Zen and the art of reading while running: What I learned from a year of horror audiobooks

Bill Goodykoontz Arizona Republic

The point is to get through it.

Whether it’s a book or a run, one of the appeals is that if you just keep going, you’ll get to the end and accomplish something. It takes some effort, yes — which is part of the point.

If those things work as a metaphor for getting through the pandemic, great. If they work as actual tools for it, all the better.

Running while listening to audiobooks can help keep you sane when the world around you might be heading in the other direction.

They’ve worked for me — lots of miles and lots of books, mostly horror (a description that works both for the quality of my runs and my preferred genre). I’ve gone through three pairs of running shoes: Brooks, Nike and Asics; I’m brand agnostic. I’ve worn tank tops and sweatshirts. I’ve fought a losing battle with AirPods, and happily switched to the Jabra Elite 75t ear buds.

I run past an elementary school every morning. I’ve seen parents dropping off their children. I saw it empty for months as the pandemic raged. I’ve seen it reopen, seen kids playing on the playground, masked and distanced. It was a reminder of … everything, and sometimes it made me so sad I thought I’d cry.

In a rare departure to my routine, when I listened to «No Better Place» on repeat after Adam Schlesinger died from COVID-19 as a kind of mourning, I did cry.

It may sound like a daily grind — wake up, pull on running shoes, head out on the same course at the same speed (sadly) every day. I suppose in some ways it is.

But it’s not a slog. It’s a journey, albeit a slow one, a different trip every day. Whatever other benefits this combination offers, it’s had a bigger one: It’s helped keep me sane when the world around me was heading in the other direction.

How I started pairing horror novels with morning jogs

For the last year many of us have developed coping skills to help get through unprecedented times. I don’t know how many loaves of sourdough bread showed up on social media in the early days of COVID-19 lockdown, but enough to make me never want to see one again, much less eat a slice.

Stuck at home, the mind tends to wander since the body can’t. Some people tried things they hadn’t before. Maybe some subscribed to Disney+ to watch «Hamilton» last summer and stuck around for a chronological spin through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Others learned to cook, or tried to. Maybe someone built tiny ships inside glass bottles — although do people do that anymore?

Whatever floats your boat, as they say.

For me it was a combination of subscribing to Audible.com, getting back into shape and a love of horror. I have debated on social media whether listening to an unabridged book counts as «reading» it. There are strong feelings on the subject. I vote yes, it counts, because of course I would.

Even a psychologist of the armchair variety could figure this out. All these things allow for escape — maybe not literal, though at least running gets you out of the house and, if you go far enough, the neighborhood. You’re unstuck, if only for a while.

I’ve «read» dozens of books in the last year. Most, though not all, were horror novels. I zipped through some of the usual suspects, listening to Stephen King’s latest collection of stories, along with those of his son, Joe Hill. I’d never read Peter Straub’s «Ghost Story,» which I liked a lot.

For more literary horror, there was «The Only Good Indians» by Stephen Graham Jones, which is brilliant. «Those Across the River» by Christopher Buehlman is also good, as is «Mexican Gothic» by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and «Dread Nation» by Justina Ireland.

Beyond horror and on the more traditional literary front, I followed «Between the World and Me» by Ta-Nehisi Coates with its inspiration, «The Fire Next Time» by James Baldwin. I slogged through «Antkind» by Charlie Kaufman. I finally made it through «Ulysses» by James Joyce and eagerly await having someone explain it to me.

Reading and running got me out of the house — and out of my head

There are many others. Reading is good for the brain and a necessity for writers. But there’s more to it than that, especially in the last year.

Why so much horror? Some good florid dysfunction can certainly take your mind off a side stitch, for one thing. But there’s also catharsis, and the reminder that however badly things might seem like they’re going, they can always go worse. It probably makes for a weird scene to the people I pass, yelling, «Don’t do it!» when someone makes a dumb horror-story choice, or, «No no no» when a character I like gets killed. But that’s better than what I’ve yelled at my AirPods.

It’s escapism. And never in my lifetime has there been such a need for it. I said before that the running and «reading» combination gets you out of the house. That’s true, and that’s important. But it also gets you out of your own head, which can be a challenging place to be when the world has gone mad all around you.

But there’s always more miles to run, more books to read, another vampire to fear or zombie to dispatch (or not). The point is to get through it — and learn something when you come out the other end.