Thursday, February 2, 2012

Voices In My Head: A Sing-Along Blog

Shaking a headphone cord out of my
mouth at the 2009 Hospital Hill finish line.
That was the last time I wore headphones
in a race. (They were broken, anyways.)
Note: At the bottom of all my usual yammering is my playlist. All the titles are links to the songs on YouTube. I'd suggest starting there, finding a song you want to listen to, then scrolling up and reading the rest. Just a thought.

When Brian and I were at Jazzfest this past spring, we stopped to listen to Better than Ezra. I couldn't recall any particular songs of theirs that had meant anything to me, but the minute they started playing, I was immersed in memories of my first car (a silver '87 Acura Legend) and all the freedom that car 'ownership' implied. I remembered that gas was so cheap (89 cents a gallon, once), I could scrounge loose change from the backseat and still have enough in the tank to drive for a week. I remembered my first two accidents - in rapid succession and not entirely my fault - and my sister falling out of the car in the second one, announcing to the neighborhood that she "saw a bright light!" And mostly, I remembered the discovery that the car - way more than the shower - is the ultimate music player and a safe haven for less-than-talented singers to unleash their vocal stylings. In a 1987 model, car music meant radio. And radio, when I started driving, often meant Better than Ezra.

Research has shown smell to be one of the closest ties to memory, or at least the most resistant to forgetfulness. If that's supposed to be the case for everyone, I must have a short circuit in my brain. I have a sensitive nose (I was second only to the dogs in smelling Brian's neighbor, who had died in his apartment) but it has no particular power over my recollections. Instead, my memories are all rooted in one of the things my parents immersed me in from the very beginning - song. Most of the good - and some of the not-so-good - moments in my life come with some kind of soundtrack, and I've started making lists that evoke certain categories of memories - family roadtrips, Hanna's wedding planning, driving around trying to sort out my life, and of course, running.

A couple weekends ago, Kansas City woke up to 18-feels-like-OMG temperatures, one of the first such mornings of this incredibly mild winter. Instead of getting up, manning up, layering up, and getting my butt outside like I should have, I laid around in bed for an extra hour, then puttered around with coffee and cinnamon toast and attended to my GI tract, then decided I'd do my run indoors instead of waiting around for it to warm up (which it never really did). Like most runners, I'm not horribly fond of the treadmill, but music helps. Incredibly, I can listen to the same playlist over and over and over again without getting bored, but no matter what's on the TV or what kind of workout I'm doing, without my music, I won't last more than an hour. The winning combination? Listening to my iPod while watching muted college basketball. And once, I ran all the way through Larry the Cable Guy's show on the History Channel without once looking at my watch. Who knew?

But, I digress. My schedule read 8-12 miles. My treadmill distance PR is seven miles, and that was on a speedwork day, so I was there only about an hour. To run eight miles at long run pace would mean about an hour and twenty minutes of treadmill time. Twenty treadmill minutes can feel like twenty treadmill miles, so I decided it was a good day for an experiment. Recently, my dailymile buddy, cellist, and fellow Runner's Edge member Myra had written a post about accidentally adding cello music to her running playlist and how much she enjoyed it. Having a huge classical selection at my disposal, it became something I was excited to try, and treadmill day seemed like just the day to do it. So I added a few faster-paced selections to my playlist, changed clothes, corralled the dogs, and set off for the treadmill - my running song lab.

It was a good decision. The classical music was a strange fit, but it fit. Running to a piece I'd played was an entirely different kind of movement compared to the dance-like fluidity of playing the violin, and it gave me a belated insight into the rhythms and syncopations I (admittedly) probably didn't notice as a student violinist. I felt like a scientist making an unexpected breakthrough on an experiment I had long abandoned...and kind of made me want to play again. My fingers were ahead of my brain, and twitched their way through my run, as if against an imaginary fingerboard. And as I ran, I remembered. Classical music, free of words and meanings and video images placed there by the artist, is especially evocative for me and brings back all sorts of memories and friendships and feelings I don't even remember forgetting - the joy of working hard towards a goal, of community and solitude at the same time, of feeling like anything's possible.

Could there be a better possible set of memories to channel into my running? Or, for that matter, into everyday life?

Of course, I have no illusions this will work for every run. I'm a violinist, but I'm not always in the mood for classical music and the memories it evokes aren't always quite so sentimentally positive and nostalgic. Plus, from a more practical standpoint, I don't think I'd be able to hear it if I took it outdoors. I don't run with headphones except on the treadmill. Outside, I barely even run with music - I strap my iPhone to my arm when I run at the airport and play music through its speaker, but for non-airport runs and for races, I don't like to run stuck in my head. It's good to be able to dig deep without a crutch, and I think it's tougher, sometimes, to pull inspiration from one's surroundings, but having raced both with and without headphones, it's a lot more exciting to race without them and really, REALLY take everything in. In New York, I got the best of both worlds - I was able to absorb energy from hearing the crowds and conversations along the route, but I also heard each and every song that had brought me special inspiration during my training. I marked them with a picture, below.

(Aside: Seriously, sometimes I wonder if I'm tempting fate by wanting to take on New York again. I have a hard time imagining how an encore experience could POSSIBLY be better than the first. Seriously! SO! AWESOME!)

And, in the way of things, none of these songs exist in a vacuum. Like the classical music brought positive memories to my treadmill run, songs I've run to have injected specific memories and emotions from other places in my life into my running but have also picked up a specific running association of their own. In turn, whenever I hear one of my running playlist songs outside of that specific context, something in my brain fires and I immediately get that little bit of peace and enormous sense of strength I associate with my happiest runs.

Funny how that works.

The Rotation
Without further adieu and in no particular order, I present to you my main rotation. I'm proud that it's eclectic, I'm proud that all these songs fit my stride so well, and I'm always open to suggestions! The titles are all clickable, but I haven't listened to all of them, so if they're wrong or are terrible quality, let me know and I'll switch them out with something better. (And if the lyrics are wrong, I apologize - remember, I'm listening on the run!)

Written in the Stars (Tinie Tempah, Disc-Overy)
Favorite line: No particular favorite line for this song, it's just sort of all-around fantastic for running.
Best for: Speedwork. I always get an extra pick-me-up when I hear this song, and it pretty much DEMANDS I go fast. Usually my favorites come from some kind of deeper identification with the meaning of the song, but not in this case.

How Far We've Come (Matchbox Twenty, Exile on Mainstream)
Favorite line: I think it turned ten o'clock but I don't really know / And I can't remember caring for an hour or so / Started crying and I couldn't stop myself / Started running but there's nowhere to run to / I sat down on the street, took a look at myself / Said, "Where you going, man, you know the world is headed for hell" / Say your goodbyes if you've got someone you can say goodbye to...
Best for: Speedwork. Tapering. Any song that choruses with the line "Look how far we've come" is definitely a taper song, and the rhythm is good for a speedy cadence, even if it's not the most cheerful song in the world.

Ready to Start (Arcade Fire, The Suburbs)
Favorite line: Now I'm ready to start / I would rather be wrong / Than to live in the shadows of your song / My mind is open wide / Now I'm ready to start
Best for: Speedwork or the first warmup mile. It always kills me when this one comes on during a cooldown.

Paper Planes (MIA, Kala)
Favorite line: Every stop I get to I'm clocking my game / Everyone's a winner, we're making our fame / Bona fide hustler making my name.
Best for: Happy running. Picking up the pace.

A-Punk (Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend)
Favorite line: No particular inspirational lyrics. I just like the beat.
Best for: Warmups. Getting this song first in the shuffle guarantees I'll start happy.

Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3)
Favorite line: New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of / There's nothin' you can't do / Now you're in New York / These streets will make you feel brand new / Bright lights will inspire you / Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York.
Best for: Training for the NYC Marathon! Sure, it might be a little overplayed but this hit the regular rotation the minute I got into the race in 2011 and it never ceases to bring a smile and inject a little energy, knowing what I'm training for. Brand new, indeed.

Supermassive Black Hole (Muse, Black Holes & Revelations)
Favorite Line: No especially favorite lines here, I just like the song and kind of wish it didn't have such strong ties to the "Twilight" movies. Blah.
Best for: Speedwork, energy!

'Til I Collapse (Eminem, The Eminem Show)
Favorite Line: 'Til the roof comes off, 'til the lights go out / 'Til my legs give out, can't shut my mouth / 'Til the smoke gives out - am I high? Perhaps / Ima rip this shit 'til my bones collapse.
Best for: Energy! Digging deep.

This Modern Love (Bloc Party, Silent Alarm)
Favorite line: Nothing in particular. I just like the song.
Best for: Runs where I need to think.

Dog Days are Over (Florence + The Machine, Between Two Lungs)
Favorite line: Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father / Run for your children, for your sisters and brothers / Leave all your love and your longing behind / You can't carry it with you if you want to survive.
Best for: Everything. Inspiration. Remembering why I'm running and what I'm running for. Speedwork, warmups, energizers, you name it. Hearing this during NYC was one of the highlights of the route. The only other song that could possibly define my running more is the song that inspired my blog title, Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise, by the Avett Brothers.

Viva la Vida (Coldplay, Viva la Vida)
Favorite line: No particular lyric that stands out, I just enjoy the song in general.
Best for: Warmup. I started warming up to this song when I first started running, and it's been carried over from several prior playlists.

Runnin' Down a Dream (Tom Petty, Anthology Through the Years)
Favorite line: No surprise, this is one of the quintessential running songs. The entire song works.
Best for: Happy running!

Graceland (Paul Simon, Graceland)
Favorite line: And I may be obliged to defend every love, every ending / Or maybe there's no obligation now / Maybe I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.
Best for: Happy running. Warmups, cooldowns, going fast/slow, pretty much anything.

Resistance (Muse, The Resistance)
Favorite line: Honestly, I go back and forth about whether or not I want to keep this one on my list, but it ends with "It's time to run" and I keep forgetting to take it off. I've already eliminated quite a few Muse songs from the rotation, because it's great running music but gets a little old/dark after awhile.
Best for: Zoning out.

Angeles (Elliott Smith, Either/Or)
Favorite line: No particular favorite here, I just put this on my list because the rushing sound of the acoustic guitar gives me that feeling of the wind blowing between my ears on a good, mind-clearing run.
Best for: Mind clearing.

A Well-Respected Man (The Kinks, Kwyet Kinks)
Favorite line: And he likes his own backyard / And he likes his fags the best / 'Cause he's better than the rest / And his own sweat smells the best.
Best for: Warmup. I added this song to my list after seeing Juno. This was the song they played when introducing Paulie as a runner and it's stuck with me ever since. In a (good) way, it reminds me of Brian.

The Cave (Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More)
Favorite line: 'Cause I'll find freedom now / And I need to know how / To live my life as it's meant to be... / ...And I'll find strength in pain / And I will change my ways / I'll know my name as it's called again.
Best for: Happy running.

Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard (Paul Simon, Paul Simon)
Favorite line: Well, I'm on my way / I don't know where I'm goin', but I'm on my way / Takin' my time, but I don't know where...
Best for: Happy running.

Sweet Child o'Mine (Guns n'Roses, Appetite for Destruction)
Favorite line: No particular favorite running-specific line, this is just a good song in general.
Best for: Happy running.

1901 (Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix)
Favorite line: Honestly, I really have no idea what this song is about and I don't really care, I just like the pace and the melody.
Best for: Happy running.

Bittersweet Symphony (The Verve, Urban Hymns)
Favorite line: I need to hear some sounds that recognize the pain in me, yeah / I let the melody shine, let it cleanse my mind, I feel free now / And the airways are clean and there's nobody singin' to me now /
Best for: Cooldown. This is another one that's followed me since the beginning, and it's always been effective at helping me put on the brakes and wind down.

Up Around the Bend (CCR, Cosmo's Factory)
Favorite line: You can ponder perpetual motion / Fix your mind on a crystal day / Always down for good conversation / There's an ear for what you say.
Best for: Injecting energy! This song makes me think of my running buddies!

American Girl (Tom Petty, Anthology)
Favorite line: Well, she was an American girl / Raised on promises / She couldn't help but thinkin' / That there was a little more to life somewhere else / After all, it was a great big world / With lots of places to run to / And if she had to die tryin' / She had one little promise she was gonna keep.
Best for: Happy running. Energy.

Mr. Brownstone (Guns n'Roses, Appetite for Destruction)
Favorite line: I used to do a little but a little wouldn't do me / So the little got more and more / I just keep tryin' to get a little better / Said a little better than before.
Best for: Speedwork. The above line sums up my running career (and Slash's heroin addiction, ironically) perfectly.

Paint it Black (Rolling Stones, Aftermath)
Favorite line: Eh, these aren't especially running-applicable (or life-applicable) lyrics, in my case. I just like the melody and the beat.
Best for: Speedwork

This Moment (Disturbed, Transformers OST)
Favorite line: Dream this moment as you run away / You will only separate me from what I believe / This moment, in brutality / You're the one who kept on pushing / 'Til I made you bleed
Best for: Speedwork. Digging deep. I first had this song on a playlist I'd entitled "Fast Driving" (I drive way faster than I run) so I'd already built the association between this song and gunning it.

Uprising (Muse, The Resistance)
Favorite line: No particular favorite. It's a good song in general.
Best for: Speedwork. This one has survived since the early days, and while no particular lyric stands out, it reminds me of how far I've come as a runner.

The Shrine/An Argument (Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues)
Favorite line: And if I just stay awhile here staring at the sea / And the waves break ever closer, ever nearer to me / I will lay down in the sand and let the ocean lead / Carry me to innisfree like pollen on the breeze.
Best for: Happy running. I took Kessler for a run on the beach in January. There were only about five people out and about, the sun was shining, the air was warm, and we were joined by a small pod of jumping dolphins. It's a good moment to be able to recall with a song. Plus, I'm clearly a sucker for any song with a slash in the title.

Life is a Highway (Tom Cochrane, Mad Mad World)
Favorite line: Through all these cities and all these towns / It's in my blood and it's all around / I love you now like I loved you then / This is the road and these are the hands... / ...There's no load I can't hold / The road is rough, this I know / I'll be there when the light comes in / Just tell 'em we're survivors.
Best for: Happy running!

Jai Ho (A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire OST)
Favorite line: I understand not a word in this song, but I love it anyways.
Best for: Energy.

Dashboard (Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank)
Favorite line: Well, we scheme and we scheme, but we always blow it / We've yet to crash but we might as well tow it / Standing at a light switch to each east and west horizon / Every dawn you're surprising and in the evening one's consoling, saying / "See it wasn't quite as bad as"
Best for: Picking up the pace.

Wake Up (Arcade Fire, Funeral)
Favorite line: If the children don't grow up / Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up / We're just a million little gods 'causin rain storms / Turning every good thing to rust / I guess we'll just have to adjust
Best for: Anything and everything. Hearing this song makes me happy, but the chorus makes me think of victory laps. Wherever this happens to appear in the rotation, it's sure to have a good effect.

Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues)
Favorite line: If I only know one thing, it's that everything that I see / Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak / Yeah, I'm tongue-tied and dizzy and I can't keep it to myself / What good is it to sing helplessness blues? Why should I wait for anyone else?
Best for: Happy running. This song can go fast and slow (and does, tempo-wise) and it makes me feel more like Kilian Jornet hopping around in the mountains than Elizabeth Hodges, shuffling along on the roads in the middle of nowhere. Hooray for cheap escapes and vivid imaginations.

Honorable Mentions
These are songs I enjoyed in prior lists but don't fit either my running mood or my pace anymore. I'm kind of particular about what I like to run to, and while I have no qualms about listening to the same rotation over and over again, when a song begins to get out of sync with the way I've been running or starts to irritate me, it has to go. Skipping a song three times automatically earns it a demotion from the regular rotation...or as soon as I remember to delete it. (Van Halen was the most recent to go. I like some of their stuff, I just can't do it over and over and over.)
  • Truckin' (Grateful Dead)
  • Run-Around (Blues Traveler)
  • Dirt Off Your Shoulder (Jay-Z)
  • The Seed (The Roots + Cody Chestnutt)
  • The Way You Move (Outkast)
  • We Didn't Start the Fire (Billy Joel)
  • Always on the Run (Lenny Kravitz)
  • Bigger Than My Body (John Mayer)
  • Sex on Fire (Kings of Leon)
  • Jackson (Johnny Cash)
  • I've Just Seen a Face (Beatles)
  • Beautiful Girls (Van Halen)
  • Mrs. Potter's Lullabye (Counting Crows)
  • Friday I'm in Love (The Cure)
  • Solid Rock (Widespread Panic)
  • Helicopter (Bloc Party)
  • Shipping Up to Boston (Dropkick Murphys)
  • Believe (The Bravery)
  • Surfin' USA (Beach Boys)
  • I Stand Alone (Godsmack)
  • Add it Up (Violent Femmes)
  • Berlin (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)
  • Can't Take My Eyes Off You (Frankie Valli + Four Seasons)
  • Stylo (Gorillaz)


  1. Hi Elizabeth! I clicked through to your blog from DM and I swear after reading this first entry I feel like we are kindred spirits! I was a devoted Runner's Edge girl for several years (11:20 pace group with Lisa) prior to moving to AR a year ago and like you song is where I find my memory base too! A song can take me back in an instant to a very specific moment in time...good or bad! I share your view on the dreadmill and can really only get through it if I to listen to music while watching muted (closed caption even better) TV! Finally...many of your songs are on my playlist as well and I too can listen to a playlist for even up to a year before I move on! So...I'm glad we connected and I look forward to following even more of your training! I'm training for Rock the Parkway too...I'm coming back for it and can't wait to see many of my RE pals! Good luck with your goals!

  2. Hi, just wanted to tell you, I enjoyed this post. It was
    practical. Keep on posting!