Road is hard, but the music says, 'run'

Jan Hoffman / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 1, 2012 at 05:00AM

I have always hated running.

A steep hill does not entice me. My labored breathing makes me sound the way I feel: miserable. To keep up with my life, I’m always in a flailing hurry, so why would I want my exercise to mimic that?

I have no idea. Nonetheless, the other chilly morning when I went out for a run, I wore a long-sleeved race T-shirt: Seven Mile Run, Central Park, Feb. 1, 1987.

I’ve been running at least since then — with years lost to knee and bunion surgeries, physical therapy for running-induced lower back pain as well as flings with treadmills and exercycles.

That’s a long time to be doing something you hate as aggressively as I do.

But I do not run to run. I run to listen — which real runners consider not only dangerous but apostasy.

I can run only with music in my head, and heart. For decades I’ve fussed over playlists, a nod to my years as a college DJ, when free-form FM radio was in ascent. The music lifts my spirits, eases up on my knees, pushes me to one more song.

From the 30-minute Walkman cassettes I made with a turntable and a tape recorder to the hour-plus playlists on my iPod, the lists reflect changes in my taste, my life, my runs. They have been my personalized soundtrack.

The tumult of a single woman in New York (“Love Stinks!,” J. Geils Band). Rent struggles (“Pressure Drop,” the Maytals). New boyfriend (“Kiss,” Prince and the Revolution).

Years later, a salute to my first daughter: “My Girl.” Then she turned 4 (“She Drives Me Crazy,” Fine Young Cannibals). Next, her sister, my brown-eyed girl, whom Katy Perry now conjures with “Firework.”

Oh, right, my husband. Serious runner. He would never listen to music while charging up hills. But I include nods to his taste: Santana’s “Smooth.”

Radio was always my musical lifeline. In high school, I interned at a local station. DJs there critiqued one another’s sets. (“Carrie Anne,” the Hollies, followed by “Carry On,” Crosby Stills Nash and Young? Cheap. Trick.)

When I went on air at my college station, I realized that although I couldn’t personally make music, I could make music personal. On Sunday mornings, I would play hangover-recovery music from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (“Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” Taj Mahal). For the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift, I would play term-paper-due, all-nighter music (“Midnight Rider,” the Allman Brothers Band).

After I graduated, jobs for this niche talent were few and unsalaried. To stay in the music conversation by proxy, I wrote about the radio industry, and reviewed and interviewed musicians.

But eventually journalism moved me to covering domestic violence and murder trials. My relationship with music and an audience — listeners or readers — disappeared.

I’d heard that joining the New York Road Runners Club was a good way to meet guys. So, with skepticism, I started running.

Blisters! Worse still, it bored me silly.

But at the path around the Central Park reservoir, I spotted runners with headphones. Music? I could be a DJ again, programming sets for a devoted listenership of one.

Ever since, my playlists have followed a few rules. Joy is essential, a great hook critical, tempo crucial. Because I’m too lazy to stretch, the first songs are warm-ups, an invitation to do this thing. I heartily recommend “Sexual Healing” (Marvin Gaye).

The lists are intuitively shaped to my pace. Some are more knee-forgiving than others. Within 10 minutes, the beat picks up. I select songs long enough to build running momentum, but not so long that I quickly flag. The urgent patterns of one drummer lead into the smack-smash response of the next (“I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Ramones; “Middle of the Road,” the Pretenders).

If a song has a deceptively desultory lead-in, I give it 10 seconds or it’s off the list. Otherwise, I cheat and slow down (“Burning Down the House,” Talking Heads). Now I even drop songs that are longer than five minutes. That’s when my attention wanders and I’m looking at my watch, tempted to finish early. So, no sympathy for the devil. None for Baba O’Riley, either.

Content is vital. I need lyrics. Inspiring (“I Run for Life,” Melissa Etheridge). Ironic (“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” Warren Zevon). Funny (“Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” Jerry Lee Lewis, featuring George Jones).

As in my radio days, when I prepared sets by gazing hungrily at endless shelves of albums, I pluck songs from across decades and genres: Patti Smith and the Ronettes; Eric Burdon and Green Day; the Temptations and Shakira; Sam Cooke and Lou Reed; Sinead O’Connor and Maroon 5.

I pick songs that my audience connects to, with allusions and personal pep rallies, by artists I’ve reviewed, interviewed, seen perform. John Hiatt. John Mellencamp. Joan Jett. Usher. Kelly Clarkson. After Joni Mitchell’s manager heard my brunch show on the day of her concert, he invited me backstage. For years, one warm-up song was her “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio.”

The latest lists reflect a new, age-imposed quality. Humility, in both my running and my music.

Last year, the remnants of my right knee cartilage pushed me off roads and hills for good. I’m reduced to running laps on an outdoor track for an hour. That’s why I need the music more desperately than ever: Could any exercise be more hamster-in-a-cage ignominious?

And now, combing for music to keep me going, this sniffy critic includes songs she would never otherwise listen to. I’m reduced to Jersey arena rock.

It does get me to Lap Gazillion, she said, abashed. So thank you, gulp, Bon Jovi. I had a nice day.

But the lists are not just mad dashes down memory lane.

That’s because my daughters keep trying to drag their mother into the 21st century: Panic at the Disco, Carly Rae Jepsen, Hot Chelle Rae, Train, Taio Cruz, Bruno Mars, PSY-Gangnam Style.

I repeat: I am emphatically not a runner. I just lace up my sneakers, head out to my own DJ party and start fast-dancing.

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