Running: Powered by a C Major Progression
The pros and cons of using music to train for the Boston Marathon
This is the third in a series of stories about training for the Boston Marathon. Click here to read the previous installments.
I recently found the perfect running song: “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” by the Scissor Sisters. I stumbled onto one of their concerts on TV, and within minutes I was scouring the Web for a download. Now, when I’m striding along the Esplanade and I hear that piano pounding, the relentless high-octane drumbeat, the exuberant disco falsetto, I find myself trying to catch up with my own feet. I hit repeat again and again. I’m flying into the ether, the shaved-off seconds scattering behind me like spores. But I know this athletic romance won’t last. It can’t. I’ll get to know the lyrics too well, the musical bridges and chord changes will wear thin, all of the surprise bled dry. And before long, I’ll start skipping it, already trolling for the next musical thrill. Yep, I’m officially a running-song slut.
For the past three months, I’ve been training for my first Boston Marathon, on April 20. I’m running to benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center, a small, grassroots outfit that relieves the families of developmentally disabled adults and children. And with so many of my hours now spent in running shoes, I’m constantly sniffing out ways to keep my motivation charged and my mind distracted from my footfalls, the swish of my running pants, my labored breathing — in other words, my very humanity. Thank God for the little iPod shuffle. Apple’s 10.7-gram clip-on device has meant the soundtrack of my life can be piped directly into the auditorium of my brain, seducing my legs to stick around for the entire show. Research, in fact, has found that music — the right music — can boost stamina by dilating blood vessels and sending more oxygen to tired muscles. Some races even forbid music as an unfair advantage, as well as a safety hazard. Fortunately, Boston isn’t one of them.
These days, whenever a song grips my brain — in a pub, in a clothing store, or during movie credits — I instantly put it through the formula: Can I run to this? How many times? And where can I download it? I’ve long since exhausted my iTunes library and have started raiding my 16-year-old daughter’s collection. And while I may have held my nose at one time, I’m not above ear candy and one-hit wonders. Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway,” Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibration,” Men at Work’s “Land Down Under,” and “What’s Up” by the Four Non Blondes have all made appearances on my run mixes.
While a good driving beat can work wonders, a song with strong lyrics or a narrative carries me even further and stays on my run mixes longer: Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Lucinda Williams’ “Pineola,” Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time,” Steve Earle’s “Johnny Come Lately.” Music is not just about lining up my footfalls and arm swings with techno drumbeats and power piano, but about delivering me from the moment, from the knee pain, from the cheek-chapping wind, from the toenails cutting into my skin. Sometimes, I’m launched into a daydream. The rollicking Pogues make me feel like I’m spinning through a sweaty pub in Dublin with a pint of Guinness in each hand. Other times, I land in the past, my legs fueled by nostalgia, blood coursing with wistfulness. Phish tunes catapult me into a booth at Nectar’s Lounge in downtown Burlington, Vt., in the late ’80s, where that quirky foursome was the house band and I was a drunken college student.
The Waifs inject my stride with a particular oomph. A few days before my one-time best friend got married, my wife and I saw the young Australian band open for Bob Dylan. We bought their disc and on the way to the nuptial festivities, listened repeatedly to “Highway One,” “London Still,” and “Since I’ve Been Around.” I was just a few years sober and former friends and drinking pals were on hand. In college, Nate and I had promised each other all sorts of things — to be each other’s best man and godfather to each other’s kids, to share forties on a porch in our rocking chairs. In the end, I eloped and he chose a different best man. At the reception, I knew I was watching us split into something else, and so I raised my glass of seltzer to the hand of fate — content now to be best friend emeritus — and danced the rest of the evening with my wife. Hearing those songs as I’m slogging up Heartbreak Hill on a training run reminds me that nothing is static, not our physical conditions — two miles on a treadmill used to leave me panting at the water fountain — nor the promises of youth. Next thing I know, I’ve gone three-quarters of a mile and Boston College is looming.
In my ongoing quest to turbo-charge my playlists, I decided to pick the brains of some local experts — members of BU’s cross-country team. Men’s captain David Proctor (SAR’08) says he sometimes listens to the Chariots of Fire soundtrack or the Olympic theme song and gets an extra boost imagining himself sprinting down that final straightaway with the crowd roaring behind him. He also recommends Clint Mansell’s “Requiem for a Dream (Remix Version).” “It’s a favorite among the cross-country team,” he says. “The 300 soundtrack is pretty great, too.”
Women’s captain Mollie Zapata (CAS’09) says, “When I’m running alone, I usually just put my iPod on shuffle, which means I listen to a lot of country because it’s upbeat and makes me happy. If I’m doing hill repeats or something harder, I like to listen to rap because it makes me feel like a badass.”
But much of the time, they train to simulate race conditions, which means no music. “In competition, I’m focused on that race and taking in my surroundings, listening for other runners,” Proctor says. “With adrenaline, you’re working as hard as you can, and you’re already at your absolute maximum. Music is just something I don’t think about.”
He has a point. There’s the soundtrack of a historic marathon to consider, after all. Do I want to miss out on the cheers and screams at Wellesley College and along Beacon Street, the galloping footfalls, the grunts and gasps of impossible dreams being realized, the Rocky theme song that someone will inevitably play?
So on my long run last Sunday, I ran naked — musically, that is — from Hopkinton to my sister’s house in Brookline, near Cleveland Circle, some 22 miles. The drive out to the starting line took a full hour, and as each long mile piled up, I felt more nervous, not just about making it back in one piece, but doing it solo. I was looking at three-and-a-half hours with nothing but the thoughts in my brain. It was a horrible notion. I might as well have been fitted with one of those head cages filled with starving rats from George Orwell’s 1984.
But I had no choice, and I shuffled down Route 135 toward Ashland. In the beginning, the lyrics from my mixes popped into my mind and carried me along a few seconds, but they were soon replaced with chirping birds, the soft waves of passing traffic, a chainsaw, the sounds of communities tuning up for the day. After 12 miles, I found myself scanning my aches and pains, assessing the sound of my gait. From Wellesley to Newton, the scrape of my heavy shoes, normally muted by music, began to torment me. I concentrated on straightening up, and that seemed to lighten my footfalls. When I turned onto the Newton Hills, all five miles of them, the hellos and overheard bits of conversation of my fellow marathoners-in-training lifted me up. I could hear their hard work, and it inspired my own. We were in this thing together.
So it’s a dilemma. Music powers me through monotonous and strenuous training runs, but on race day, it would mute the experience. Well, I still have five weeks to figure it out, right?
In the meantime, heard any good songs lately?
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to sample a playlist of the songs featured in this piece. Readers can click here to sponsor Caleb’s run and benefit the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center. You can also follow Caleb’s training progress (and setbacks) at his marathon blog, where he charts his runs and muses about life in running shoes. Tips, derision, and song suggestions all welcome.13 Comments