Part 1 of 2 – The Running-Shaped Hole, a memoir
Welcome friends to another edition of featured guest writers on my blog! This edition welcomes Windsorite Robert Earl Stewart, and we’re celebrating the publication of his new memoir, The Running-Shaped Hole (Dundurn, February 2022). I’ve known Bob (that’s what I call him!) for many years now. First as a poet and teacher, then as a book seller, and now as a memoirist and runner (though we haven’t gone for a run…yet!). It’s been incredible getting to know Bob over the years through his writing and literary presence in the community, but this book…well, this one tore him open and he let’s us in to the deep layers of his body, mind and heart. I was eager to read his book. I read in just a few sittings. And, of course, I just had to ask him if he was up for an email interview. He said yes! So, here we go!
VS: What you’ve done with ‘The Running-Shaped Hole’ is remarkable in terms of the depths to which you were (are) willing to bare your ‘selves’.
I write ‘selves’ on purpose, because I you take us into the voices/parts of your hole (if you will) self in an effort to show how the combinations of these parts (father, alcoholic, husband, son, friend, journalist, poet, writer, runner…recover-er…) are cultivated into the being human that you are…and that you may shift, slide, fall into as time progresses.
This is a book about running. For example, I know where to go in Windsor if I want to learn to train/run. I know the different ways one can participate in the Detroit Marathon. I know what accouterments to use when running to keep my body hydrated, salted and unchafe-ed! That liquid concoction you created to keep your body on track when running sounds very gross, but clearly works! I definitely agree that the best running shoes for running are New Balance, at least for my feet! And, perhaps most importantly, as I was reading…the super lapsed runner that I am*…I felt the old urge to get out there and run, wake up and do a stretch.
*In fact, since reading Bob’s book I have been inspired to start running again. I’ve run three times since I finished reading his book. I haven’t run in the hole yet…but it’s coming! Thank you, Bob!
This is a book about running. Metaphorically, so much running is happening too. Running away from reality, from healthy choices, from grief, from rage/anger, from old habits, from pain, from embarrassment, from the kitchen…from the bar…And running into your ‘self’ through the tremendous running-shaped hole of a door! We, the readers, have the opportunity to run with you in these regards, and can, if we are willing to enter the ‘running shaped-holes’ in our own lives, begin to stop, pay attention, ask for and get help, and make changes for the better.
Can you give us a comparative timeline of the major plot points in your recovery and the writing of this book? I believe that the writing part came well into your recovery. I think it’d be cool to see the process of book-writing up against the process of self-healing/running.
RES: I got sober in April 2003. I had spent years hanging out in bars and at parties telling people I was a writer despite having very little creative output and no writing credits outside of newspaper bylines. I was very much caught up in that delusion of the drinking life being what made me creative and interesting; that through drinking the writing would come. I was just over a year sober when I wrote my first poem.
That’s not a coincidence. Sobriety had to (and must always) come first.
I was six years sober when my first collection of poetry was published in 2009, with a second collection published in 2011. But even though things seemed to be trending in the right direction writing-wise as a direct result of my sobriety, I was unwilling to let go of my diseased relationship with food.
When I was finally sick and scared enough to change my eating and sedentary lifestyle in late 2012, leading to a spontaneous episode of running in February 2013, it jarred loose another creative period, or cleared up space to be creative again, helping me get some distance from the depression, self-loathing, and self-consciousness that plagued me when I weighed nearly 400 pounds.
The Running-Shaped Hole started as the running journal I was urged to keep by some friends at a learn-to-run clinic. I was commissioned to write the book in 2014 and four months later quit my job as the editor of a newspaper to focus on the project. The same week I quit my job, and at 11 years sober, I was charged with assault as the result of a neighbourhood conflagration I go into in excruciating detail in the book. This prohibited me from running the Detroit Free Press Marathon, which was supposed to be the centrepiece of the book, so very suddenly the book was heading in a new direction.
The same person who originally commissioned me to write the book then also hired me to manage their bookstore, which was more demanding of my time than I expected and took me away from both writing and running… So, the course of the stories that make up the narrative of the book was literally changing as the book was being written. I think this caused some problems with that original publisher and through a series of events, none of them very pleasant, I terminated the contract with that publisher and the book eventually (and very happily) found a home with a new publisher, Dundurn Press. It is very much a “we make the path by running”-kind-of-thing, and most importantly, I maintained my sobriety throughout. Two weeks after the Windsor launch party for the book, I celebrated 19 years of sobriety.
VS: In this moment, what is your relationship with running? How many times a week do you run? How far? How is your body feeling?
RES: I run pretty much every other day. I am not unwavering and intractable about it. I figure at this point in my life, approaching 50, it’s a pretty amazing and healthful thing that I am running at all, so I am flexible with my running schedule, though it works out to pretty much every other day. I aim for 120 kilometres per month in the colder months, building to closer to 180 kilometres per month in the summer.
My body feels better when it is running than when it is not. The aches and pains that, if I let them, could keep me from running, disappear a few kilometres into a run, lubricated and endorphined right out of my consciousness.
There was a time when I was largely immobile, unable to pick myself up off the floor without help, when breathing and talking was difficult, so I am more than willing to put up with some running-based soreness. I stretch. I take Ibuprofen as needed. I’ve learned to tell the difference between expected and acceptable soreness and injury. Being stiff and sore after a long run can actually be very affirming. Injuries, on the other hand, which are usually more physiognomic and mechanical, will mess with your head as much as your body. I’ve learned the hard way not to over-train. I would rather be under-trained and happy than over-trained and miserable.
VS: What are those wicked cool earphone/bud/headband thingies I saw you wearing?! I believe in the beginning, in the walking phase of your physical fitness, you weren’t listening to music. At what point did you feel the need to start listening to music (or whatever you listen to…podcasts? Audio books?) when you run? And, care to share your favourite running tunes; perhaps warm-up, mid-run, warm-down? Is this how you build your song lists? And, do you ever create a playlist based on where you’re running and the ‘visual stimulus’ you’re experiencing?
RES: Listening to music while running is definitely a recent development. Music has always been a very big part of my life. I listen to music all the time while reading and writing. But when I started running, I found I was made very anxious by having my ears blocked by earbuds. I felt I couldn’t hear traffic, other pedestrians, cyclists, etc. It was a safety issue. Plus, the earbuds never stayed in place and I was always frustrated and fussing with them, so I made running a time when I didn’t need to be listening to music. Then a friend introduced me to Aftershokz skull conducting headphones. They wrap behind your head and over top of your ears and rest on your temporal mandibular joint and use the resonance of your skull to deliver sound to your inner ear, leaving your ear canal open to the world around you.
So, I started listening to music — and occasionally podcasts and baseball games — while running. The music I listen to when running has nothing to do with pace/performance. It is all about vibe and mood.
I can listen to tripped out contemporary jazz as easily as I can listen to a Jesus Lizard album. I curated a playlist to coincide with the launch of the book and Dundurn Press shared it via their socials — it’s called The Running-Shaped Playlist and it’s two hours of music from bands like My Bloody Valentine, Animal Collective, Soul Coughing, Fugazi, LCD Soundsystem, Black Flag, Spiritualized… There is this yearning, nostalgic vibe to a lot of what’s there. It’s as if it’s the soundtrack to a running montage sequence in a non-existent film based in New York City. It’s searchable on Spotify and YouTube music.
Wanna listen to Bob’s playlist?
VS: Can we talk about loneliness? On page 11, you write: “But just as I lay in bed in April 2003, ill and isolated and feeling utterly hopeless as a result of my alcoholism –despite having a wife who loved me and was worried sick about me; a wife who went off each morning earning the entire family income single-handedly, while our seven-month-old was shipped off to a babysitter we couldn’t afford because I didn’t feel like I could properly take care of him – wasn’t until I got to this terminally low point of fighting the maniacal compulsion to eat that I was able to realize that I had been wrong about almost everything aspect of my life up to that moment.” Oof. That’s a packed bit of vulnerability! And here on pg. 146/7, “But I was ruminating on the things runners typically think about while they are running: pain, fatigue, thirst, hunger, home, bed, work, pressing family business, old boredom, and boredom’s creeping terminal state: loneliness. In the end, running or not, it’s always the loneliness…I was deep into a one-man half-marathon, and I was just plain old sad and lonely and missing my wife and kids….But in between my call and actually seeing Jennifer and the kids, I’d hit that wall of loneliness. Even though I knew I would see them at the rendezvous point, I had felt worried, as if I would not.” There are two major things I notice here: 1) your wife and kids and 2) the place of loneliness and its insistence in our lives. Can you tell us how your relationship with loneliness has evolved? Do you think it’s something that will ever go away? Do you think it exists within us for a reason…perhaps to be the metronome to our ability to love?
RES: I think everyone understands the difference between being alone and loneliness. As a writer and a reader, I crave the first one — being left alone to do what I want, with the ability to at any time stand up from my desk and go downstairs where my wife and three teenaged children are probably doing fun stuff and being able to join in or just be around them. As a person who suffers from depression and who spent several years actively (though strangely unwittingly) driving the people I loved and the people who loved me out of my life with my drinking, I understand the existential dread of loneliness. But even with a loving family and many friends and even varied interests to occupy my mind and time, I don’t think the specter of loneliness every goes away.
You can be surrounded by people who love you and be utterly lost in loneliness, which is why I always try to be of service to others who are struggling. The experience of loneliness keeps me mindful of the fact that I am able to help others, and that I owe it to my recovery to do so.
VS: The Moon in June. I ran this race once. I had trained…meaning I’d run 11km once, weeks before the actual race. I went alone. I knew no one upon arrival, and as the runners passed me…and the walkers passed me…and a mother pushing a set of twins in a double-wide, supped-up stroller passed me, I too was the final runner to cross the finish line…that, by the way, was literally being pulled off the well-trampled lawn as I was sprinting down the ghost-shute. The kindly man put it back down so I could run over it, but the timer was off. Who knows what my finish time stat was…besides awful and utterly humiliating. Mostly because the only person who shared the finish with me was the dude trying to put it away. Long beginning to a short question: do you think it’s important/a rite of passage to get a last place finish in a race?
RES: No, I don’t think last place finishes are necessary for or important to later success. But I should probably point out that I don’t think “success” is all that important, either. Statistically, last place finishes are very rare — as singularly rare as the first-place finish. For most runners, neither will happen. The most likely result of any given road or trail race is that the runner finishes in what would broadly be called “the middle of the pack.” It doesn’t mean you don’t strive to have the best run you can on race day, but the podium cannot be the sole objective, just as objectively I don’t think anyone relishes finishing last.
By the time I was finishing last in that Moon in June race in 2013, running had taught me enough about realistic expectation and humility that the petty jealousies of competition were far outweighed by just finishing the race, regardless of pace or place.
The person I am competing against every time I run is me. I am the obstacle; I am the nemesis. The finish line and the chip time are simply a way for everyone else to organize their thoughts about what just happened.
To purchase Bob’s book from Dundurn, please CLICK HERE.
It is also available at your local independent bookstores…and Indigo too!
Stay tuned for part two of our 10-question interview later this week!
But first – here’s Bob’s socials so you can stay connected!
And, here’s a review of his book on Quill & Quire.
Thanks, y’all! Thanks, Bob!