'I will finish. No matter what.'
Father joins daughter's quest to run a marathon, then rediscovers his love of running and tells it all in his book, "My Year of Running Dangerously."
As a broadcast journalist, Tom Foreman has witnessed civic unrest, civil wars, earthquake carnage and more. Perhaps those experiences — along with running cross country as a youth — prepared him for the journey of his life. It all began with a question from his older daughter, Ronnie:
“How would you feel about running a marathon with me?”
In his book, “My Year of Running Dangerously,” Foreman chronicles his return to running, training with Ronnie and an eventual ultra marathon quest.
Throughout the book, Foreman dishes out often humorous anecdotes of training runs, family life and sage advice. The morning of their first marathon, he tells Ronnie, "Never try to impress people with where you start. Impress them with where you finish." While that line is good advice at a race start line, it is — like running — a good metaphor for life.
Foreman, who works in CNN’s Washington bureau, graciously sent me a copy of his book and answered questions about it, his running journey and more. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Henry Howard: Your book starts out with the conversation with your daughter about running a marathon together. Without recapping the chapter, what was going through your mind? There must have been a mix of emotions.
Tom Foreman: At the time, I felt a marathon might truly be out of my grasp. Hers too. I was concerned the training would demand too much time, the race would be too taxing, and if we dug too deeply into it and did not complete the process we might both come out damaged in unforeseeable ways. I worried about it for myself because while we all know we are getting older, no one wants a screaming failure to underline it in red. I worried about it for her because she was at a critical juncture in her life: succeed, and she could see herself as a lifelong, healthy athlete; fail, and she might relegate herself to a lifetime of thinking I’m not capable of meeting big, physical challenges. On the other hand, it represented a tremendous opportunity for us to form a new bond as a father and daughter; a bond based on an adult relationship and not so much that of a parent and child. I also remembered how much confidence, relaxation and sheer joy can flow out of running. I recalled how spectacular it felt the first time I crossed a marathon finish line and I wanted that for both of us. Ultimately, I rationalized that we would either get serious about it and make it all the way through, or we would fiddle with it for a couple of weeks and give up without too many regrets – so why not try?
HH: You write about being able to run longer faster than most people. What do you attribute that to?
TF: Genetics. No one else in the family of my childhood is a particularly gifted runner (my brother Robert is more of a stubborn, all-around athlete who could run fairly well through brute force and will) but somehow I wound up with the natural biomechanics and cardio system to support long distance running. I don’t have the super genetics of the very best runners, but undeniably I got a better running setup than most. Accordingly, I enjoyed running and ran a great deal through my youth, which built confidence and ability.
HH: As someone who has run off and on, talk about some of the changes you've seen. What comes to mind of things from decades ago that seem odd now?
TF: Running is the stuff of science now. When I started, running regimens were based on barely more than superstition. In junior high school, no one I knew ran in anything other than basketball shoes. In high school, we had spikes for the track, but on the road it was still Converse All Stars or Keds. Remember, this was the 1960s and early ‘70s: the concept of specialized running shoes was still just emerging for the general public. Unless you came from one of the rare schools with a strong running programming, you were usually dealing with coaches who knew next to nothing about how to make a long-distance runner faster. Their approach was based on running a lot of miles and hoping that made you into a winner. No speed work. No focus on form. No core development. What’s more, they aggressively argued against any intake of liquids while running or eating before a race. In my first marathons the races typically provided two aid stations with only tiny cups of water. And you were encouraged to merely take a mouthful, swish it around, and spit it out. It’s my theory that this is the fundamental reason “hitting the wall” at 19 or 20 miles was considered such a standard part of marathoning in those days. Go run one today without eating anything before you start or drinking anything underway – you’ll hit the wall, or bonk, at the same point.
HH: At the same time, there are things with running marathons that have stayed true. What stands out to you?
TF: The reason I love running is the beautiful, timeless simplicity of it. Even as training, nutrition, and equipment have made huge leaps, the essence has not changed for thousands of years – start here, end there, whoever does it fastest – wins.
HH: Let's move to the last long run before your ultra, which was on the race course. Describe that run to me and your mindset as you finished that run and for the next week to race day.
TF: My last big training run before my initial ultra scared the living hell out of me. It was my first visit to the course, and it was far tougher than I expected. I struggled to maintain my form and stabilize my breathing. I stumbled and fell repeatedly. Pacing was an utter mystery. I thought that run would be a confidence booster, but I emerged from the woods shaken. There was no time left to change my body, so in the days that remained I worked earnestly on changing my brain. I looked over my training log to remind myself how much I had prepared. I reviewed the course map, comparing it against satellite images and photos to isolate the roughest patches and the potential recovery zones. I made sure each of my remaining training runs were confidence boosters on challenging, but familiar ground. I got as much sleep as I could. And by race day I was vowing: this will not be in vain — I will finish, no matter what.
HH: When you finished the ultra, it was not only the conclusion of a long, tough race it was the culmination of a year or running achievements. What was going through your mind as you crossed the finish line and how does that compare to looking back at it now?
TF: I did it. We did it. Those were my two key thoughts. On the individual front: Like many runners I often wonder if I have trained too little or too much. I worry that I don’t have the physical stamina or mental fortitude I need. Some days, even now, I feel like an impostor. I think of all the great athletes I have met, the skilled and dedicated runners I know, and I feel as if I am a fraud. Crossing the line at the end of that first Stone Mill 50 Mile Endurance Run was a wonderful moment of validation which told me I belonged there. Finishing told me all the miles, all the races, all the pain and suffering of “My Year of Running Dangerously” were not just the pointless doodles of a middle-aged man doomed to decline. It made me aware of my true age — not young, but not old either — and all the wonderful possibilities that came with that realization. And for my family: Finishing the race made me appreciate in an overwhelming, heartbreaking way how much our little team matters. I could not and would not have covered all those miles without their relentless encouragement; their tolerance for the fatigue, the hours in training, the dirty running clothes, the muddy shoes, and the obsessive talk about schedules. I crossed the line, but it was a shared victory. It helped in those agonizing, final miles to know I was running for us all. Since then I’ve run a good many more marathons and ultras — including five marathons in five days at one point. But nothing has eclipsed or outshone what I felt on that day. I rarely run with others. I am almost always alone on the trail. But I’m never lonely, because I know my family is with me — their faith in the good that this brings into our lives is boundless.
HH: What have you most learned about yourself in this running journey?
TF: More than anything else, I’ve learned that most of my limits are of my own making. If I want to go farther, be better, accomplish more, I simply have to try. I’m convinced now that most of us stop trying — at anything and everything we do — far earlier than we must. We imagine ourselves too tired, too sore, too disappointed, too busy, too something to go on. But we have enormous reservoirs of energy, time, strength, imagination, and dedication if only we can make ourselves tap into them. It’s not always easy. I once imagined running 50 miles would require superhuman strength. Convincing myself that this was not true took real work, but I made that turn. Now I remind myself that being kind, thoughtful, caring, diligent, empathetic, successful, loving, creative, generous, patient — they all take work, but I can be better at all of them if I’m willing to work at it. And just like running, what better time to start than right now?
HH: What does your current running look like?
TF: This year I have run three marathons (New Orleans, Big Sur and Cleveland) and I am booked for three more (Marquette, Marine Corps and New York.) Plus, I will probably run the Stone Mill 50 again in November. I’m running between 35 and 40 miles most weeks, with a greater emphasis on speed work at the track than ever before. Lots of focus on cadence and form. It’s almost all road work at the moment, but this fall I will return to the trails.
HH: What's next in terms of running, what goals do you have?
TF: BQ, my friend, BQ. I’m still young enough to think I can squeeze out a few more years of speed, and I’ve never been fast enough to qualify for Boston – which has kind of rankled me. Granted, I’ve never really trained for it. Since my return to running I have prepared for all kinds of races simultaneously: short ones, marathons and ultras. Consequently, I’ve never been at my best for any of them. This year has been all about cranking down to somewhere around a 3:35 marathon which should shoot me into Boston. I’ve targeted the Marquette Marathon in Michigan on Sept. 2 for the next attempt because it is a flat, fast course and if weather trends hold true it should be about 10 to 15 degrees cooler than any other race I can find in time to qualify for 2018. Based on my races this year and my current training, all the signs are promising. After that … well, I’ve been fascinated by two ultras: the Dragon’s Back in Wales, and Comrades in South Africa. We’ll see.
Hometown: Oddly, this is a tricky question – I grew up in a military family so I lived all over the place. But I tend to say Sullivan, Illinois; Opp, Alabama; and New Orleans, Louisiana.
Number of years running: 15 or so when I was younger; six more recently
Weekly mileage: 35-40
Point of pride: My whole family – they’re all runners now!
Favorite race distance: Half-marathons. Long enough to be interesting, short enough to be mainly just fun.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I love a cinnamon roll before a race – and in summer, a pineapple popsicle afterward.
Favorite piece of gear: My Georgia Tech racing shirt. I wear it only on race days. When I put it on, it reminds me of my daughters who are both alums – and it is absolutely the perfect weight!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: For shorter races, Peter Gabriel’s “Steam;” for ultras, Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: If it’s inevitable, it’s ideal.
Where can other runners contact/follow you: Facebook: @TomForemanCNN; Twitter: @tomforemancnn; Instagram: tomforemancnn