Bob Cooper is an award-winning freelance journalist and also a competitive long-distance runner ever since he was 14. Now he has ran over 450 running races, including 32 marathon and 13 ultramarathon finishes, with his best marathon time at 2:26:11 when he earned 6th place in the Avenue of the Giants Marathon on May 1, 1977. Recently he ran the World Masters Mountain Running Championships for Team USA in Zagreb, Croatia, where he was placed 50th in his age group.
He has written dozens of stories for a wide variety of magazines, including regular articles for the Runner’s World magazine, where he was honored the Outstanding Service Article Award by the American Society of Journalists and Authors in 2008 forhis article “Run Your Best 26.2 Miler”, published on 7 June 2007.
As a recreational runner, I subscribe to the magazine to get insights about the competitive edge of this endurance sport. With deadlines continuously ahead, Bob still manages living an active lifestyle. I was curious about his skills in time management an dhow he exercises maintaining his energy levels up, while being a full-time writer who writes such rich variety of stories. I got to chat with him on Tuesday, 26 October 2010 at Starbucks onDivisadero Street, one of the coziest cafes in San Francisco.
STACIA HO: What made you start getting active and begin running?
BOB COOPER: I always had a lot of energy. My father was a good miler back when he was in high school. He encouraged me to try out for the track team. So I went to the local track, did the mile a few times, and kept trying to improve my time. Then I got into the track team, and have been running ever since.
SH: Do you still work with a running coach, or are you self-motivated?
BC: I never really had a coach ever since my 20s. I love the activity so much that I don’t seem to need any external motivation as some runners do, and it’s just because races are fun. I also like the idea of setting goals and trying to achieve them.
SH: The first rule in your article “25 Golden Rules of Running”, which was featured in the September 2005 issue of Runner’s World, is specificity, a critical determinant for tackling the demands of any course. You also included course elevation as a rule of thumb for runners to pace themselves. What does your running route look like where you usually do your runs?
BC: Right now, I am running only uphills. I got a knee injury recently. The one route I do 90% of the time is a run up Bolinas Road from near downtown Fairfax to a trailhead at the top of that climb, which is 3 and a quarter miles. Except for 100 meters in the middle, the route is all uphill, ranging from gradual to fairly steep, rising at an elevation of 900 feet. I drive to the top to park my bike there, then I run the course either once or twice, each time biking back down to my car. I choose not to take the long walk when I go backdown just because it’s not great for my knees, plus it’s very time- consuming.
SH: Most runners don’t really like facing uphill.
BC: I don’t love it. I do like it. Right now it’s the only thing that I can do. My knees hurt if I run on level ground or on downhill. When you go uphill you’re not hitting on your heels, so I’m not impacting your body. I just do what I can do. You have your own limitations, and then you deal with whatever that you can do.
SH: Time management is everything, especially for freelancers. Why did you choose not to get the traditional 9-to-5 job?
BC: So much of my life has been a combination of running and writing. Both things are what I’m really passionate about. I was a serious competitive runner when I first got out of school. I knew that to get to the best level I could as a runner, I should try to avoid 9-to-5 jobs, because when you’re running, you’re drained all the time with energy. So I took a variety of jobs wherever I could. I did lots of secretarial work – typing and filing,things like that – and I started doing more writing. It just gradually built on itself. When I was about 29, I was able to drop everything else that I’ve patched together to become a full-time writer and editor. At that point my running got slower, but I thought that as long as I keep on doing this, I’d just keep doing it for the joy I get out of these passions of mine. And so, I’ve done it ever since. It’s been… Cool.
SH: You have been a contributor for the Runner’s World magazine for 37 years now. How do you plan out your time to write while setting aside your time to run?
BC: As for Runner’s World magazine, I would read their website often, mostly under the racing news section. I draw on to the side a lot of the information from there to think of which elite runners to interview for the stories I write. But I just love reading their columns as I enjoy following the sport. It’s just fun to keep up, and yet technically I’m working. So there are a lot of cases like that, where it’s technically work but doesn’t feel like work.
SH: Ah. So that’s why it’s fun.
SH: Joyce Carol Oates is famed for writing a wide variety of creative works just as diverse as your stories. She is also a devoted runner. In 1999, she wrote: “Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction,like a ghost in a real setting” in her essay “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet” as part of the Writers on Writing series for The New York Times. Do you prefer absorbing things that surround you, or think about nothing at all?
BC: As I write, or as I run?
SH: … As you run.
BC: It goes back and forth. I’ll sometimes get so lost in thought that I’ve gone 10 to 15 minutes without realizing where I am if I’m not in a familiar route that I’m used to running. Suddenly I’ll realize a mile down the road and I didn’t even think – ‘cause I’ve been lost in thought, thinking about a story, or just anything, while having my mind go run free. That’s one of the nice things about running as opposed to other sports that takes concentration. It’s one of the things you can do where you can just go space out and think.
SH: What about running on a treadmill?
BC: I hate treadmills. I absolutely hate treadmills. Anything you can do outdoors that you can do indoors, and you can do almost anything outdoors, I just do it outdoors. On the treadmill, you’re looking at the same thing the whole time. I like variety, much as I like the variety of writing different things. I like the stimulation of that process, and there’s absolutely no stimulation when you’re on the treadmill. When you’re out running there’s always things going on around you that you see, which then I’ll ask myself, am I going towards the middle of the road so I better watch out if the car’s coming at me? [Laughs]. Also, the city just provides some of the best views for running.
SH: I read your interview with Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in the October 2009 issue of Runner’s World. You also mentioned that you tend to review your material just by taking notes during the interviews you do. What decisions did you make when you put down her spoken words onto paper? How did you put those words together?
BC: The first general rule is to always have at least five more materials than you’re able to use. With Kay Ryan, I read her poetry books and looked on the Internet to search her background, find out about her getting the Nobel Laureate’s award. I did a lot of the dense research. Then I talked to her for about an hour, along with some follow-up e-mails. I had more than enough material and could’ve written 5000 words, but it only ended up at about 600. When you have so much more materials than you can use, you can really hone in on what’s the most compelling thing as you go through it, and then you say, is this going to grab the reader? Will it be interesting enough to the reader that they want to keep reading the story? The first thing that I’m looking for as I’m looking through all my notes is what’s going to grab the reader the most, while staying focused on the topic. In this case, it’s the intersection of her running, her poetry, and her creative process.
SH: In the transcript, she mentioned that she revises her poems during her runs. Do you do your creative work when you’re running?
BC: Definitely. Sometimes I do it in a conscious way and I’ll say, okay I’m going to be out running or bicycling for a certain amount of time, and I’ve got to come up with an idea for a certain story. I’ll brainstorm in my mind and eventually come up with something. Lately, because of my injury, I’ve been biking more than I run. When I bike isI always keep a tape recorder in my fanny pack. At the end of every one-hour ride there’s always times that I’ve read in– talked in, to the recorder whenever there are ideas for my writing. By the same token, I have that recorder by my bed when I’m sleeping, so the next morning when I wake up from the night that I think of something, I just transcribe it in front of my computer the next day. I almost always have a tape recorder with me, justin case there’s something that’s really cool.
SH: Cool. Interesting enough, one of my broadcasting teachers instructs us students that whenever there’s a tape recorder lying around, we’ve got to be extra careful about the things we say. It’s funny that you do it consciously.
BC: Here [tape recorder] it’s just reading rough ideas that I’ll just play for myself, and then I’ll refine them once I get back to my computer. So it’s not necessarily in its final form. I’ll play with it and refine with it as I go on.
SH: You’ve done line-editing in your early writing career. How does the little details, such as punctuation, provide support for the writer’s draft?
BC: Actually, I still do a little of that, so my specialty is looking for punctuation and little things like that. I was never good at knowing the grammar rules. I just picked it up along the way, mainly from reading. To me it’s all about practicality. If you feel that there needs to be a pause, it almost always does. It’s kind of more intuitive than following rules.
SH: What is your general advice when it comes to revision?
BC: My general advice is to read a variety of writing, and eventually you’ll kind of just pick it up. That’s how punctuation is best used. Another thing I would look into is the variety of sentence structures. If there are several sentences in a row that have the same structure, the same length, the same placement of verbs and so on, you’ll realize that the reader likes to have really short, declarative sentences, and then a really long and complex sentence that goes back and forth.
SH: Whenever I practice performing on-camera classes in school, my instructor tends to say that as a multimedia communicator, you have to know when to stop.We have to continue pacing ourselves. It’s just like training for a long-distance race. You cannot do it too fast too soon, and I feel that it’s the same as in writing. Do you have any advice on how writers can write better in terms of pacing their storylines?
BC: It’s always going to start with something in rough form that needs to be improved. On the other hand, you’re right on saying that it’s not good to write too fast. You can really write in really rough form, and then later on go back to it repeatedly, refining it multiple times. That’s how writers work. Or, you can just sit down and write really slowly and constantly revise each sentence until it’s perfect before you move on to the next sentence. To me, it makes more sense to do the big piece all at once, then go back to it, improve on it several times, until you’re happy with it.
SH: Your stories suggest a lot about exercising the body to move, and how it has moved people’s lives. To keep yourself going, do have a mantra to follow when you’re running?
BC: My mind always goes back and forth between spacing out and thinking about mundane things, or about stories that I’m writing. But I’ll refocus regularly and think of my performance, and I’ll say, am I running as fast as I want to be running? I’ll refocus on the present moment to think about what I’m doing from the aspect of what I’m trying to get from the run as a training benefit. There’s this terminology psychologists call association and disassociation. Disassociation is when you’re not thinking about the activity that you’re doing and you’re thinking about things that are remote from that. Association is when you’re thinking if you’re in the moment and thinking about what you’re doing. So I constantly go back and forth within the course of a run.
SH: The Lydiard’s Pyramid, a training program elite runners follow, focuses on building volume, then feeling the runs. Do you train yourself based on that strategy?
BC: The main basis is the hard-easy system, and the Lydiard program narrowed it down into specific details. I never really follow an exact program. I learned from a combination of things. I learned a lot from my high school coach, but now it’s mostly from reading,and then writing stories on running, talking to experts for the stories I write. I just pick up the main principles, which are pretty much common sense. Once you know the main exercise physiology principles in running, it’s easy to craft your own. The biggest principle here is having stress, followed by rest, followed by another time for stress, and always going back and forth.
SH: Besides training strategically, what other things can you recommend runners to ensure success, perhaps achieving their personal best record, when running their races?
BC: Recovery is the absolute key. If you run far or fast one day, you need short or slow the next day. Always allow enough for recovery. If you happen to hurt yourself the next time, you recovered well enough to do it – as well as you did the last time or even better.It’s always easy to forget that, but that’s the main thing in order to do well. I push myself to run 90 to 100% as fast as I can, since I only do it once every 4 to 6 days, allowing plenty of recovery time for the other days when I am only biking or kayaking, which are the two other activities that I enjoy doing.
SH: What races are you currently training for?
BC: Since I currently run uphill courses, the problem is that there are very few of those nationwide, and those that are in California are between the months of August and October. I’ve found a couple of races in Arizona and Oregon I may consider running, but those aren’t till June or later. So, I’m just staying in shape, enjoying the mix of running,and also mountain biking and kayaking. On the side I’m working on magazine articles that will appear on Runner’s World, Marin Magazine, John Hopkins Health, and many others. Then I’ll push a little more in late spring as the uphill races I’m able to find get closer.
Check out Bob Cooper’s professional web site at www.bob-cooper.com.