Last year K. got me an iPod for my birthday, and it's probably no coincidence that I started training for my first marathon a few weeks later. Running is a lonely, grueling business, and it helps to have something to distract you from the next four hills and how the fourth one makes you want to retch. I actually made a 4-hour playlist for the St. George Marathon, but I'm proud to say that I crossed the finish line well before "Chariots of Fire" and "Eye of the Tiger" were scheduled to give me that final inspirational boost. Since then, I've been compiling my own mental list of go-to running songs, the ones I turn to when the road calls for heroic measures. Here are the ones that I keep coming back to:
1. "Grounds for Divorce" by Elbow. If Elbow cut more tracks like this, they would probably have all our money by now. From verse one, word one, is there anything in this song that doesn't make you want to pound the pavement? From the bluesy call-and-response between singer and band to the heavy sway of the beat, each verse just builds and builds until, good gravy, here comes that hook (wait for it, you'll know when you get there) and that's it, we're knee deep, and you're stomping on the face of the world.
2. "No You Girls" by Franz Ferdinand. When you hear that opening guitar riff, take a deep breath and lunge forward. Never mind the nicotine aftertaste of the lyrics--keep a steady pace into the bridge. When the singer asks, "Do you never wonder," the correct response ("No. No No NO!") should be punctuated with escalating air drums into the chorus and--Wham!--what's that icy thrill shooting through your arms and chest? That's Scottish post-punk, getting it done.
3. "Flathead" by The Fratellis. Two-thirds through a 15-mile run, this jangly piece of froth kicked on just as I was cresting a hill. My legs got light and my head started floating and for the first time in my life I knew what a runner's high was supposed to feel like. Three minutes later the song was over and the next hill dropped me back into reality like a pair of lead Nikes, but there was no denying the feeling. Maybe it's just conditioning, but now whenever I hear this song my stride gets easy and the next thing you know, I'm smiling.
4. "The Crane Wife 3" by The Decemberists. It's funny what songs do or don't lend themselves to distance running. Take "Mirror in the Bathroom" by the English Beat. The bass line is fast and relentless, but therein lies the problem--the song sets an unsustainable pace that, when paired with a steep incline, is more likely to discourage than invigorate. Compare that to The Decemberists' most perfect song, which takes things steady and slow until, before you know it, you're soaring.
5. "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder. A true classic (which is to say, I am ashamed to think that there was ever a time when I didn't know this song). I could talk about how much I love the way Stevie Wonder lays one riff on top of another, from the drums all the way up to those awesome horns, but all you really need to know about "Superstition" is in Stevie Wonder's 1973 performance on Sesame Street:
See that kid at the top of the stairs at the 4:10 mark? That's me running to this song. You and me, kid. Rock on.
--"Experimental Film" by They Might Be Giants. Who knew TMBG could rock so hard?
--"O Valencia!" by the Decemberists. We know how this tragedy will play out, but the beat is all about that initial thrill of running away.
--"Call Me" by Blondie. Interesting counterpoint to "Mirror in the Bathroom," with a relentless beat just fast enough to make the hill seem worth the climb.
--"King of Spain" by Moxy Fruvous. OK, I just wanted to throw this one on the end. This is what having fun sounds like.