A Simpsons Writer Takes on the Marathon
Joel Cohen hates running more than you do
As a quick search on Amazon will confirm, there’s no shortage of books on running available today. The spectrum is vast: from training and race guides, to works of memoir, fiction, and reportage. There’s even a 140-page comic book from the author of The Oatmeal on the highs and lows of a pursuit that is both addictive and vaguely masochistic. Perhaps the most prominent sub-category in the world of running literature is the marathon-training guide, typically a work of expertise authored by a former pro or elite-level coach, and brimming with advice on how to master 26.2 miles.
Now, Joel Cohen, a novice runner and long-time writer for The Simpsons, has made his own contribution to the genre. In the preface to How to Lose a Marathon: A Starter’s Guide to Finishing in 26.2 Chapters, Cohen touts his own credentials: he was the 26,792-place finisher in the 2013 New York City Marathon. While this might not qualify him to advise aspiring Olympians, it seems to have provided more than enough material for him to write an informative and vastly entertaining guide for beginners, as well as anyone who can appreciate the subtle absurdities of marathoning.
We spoke to Cohen about chafing, expo torture, and the obnoxiousness of running snobs.
OUTSIDE: Early in your book, you write: “I know I’m bad at sports, yet I still love sports. I love them as much as I hate exercise.” How would you define the difference between sports and exercise?
COHEN: I think sports are anything you are trying to win, even if it’s a friendly game. I’ve never experienced winning of any sort, but I’ve heard of it. Exercise is something like a spin class, or going for a gentle run, which I find is not as engaging as a competition. So I guess the definition of exercise is working out purely for working out’s sake, and sports is working out in a competitive sense. How’s that for a badly worded answer? The first of many, I promise.
You cite (i.e. blame) Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run as an inspiration—specifically the book’s surprising revelation that people could actually enjoy running. Do you still run today and, if so, would you say you enjoy running more now?
I continue to run and continue to hate it. As the book says, when I run, my greatest strength is the volume of my podcast. I just crank it up and try to lose myself in whatever I’m listening to. Never music, because with music my mind wanders and I might realize I’m running. If I could ever afford one of those machines that exercise all your muscles in your sleep, I would never put on running shoes again.
You write that you never felt “runner’s high”—that it was more like you’d been sold a bag of runner’s oregano. But you do mention you enjoyed the feeling of having run. Can you explain that?
It’s sort of the way I also feel about writing. I find doing it is tedious and a chore. There are little moments of joy when you phrase something well (I say well because it’s never great), and then I’m so happy when I’m done. There are so many things in life that we just muddle through and never get that clear sense of being finished, but running was one of these things I could do for thirty minutes, an hour, or sometimes much longer, and there was that moment at the end when you were done. I just liked knowing I had done it—probably because I dreaded doing it so much.
You lament the attitude of certain running purists and snobs. You even invented a word for it: “pace-ist.” Would you say that this book is a kind of refutation of that mentality?
I literally didn’t know how long a marathon was until I looked it up. Then I researched, on the Internet, what a good marathon time was. There are all these running community chat rooms and there was this consensus where anything under four hours is respectable, but there’s a whole lot of hate out there for people who run slower marathons, slower being anything over four hours. Then I realized that that’s ridiculous. This challenge is so engaging that it’s enough if someone does it—regardless of what the time is. I felt like the world accepted that, although there is still this judgment in the community of pace-ists.
On the subject of gear, there’s a chapter in which you make the bold decision to run in shoes, then go on to discuss various types of running gear and what you think is necessary and what isn’t.
Aside from a great pair of shoes, one thing that was mandatory for me was Body Glide. Body Glide, or something similar, to stop the chafing. I write a lot about chafing in the book. I would have smoke pouring out of my shorts quite often if I didn’t use the stuff. So that really saved—maybe not my life—but parts of my anatomy that maybe no one cares that they’re safe.
In figuring out what pace you should try to run, you used Oprah as your running muse. Why Oprah?
I had no concept of what a good pace was when I felt started running, and I kind of just fell into a natural pace for the longer runs that I had to do. Once I found out that I was running at near ten-minute mile pace, give or take, I started to look for somebody whom I could kind of identify with and, in my competition-oriented mind, challenge myself against. And Oprah, very famously among the running community as I came to learn, had run four hours and thirty minutes, which is roughly ten-minute miles. So I my mind I decided I was going to be running against Oprah.
You ran 4:26:03, which means you were successful in beating Oprah. Congratulations.
Thank you. She felt too humiliated to call me and congratulate me herself. But I see my voicemail light is on, so maybe that’s her.
Among other things, you also include a glossary of running terms. Is there a running term or expression that you find particularly silly or amusing?
I still don’t know if I really understand “negative splits.” I came to learn what a split was, but a negative split I never fully understood. But when someone explains it to me now, I’d know how to nod at the right time.
In a chapter on injuries, you name a few of the ugly things you can get from running, including blisters, black toenails, and road race T-shirts. Did you get any injuries while training for your marathon?
I definitely got plantar fasciitis. I also lost several toenails. Let’s take a moment of silence in their memory. The big thing is that on a couple of occasions, I just clumsily rolled my ankle in a gruesome, horrible way. I dealt with it by lying on the ground and crying and then limping back to my car and not running for two or three days. Also by wearing this incredibly erotic tensor bandage around my ankle. What are they called? ACE bandages, I think.
On the subject of marathon expos you write: “I had no idea what a marathon ‘expo’ was. Now that I do, I miss those earlier days of blissful ignorance.” Why the hard feelings?
The one thing that’s always bothered me is that they force you to go. You can’t pick up your bib in any other place. And you quickly understand that you’ve been lured into this store, this marketplace for running garbage. It’s like being at a museum or amusement park and exiting through the gift shop. I never liked that feeling of being the forced consumer. That said, at the New York Marathon expo, I bought a shirt, gloves, and a bunch of crap. So I guess the system works. Maybe my book is being pushed on some poor suckers right now at some marathon expo.
Are you likely to run another marathon in the future?
I don’t know. I think the Berlin Marathon would be a fun one to run. But then I also heard recently that you can rollerblade the Berlin Marathon on the Saturday before. Then I thought that is a lot easier and I wouldn’t have to train, and wouldn’t it be cool to rollerblade through Berlin. Also, you get a medal, which I figure I can quickly show and no one will know what I got it for.