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April 12, 2016

Jen Miller is running toward her life

Running is one of her life’s constants, though not without bumps in the road

Running Books
Jen A. Miller Photo courtesy/Marc Steiner

Jen A. Miller's "Running: A Love Story," is about the constants in her life, running and writing. She started running as part of her life as a freelance writer. She's still at it a decade later.

“Running: A Love Story,” a new memoir by South Jersey writer Jen A. Miller, starts with her half-hating the very idea of running just for running’s sake.

In the book’s opening, which follows the course of Miller pushing through a marathon race, she begins:

"Teenage me would be more stunned to see me at the starting line of a marathon than if I’d grown up to become a mermaid, a unicorn, a professional baseball player, or a mermaid riding a unicorn picking off runners at first base.

“I detested running growing up, though 'detested' might be too kind a description. How about loathed, despised, hated with the burning of a white-hot fire?

“I wasn’t anti-sport. I ran a lot, but that running had a purpose: to chase after a soccer ball or someone with a soccer ball, to get to first base, second, third, home. I was good, too.”

But running just to run?

“It just seemed pointless,” the 35-year-old Collingswood resident during a recent interview.

A busy writer, the coffee chat with Miller was slotted around her new part-time gig writing a running newsletter for The New York Times and a promotional jaunt to the Washington, D.C. area for the new book – and some running.

Intrigued by the draw of running on folks in general – and women in particular – Miller, in true George Plimpton journalist-as-amateur-sportsperson-style, entered her first 5K race largely because a magazine agreed to pay her $750.

From there, running became one of her life’s constants, both as a writer and as a person, though not without bumps in the road – everything from bad relationships to a runner's injury called Dead Butt Syndrome.

The book concludes:

“But my running is different now. I’m not running away from anything, or toward anything. I run because I like it. I’m not trying to beat my body into a specific shape, or trying to run out my problems. Running is part of my life now, like writing and dog hair on my couch and clothes. It’s an important part of that life, but I’m not trying to break any personal records or even set new PRs every time I race. I just want to be out there, and be.

“That’s because my life now is calm and flat, like I am floating on that bay. I live a small life in a small town with a small house and a small dog, and I am content. I don’t know if I would have reached this point without running, but I’d rather not know. It’s a cleanser for my mind, body, and soul.”

While the book clearly is framed around a decade of running that includes five marathons – some with good results, some not – Miller’s memoir is decidedly not purely a running book, though training details are mentioned often.

The deeper topics, more or less, are: writing; running; relationships, including her parents’; running; sex; body image and self-esteem; drinking; friends; running; injury; the Jersey shore; the post-Sandy shore; more writing; South Philly versus South Jersey; suburbs versus city; travel; an adopted Jack Russell terrier; more running; more relationships; more sex; several bouts of heartbreak – and lots more writing.

“It makes me a better writer,” she says of the role of running in her life.

“Pieces come to me when I’m running, not thinking. Races are brain clearing,” adds Miller, a determined middle-of-the-pack runner on most race days.

She likes the demand of racing, as opposed to free running, because the preparation required demands “structure and training,” two things she depends on in her life.

NonePhoto courtesy/Marc Steiner

While her book clearly is framed around a decade of running – including five marathon – Jen A. Miller’s memoir is decidedly not purely a running book.

Her first foot race in Medford, New Jersey, came during a personal “trifecta” of tribulations, she says: dumped by a boyfriend, the death of a beloved grandfather, and a recession that threatened to undo her freelance writing career just as it was taking off.

But the constant of running provided a reliable solace, as did a supportive running community she soon discovered. In fact, she launched her book at the RunningCo. of Haddonfield, her personal equivalent of "Cheers," she says.

Running has helped affirm who she is as a writer – “I don’t want to be in an office” – and also as a woman – “I don’t want to be a housewife.”

She credits the support of her divorced parents to her decision to walk away from a relationship that seemed fraught, even moving back in with her mother as she reclaimed her life as a single woman.

And while she says there is a feminist statement in the book – running today skews more to female than male – she also relates that she just received an fan email from a 73-year-old guy. And while running may not be your thing, Miller's book proved an easy read that moved along.

She’s hoping this book spawns more books and fewer articles, though she still enjoys the eclectic mix of topics she has covered as a freelancer.

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Jen Miller will speak and sign books at Inkwoods, an independent bookstore in Haddonfield, at 7 p.m. on April 21.