Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 7 Feb 2001 08:11:25 -0500

Personal Records


Piled high beside my desk are books and magazines waiting to be read. Editors and fellow writers for Runner's World, please forgive me for saying that your latest work sits in that stack.

The RW cover announces "The Runner's Best Training Tool." I guessed it might be a workout, an exercise, a shoe, a watch or a diet.

A peek inside revealed that it was none of the above. The best tool, Jeff Galloway wrote in his column, is the running log or journal or diary (as I persist in calling this personal recordbook).

The best running book, he said, is the one you write yourself. As someone who on New Year's Day opened the 42nd volume of my life story, I must agree.

Jeff and I didn't compare notes when we wrote our February columns. Mine too touches in passing on keeping a diary.

Fred Wilt was its instigator. He was one of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI agents, but I didn't get to know him through his day job. Wilt, a former Olympic athlete himself, moonlighted as a running coach and author.

His first book, How They Train, reached me as an impressionable 16-year-old. Wilt recommended in the summarizing chapter that runners keep a logbook or diary describing all their running and racing in detail. He said this allows them to review the data to see which training techniques are working and which ones aren't.

You don't say no to an FBI man. When Wilt told me to keep a written record of my runs, I said, "Right away, sir."

The first day's entry on a sheet of lined notebook paper read: "11/11 -- 2-mile road run, slow." That was all I wrote about a run that was hardly worth noting. But this was a quiet launch of an enduring habit and the earliest signal of a career to come.

The diary I began writing on Veterans' Day 1959 continues today. It's now less a running log than a writing journal. Drawing on the experience of almost 15,000 entries, I offer tips for telling the story of your life.

I'll jump past the practical reasons for personal record-keeping. You already know them or can learn them in five minutes by reading Jeff Galloway's RW column.

The practical diary is built mainly from numbers. The better personal records are made with words, which start as notes about the numbers and lead to essays on unrelated subjects.

A diary in this form becomes a daily letter to yourself, meant for no one but you to see. That might seem to be too much like talking to yourself, and you might ask, "Why not write a letter to a close friend instead?"

I'd advise against it. Keep the diary personal, which doesn't necessarily mean private.

You might later select and sanitize certain passages to share with others. But don't write with that in mind, because it will alter your style and content. You write differently when you feel unseen eyes looking over your shoulder than when the page is intended for your eyes only.

My diary employs a let-it-rip style of writing: few or no notes, little idea at the start where the piece will wind up, going as fast as my hands will travel from the top to the bottom of the page. I don't try to make a perfect page, but leave bad spelling and grammar uncorrected, and flawed facts unchecked.

This isn't the time to stop and correct the material. Editing can come later if the material should earn the right to go public.

It also isn't the place for modesty or good manners. This is my page -- as the one you write is yours.

We can write anything we want here -- honestly and personally without angering, shocking or boring anyone. We can clean up the material before sharing any of it.

The longer the diary continues, the greater its bulk and the higher its value. Store your records in a safe place, treating them as the precious volumes that they will become in time. Their ultimate value is as a personal library of dreams and memories.

You can open this ongoing book to any old page and bring a day back to life. You can call up a mental videotape and, from a few lines on the page, recreate all you did and felt that day. These recordings give substance and permanence to efforts that otherwise would be as fleeting as the moment and to experiences that would be as invisible as footprints on the pavement.

In my office stands a bookcase with 41 filled binders, each holding a year's worth of diary pages. On a nearby shelf rest all the books I've written and edited for publication.

If, in case of fire, I had to choose between the two sets of books, it would be no contest. I'd haul out the diaries that tell the truest story of my life in the roughest of drafts.

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