Matt Fitzgerald is a familiar name to runners, having written more than 20 books on the topic alongside regular contributions to running magazines. But his newest tome gets more personal. It’s a memoir, “Life Is a Marathon,” and it tracks both his cross-country journey to run eight marathons in eight weeks, as well as his personal journey with his wife, Nataki.
During the former, he meets an assortment of fellow marathoners who share their stories, as he conquers quirky quests like the Rockin’ K marathon in Kansas — which includes a 3,500-foot elevation change and multiple water crossings — in driving rain, alongside more traditional courses like the Boston Marathon. He does this while also chronicling his marriage, and specifically his wife’s struggle with bipolar disorder, which includes violent episodes that Fitzgerald details in painful-yet-empathic detail. It’s a beautiful read that should appeal to runners and non-runners alike — funny, moving and, above all, honest.
We spoke with Fitzgerald to find out how he did it, why he continues to run and how writing a memoir both is and isn’t like running a marathon.
Q: Was it hard to tell such a personal story?
Fitzgerald: Yeah. On the one hand, it’s a story I wanted to tell from the day I met Nataki. Just because any time I have an intense personal experience, the writer in me wants to express it. Nataki and our relationship was a muse for me, so I’ve been wanting to share our story from the get-go.
But the bad stuff started to happen. And when you want to tell a personal story, you want to have a happy ending. So I had to wait for our happy ending.
Q: Why did you feel compelled to do it?
Fitzgerald: Insofar as it is a hard story to share with the world, I just chose not to share it until we were both really ready. Then it was easy in the sense that it was cathartic. It felt like the final step in gaining a victory over all that we’d gone through. So it’s a book that, even when I reviewed some of the materials that I had written, I would sit at my desk crying reading it.
Q: Did you write the book to raise awareness of struggles with mental health?
Fitzgerald: It was a lot of painful stuff. But it wasn’t hard in the sense that like, should I or shouldn’t I share this. Like will I look bad, or will I make Nataki look bad, because by the time we made the decision to go forward with it, it really did feel right.
There were times for both of us that we were absolutely without hope. There were times where I was just sure that my life had taken a wrong turn and that it would never go back. I was just going to suffer for the rest of my life.
My life isn’t perfect now, but it’s so much better. So when we did weather the storm and get our hope back, I felt like it could be a lifeline for someone in a similar situation to hear this sort of story, during moments of their own hopelessness, or near-hopelessness.
To hear an example of a couple who came back from the absolute brink shows that if it was possible for us, it’s gotta be possible for others as well. It would’ve been really helpful to have had a lifeline in that situation, so I hope that this book can be that for others.
Q: I hope so, too. Your book doesn’t just talk about yours and Nataki’s challenges, it talks about the challenges faced by other runners you met over the eight marathons. And your idea is that running marathons can heal, essentially.
Fitzgerald: Yes. Well, I think it’s a little different for each person. For me, it is just hard. If it’s not hard for you today, it’s going to be tomorrow.
Q: Why do you think running, and marathon running specifically, is such a source of healing?
Fitzgerald: For me, trying to make your life easy is not the solution. It’s a natural instinct. You don’t want things to be unnecessarily hard. But overall, you’re going to be a much happier person if you are strong — and can deal with hard realities — rather than trying to make the world line up so everything always goes your way.
So for me, the marathon is hard, but it’s a hard you choose. It’s really, really intense, when you get to those moments deep in a race, when you badly want to finish, or to achieve your goal, and yet every instinct in you is saying, you know, stop.
It has to be really hard to give you the sort of practice that it takes to strengthen yourself. But because it has that control, because in fact you can stop, and there are times when I did — in a way that’s not that different from how it makes you stronger physically, it does make you stronger mentally, and emotionally, and then you carry that away with you. For me you can’t be strong without knowing it, and it’s such a good feeling to have.
Fitzgerald: When Nataki and I go through a rough patch now, I just experience those situations differently than I did before. I don’t really panic. I have this calmness, more of a “this too shall pass” mindset. To a non-runner, it must sound a little hard to swallow. Like, really? But that is my authentic experience, and I got a lot of that from being an athlete.
Q: It takes a hell of a lot of mental discipline to finish a marathon.
Fitzgerald: Yes. It absolutely does. And this is something, and I’m not a psychologist, but there’s a lot of interest among psychologists in what is going on in the mind, in the brain, during these intense athletic experiences. Some of them will say it really is the most powerful type of brain training you can do. Because it is so intensely physical, but of course your mind is always along for the ride. Your mind is always experiencing anything that’s physically hard. It’s almost something I feel everyone should do. My own wife, Nataki, doesn’t do it, but she has flat feet. [Laughs.]
Q: The experience of writing the book itself. How was it like a marathon, and how was it not?
Fitzgerald: I don’t view myself as particularly talented. I love writing, and there are those who say passion is talent. If that’s the case, then yes I’m talented. [Laughs.] It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. But it’s like how you can be good at running — but if you don’t actually run, you’re terrible at it. And for me with writing, I just feel like, when I sit down to write a first draft, including this book, it’s just garbage. [Laughs.] It’s terrible.
I’ve written a number of books, but this one was special because it was so personal. I really wanted to do the absolute best I was capable of. And that meant I had to learn to just take my time with it, and go over it and over it and over it and over it. That was the process for me, and I see a definite parallel between marathon training and writing.
They’re both disciplines.
Q: What did you learn about yourself from writing the book, and what did you learn about yourself as a runner from doing the eight marathons?
Fitzgerald: Part of the reason that it’s a good thing I didn’t try to write this book earlier is that I have more humility now. I think that’s normal for a lot of people as they get older. I was a little bit more hubristic in my 20s. If I had written this book when I was younger, I would have tried to make myself look good or to craft an image. It was liberating when I sat down and thought, I’m just gonna be really hard on myself. Because I am self-critical, privately. I don’t like when other people criticize me. But I call myself a coward on the first page of the book.
Q: Ha! I was gonna ask about that. It’s gotta be the first running-themed book that begins with somebody skipping a race.
Fitzgerald: [Laughs.] Good point. My operational principle was transparency. And because I was writing about a marriage, that’s a tricky thing.
Because you have control, and then the person you share a bed with every night is a huge part of the story, and all her stuff is being put out there, too. I felt like from a craft perspective, and from a human perspective, that all the criticism had to be self-criticism. And sure, that was, in a way, specific to this project, but this is hours and hours and hours of my life. So, it did bleed over beyond the page. Now I just feel like I’m comfortable being more vulnerable with others generally than I was before I wrote the book.
Q: Faith and spirituality come up a lot in the book. Do you think those topics are especially interesting to runners, and if so, why?
Fitzgerald: I certainly do. If you asked 20 runners this question, you would get 20 slightly different perspectives. Mine is that running puts you alone with yourself in a way that most everyday experiences don’t. Especially in 2019, you’re just always electronically connected to something. When you’re testing your limits, the real you comes to the surface. I liken it to looking at your own soul in the mirror. There’s such raw clarity to those experiences.
I don’t know what the definition of spiritual is, but to me that is a spiritual experience. On the one hand, you’re isolated. But also, there’s kind of a paradoxical transcendence that comes out of that isolation, where it sort of connects you to everything at the same time. It’s like that expression, there are no atheists in a foxhole. You get to true crisis moments in a marathon. Like, you don’t have to be a praying person to find yourself praying, you know what I mean?
Fitzgerald: The absolute aloneness of those moments is terrifying. So you want to find a connection to something that’s bigger. I don’t know if it’s blasphemous to say this, but running is sacramental to me. I do it almost every day. It’s like going to church for me.
Q: There’s something about running — there’s no bike, there’s no racquet, it’s just you and your body. There’s something freeing about that. But like you said, there’s something terrifying, too.
Fitzgerald: Yeah. Atavistic is the word for it. It just connects you to the animal you.
It’s funny. I’m training for a triathlon right now. I love bicycling. I’ve learned to like swimming. But for exactly the reasons you articulated, nothing does it for me like running does. Because it is just you.
Q: Why do you keep running?
Fitzgerald: Because I’ve always been competitive. Running was first and foremost a sport for me. I wanted to get faster, I wanted to PR, I wanted to win, to beat people. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I used to wonder with some trepidation, what’s gonna keep me doing this when I’ve set my last PR? It happens to every runner, sooner or later, they just start to slow down. I thought I might just quit and start golfing or something. But that absolutely hasn’t happened at all. I just find that, if you approach it right, the journey of running never stops taking you to new places. It’s like that old saw, a man can’t cross the same river twice. It’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man. That’s how I experience running. It’s a journey that never ceases to take me to new places.