Every now and then, I come across a book I wish I had written, if only I had the time, motivation, experience, and abilities of its author. (Small details, really.) Jen A. Miller’s Running: A Love Story is definitely one of those books.
My own love affair with running has been far different than Miller’s, if only because my affinity for the sport has spanned a few decades more than hers. Still, because my life has also been changed by running, I connected with Running: A Love Story and the author’s complicated relationship with fitness, men, careers, family, and life, as well as with her sense that running has given her the agency to become a strong, independent woman.
Miller, a freelance writer whose work appears in publications like Runner’s World, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, frames her story around her successful completion of the New Jersey Marathon in 2013, which was not her first—nor her last—attempt at the 26.2 distance. But the New Jersey Marathon was a turning point for Miller, away from the dependency and sadness that characterized a number of her relationships, and toward confidence and a strong sense of self.
Each of the memoir’s chapters begins with what seems initially like a race report of her 2013 race, a marathon personal best by 15 minutes. Those who have tackled a marathon—or, really, any physical task requiring herculean effort—can relate to these vignettes about the race: The emotional ups and downs that accompany a marathon. The mind’s laser-sharp focus, and also its easy distraction. The sense that one’s wheels are falling off. The triumph of the last few steps.
Countless literary works, including sacred texts like the Bible, have used a running race as a metaphor for life, so Miller is not covering new ground there. Yet by framing each of her chapters around her marathon experience, Miller thematically connects what happens during the race with what is happening in her own life, a life characterized by relationship turmoil, the elation that accompanies professional and personal success, and the agonizing decision, finally, of breaking up with a long-term partner.
Miller strides across the finish line of the New Jersey Marathon in the memoir’s last chapter, celebrating her triumph as a runner, but also the confidence that running has given her: a belief in herself and her ability to face life on her own terms. The race, she writes, symbolizes her opportunity to be reborn, a new, stronger version of herself: a version she might not have discovered, were it not for her commitment to keep running despite the pain the marathon (and her life) had given her.
As a life-long runner, I resonated with much of Miller’s book; as someone who continues to define and redefine her self as a feminist, I appreciate the ways Miller describes her own awakening. Yet my development as a runner and as a feminist differ in significant ways, as I have discovered myself within the context of nurturing communities, something that seems mostly missing from Miller’s own experiences.
Being a runner has been rewarding in its own right; like most athletes, I’ve worked hard for and celebrated my personal bests. For me, though, the richer awards of my running life have occurred while working out alongside other women: as a teen and young adult, with my cross-country teammates; and as a middle-aged woman, with my fellow bad-assed mother runners, who join me in long runs before dawn and a million other commitments beckon.
I’ve certainly logged many miles alone, as Miller does through much of her memoir, but I’ve found my own confidence and independence grew exponentially when I was running with other women, meeting our goals together.
Similarly, my growth as a feminist occurred most powerfully through my work with other women: mentors, advisors, teachers, and family members who provided a pathway to my own feminist awakening. While Miller acknowledges her mother’s guidance and encouragement, her journey seems mostly solo, and she discovers her self and her strength more after relationships with men have been broken than when she’s buoyed by other women.
But these differences between me as reader and Miller as writer matter little, because Running: A Love Story wisely exemplifies a principle at the heart of feminism: that we all have the opportunity to become who we were meant to be, by whatever pathways we choose.
Miller and I (and, hopefully, her other readers) are running—and living—to our fullest potential, well aware that becoming an athlete can transform the life of anyone, and that the simple act of heading out the door for a few miles on foot can give you the agency you need to discover (and rediscover) who you really are.
Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Ore. She is the author or coauthor of four books, including, most recently, If Eve Only Knew (Chalice Press, 2015). Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Her.Meneutics, among other places. She blogs about (and deconstructs) images of women embedded in evangelical Christian popular culture at If Eve Only Knew. She has completed 47 marathons, and will compete in her first Olympic-distance triathlon in July.