Tom Foreman’s ‘Year of Running Dangerously’ Yields Life Lessons

"So many things that you want to do in life depend on endurance, if you’re going to get the most out of them."

The interregnums between the feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the bacchanalia of New Year’s Eve aren’t quite the pauses from gluttony we might need, punctuated as they are by so many holiday parties. Soon, we tell ourselves as we chase flutes of champagne with sugar cookies shaped like snowflakes, we’ll sneak some exercise in.

Our minds turn to running, the distant memory of looping around a track, of tackling a tough hill without stopping. But while the impetus for putting on our sneakers and heading outside may be getting in shape, that’s not really what it’s about.

For CNN correspondent Tom Foreman, author of My Year of Running Dangerously: A Dad, a Daughter, and a Ridiculous Plan, it wasn’t even the reason he started running again. It was because of his daughter, who had broached the idea of the father-daughter pair running a marathon together.

Foreman didn’t stop at the one marathon, going on to complete a series of marathons and ultramarathons–races longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon length. Though it wasn’t his intention from the beginning, a book started taking shape along the way. “Probably halfway through that year of running it started seeming like a story to me,” Foreman tells FishbowlDC. “Certainly by the time I was deep in training for the ultramarathon it seemed like it might be a book.”

Foreman’s book may chronicle his progress on the track, but at heart “it’s about family, getting older, and it’s about endurance, and it’s about doubt, and it happens to have a lot of running in it,” he says.

Running is rarely just about the act. It taps into parts of ourselves we may have buried, challenges the very idea of who we think we are and what we can do, and, as it did for Foreman, reorganizes our idea of what’s important. “The discipline reminded me to prioritize things, and the first thing that became prioritized was the sense of relationships in my family, and not letting any of us allow our duties to be so overwhelming that we didn’t have time to be a family and to enjoy each other’s company.”

What Foreman has learned in the course of his adventure is a kind of universally-applicable sagacity. We were left at the end of our call with the feeling that what had just transpired was equal parts interview and life-coaching session.

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FBDC: You ran when you were younger. Did that have any impact on your training? Was the muscle memory still there?

Tom Foreman: I think I’ve always had a natural sense of the rhythm of running and the form of running that made it a natural sport to me, so yes, that absolutely helped. It’s just, it’s like somebody trying to squeeze into an outfit they wore when they were 21. It kind of still fits them because it’s the same body, kind of, but boy–there have been a lot of changes along the way, so that’s what it was like.

FBDC: Were there any particular changes that struck you?

Foreman: Yeah, I was a lot heavier. You just secretly and without realizing it add pounds and lose flexibility. You lose general fitness. I had lost general fitness I didn’t realize I was losing, and then suddenly you go out and run a few miles and you realize how hard it is, and you think, well I’m nowhere near the shape I was in my ‘20s and you sort of delude yourself into thinking you are.

So big picture, I was a lot heavier, slower, less flexible, had a lot less endurance.

FBDC: You write that women and older runners tend to do better at ultramarathons. Why is that?

Foreman: We don’t know entirely why women do better at them. It may be that women burn energy more efficiently than men. Some theories are they have a greater tolerance for pain, that they’re more realistic about their goals.

In terms of the age thing, I was actually discussing it with some of the runners during the Stone Mill 50. We think maybe it’s just life experience, that as you get older you just have a better concept of what it means to exert effort over 8, 10 or 12 hours because you have done it more times. Maybe you’re not as impatient as maybe some younger people are. Maybe they feel that sense of “well, I’ve been doing this for five hours,” and they push the pace too much early on and it hurts them in the backside. People have been studying it but even the science types don’t seem to have a clear answer yet.

FBDC: You describe how ultramarathon training basically caused you to cut out everything else from your life, other than work and sleep. Can you describe the process that led to that and how you came back from that?

Foreman: Well, really the running is what brought me back from a different sort of excess. I mention later in the book that one of the problems as you get older is it’s really easy to be completely buried in just a series of responsibilities, especially if you have a job like this. You can spend a lot of time not only working at your job, but working at your job when you’re away from your job. And when you’re not doing that–tending to responsibilities in your life. I had tried for a long time to keep up with these other interests I had, but I think I slowly let them get sapped by the other demands of schedule.

Running imposed a type of discipline that said, you must have some time that you protect to get through this training or you’ll never get to the next phase. Granted, you’re correct that by the end of it running had itself become this overpowering force that itself was taking a lot of time, but, the good part was I knew there was a limit, and the limit was, I ran Stone Mill, then I had the choice of how much more running I would do or not. As of right now, I don’t have really have to run until the end of the year except for fun, so I can back way down.

FBDC: You write that one of the things you realized in the course of this is that, as you get older, “life becomes about playing it safe.” Has this influenced you to take risks in other parts of your life?

Foreman: I think it reminds you that some of the things that we think are risky are not as risky as we think. There are genuine things that you need to be careful about, but in a strange way being too careful is a risky behavior, because it has this smothering effect, so it urged me to seek a better balance in doing some unexpected things, and doing some things that push the edges of what would be fun and interesting and stimulating.

It’s not inherently about taking risks. It’s more a matter of just getting a little bit beyond your comfort zone. Maybe risk is too much of a heavy word; it implies that something catastrophic will happen, but nothing catastrophic will happen if you go to see some sort of art exhibit that you’ve never had any interest in before, but maybe it will wake something up in you and so on, whether it’s reading new books or listening to new music or meeting new people or traveling to new places.

FBDC: You wrote a letter to President Obama every day for the duration of his first term, a task that in some ways is similar to marathon training, especially in terms of an ongoing commitment to a practice. Do you see those things as related in some way?

Foreman: I think there’s a lot to be gained from tenacity. Writing letters to the president, when people ask me what was that all about–it was about practice. It was the thing that made me work on writing every day. And once I committed to it, I thought, this is a good thing. Makes you think of new ideas, makes you put down probably 400, 500 words a day. It was a good discipline.

So many things that you want to do in life depend on endurance, if you’re going to get the most out of them. Raising a child is about endurance. You can’t just be engaged with them when you want to be. You need to be there and care about them for a lifetime, or as much life you’ve got. And doing a job well can’t just be about showing up when you feel like it. It’s got to be about showing up when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.