Author Robert Andrew Powell Endures a Marathon and Wrestles His Demons in a New Memoir

Categories: Books

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall," the Russian writer Anton Chekhov supposedly once said, "in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off."

In Robert Andrew Powell's new memoir, Running Away, the walls aren't equipped with rifles but with inspirational quotes. Chirpy and upbeat, they are the aphorisms of American self-help culture. The slogans from athletic shoe advertisements. The stuff of grade-school cafeteria posters. "To change one's life: Start immediately," reads one plastered on Powell's apartment wall. "Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions."

These platitudes might lack firepower, but they are nonetheless persuasive. And when Powell's life falls apart, he turns to them for meaning. As the quotes instruct, he dramatically ditches his life in Miami and drives cross-country to the city's climatological and spiritual opposite: Boulder, Colorado. There he attempts to shed his South Florida sloth and recast himself as a disciplined runner, like his successful businessman father. He trains obsessively in a feverish attempt to duplicate his dad's feat of qualifying for the Boston Marathon within his first year of running. He loses weight, drops time, wins admirers.

What separates Running Away from the pack of other marathon-related memoirs -- each with a commanding title like Eat and Run and Run or Die -- is Powell's brutal honesty. An award-winning former New Times staff writer, Powell is ruthless in ridiculing Boulder's bizarre blend of hippie spirituality and hyper-commercialized fitness industry. But he is also straightforward about the seductiveness of the idea of self-improvement. Running may be painful, but it's better than standing still.

The memoir opens with Powell in a downward spiral. It's January 2007 -- six years since Powell quit New Times, four years since his marriage fell apart because of his infidelity. His rebound girlfriend has left him. His rebound-rebound too. He spurns freelance assignments in favor of surfing the internet, walking his dog, and wallowing in self-pity. When an uncle living in Miami commits suicide, Powell sees his own future in the blood-flecked bathtub.

Despite the quotes covering the walls of his apartment on the Miami River, Powell can't seem to pull himself out of his depression. But when he begins Googling his ex-wife, he finds a newspaper ad for an estate sale. "Have moved to Europe so Everything must go!!!"

"This is significant. This is news. This is what I was looking for, though this isn't what I was in any way expecting to find," he writes. "My wife -- ex-wife -- has moved to Europe. Blood rushes to my temples. Electric sparks flash across my nervous system, firing up everything. This is problematic. This hurts. Not that she's left Miami; I haven't seen or talked to her in three years. Not because the sale took place a week earlier and I've missed my chance to buy back the mixer we received for a wedding present. I start to freak out -- I feel a serious, satisfying pain, perhaps like a stabbing -- because she's moved on with her life. Everyone has now moved on with their lives. And I'm still in the apartment I rented temporarily, on a month-to-month basis, when I left her."

Powell's response -- to pour his pain into running -- is rooted in his troubled relationship with his father, a retired businessman and seasoned marathoner whose competitive streak stands in stark contrast to his son's spiritual and physical malaise. Powell selects Boulder as the site for his new life based upon a newspaper article touting it as the epicenter of the American running scene.

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