WAG: You don't particularly touch on this
in Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously,
but I'd be curious to know how your wife and daughter
adjusted to the hours you spent training every day.
Was there a general sense that this was your work
for the year or were there conflicts over it? In
the bigger picture, this seems to be the part of
the story that is often missing when we read about
competitive athletes—does that relentless
focus on training make your life progressively narrower?
You do write about reaching that point where you
resent anything that gets in the way of your workout.
Were you aware of this at the time or only in retrospect?
Not too many conflicts. This was my work—I
was still around for breakfast and dinner and all
of that. But there were inevitably days when I had
to pawn off childcare on Sue that I should have
been doing—and there is something deeply draining
about trying to exercise while feeling guilty. It
slows me right down. In general, I think that if
I'd kept going for another year or two, self-discovery
would have turned into self-absorption.
You write that your goal was to "gain
an intuitive sense of my body and how it works.
And at least once...to give a supreme and complete
effort in a race." To what extent do you feel
you achieved those goals? And at the end of the
year, was that still what you were looking for?
By the end of the year, the meaning of
those goals had changed a bit. At some level, I'd
come to realize that I wanted to change enough that
I too could die a good death. And at some level
that seemed to mean learning to make an all-out
commitment and, paradoxically, learning to forget
myself a good deal. I managed, in one race in Canada,
to make fifty kilometers' worth of supreme effort;
the larger challenges elude me still, but maybe
I have a bit more sense of what they are.
Early in the book, you look around you at
a hotel fitness center with people sweating miserably
on machines and write that "exercise is a bizarre
discipline." But a few pages later, you write
about the athletic grace of whales breaching for
the sheer joy of it. Given that for most of human
history most of us led very physical lives, do you
think that our bodies perhaps still long to be put
to use, and this is what drives us to endure the
essential absurdity of the treadmill to nowhere?
Any hope that Americans will ever return to being
a more physical nation?
Clearly, we don't have this collection
of muscles and limbs and senses in order to sit
on the couch and flick the remote control. We were
built for contact with the natural world—which
meant, for most of our history, exercise, though
it would have been called something different: transportation,
food-gathering, shelter-constructing—and so
on. I have my doubts that the nation will ever get
off its collective duff--but I am impressed with
the size and spunk of the endurance subculture (the
endurance counterculture, really).
On a related point, your father's illness
and death offer a powerful counterpoint to the events
of the book. In particular, of course, they highlight
the absurdity of the quest to get and stay highly
fit. At the same time, however, there was something
about the grace with which he lived his illness
that was an argument for doing things—anything—well,
that affirmed the value of your quest.
There's no particular question
here; I'm just interested in your thoughts on this
You got it. Do it all elegantly.
Your father's illness suddenly intruded upon
your year, and of course became part of the narrative.
I can't imagine how you would have left it out,
but did you hesitate about including his illness
and death in the book?
Hesitate? Well, sure, but mainly because
I wanted to make sure I could do him (and my mother)
justice. I came to think it was an act of homage
to write about him: each life needs summing up,
and it's a shame that it usually happens at the
funeral and then that's that.
Your book illustrates how much endurance
is a matter of mind as of body. I have to wonder
how you endured the tedium of hour after hour after
hour of training—particularly during the warm
months, or even worse, when you traveled and had
to spend your hours on a treadmill. Were you ever
tempted to give up? Did you find yourself in the
middle of two hours on a treadmill saying to yourself
"what's the point?" What kept you going?
Well, when I was running on the road
or the treadmill, I listened to the radio. NPR kept
me going. And when I was running in the woods or
skiing, the sheer beauty of the world kept me at
For years, you have been writing on environmental
issues, a fact which you mention several times in
your book. Without particularly reading between
the lines, it seems apparent that you are rather
discouraged on this front. Do you plan to return
to the subject?
Yep, I'm discouraged, and yep, I'm back
at it. Sad to say, it seems to be my life's work,
which is a shame since I don't seem to be accomplishing
all that much.
I found particularly amusing the scene where
you went to West Yellowstone and found yourself
succumbing to unseemly lust for all the latest in
equipment and clothing—when you have spent
years advocating a Less Stuff approach to life.
You argue to yourself that it is justified to buy
the very best of one thing, if that one thing is
your passion. "In your small realms of real
knowledge," you write, "materialism becomes
an aesthetic." So what I want to know is—did
you buy those carbon-fiber poles?
Well, of course.
I loved the scene when you are at the Olympic
Training Center eating your guacamole dip when your
coach suggests gently that chips are high in fat.
You write "And in that moment was born The
Man Who Reads the Side of Every Can." That
line captures the incremental degrees of obsessing
that take over the life of someone training for
a competitive sport. Did you reach that point when
all your conversations were dominated with talk
of food, gear, and training, where you could spend
three hours engrossed in a discussion of wax? Did
you ever find yourself wondering how other people
could lead their lives uninterested in such matters?
Yes. I mean, there are people in the
world who don't know who Bjorn Daehlie is. I mean,
At the end of the book, you do your final
race in Norway and then write that the next morning
you went out for a ski with your wife and daughter
"and for the first time in a long time, it
meant nothing at all...." I can't believe it
was that easy just to walk away from the regimen
by which you had lived your life for a year. Was
it a tough transition? Do you train more now than
you did before you set out on your quest? Was it
hard to feel that peak of fitness slipping away?
I've cut the training about in half—three
hundred hours a year or so seems to be enough to
keep me reasonably well tuned. In fact, I managed
to win my age group at a big race at Lake Placid
in January. In some ways, I'm probably stronger
than during that ragged year when I was building
my fitness base.
I keep using the word "quest,"
which is something of a cliche, of course. Did you
see it as a quest? When and how did the idea go
from being simply a vague idea to a definite plan?
Was it a sudden "this is what I am going to
do" that seized you, or more of a slow evolution?
Quest is too big—sounds like Thor
Heyerdahl. I was really curious and really in need
of a vacation, and then I was really in need of
a distraction and a metaphor.
Would you say that this book was more personal
than your others? What hazards did you discover
in writing about yourself and your family? What
was the most difficult part of writing this book?
The hardest part, of course, was writing
about Dad's death. But it was cathartic in some
other way. I feel like I've sort of dealt with it
and preserved the memories that I really need.
In a number of scenes, you are a hybrid of
writer and participant. Did you carry a tape recorder
with you or write notes while carrying on conversations?
Was it difficult to play both roles at once? In
other words, were there moments when you simply
wanted to be the participant without having the
writerly mind analyzing the meaning and content
and significance of the events unfolding, noting
the details to flesh out the narrative? Did knowing
that you were writing about this process enhance
or complicate it?
Well, I've been half a journalist so
long, it almost feels natural. I take notes wherever
Did you actually write the book as you were
living the events, or did you keep notes and then
write it once the year was over? If you were writing
as you went, did you have to go back and revisit
earlier events in light of subsequent ones, once
the year ended?
I wrote it when the year was over, working
off pretty rudimentary notes, except for the interviews.