Why Brendan Leonard hates running
By Henry Howard
Brendan Leonard hates running and wants you to, as well. Of course, he really doesn’t hate it, and doesn’t want you to, either.
In fact, he wants you to enjoy the journey so much that you will be motivated to “run an irrational distance.” That distance is up to the individual, of course. This is an example of Leonard’s charming story-telling. His unique style is best known on Semi-Rad, where he melds creative thoughts with easily digestible illustrations.
He transitioned from regularly publishing his thoughts on Semi-Rad to writing his own book, “I Hate Running and You Can Too.” Leonard graciously provided me a copy and then we dug deeper about his running background, creativity and motivation for writing the book.
Here are the questions and answers, excerpted from our interview.
Question: Tell me about your background as an athlete.
Answer: I played sports growing up — football, basketball, baseball, track, golf, tennis — all to varying degrees of mediocrity. I ran sprints in high school track and was co-captain of the team my senior year, but hated distance running. I did pretty much nothing physical from about age 19 until age 23, when I moved to Montana and started getting into the mountains, hiking, peak bagging, and eventually rock climbing and backcountry skiing. Trail running never seemed like it was going to be a primary interest, but around 2015 I finally ran a 50K just to see what it was like, and kind of got hooked then. I feel like I come at ultra running from a sort of mountaineering perspective as opposed to a distance running perspective, so having aid stations and restrooms when I am out in the mountains for 12 or 30 hours feels like such a luxury. But making running my primary thing has put me in the best shape I've ever been in for all the other mountain stuff.
Question: What was your why 'for' writing this book?
Answer: I spent a lot of time running in 2019. I ran 52 marathon-distance runs throughout the year, and I don't listen to music or podcasts or anything when I run, so I have a lot of time to think. And by the end of that year, I had a lot of thoughts and observations about running. A lot of stuff I thought might be worth sharing in a sort of entertaining but meaningful way. Stuff like why and how we procrastinate running, why do we actually make ourselves do this thing that is a lot of work, and how we approach it mentally. And it was a lot of fun to put together.
Question: How did you develop your unique creative writing and illustrative style?
Answer: I guess mostly by putting stuff out there every week, writing every Thursday since February 2011, and putting a couple of drawings on Instagram every week since late 2016. I just don't let myself off the hook when I’m not “inspired.” Although I don't hit a home run every week, I keep trying. That's a lot of practice over the years. And it's of course still evolving.
Question: You write in the intro that the book is intended to convince the reader that they can run an irrational distance. Have you had anyone reach out and say you convinced them? What is an irrational distance right now for you?
Answer: I have had a few people so far who have messaged me on Instagram or emailed me and said that they signed up for a race, or they're doing their first half marathon or 50K because of the book, which is something that happened with our How to Run 100 Miles film starting in 2018 as well.
Right now, I'm just adding some distance to my weekly long runs, so 20 miles is a bit irrational to me. I hope to do a 100K this fall and a couple of other marathon-distance and ultra-distance races, so I guess I'm just focusing on getting to a level of fitness where doing a 30-mile effort one weekend won't crush me for too long afterward. I've done a couple of 100-mile races before. But in 2021, 100 miles seems like a bit of a stretch for me, so that's kind of "irrational."
Question: Who was your intended audience for the book –- non-runners or runners?
Answer: I think both. I hoped it would reach people who can't picture themselves as "runners," and sort of talk them into giving themselves permission to try it. I've realized through all my ultramarathon races that there are a lot of people at the starting line who, like myself, don't look like Olympic steeplechase runners or whatever. We're just normal folks who have jobs and families and limited time to exercise, and we all have this same screw loose that makes us think running and hiking a trail for six or seven or 36 hours would be fun.
And I also hope experienced runners can pick up the book and get something out of it, even if it's just a line from one of the chapters, or one of the illustrations, that really resonates with them and their relationship with running. I think many runners are the sort of weirdo in their family or office, and I hope I've captured the weirdness of distance running in a way that helps people feel less alone.
Question: The “Progress is not a straight line” chapter is timely for me right now as I deal with a relentless injury. Tell me about a time in your running journey when progress was not a straight line and how you dealt with it.
Answer: I don't deal with straight-up injuries very often, but I am pretty good at getting sick with a cold or something and then not letting myself rest and get better, and then having it turn into a sinus infection or something. I've had to take a couple of extended (three or four weeks) breaks in the past couple of years. I'm trying to be better about letting my expectations go, and just enjoying being able to run three or five miles without stopping, even if I'm slow or feel out of shape. Because when you take a month off and you are finally able to go for just a short run for a couple miles, it sure feels like a gift.
Question: Anything else you want people to know about the book?
Answer: I always tell people to buy the book at the bookstore they least want to go out of business, so if that's their local bookstore, they can order it, or they can pick a bookstore on Bookshop and support it that way: https://bookshop.org/a/4216/9781579659882
And, of course, it's available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Name: Brendan Leonard
Hometown: Missoula, Mont.
Number of years running: I guess 35 or so.
How many miles a week do you typically run: Currently working my way up to 40 miles a week.
Point of pride: I ran a self-designed marathon in New York with some friends one time in which we ate one slice of pizza every five miles.
Favorite race distance: 50K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I have a pretty calorie-dense oatmeal recipe for long days in the mountains.
Favorite piece of gear: Honestly, my phone, since I use it to navigate in the backcountry, take photos, and take notes when I have ideas when I'm out running.
Who inspires you: People trying hard.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't listen to anything when I run.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You'll be fine.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: semi-rad.com
• Twitter: @semi_rad