June 7th, 2011 / 3:00 pm
Craft Notes

Tales of Woe and Toenails

Yes, I am well aware that the first marathon runner dropped dead for his efforts. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t go 26.2 miles; we’d go some other outrageous distance that killed its first runner.

Every year a few people die running marathons. Of course, every day ridiculous numbers of people die doing absolutely nothing. I choose to run marathons, and I don’t have a death wish, though I will admit I’m drawn to the drama of distance running. You could die. You could fracture bones, tear muscles, lose toenails. You will definitely suffer, a lot. Cool.

That said, it’s odd to talk about the drama of running because here’s another thing I’ll admit: running is boring. A fellow running buddy of mine once joked that no one has ever sat through the entirety of Chariots of Fire and remained conscious. And this is coming from someone who loves running more than he loves his wife and kids. I’ve never seen Chariots of Fire—in fact, I haven’t seen any movies about runners, and I don’t feel any particular compulsion to do so, despite the fact that my colleagues keep shouting “Prefontaine!” and “Run, Fatboy, Run!” when they see me at work. (People love it when they think they have you figured out; because I run marathons, they’ve decided that every aspect of my life no doubt revolves around running. It could be worse; there was that one year everyone thought I was into cows. Let’s just say I had a very Holstein Christmas.)

I don’t know what it says about me that two of the things I love most, running and writing, are, at least on the surface, excruciatingly dull. I recall a critic who noted of Shakespeare in Love that movies about writers tend to cover every aspect of their lives other than writing—the reason being, of course, that writing is one of the least cinematographic acts in existence, even worse in this regard than running. The critic pointed out the one scene in which The Bard is sitting at his desk going through writer’s block, when suddenly he thinks of the woman of his dreams and presto! instant inspiration! He scribbles madly away, and next thing you know, badabing, badaboom, Romeo and Juliet are living their short, star-crossed, gorgeously tragic lives onstage.

Sure. That’s exactly how it is.

At the university where I work, I recently taught a Shakespeare class for non-majors in which we finished with Romeo and Juliet, since I figured all of them would know it, most of them would like it, and it would be a pleasant, easy way to end a tough semester in which Lear and Prospero ran roughshod over them. That said, I wanted to take a slightly risky approach, debunking their sentimental, sparkly-vampire-loving misconceptions of this being a play about how terrible it is that the two feuding families kept these young lovers from being together. “Is that really what this play is about?” I asked, meaning, No, that’s not what the play is about; get that asinine notion out of your brains and listen up—you might actually learn something.

When I pointed out to my students that almost nobody in the play is aware that Romeo and Juliet even know each other much less love each other with a passion that transcends death, their eyes went wide, and they did listen up. Why then, I went on, is the Bard’s most popular play so grossly misread? Why do we assume that it’s a story about young love doomed by society?

Well, Romeo and Juliet are doomed, make no mistake about that. In fact, the play itself tells us they are doomed; the Chorus leaks a spoiler to us in line 6 before we have time to clamp our hands over our ears and go “la la la la.” They never had a chance, not because their families keep them apart, but because they want to be doomed. This isn’t a play about bad timing and coincidence. Even if they hadn’t missed seeing each other alive by a matter of seconds, they’d have found some epic way to end it all. They rush into love and death equally because in their environment—and ours—those two things are always extremes but never opposites.

What’s more, we want them to be doomed. If they’d escaped, Romeo and Juliet would have been about as popular as one of the seldom-performed historical plays named after some English king. It isn’t just that we like to romanticize young love and tragic death; we romanticize hardship, obstacles, struggle, regardless of the outcome of that struggle. Romeo and Juliet largely make their own problems in this play, though with a great deal of help from their friends; it could be argued (which I did, in class) that the only people who do know of their love—those well-meaning souls who try to aid the pair—actually make things worse, and that they, too, are swept up in the desire for a fight, for a struggle. The nurse takes altogether too much pleasure in her role as messenger, and then actually suggests that Juliet go ahead and marry Paris anyway, even though she’s already married to Romeo (and would be committing, let’s not forget given the time and place, a very serious sin in doing so). Meanwhile Friar Lawrence—oh come on, Brother Larry, a sleeping potion? That’s the best you could do? You couldn’t, like, talk to Papa Capulet first? No, it probably wouldn’t have helped, but it couldn’t be any worse than making Juliet fake death and awaken in a tomb filled with putrid, maggoty bodies, her dead lover about to become one of these. With friends like these, who needs a bloody family feud?

Yet somehow over the centuries we have come to see this play as one about two innocent young lovers desperate to be together but thwarted at every turn. We, the audience, have become part of the drama. And that brings me meanderingly back to the drama of running.

When someone dies running a marathon, a lot of people shake their heads and talk about how dangerous running can be. Most folks aren’t so crass as to say such runners get what they deserve, but I doubt anyone would go so far in the other direction to call them innocent victims. Distance runners create their own drama. We certainly don’t have to do what we do—we could get fit running a fraction of those miles and be at far less risk of injury, fatality, and black toenails—but there is, I know, a certain romance to it. It’s a romance that doesn’t exist until you create it for yourself, and then it’s the most intense, world-shaking, life-altering experience ever. And guess what: it isn’t only runners who do this, create our own tales of woe just to feel a little more alive. Like Romeo and Juliet, we may make our lives a lot more difficult, and needlessly so, but we’re like that, we lunatics, lovers, poets, and runners, we woeful yet merry band of humans.


  1. leapsloth14

      I just got back from fishing. Smell like ass (fish ass, even!), so will will really wade in at a later post-shower/beer time. But I am a serious marathoner and do NOT find running EVER boring. I find a lot of my life I’m thinking, “Wish I was trail running in Nashville right now” or “Wish I was on mile 14 of Boston right now” or “Wish I was on a track doing fartlek with Sara right now.” Wish I was running.

      This might be a digression. I’m scrolling now and maybe your post is more about R and J? I need to shower and eat beer and drink some nachos. But I’ll be back, with some running material.

      Also beer and running. An important topic.

  2. Anonymous


  3. Anonymous


  4. Guestagain

      this is excellent and thanks, many good drops (because they want to be doomed, distance runners create their own drama) and I think romance doesn’t exist unless you create it yourself can be extended as general principal of happiness. I linked this off to a few distance running Shakspar misunderstanding folks I know

  5. Babe Runner

      Don’t misunderstand me — I love running.  LOVE it.  I don’t find it boring to do, but many people find it boring to watch or to contemplate. During the last Olympics my mother was furious that they devoted “so much time” to covering the marathons. “Who would want to watch something like that?” she fumed. Uh, your own flesh and blood, Ma. I was screaming my head off when the guy entered the stadium on his way to breaking the Olympic record even though it was like 80 degrees in Beijing that day, hardly optimal PR temps.

      As with writing, the drama of running is largely mental. To anyone who hasn’t experienced that drama, it seems boring. We who have can smugly pity them, no doubt an extremely un-endearing thing to do, but whatever.

  6. Babe Runner


  7. alanrossi

      yes about mental. 

      for me, running cleans the mind in the same way meditation does, but to others, it does appear terribly boring or pointless: yogging or jogging, but apparently all you do is run.  i apologize for quoting anchorman, but i can’t think of any good shakespeare running quotes.  anyway, it is the doing.  i think people who don’t really get into running or other intensely physical things think those things are only intensely physical (and hence stupid or meatheaded), when there’s actually a very real, powerful, and intense mind-element as well, which is impossible to convey. 

  8. Joey

      “Romeo and Juliet” is, at its heart, a play about a town of people who don’t sleep nearly enough. Everyone’s staying up late partying, pulling all-nighter bone fests, or getting up early to mope about women who don’t love them.  A sleeping potion is actually the best thing Fr. Laurence could prescribe to Juliet. (And he knows how it argues a distempered head to be getting up so early or staying up all night.) Hell, the prince should be passing out Ambien to his constituents like a royal pez machine. We may make our lives harder, but there’s not much that can’t be solved with a nap.

  9. Matt

      Hmm. I got a little queasy when you started extending your “we create our own drama” metaphor (by implication) to things beyond Romeo and Juliet.

      Life, for most adults I think, is actually really hard. They’re not being romantic.

      I run, but the reason I run isn’t to create drama for myself (I have enough), it’s to block out all the rest of my life’s drama, at least for a little while. Of course running is boring, and that’s why it’s so great. Because it isn’t my life.

  10. Anonymous


  11. Babe Runner

      Good points, all. I admit that my “we” is really “we who are privileged enough to lead lives of a whole lot less quiet desperation than most of the world.” That said, I do think running is still frequently about creating drama — the difference is, it’s a drama we can control, as opposed to the rest of life, which is a drama completely out of our control. What’s more, much of the “hardship” of life isn’t dramatic, movie-of-the-week hardship; it’s things like working a tedious job, being lonely, being trapped in a circumscribed life.  Those are tough things to fight.  As you say, running isn’t your life — it’s different, and that, it could be argued, makes it dramatic (even if it bores the crap out of non-runners, poor misguided souls).

  12. Anonymous