There are 415 songs on my "long run" playlist. A disproportionate amount of them involve legendary American rock musician Tom Petty, who died Oct. 2.
It's ludicrous that this playlist exists in the first place. I almost never run with music; headphones on the road aren't safe in most circumstances, and I usually run with a group for company, anyhow. When I do strike out by myself, I mostly treasure the silence.
But, depending on the depths of one's addiction to long-distance running, there are almost invariably times when scheduling conflicts or other obligations dictate that a dreadful treadmill slog is the best you're going to get. If you're like me, you might even find yourself pushing a stroller around dozens of half-mile loops at a nearby pocket park so as to not venture too far from the house. These are times when music becomes your best training partner. It's how my long-run playlist was born.
Last spring, I was staging a "comeback" after a year off from serious mileage. It's hard to resurface after a prolonged absence due to injury, career stress or major life changes. But, runners run. I was full of optimism.
I was also at the time enjoying a full-on, deep-dive Tom Petty obsession. He and the Heartbreakers were headed to Dallas on their 40th anniversary tour, and I — me — had scored the review assignment from our magnanimous music critic, Kelly Dearmore, also a longtime fan.
In preparation, I devoured Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Runnin' Down A Dream (at almost four hours, its length, while hefty, was still a quarter-hour shorter than the time it had taken me to hobble 26.2 miles a few years prior), and I listened to the songs constantly: On my drive to work. When I showered. As I danced around the house.
Naturally, those songs showed up on my runs, too. They joined me — a slower, fatter, older, more sleep-deprived me — as I limped along on the treadmill in our humid playroom, wondering if I'd ever be a marathon runner again.
Here's the thing a lot of non-runners don't know. To go really far, you have to start out by running slower than your body and brain naturally think is reasonable. Once you can go really far, other challenges start creeping in. Completing a marathon (26.2 miles) in less than four hours is a popular one. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is an even loftier goal. But whether you're working on that first mile, ever, or taking on a 100-plus-mile ultramarathon, you have to go slow before you can go fast.
Most recreational runners incorporate a weekend "long run" into their plan, which is generally a mile or two farther than the previous week's run. The long run (and a few other runs per week) should almost always be run about one to two minutes per mile slower than the pace a runner wants to maintain during a race.
It's also really, really hard to do properly. Running "slowly" — a qualifier relative to the individual — can be maddening. It is more about the mind than the body. You need confidence, maturity and discipline to silence an ego. Oh, you used to run 8-minute miles? You once ran [arbitrary measure of ability resulting in dubious sense of personal worth]?
As with so many things in life, just because you can (or could) doesn't mean you should. Some recreational runners spend decades trying to get a handle on it. Some never do.
I was plodding along "slowly" on a low-quality treadmill last spring trying to quash just such an internal monologue. Running didn't feel empowering or exhilarating. I felt weak. As soon as I tamped down one mental protest about giving up, another would surface.
In the background, "I Won't Back Down," from Petty's solo debut, 1989's Full Moon Fever, began playing at random. It's an on-the-nose choice for a playlist created for the sole purpose of being inspirational, and I'd added it, perhaps even cynically, without thinking too deeply about it.
Suddenly, I was sobbing. And, laughing. Not because I was sad or angry or defeated. But because I'd stopped doing mental acrobatics and calculations. I'd ceased beating myself up, at least for a minute. I was just there, in a moment, and I was alive.
The mood had shifted to something more "American Girl." The darkness doesn't disappear, but its subject endures and pushes onward. "In my mind, the girl was looking for the strength to move on — and she found it," Petty told the L.A. Times in 2002.
"Take it easy, baby, make it last all night."
Resolve, especially against myself, is the best thing running has ever given me. It's something I've had to learn and re-learn.
The Tom Petty Long Run Formula
Brains are weird. Feeling a sense of euphoria — a runner's high — is a well-documented, but not fully understood phenomenon. That day on the treadmill, I think the chemistry was bolstered by the fact that I hadn't backed down to the bully in my brain that said to forget running far or fast ever again.
All we have is the present. The only option was to run slowly for as long as it took to feel like myself again. It wasn't going to happen on its own. "There ain't no easy way out," Tom said.
Words are magical. So is music.
It's impossible to know much about Petty's intention as he penned the song years ago; most would assume its lyrics refer to his documented fight for artists' rights, which culminated in a winning lawsuit in the '90s. But "I Won't Back Down" became something else entirely for me that day, and it wasn't exclusively due to the song's stated defiance. There was something in the drums and guitars and Petty's tone that raised hairs on my arms and neck.
Something hypnotic. I had locked into it, transfixed.
It wasn't about matching the beat, mathematically speaking, though that song is faster than I'd remembered. Most radio rock songs fall somewhere between 110 and 170 beats per minute, whereas a cadence of 180 strides per minute is considered most efficient for long-distance running (though that rule of thumb has been challenged). Some runners work hard to quicken their stride rate to 180; if that comes naturally, you got lucky, babe.
I couldn't make sense of why it worked. When I first started looking for running songs, I searched for ones around 180 BMP, and didn't find much I liked. "I Won't Back Down" falls somewhere closer to 114 beats per minute, but it and so many more of Tom Petty's songs conjured what I needed. I started to think of other songs by other artists I could add to the list that might do the same thing. They needed to fit the Tom Petty Long Run Formula.
"Runnin' Down a Dream," "Even the Losers," "Refugee" — they jump right into a driving beat without the sort of lugubrious intros that make Pink Floyd, for example, brilliant at midnight but distracting midrun. On top of that, the Petty songs were up-tempo, but not so breakneck I was seduced into running too fast, flubbing my training and risking injury or burnout.
I used my new Tom Petty Long Run Formula to curate the now 400-plus-song running playlist. Talking Heads, the Smiths, Joy Division and New Order take up notable space on it. Other spots go to Nicki Minaj, Santigold, Cake, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Kraftwerk, Bob Wills, LCD Soundsystem, Bowie, Bikini Kill, Stormzy, TV on the Radio, Pat Benatar, Motorhead, Kid Cudi, Bon Jovi, Reverend Horton Heat, Iggy Pop, Major Lazer, Dick Dale and a number of other unlikely bedfellows.
But it's Petty who features most prominently. He remains my favorite imaginary running partner on days I need a cool mind and a defiant heart.
If you want to run with Tom, there are more than 40 years of gems to mine. Start here: