Author Jen A. Miller (Photo by Marc Steiner)
NEW YORK - About a decade ago, Jen A. Miller, of Collingswood, New Jersey, ran her first five-kilometer foot race. A magazine paid the freelance writer to train using an online running coach, run the race, and then write about the experience.
Back then, online tools for competitive and recreational runners were brand new. And the so-called second running boom had not quite begun. Jen did the training, ran the race, and the wrote the story. Although the article was never published, Jen had discovered something special in the sport of running. And it changed her career and her life.
Since that first 5K, Jen, 35, has run dozens more races, including six marathons (she ran the New York City Marathon in 2014 and the New Jersey Marathon in 2013 and 2016), and has prospered professionally by writing about various aspects of running for the New York Times, espnW, Runner's World, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.
She often writes about running while weaving in her personal stories. An essay for the New York Times called "Running as Therapy" garnered intense reaction and feedback. People wrote to her saying that "running helped them through divorce, death, breakup, everything." So she decided she needed to try to write a book. In fact, Jen calls that essay "the very very very very very very very very very short version of 'Running: A Love Story,'" her new memoir from Seal Press.
The book is a chronicle of her ups and downs with the sport and how it helped her deal with issues of family, career, mental and physical health, financial stresses, and tumultuous romantic relationships, including one with a man who was an alcoholic.
Jen grew up in South Jersey and is damn proud of that. In her Twitter bio, she calls herself a "Garden State Defender." She has written extensively about the Jersey Shore, including two editions of the travel guide "The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May." Although she has lived in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Tampa, and briefly in England, she said she found her place back in New Jersey. "There is a bit in this book about what happens when you're pulled out of your place," Jen said. "New Jersey's pretty great. I just got tired of people saying nasty things about it so I decided to wear it loud and wear it proud."
I met up with Jen on the last stop of her book tour at Brooklyn Running Company in Williamsburg. She led a 3-mile group run, spoke about her book, read an excerpt, and signed copies. After the event, we spoke about her career and the book. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.
1. Did you interview family, friends, and exes for this book? And if so, what was that like?
JEN: I interviewed a lot of people. I didn't talk to everybody. If I was going to have used their real names I would have. But I don't speak to some of these people for obvious reasons. The last [boyfriend] in the book, who I renamed "Nick," I interviewed for two hours. I talked to my parents. I talked to my friends. I talked to people who ran the marathons that I did that same year, if there was anything I missed. It's not easy. Writing memoir isn't easy. I am very fortunate to have an extremely supportive family even though they might not have been comfortable with everything, they've come to all my book events and promoted it. You know, I haven't been sued yet, so knock on wood!
2. The running memoir sub-genre has exploded in recent years. How do you hope your book will stand out?
JEN: A lot of popular running memoirs have been by men. That's been the case since like '09. So more women run than men in the United States, at least in road races. I think more women read books than men. But I hope I hit on something that running is not just about running. It's about everything else. I've been reporting on running since 2010. And I try to offer that historical perspective. The trends of running. And I talk about women in running. My mom starts running at the end of this book, so it's a multi-generational story, too. I hope people enjoy it. They seem to be, except for some people who hated it, but that's book publishing.
3. You are very active on Twitter. How has social media changed or shaped your career as a freelancer and author?
I started freelancing almost 12 years ago, and it can be a very isolating job because you work by yourself. Twitter has enabled me to find people with common interest. I have a lot of friends, in-real-life friends, who I've met through Twitter. I've found story ideas through there. I've had people scream at me when they didn't like my stories. What can you do? Everyone has a different tactic on dealing with that and mine is basically just to ignore people. It got to a point where I was starting to worry a little bit about "Oh, what's Twitter going to say if I write this story?" I stopped doing that. If I worried about what the critics would have said about this book, I never would have written it.
4. Is this book required reading for a person that you might be with? Does that make things harder or easier?
JEN: I was dating someone and he read it. He liked me more because of it. We unfortunately broke up. I worry more about trying to use dating apps because of my picture. [Laughs.] Do I use my professional headshot? Do I use the photo that's run in the Times? But I haven't even gotten to that point yet. I got to finish this book tour before I even think about dating again.
5. What have you learned about yourself through writing this book?
JEN: I went through some pretty not-great stuff. Couple people hated the book because they didn't like what happened. It's memoir. So I ran the 2016 New Jersey Marathon. And I wasn't going in the best conditions. I went on a book tour. I was tired. I had a really terrible head cold at one of the events. I had a concussion, I hurt my foot. Then the diner manager stepped on my foot. So I went into that race -- it wasn't an ideal day. I still [set a personal record (P.R.)]. And I try not to think about what would have happened if it was a better day. If I hadn't hurt my foot, if I hadn't had that concussion, if I hadn't gotten sick, if I hadn't been on book tour. But there's no point in that. The fact that I was still able to P.R. despite all that stuff is great. The fact that my life has turned out this way despite all this bad stuff that happened to me is great, too. So that's the way that I think about it.