Thoughts on Research from Our Authors: John Vanderslice

We asked some of the authors that we have published to reflect on research in their nonfiction work. John Vanderslice wrote the essay “Thirteen More Miles” published in our second issue. What follows are some of his thoughts on the research that he conducted for his essay.

Researching the subject of marathon running was something I had been doing unofficially for several years prior to writing my essay “Thirteen More Miles.” I’ve always paid special attention to articles that recount famous marathon contests of years past or the struggles of current marathoners or the latest updates from a major race, especially the once every four years Olympic qualifying competition. In my case, however, the reading I had already done about marathon running wasn’t enough.   I started drafting the essay in a nonfiction writing class I was teaching one semester, when all the students were trying to develop collage essays. In class, I wrote down what I already knew, but I followed up with a significant amount of research, finding out many more details about the races and runners I wanted to profile.

Sad to say, I am personally familiar with a couple of the tragedies I document in the essay.  In 2008, on the day that Adam Nickel died at the finish line of the Little Rock marathon, I was also running in Little Rock, only I covered the half-marathon course rather than the marathon one.  I finished my half-marathon about an hour before Adam finished his marathon. When I started writing about people who died running marathons, I knew I had to include Adam’s story.  I also knew I had to include the story of Molly Trauernicht, who died running the half-marathon course at the St. Jude’s Memphis marathon in 2009.  I was present on that day too.  Except this time I was running the marathon and she the half-marathon. Even though I had a certain level of personal history with the case of Adam Nickel’s death and Molly Trauernicht’s, I still researched those tragedies while I was writing the essay.

In developing my essay I tried to be honest to this seemingly dualistic nature of distance running: It can be about the most satisfying—and healthy—thing you’ll ever do, or it can kill you.   When I started drafting the essay a few years ago, those high profile deaths were very much on my mind as well as the mind of the running community at large.   I felt that I couldn’t not mention them.  Also, including the prospect of potential injury or death from running added some very useful tension to my own story of training for and running my first ever marathon.   Given that I had to struggle through a (pretty stupid) injury myself during that training, it just seemed to make a thematic fit.  Of course, since I wrote the essay in retrospective fashion the reader knows I didn’t die at the race, but perhaps there was other peril in store for me!  As you now know, however, the day turned out very nicely.

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