always eat fast food. It’s like nobody loves them.”

I wondered how she could know what the kids around here always eat, and what that has to do with how loved they are…

In the reality of feeding a struggling family, the food pyramid is irrelevant. Keeping us fed was a source of pride, junk food was a source of joy, and so our diets endured.

I don’t remember parents who didn’t love me. If anything, they loved me too much, and their love language came deep-fried. It may have hurt me in the long run, but that’s never been a sign that something wasn’t borne from love.

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Popular Enough to Live: A Reading List About Crowdfunding Health Care

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I’m part of the 63 percent of Americans who don’t have money to cover an emergency costing $500 or more. I don’t own a car or a house, so in the unlikely event of the aforementioned emergency (knock on wood for me, please), my personal crisis would be health expenses uncovered by Medicaid. Like the people you’ll meet in the following stories, I too would turn to crowdfunding.

Everyone, in my opinion, deserves healthcare coverage, and crowdfunding shines a spotlight on the insufficiency of the United States healthcare system. It also demonstrates that the internet is far from democratic. Crowdfunding takes time, energy, and a knack for marketing. Not everyone has these privileges or skills, and when it comes to paying medical bills or seeking life-saving surgeries, that chasm can be fatal.

1. “Sometimes, It Does Hurt to Ask” by Caitlin Cruz (Digg, January 2017)

Just today, a trans man I follow on Instagram posted a picture of the letter he received in the mail saying his health insurance would not cover his top surgery. For trans and gender non-conforming people, the cost of life-affirming medications and operations are steep—financially, physically, and spiritually. According to GLAAD, 19 percent of transgender people don’t have any form of health insurance. Hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgeries can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, many trans people have turned to the internet, using PayPal donations or hosting YouCaring or GoFundMe campaigns, to ask their friends, families, and total strangers for financial assistance.

2. “Is It Fair to Ask the Internet to Pay Your Hospital Bill?” by Cari Romm (The Atlantic, March 2015)

Donating to a medical crowdfunding campaign requires donors to be at once more intimate with and more judgmental of the recipients. At its most basic and most callous, the act of giving boils down something not unlike comparison shopping: Who, out of all the people who have shared their tragedy on the Internet, is the most deserving of money? And, before that, who can entice donors to click?

As medical crowdfunding has become more popular, so too has the idea of its so-called “perfect victim,” said Margaret Moon, a bioethicist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University: the person whose inability to pay for their care came down to sheer bad luck—and bad coverage, if they had any insurance at all. “They’d done everything right, they’d explored all the possibilities and were still left short,” she said. “The people donating to these sites don’t know if somebody’s made a request because they just couldn’t figure out their insurance, or because their insurance failed them. Wouldn’t you be more willing to donate to someone who had played out their insurance?”

3. “Who Should Pay for Evan Karr’s Heart?” by Anne Helen Petersen  (BuzzFeed, March 2017)

Evan Karr is a a precocious 13 year old Kentuckian who was born with tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect. Evan has had three heart surgeries, and at the top of Petersen’s story, he’s gearing up for a fourth.

4. “The Real Peril of Crowdfunding Health Care” by Anne Helen Petersen (BuzzFeed, March 2017)

Most of the successful campaigns on a crowdfunding homepage fall under the rubric of “fighting unfairness,” a designation that expands to include one of GoFundMe’s most successful campaigns of all time (for Standing Rock) but mostly signifies struggles against diseases that seemingly strike at random: cancer, genetic disorders, and other afflictions ostensibly out of the victim’s control. Such conditions are often referred to as “faultless.”

It’s far harder to fund so-called “blameworthy” diseases—addiction and mental health in particular—that are popularly conceived as either the fault of the victim or somehow under their control. You rarely see campaigns for adult heart disease, for example, or “getting my life together as a single mom”—both are viewed as the result of “choices” instead of “needs.” If there’s already a hierarchy of affliction and need in this country, then crowdfunding often works to exacerbate it.

5. “Go Viral or Die Trying”  by Luke O’ Neil, Esquire, March 2017)

Luke O’Neil’s feature for Esquire opens with an anecdote about Kati McFarland, a 25-year-old young woman with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome who turned to crowdfunding to offset the cost of medical care. McFarland garnered national attention when she confronted Sen. Tom Cotton about his perspective on the Affordable Care Act.

After reading several of these crowdfunding stories, I was feeling a little jaded. I couldn’t help but cringe at the following, from YouCaring’s director of online marketing:

“The secret prize for people who raise money on the site is they find out how much people care about them,” says YouCaring’s [Jesse] Boland. “The money is the primary ask but they end up being better off for having connected to their community, so they get a sense of peace and belonging.”

O’Neil also spoke to editors from Gizmodo, Uproxx, Upworthy, and the Washington Post about their experiences studying and spotlighting viral campaigns.

6. “Kickstarting a Cure”  by Noah Rosenberg (Narratively, July 2013)

Jimmy Lin is the founder of the Rare Genomics Institute, which he describes as “Amazon-slash-Kickstarter for science.” Lin’s organization matches families with researchers and geneticists from RGI affiliates and helps them raise money to cover the costs of expensive tests:

“The biggest thing we talk about with our team is, ‘If this was our child who was sick, what extent would we go to to help them?’” Lin says of RGI’s efforts. “If this was our kid that was sick, this is exactly what we’d do.”

The Threat of Doing What’s Right

People often spoke of Pierce’s opponent, District Attorney Britt, in a whisper, as though he were the Voldemort of Robeson County. Stories of Lumbees and African Americans being coerced to plead guilty in court were as common as the ramshackle tobacco barns that dotted the landscape.

“It’s hard to comprehend how unwholesome and suffocating the system was,” testified Maurice Geiger — an attorney and founder of a nonprofit that monitored Robeson’s courts — in 1991. In a review of thousands of cases from the 1980s, Geiger estimated that at least 1,000 innocent people were wrongfully convicted every year; he also found that Britt’s office used a range of aggressive ploys to force guilty pleas. The court calendar was manipulated to make defendants appear in court for days or weeks on end while they waited for their cases to be called. Others were tricked into signing forms that waived their right to counsel — often easy to do, given the county’s adult illiteracy rate of 30 percent.

In a story co-published at In a story co-published at MEL Magazine and Narratively, TV producer Nicole Lucas Haimes details how one North Carolina man’s attempt to run an honest court entangled him in political corruption and the drug trade and got him killed. So far for him, there is no justice.

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