Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time
BU staffer Daniloff’s memoir of ruin, running, and redemption
For four years, from 2007 to 2011, Caleb Daniloff worked at BU Today as a senior writer. Everyone who worked with him knew him as a wonderfully elegant writer, and many were aware of his passions outside of work: music, running, his wife, Chris, and daughter, Shea.
Some knew something else about him: that he had spent much of his life battling alcohol before getting sober in 1998.
Daniloff’s book Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) has just been published to strong reviews. Publisher’s Weekly writes that the book is “a vital, honest, and arresting account of one flawed runner’s emotional and spiritual renewal.” Kirkus Reviews describes it as a “deeply personal memoir.”
Daniloff unsparingly revisits the years he spent drinking between the ages of 15 and 29, failing out of schools, losing jobs, alienating friends and family. Then after nine years of being sober comes his decision to run races in his old “sinning grounds,” the cities and towns where he had lived as a drunk. Over the course of 18 months, he runs seven races—five of them marathons—and learns, as he says, to run with his demons, rather than from them.
Now a web writer with BU’s Interactive Design, Daniloff will read from Running Ransom Road tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. He recently sat down with BU Today to talk about his book.
BU Today: You were already sober when you took up running. While it didn’t help you stop drinking, did it help you remain sober?
Daniloff: To a large extent, yes. After I quit drinking, there was a huge void in my life. Sobriety can be a very difficult time—a swirl of depression, shame, anxiety, regret, boredom, anger. Running allowed me to start filling in the hole. It gave my days, my life, a new central rhythm. Over time, the physical sensation of forward motion, of progress, became emotional, psychological, literal.
You were 39 when you ran your first marathon, in April 2009. At what point did you decide to revisit and run races in your “sinning grounds”?
Just before Boston, I noticed that Burlington, Vt., where I went to college, had a marathon the following month. I’d done all this training for Boston, so it seemed a shame to waste it on just one race. And college was a place where there had been a lot of heavy drinking and drug use, a lot of damage and hurt, so I thought it’d be interesting to run through my old stomping grounds. Running had become this spiritual, healing activity for me, so I wondered what effect extending it in places that had shaped me as a drinker and as a person might have.
How did running help you confront your past?
Running allowed me to process myself and my actions in a very contemplative, unadulterated way. It takes energy to bullshit yourself, and that’s energy you don’t have to spare when you’re running. You think straight from the heart. Running allowed me to start breaking myself down and rebuild. It gave the reconciliation process, which is really forever ongoing, an additional intensity and depth. And spending a lot of time thinking and writing about the experiences afterward further moved the process along.
You spent a decade and a half “drunk or hungover, usually both.” You write about often reckless—sometimes cruel—behavior during those years. How hard was it to revisit those memories?
Not terribly hard. They’re part of who I was, and in turn, who I have become. I accept my past and like to think I have evolved from it. I’ve also written about this part of my life before, so I guess I’ve built up my immune system.
What led you to stop drinking?
The risk of losing another important relationship, this time with a young child involved; the nauseatingly repetitive cycle of blackouts and hangovers and guilt and shame and deception. It’s exhausting after a while, and you get really sick of yourself.
You write that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t work for you. Why didn’t it?
I was ordered to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous by school administrators and the courts. I always associated it with punishment. Also, I’d begun drinking fairly young, while my character was still forming, so by the time I quit, I didn’t really know who I was. I was stunted and uneasy with defining myself as an AA person. I could barely get past “My name is…” Even though AA can be a great support community for addicts, I had terrible unease with groups. AA offers a lot of wisdom, and I’ve drawn on bits and pieces of its philosophy. But it was part of my own self-empowerment process to muddle through on my own. Either way, you need to engage in some sort of process that involves serious and honest self-examination and making amends. Sobriety is more than not putting a drink to your lips.
You ran five marathons, a half marathon, and a 4.3-mile race over just 18 months. Was there one race that had particular significance for you?
Boston was definitely special. It was my first marathon, and it’s such an amazing and historic race. My experience in Moscow was impactful for sure. But I’d have to say the Pie Race, the 4.3-miler at my old boarding school, where you won a fresh-baked apple pie if you finished in a certain time. I’d been kicked out of high school on graduation day, and my father was the keynote speaker. It was a fitting end to a pretty turbulent and unsuccessful academic career. On campus, I’d been a careless, lazy, alienated kid. But I really surprised myself during that race. I ran faster than I ever thought I could. I saw an opportunity to achieve a goal and worked like hell to reach it. Just about the opposite of who I was in high school. It was a very cool moment walking away with that pie. It meant much more to me than the diploma I never got. I wish I’d had it bronzed.
Describe what it’s like to complete a marathon.
Joyous and a little depressing. There’s a great sense of achievement, that you’ve overcome this great struggle, both physically and mentally. For me, the first 20 miles is very physical and the last 6.2 is all mental. You really come to face-to-face with yourself, your limitations and possibilities. And then it’s over. After all these months of training and preparation, it’s done in a handful of hours. But it’s really the training where you become a marathoner. I’ve heard the marathon described as a 26.2-mile victory lap. That’s about right.
Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if you hadn’t taken up running?
Not really. It’s become such a part of me. Would I have relapsed? Maybe. It’s hard to say. If I’d kept drinking, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have ended well.
You’ve said that for you, running is a way of “chasing my story.” What has running taught you about yourself?
To always move forward, to move through things rather than around them. That you can always go a little further, that you can and should continue to evolve. It’s also taught me that sometimes it’s OK to walk, too.
In your prologue you pose the question: “Can a former drunk ever be truly happy again?” Do you have an answer?
The answer is yes. It may take a while. For a long time, I considered the seemingly indefinite misery of sobriety to be appropriately just. But we almost have an obligation to try to be happy, to conjure positivity. To remain a vessel of quiet suffering and negativity is to continue living a wasted life.
Caleb Daniloff will read excerpts from, and discuss, his book Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time tomorrow, Wednesday, October 10, at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass.; phone: 617-661-1515. The event is free and open to the public.4 Comments