Born to Run – and Write
Author Tom Coyne, M.F.A. is a New York Times best-selling author who brings love of sport into his work, and his classes.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
When Jennifer Cush, a senior French and secondary education major from Washington Township, N.J., considered her roster for the fall '12 semester at Saint Joseph's University, she found a course offered by the Department of English that seemed "both intimidating and alluring," she says. Deciding she was up to the unique challenge it posed, she enrolled in Running to Write, an upper level class that combined a traditional writer's workshop with distance running.
While running experience or participation in physical activities were not requirements for the course, all 14 of Cush's classmates, most of whom were neophyte runners, trained for, ran and completed the Philadelphia 8-K, half or full marathon in November.
Throughout the semester, the class also took on ambitious writing assignments, including blogs that chronicled their experiences, essays, short stories, poetry and creative non-fiction.
"The students used running as a vehicle to tell other stories – as a way to tap into a story that they felt must be told," says Tom Coyne, M.F.A., assistant professor of English, who conceived and taught the course. "Most found that the practice of running is similar to the practice of writing – that there are parallels between being alone in their head when they write and being alone on the road when they run – and that physical activity can help creativity."
No stranger to incorporating the writing life with running, Coyne is the author of a book about training for and competing in the Paris Marathon, Bury Me at the Finish Line (Penguin, 2013.)
"Your brain gets sideways when you run – you get out of the daily rut," he says, adding that running helped his students to "get fresh and clear in their minds. They started to pay attention to the world around them, and their writing became more vivid."
Senior English major Diana Nahmod of Manalapan, N.J., says that running provides ample material for her work. "Running is a mystery, and I never know what will surprise me when I'm out there. Every run, long or short, has allowed me to discover something new about others, and myself," she adds.
Though distance running and creative writing are notorious for being solitary pursuits, the students found friendship, camaraderie and esprit de corps that lasted throughout the training period and beyond.
"I wanted to be a part of a community of students who were working toward a mutual goal and who would encourage me to step outside of my comfort zone as a runner and a writer," says Cush, who had no running experience when she started the class. "When I ran without the companionship and encouragement of my classmates, I often battled with the voice in my head that said it was impossible."
Crossing the finish line for the half marathon – which is 13.1 miles – was "an incredible feeling," she says. "My heart reveled in disbelief, pride, exhaustion and joy."
Now, a long run doesn't intimidate her. In fact, she looks forward to her daily practice of running and then writing, and is glad that she pushed herself to register for the class. "The course had an immense impact on me," she says. "It's a true example of experiential learning, and one of the best classes I've taken at SJU."
Update: Tom Coyne, MFA, author of New York Times best-seller "A Course Called Scotland," as well as "A Course Called Ireland" and "Bury Me at the Finish Line," teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. As of 2018, he is the director of the Writing Studies program at SJU.