26 Miles and Running

If you’re running the Marine Corps Marathon, the standard four-month training plan begins about now, and you’re probably looking at all those 18- and 20-mile runs you’re slated to complete and thinking “How the hell am I going to do those? I get bored at movies that take substantially less time than those runs will.” I trained for and then ran the MCM last year, in the thoroughly mediocre time of 4:56:57, and one thing I can attest to is that classical music is way underrated as running music.

Consistent with its place in the overall musical marketplace, classical music has not made an apparent dent in the running community’s consciousness. Apart from the “I’m a Runner” interview with Carter Brey, I’ve never seen Brahms or Mendelssohn mentioned in Runner’s World — more like Eminem, Coldplay, and even the classical music world’s favorite bogeyperson, Britney Spears. Yet the canon provides works with enough imagination and thrust to sustain interest for an hour, or even longer. Surely such music has a role to play when you know you’ll be out for three hours on that run.

If you’re treading with an iPod, you’d have to download 11 songs of standard length to match the duration of (say) “Eroica.” Classical music: What a bargain! If your mind, like mine, is equipped such that you can play back music in your head without recourse to recordings, that’s even better — you can isolate your favorite four-minute stretches of classical works, then repeat them endlessly until it feels as though your limbs and Schumann operate as one.

The key is not to mess around with works that will make you feel logy or alienated — you want your classical running soundtrack informed by the dynamism of the dance, to entertain both mind and body and to mesh effortlessly with the runner’s high I sincerely hope you also get at some point while running 20 miles. Here are my Top 5 works to run by:

5. Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony no. 100 (“Military”). Big Papa Haydn makes the first of what will undoubtedly be a wildly disproportionate number of appearances on this blog with the “Military,” which I distinguish from the other London symphonies by its bouncy Allegretto slow movement, featuring emphatic “Turkish” percussion that keeps those knees up. I have vivid memories of pulling myself through a punishingly humid 15-miler in Sligo Creek Park with its crashes of cymbal.

4. Felix Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 4 (“Italian”). If you are trying to make a good time in a race, some plans advise that you turn up the pace for the last part of training runs, to simulate leaving it all on the course. No better way to do that than to trot at a brisk clip for the first three movements of this sunny opus and then get smacked in the face by the first minor-key chords of the Saltarello finale. No matter how many times I play this one in my mind, that opening always makes me push the throttle. The first and third movements, too, provide unfailingly buoyant music, with the third being pretty endlessly repeatable if you so desire.

3. Antonin Dvorak, Symphony no. 9 (“From the New World”). The trio section of the Scherzo of this one, also endlessly repeated, did me the great honor of getting me around the dead zone of Hains Point during the marathon. So many miles with so few people to cheer you on! In another symphony with a dynamite opening to a rousing finale, Dvorak also obliges the struggling runner by including an extremely memorable slow-movement theme that nevertheless has a usefully distinct and pace-able rhythm. This probably would be higher on my list if, unaccountably, it had not been such a late addition to my running rep — I didn’t think of using it for this purpose until a month before the race. I was too busy with the top two.

2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony no. 41 (“Jupiter”). I am not going to lie to you: The opening of the slow movement here is pretty rough for our purposes. Too many sighing pauses! But Lil’ Wolfie eventually fills in those gaps with helpful filigree. Plus, if you can get through that slow movement, you get so much else: the first movement’s grand harrumphing opening measures to push you on and little slinky second theme to keep your feet feeling light; a nice steady pulse in the minuet supporting catchy melodies; and that finale, a riotous burst of heavens-storming activity that allows you to repeat not only the exposition but also the development and recapitulation. It’s right in the score! Though you are probably not supposed to repeat the development and recap for three miles (a.k.a over 30 minutes), as I did one fine July morning last summer. This would be an easy choice for best all-time were it not for

1. Franz Schubert, Symphony no. 9 (“Great”). It’s an hour long even if you’re not embellishing it, making it the perfect iPod companion. Remember how propulsive all the moving parts in the “Jupiter” finale were? Schubert extends that for almost the entire symphony here. (Its endless churning has earned it the nickname of the “Bursitis Symphony” from string players, a fact I know from Charles T. Downey; you can make it your iliotibial band syndrome symphony! Though I’d recommend not.) And Schubert’s slow movement is marked Andante con moto, thoroughly grateful emphasis mine.

Some of my happiest memories of running are of waking up just after the crack of dawn (to enjoy a semblance of cool weather during the summer), getting it rolling in Montgomery County’s portion of Rock Creek Park, and then letting Schubert’s finest play in my head; the scherzo, indomitable and athletic without being ponderous, and the cries for joy and accumulations of notes in the finale of the finale resonated in my mind with the glowing-green trees and the occasional shafts of early morning light filtering down through them onto the trail. And, thanks to the miracle of numerous repeats, I have a whole lot of memories like this.

I was originally going to provide some additional works with features to like, but we’re already way over anything that could be considered a conscionable length for this post, so I’ll save that for another day. If you have a suggestion for Classical Music to Run By, though, be sure to leave it in the comments below — I’m still doing a 12- to 16-mile long run every weekend, and while that’s way easier than 20, there’s still plenty of time in which the support of suitable masterworks would be much appreciated.

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3 Comments on “26 Miles and Running”

  1. Gunnar Says:

    Good ideas for the longer runs — I think anything that brings you into a good rhythm, and allows you to think about stuff that isn’t running at the same time, is good.

    I don’t usually run for more than about 45 minutes at a time. When I don’t bring headphones, I almost always find myself singing “This Little Light of Mine.”

  2. […] DMV Classical Classical music in the chocolate city and its vanilla suburbs « 26 Miles and Running […]

  3. alex Says:

    I’ve also found that Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is pretty inspiring exercise music. Almost anything of Reich’s really.

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