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Long Distance:
A Year of Living Strenuously

Bill McKibben
Simon & Schuster
192 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Bill McKibben

Nonfiction writer Bill McKibben discusses the difficulty of writing about his own father's death and tells us why the seemingly straightforward goals behind his latest book shifted as he pondered his own mortality.

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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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).

WAG: 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 point.

McKibben: You got it. Do it all elegantly.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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 it.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: Well, of course.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: Yes. I mean, there are people in the world who don't know who Bjorn Daehlie is. I mean, come on.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: 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.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: Well, I've been half a journalist so long, it almost feels natural. I take notes wherever I go.

WAG: 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?

McKibben: I wrote it when the year was over, working off pretty rudimentary notes, except for the interviews.

—Interview conducted by Caroline Kettlewell

Posted April 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Nancie Battaglia

Bill McKibben is the author of Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, Hundred Dollar Holiday and The End of Nature, as well as four other books. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he has written for many national publications, including Outside, Rolling Stone, Harper's and The New York Review of Books. He lives with his family in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.



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