Running through the past
A conversation with author Caleb Daniloff ’94
- By Tom Weaver
Departments / Alumni Profiles
Running through the past
A conversation with author Caleb Daniloff ’94
Caleb Daniloff knows what it is to endure—whether it’s years in the grip of alcohol addiction or the last six miles of a marathon. The Class of 1994 alumnus takes readers along through these personal journeys of despair and discovery in his first book, Running Ransom Road (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), set for release on October 9. In the memoir, Daniloff weaves together his drinking past and his running present via a number of races in cities (Burlington among them) that he terms former “sinning grounds.” While some passages might make readers wince at what was, ultimately Daniloff’s story is driven by hope and the power to change.
When the author, a writer on staff at Boston University by day, was in Burlington mid-August we met up for a Saturday morning run on the dirt roads and trails at Shelburne Farms. iPod set on “voice memo,” I recorded thoughts shared and a fair bit of huffing and puffing on the uphills. Here’s a look at some of the places an hour or so of rambling took us.
Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly editor
TW: I enjoyed your descriptions of your first efforts as a runner while living in Burlington. Tell me more about that early emergence as a runner.
CD: I guess the overwhelming feeling I had was that I was kind of crashing the party. I felt like I didn’t belong, felt very much like a tourist or that I was conducting an experiment.
I didn’t let anyone at work know that I ran. I would change in the parking garage, go down to the waterfront, then run one or two miles. I was wearing these ridiculous sneakers that just had straps in the back; they were basically slippers. (Laughs) Maybe they were the precursor to minimalist shoes, I don’t know.
I didn’t know what I was doing, but there was something about that run that felt comforting along the waterfront. I always loved the Adirondacks and the lake, of course, so eventually I would go down there two or three times a week after work. It was where I learned that I could be a runner.
TW: What initially pushed you out the door and got you started?
CD: Vanity. After I quit drinking and smoking, I’d packed on thirty-some pounds. Growing up, I’d been thin and athletic. I was kinda horrified at my gut and my double chin and my labored breathing going up stairs. One day, I tried a couple laps in the town pool and nearly fainted from exhaustion when I got out. But there was some connection there, in the heavy breathing and pounding heart rate, to the way things once were, maybe to who I used to be before I started drinking heavily. I then found my way to a treadmill, and eventually screwed up the courage to run outside, in public.
TW: How did the book concept come about?
CD: I’d published an article in Runner’s World about running as a sobriety tool. That had come out in March 2009 just a month before I did my first marathon at Boston. When I saw that the Burlington marathon (Vermont City Marathon) was just a month later, I thought I’d done all this training, why waste it all on one race, why not go back to sort of a “sinning ground” and race? So then I looked to see if there were other races in places that I lived. It was just sort of a domino thing.
I’d also written an essay about running in Middlebury (winner of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize) that I knew would figure into the book. It was really this dirt road in Middlebury where I felt like there was a sort of spiritual awakening. I would always run almost in complete darkness, and by the end of the run this gorgeous sunrise would appear, and it became sort of symbolic. I guess it is where the mental and psychological work of sobriety began.
It took three years of not drinking before I fully realized that getting sober is more than slapping on a nicotine patch. There is a lot of active work that needs to be done, and it begins with an inner journey. Running was such a direct tunnel accessing all of those things.
TW: Your book is very honest about difficult moments in your past. Was it tough digging into that? Was it cathartic?
CD: I feel like that has been a topic for me in my life, and I’ve written about it in various forms. I guess I felt pretty comfortable with kind of exposing myself like that. There’s definitely plenty of stuff that I left out. I guess my main concern was that these memories served a purpose other than for shock value—that they somehow moved the story along or gave insight for where I was. So as long as they met that criterion in my mind, I had no problem.
TW: Reading the book as someone who is of a generation and in a stage of life somewhere between you and your parents, I found myself feeling for what you all went through during the darker years. Your father is a runner and still a competitive rower. Did your emergence as a runner draw you and your dad closer? (Editor’s Note: Caleb’s father is Nicholas Daniloff, a distinguished journalist arrested by the KGB in Moscow in September 1986 and held for three weeks under accusations of espionage. After the Soviets dropped charges and released him, the family was hosted in the White House Oval Office by President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. A photo of that occasion features teenage Caleb with long hair hanging in his eyes and Converse Chuck Taylors on his feet.)
CD: Yes, I’d say very much so. My dad really first exposed me to running as a kid. And he and I share depressive and anxiety issues. I think he clearly uses exercise to deal with it. So in that sense, I mean, we talk about the importance of just getting out there and showing up to the start line and just trying to work through things physically.
We talk a lot about his rowing. In a way, he may even be more obsessed. I think he beats himself up if he doesn’t do well. For a long time with running, I would never allow myself to walk. I just felt like that was failure, especially in a race—I mean only if I was about to explode with diarrhea or if I was so thirsty that my tongue was swelling or something. But in the last year or two, I can be OK walking during a run or stopping for water during a race. I don’t feel that pressure to prove anything to anyone anymore. I’m not sure if that’s gone away entirely for my dad.
TW: There were some pretty rough times for you during your years at UVM. Let’s say you weren’t exactly the sort of student we would feature in the admissions brochures. But I know that there were people who had an important influence on you, Toby Fulwiler (professor emeritus of English), for instance.
CD: I think Toby was really the main element for me. It wasn’t until years later that he told me that he basically completely saw himself in me sitting there in the back row. And I hadn’t gotten that sense from him at all.
Toby was the first person who validated my work and made me think I could be halfway decent at writing. I had an inclination, but I feel like he was able to push me in the right way. I feel like with any academic experience if you come away with one mentor that has a real positive influence, I think that’s a victory. And Toby also led me to Jean Kiedaisch, head of the writing center, then I became a writing tutor. Jean was very encouraging and I still keep in touch with her. So I’ve got two really solid, lifelong human impacts there.
There were other professors who I still remember for sure—Denise Youngblood, who I greatly admired and maybe was rather intimidated by; Kevin McKenna from the Russian department. There were lights in the darkness.
And I loved Burlington; I’m still very fond of Burlington. I had some good friends come out of my years there.
TW: How did you pull off writing this book while working full-time at BU? Getting up at 4 a.m.? Staying up all night?
CD: All of that. I did take a leave of absence for four months. The entire process from writing the proposal, getting the agent, and the release date on October 9, was almost three and a half years. Yes, there were lots of 4 a.m. wakeups, lots and lots of weekend work. It did have that marathon, endless miles quality to it. Sometimes I think back and I don’t know how I did it. And if I’d known that this is what I’d have to do, I wouldn’t have done it.
TW: Again, sounds kind of like some marathons…
CD: (Laughs) Yeah, but on the other hand you are so excited that you have a book to write that you find a way to get it done. A lot of time I found that I was writing more about running than I was running, and I’d question whether that counted.
Actually, I find a pretty direct correlation between my running thoughts and my writing thoughts. Many of the images and lines in the book came out during a run. A lot of times during a run I’ll think of an idea or an image, then spend the rest of the time running in terror that I’ll forget it before I can get home and write it down.
TW: What are your hopes for this book? I mean, besides that it sells millions of copies and allows you to quit the day job.
CD: I think about somebody with a drinking problem seeing enough of themselves in it that they are able to open themselves up to the idea of taking the hole that they’re filling with booze and filling it with running or something else. I hope they see that it can be done. I hope it can have some kind of comforting effect on people who are struggling, not just with drinking, but with sobriety.
Also, a lot of people might think that they can’t run, even those who don’t have any kind of addiction problem. I’ve come to believe that anyone can run; anyone can run a marathon. What I did, running multiple marathons in a short time period, is not that extraordinary at all. I want people to recognize that you’re never at an end point where it’s just over and you can’t go any further. Nothing is static. Sobriety itself is a whole bizarre adventure and you need tools to navigate that terrain, which can be complicated. For me, it’s been running and marathoning. Recovery is a constant state of evolution. If I can help embed that feeling inside others, then that would be a success.