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

Sat, 06 Oct 2007 11:32:56 -0400

Preview: Starting Lines

Starting Lines, the first book in this three-part memoir series, is now available as an e-book for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Also published in this format are two of my early books, Long Slow Distance and Long Run Solution, as well as Marathon Training, Run Right Now and a book about me, Rich Englehart’s Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets. The final two books in the memoir series will soon be added in this format.


Sometime between claiming my first Social Security check at 62 and signing on with Medicare at 65, I heard an offhand comment by a fellow writer from the same age-group. Rich Benyo, my editor at Marathon & Beyond magazine, was into his own multi-volume memoirs, and he urged me to get going on mine. “Our age is the best time to write memoirs,” Rich said. “We’re old enough to have had the experiences, but still young enough to remember what they were.”

My second big push was a cancer diagnosis. Doctors found this disease early and treated it well, but the episode still left me thinking: Better get going on this book now, when the successful treatment has renewed my appreciation for the life I’ve led.

Writing on this memoir began in 2008, shortly after hearing the three chilling words: “You have cancer.” I wrote and wrote and wrote that year, and only took the story as far as 1967. This became the book you’re beginning to read here, covering my growing-up years in the Midwest.

In 2009, after completing nine weeks of daily radiation, I wrote and wrote some more. This narrative of my peak years as a long-distance racer and journalist living in California ran its course in 1981. Book two is titled Going Far.

Writing the third book took most of 2010. It tells of settling down to the post-peak years in Oregon, my longest-time home state. It’s titled Home Runs.

The processing and polishing of this memoir series took three years. But in a sense I’ve been writing this story almost as long as I’ve lived it. The rough draft runs to more than 50 volumes. Since 1959, I have been a journalist in the truest sense: one whose writing all starts on a daily journal page.

My first and most enduring literary hero was John Steinbeck. He taught me to read and inspired me to write. The first non-sports book I ever read for pleasure, without a teacher’s grade hanging over me, was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The best writing instructions I've ever seen were in his Journal of a Novel, which solidified my habit of journal-keeping.

Much later I left fulltime magazine work and lived for three years in Monterey County, California – Steinbeck’s youthful home. I hoped that his ghost would guide me to success as an author. I wrote the books, many of them, mostly how-to texts for runners like me. Had Steinbeck lived long enough, he would have opened none of these books.

During the Monterey years I wrote a novel that never found a publisher. One rejection letter read, “This is obviously an autobiography thinly disguised as fiction. You should admit it’s your own story, rework it that way and resubmit it later.” Good advice, but I took my sweet time following it. I needed another 30 years of writing and reflecting before these memoirs could take their current shape.

Fittingly John Steinbeck influenced the format of the three books. In one of his minor novels, Cannery Row’s sequel called Sweet Thursday, he wrote lines that stayed with me: “Looking back, you can usually find the moment of the birth of a new era, whereas when it happened it was one day hooked on the tail of another. There were prodigies and portents, but you never notice such things until afterward.”

I’ve known days like this, and I revisit dozens of them here. Each chapter of Starting Lines (and its two sequels) opens with a journal-like entry from one of my big days, then I append an instant epilogue (called “Update”) that tells where the events led. New-era-openers abound in every life. I’ve been lucky enough to keep a written record of mine.


COIN, IOWA (pictured above as it looks today). Home isn’t a single place but anywhere you’ve lived long enough to leave behind ghosts of your former self. By this measure I have multiple homes – in Illinois where this life began, in Oregon where I live now, in California where my career took root, but most of all in Iowa where I grew up.

Ask where I’m from, even now while writing from the West Coast, and I’ll say without pause, “Iowa.” Ask for a more exact location, and I’ll tell you, “a little town called Coin.” I wasn’t born here, haven’t lived here since 1961 and don’t have a living relative here. But more than anywhere else I’ve ever called home, this town shaped who I have become.

I return here often in memory, but seldom in person. The true trips bring sadness at how this old hometown looks now, along with a renewed appreciation of all that it offered in the years when I needed it most. This is a book about how I found a sport, and soon afterward started writing about it. Here I tell how these twin passions sprouted, in a report that must start where they first took root.

Coin, Iowa, isn’t a town you stumble across by accident while driving somewhere else. You have to want to find it. If you did seek it out, you’d wonder why you bothered – unless you had a history here, and with it the ability to see the invisible.

Coin sits far from anywhere big. The nearest city, Omaha, is barely within over-the-air television reach. This is where my drive back home begins, in a rental car from Omaha’s airport. I need no map, but if I did I’d need good glasses to find Coin there. Its name appears beside the smallest dot in the far southwest corner of Iowa, five miles above the Missouri line and 30 from Nebraska.

Finding Coin requires turning off Iowa’s southernmost east-west state highway, then heading six miles farther south. This road, paved now, was gravel (“rock” to the locals) when I first rode and later ran and drove it. It was dust-clouded in dry weather and soggy-boggy in wet.

Approaching Coin, I pass through the portals of a former railroad trestle. Two rail lines, the Burlington and Wabash, once crossed here. They gave the town life, and a name for a gold piece found beside the tracks, then both railroads abandoned this route in the 1950s. Coin rests on about a hundred acres of hilly land, looking down on the East Tarkio River. Flood waters had lapped against the lower streets of town before county engineers tamed the river early in the 20th century.

Now I turn off the highway and drive uphill, into my past. Business buildings once lined the one-block Main Street on either side – a gas station anchoring either end, three cafes (one a tavern with pool hall), two groceries, two barber shops, one doctor’s office for humans and another for animals (the latter with a vet named Dr. Hogg), a milk-and-egg business (with a worker named Hatch), stores for furniture, hardware and electrical repairs (with an owner named Wiar, pronounced “wire”), a bank and a post office.

This street now looks like an old man’s mouth after a lifetime of dental neglect. Only the post office and bank remain. The other buildings are either decayed beyond safe use or gone.

A block above Main Street is the spot where I did the most living in Coin. Our family’s home stood here, across the street from the old Methodist Church. We moved from this house in 1961. We’d barely packed to leave town before the house came down, to make room for the minister’s new home that went with the new church building.

Nearby, atop the town’s highest hill, stands the former high school building. Both of my parents graduated there. So did my brother, but the school closed after my sophomore year. The building remains as a neglected and abused monument to a past that only a dwindling flock of old occupants can recall. The young of town have shattered the windows and graffitied the outer walls.

Town life once centered on the school, and school life focused perhaps too strongly on sports. Nothing brought Coin together like a football or basketball game. There were no track meets here because Coin had no track. High school enrollment dropped to 60 at the end. Most of these students played the sport of the season, so nearly everyone in town had a stake in the contests. Home crowds numbered more than the town’s population. When Coin High closed, the heart went out of the little town. Nothing could ever replace the excitement of a game night.

The basketball court that once prepared a girls team for the state tournament is locked forever. The playing field that sent a team to a state six-man football title lies weed-choked, unable even to support kids’ baseball and softball games anymore. Only an old-time runner remembers when a chalk line around this field served as a makeshift training track.

Coin’s population had hovered around 300 when our family’s leaving reduced it by six. Officially the count isn’t much lower today, but this looks to me like a ghost-town. This day I see no one, young or old, on the streets. Air-conditioning, television and advanced age keep today’s residents indoors, or they commute to bigger towns to earn or spend money.

Today I pass unrecognized through town. Most of the people I once knew in Coin now rest in the town’s cemetery. It overlooks what used to be Henderson Farm, now a final rusting place for junked cars and trucks. This sounds like a mournful part of my visit, but it’s not. From this spot I can look out over my old hometown and perform mental archeology. Through the magic of memory I can resurrect the departed, restock the farm, reopen the schoolhouse, restore the sports arenas, rebuild the family homes, revive Main Street.

I stand here by myself, but I’m not alone. I see again everyone who raised and praised me, pushed and pulled me, instructed and inspired me. Everything I would become began in this place and with these people. I honor them in the best way I know how, by recalling how their stories mingled with mine.

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