Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time

Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past, One Marathon at a Time

by Caleb Daniloff


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Running Ransom Road is Caleb Daniloff’s unblinking, ultimately triumphant account of his journey from mean, hopeless drunk back to humanity and himself—through distance running. It’s a searing tale of spiritual redemption—one marathon, one mile, one brave, difficult step at a time.”—Steve Friedman, co-author of New York Times bestseller Eat and Run and author of the memoir Lost on Treasure Island

For fifteen years, the words that best described Caleb Daniloff were “drunk,” “addict,” and “abuser.” These days, the best word to describe him is “runner.”

In Running Ransom Road, the long-since-sober Daniloff confronts his past by setting out to run races in each of the cities where he once lived and wreaked havoc during that lost period of his life. As he competes in marathons from Boston to Vermont to Moscow, he explores his old destructive life and how running’s sobering and inspiring effects have changed him for the better. In doing so, he connects with others like him, illuminating the connection between addiction and running. Running Ransom Road is at once a memoir of addiction, finding oneself, and learning to push past barriers both physical and emotional.

“Just as Caleb Daniloff’s life was about to tumble into the abyss of addiction, he was lucky enough to discover he liked to run, simply for himself. In Running Ransom Road, his captivating narrative describes a journey of personal redemption that, fortunately for us, he is willing to share.”—Frank Shorter, Olympic marathon gold medalist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544105430
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

About the Author

CALEB DANILOFF  has written for Runner’s World and The Boston Globe. He has been a commentator on Vermont Public Radio and contributed to NPR's All Things Considered. Recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill, Jr. Literary Prize, he runs thirty to forty miles a week.

Read an Excerpt


113th Boston Marathon

Monday, April 20, 2009

I FELT JITTERY APPROACHING the mouth of Route 135 East in Hopkinton. It was a crisp February morning. The sidewalks were empty. Snow was spitting as my eyes teased out the faded unicorn logo of the Boston Athletic Association painted in the road — the twisted horn, the flared nostrils, the proud toss of the neck. Cars rumbled by, shaking road salt from their undercarriages as they streamed across running's most venerable starting line. I bent and retightened my laces, then adjusted my fuel belt, a bandolier of plastic containers sloshing with liquid the color of wiper fluid. I toed the line for a few seconds, then crossed over, half expecting the other side to feel different as if the stripe were a palpable separation between Yesterday and Today. But my mind snapped back to the task at hand. I was now scuffing down the hallowed grounds of the historic Boston Marathon, pores wide open, ready to mainline some serious running mojo. So what if the gun was still two months off?

These were my first steps on any marathon course. That it was the world's oldest continuous 26.2-miler only made it more daunting. The road sloped, flattened, then dropped again. I paid attention to the downhills. Take them too fast, I was told, and you could find yourself later with anvils for thighs. Restraint had to be part of the plan, mind over adrenaline, a tall order given the electricity sure to be crackling on race day. Starting in the small suburban burg of Hopkinton and ending in Boston's bustling Copley Square, this eight-town course had been the route since 1927 and I wanted to drink it all in, pound it like the six-packs that used to fizz my brain. I passed a few nurseries, a Christmas tree farm, a park, and a horse-riding ring. So far, so good. I wondered if I'd see plaques along the way, statues, bronze mile markers, hear the harps of angels.

The air was cold and sharp, scraping the bottom of my lungs, my fingertips tingling in my gloves. The breeze whispered against my cheeks and sweat began forming above my lip like puberty. This was my first training run away from the flat, leafy paths along the Charles River. My feet pounded the ground, absorbing the unfamiliar road, a handshake of sorts. My heart was still unsettled in my rib cage, teetering in that moment between adrenaline flow and the emptiness of pace. It was in that moment when my run might go in any direction, when it was deciding what it wanted to be. I could feel my brain powering down, my mind humming to life.

Over the next few miles, the landscape morphed, revealing a Dunkin' Donuts, an automotive repair shop, a paint store, a commuter rail parking lot. Ranch houses and modular homes materialized. Road salt had bleached the asphalt and cracked the white shoulder lines. My heart began to wilt. This could have been Anyburg, New England. Where was the blood, the sweat, the glory? Where were the ghosts: John Kelley the Elder, who gave Heartbreak Hill its name, seven-time wreath-wearer Clarence DeMar, four- peater "Boston Billy" Rodgers, even disgraced subway rider Rosie Ruiz, names that had begun crowding my mind since I mailed in my registration check four months earlier.

I still wasn't exactly sure why I signed on for the Boston Marathon. I'd been running for six years, mostly solitary five-mile stretches on backcountry roads with sunrises so gorgeous they left bruises. The thought of pinning on a number, herding into a corral, and racing through crowded city streets seemed profane. But after moving from Middlebury, Vermont, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the year before and settling so close to the sport's most celebrated course, I'd somehow been pulled into its magnetic force. I told people that at thirty-nine years old, a marathon was my version of the red convertible, a check mark on my bucket list. When pressed for a goal time, I'd answer to break four hours, other days to finish. I joked that my "secret" time was 3:51:38, one second faster than Pa's first marathon ("Nope, no daddy issues there," I smirked). But there was one goal I kept quiet. That hanging a finisher's medal on my wall would prove I was no longer the fiend I used to be, a 26.2-mile baton exchange where the present would finally take over from the past.

I never set out to be a runner, let alone a marathoner. Just as I never set out to be a drunk. And as I would learn over the next eighteen months, it wasn't just about taking the baton. It was about getting to know, and feel, the person handing it off — yourself — to take the stick without fumbling. And then learn to hand it off again, to let go.

When I kicked on a worn gym treadmill for the first time seven years earlier, I'd come upon a way to satisfy my urge to flee without actually running away, to exorcise my cowardice, to begin slowly drilling inward. After years of false starts and abrupt endings and burning shame, the accumulation of sweaty miles had started to make me feel capable, perhaps for the first time. Strapping on running shoes led to a reflection I didn't need to turn from. Without realizing it, I'd found another chance to become.

Would multiplying my normal run by five and performing among thousands of strangers on a very public city stage where I once behaved badly tattoo this effect? Would the storied history of the Boston Marathon, along with its pantheon of demigods and legends, all the worshipful hearts and personal stories and buzzing brains, feed into a single ink needle that would work on me for four-plus hours? Perhaps a deeper kind of becoming lay on the other side of pain, at the outer edge of my physical limits. An even clearer picture of who I was and why I'd acted the way I had.

It wasn't sobriety that led me to first lace up. It was vanity. The self-absorption and narcissism of addiction had followed me into the Big Dry. Without a drink Velcroed to my palm, I was finally able to kick a seventeen-year smoking habit. I filled the crater-size void with bacon pizzas and pints of Ben & Jerry's. The TV room always smelled like buttery microwaved popcorn, and the twisted foils of Ferrero chocolates littered the couch like golden roaches. Within two years, I'd larded on twenty-five pounds. When I saw a snapshot of myself on the beach the following summer, I was horrified. I looked like I'd swallowed a sack of Idaho potatoes, my misshapen belly pulling me toward the sand. The mass of flesh spread from my sagging man-breasts down over my suit, turning the waistband over like a frown. I hardly looked like me. I could have been one of those poor bastards shown from the neck down on TV news reports about America's obesity problem. Was this really how life turned out? A handful of bad decisions and you're the fat, suburban dad in a tight pair of Dockers behind the wheel of a minivan, backing over your inner shirtless rock poet in low-waisted leather pants.

I joined a gym and found my way to a treadmill, tasting sweat for the first time in years. I liked the display panel because it announced how many calories I'd burned, how fast I was going, how far, how steep. It broke me down into numbers, giving my mind something to figure out. I saw a few pounds come off over the months. What I couldn't see was that those steps, that sweat, that pain, could scratch at something beneath the fat, beyond the marrow, something more significant. But I hadn't yet logged enough miles to reach it. I was still getting used to a sensation I hadn't felt in years — forward motion.

But there was a lot of road that twisted between Those Days and These Days, and right now it was unfolding through an industrial stretch of Framingham, sliced with traffic lights and rail lines, the third town along the marathon course. All around, locals were grinding out their daily lives — men working on utility poles, a tractor-trailer screeching its brakes, a cop with a car pulled over. I pictured last year's celebrity runners Will Ferrell and Lance Armstrong, the three of us running neck and neck, cracking jokes, denying doping charges. But the image was snuffed out by the salty smell of French fries from a Wendy's across the street. Now I was just starving. I made my way into Natick and scanned the horizon for the CVS, a few hundred yards before mile 9. That's where I planned to turn around. On my right, a rough breeze rippled Fisk Pond.

I shook my arms out by my side, loosening my shoulders and neck. Trees slid by and the wind pulled bits of tears from the corners of my eyes. As I ground the pavement beneath my treads, I could hear the swish of my nylon pants, the greed of my hungry lungs casting its net in an ever-expanding rhythm. Some runs, I got to breathing so deep and full, I was sure I was pulling oxygen and light into some dusty, primordial corner, where perhaps gills once floated open and closed. That sensation, coupled with the rush of my feet, filled me with a sweet, swooning lightness and the feeling that I could run anywhere, even up the side of the Prudential building.

At last, there it was: CVS, in all its red-lighted glory. Nine miles had taken me an hour and twenty-eight minutes. By this time, the elites, clocking sub-five-minute miles, would be past mile 19, halfway up the Newton Hills. I turned into the traffic wind. My heart sank a little at the thought of running back through those same drab main drags. Then, without warning, I started to get the "bacon feeling." I felt depleted, then famished, my stomach scraping its walls for something, anything. I'd hit empty. And all I could think about was bacon: crispy strips spitting on the griddle or draped across egg yolks and buttered muffins. I could smell the burned gristle in my sinuses, the back of my tongue aching. I could have murdered someone for a Denny's "Grand Slam." I had to bite back the anger rising at my body's sudden betrayal, its unexpected, petty need. My calves and thighs felt filled with wet sand, my arms coated with electric pinpricks, my skull a howling dust bowl. Maybe I was too far ahead in my training, running eighteen-milers at two months out. I'd been warned not to overdo it. I was still greedy, still wanted to be ahead of myself. But the more I fixated on my body, the fainter I became, my fuel belt an iron cummerbund, the distance between my foot strikes shrinking to baby steps. The bacon feeling had stopped my runs before. I found these meltdowns devastating, a reminder of the "incompletes" that once stamped my high school and college transcripts, the blank spaces in my resumé. To walk during a run, no matter the reason, felt like giving up, like watching prey grow smaller and vanish around a bend, perhaps forever. I danced between ten-ton buses and speeding motorcycles to cross Massachusetts Avenue at red lights. I hid my outrage when someone asked me for directions mid-run along Memorial Drive. Didn't they know? Unless you're on fire, I'm not stopping.

But what if I had to walk or, worse, drop out on race day? Failure to the fifth power. Would I just get on the T and head home? Fake-limp around the office the next day? Millions of eyes would witness my shame, my past tethered to me like a dogsled, branded a DNF (Did Not Finish). It wasn't lost on me that those three letters were a perfect abbreviation of my last name. I ripped open my last two energy goo packets and throated down the gritty paste, the corners of my lips sticking together. After a quarter-mile, I felt some wisps of strength return, the sailboat righting itself. Maybe I'd pack some sausage links for race day.

Returning to Hopkinton was a lot harder than leaving. It was almost all uphill, plus I had to navigate blind corners that shot speeding pickups at me. I summited the last long rise and crossed back over the start line, slowing to a grateful shamble. I lived for that flush at the end of a run, a moment of near ecstasy when you finally allow yourself to walk, endorphins flooding your oxygenated brain, a beehive head, and the feeling that you've just done something worthy, that you've muscled through. That's what every run was — victory. I draped my belt of empty Gatorade containers over my shoulder like an animal pelt and floated to the pizza joint, and grabbed two vitamin waters, confidence and spirits lifted — 18 miles down, just 8.2 more to master.

I spin the picture frame around on the kitchen table. The plastic is clouded over, licked countless times and gouged by razor blades, crushed granules spackling the nicks. Weather now permanently blows across the image. The photograph shows me, Mom, Pa, and Mandy in the Oval Office meeting with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The only picture I have of us as a family. It isn't mounted, just slipped into a department-store frame with a cardboard back. The photo was taken a few days after Pa was released by the Soviets and deported. I'm sixteen, my eyes hidden behind long bangs, and I'm half smirking at the camera. My parents and older sister are dressed in crisp, formal clothes, blending seamlessly into the presidential scene. I'm wearing Chuck Taylors, slacks, and a paisley shirt. Mom and I had gotten into it that morning when I'd tugged on a pair of jeans. I'd fantasized about Reagan signing them next to the Led Zeppelin lyrics I'd scrawled above the knee. Mom threw up her hands and a family friend negotiated me into a pair of Brooks Brothers slacks and the paisley shirt.

Beneath the kaleidoscopic fabric, I'm wearing a T-shirt that reads "FREED NICK DANILOFF!!!" I had Magic-Markered the D and exclamation points after the word Free. The folks at U.S. News & World Report had shirts printed after my dad's first week in prison. In the holding area at Dulles airport, I'd grabbed a marker and made the edits. An hour later, fresh on American soil, Pa held the white shirt up and was photographed from various angles, with me and Mandy, with Mom, the images appearing in countless newspapers and TV broadcasts. I'd scoured the captions and articles for a mention that "Caleb Daniloff, 16, had cleverly transformed the shirt." But nothing, no notice. By wearing the shirt to the White House, I was reclaiming my work. Once we moved to the Rose Garden for photos and questions from the press, I imagined ripping my button-down open Clark Kent–style. When we shook hands, President Reagan seemed startled, as if he wasn't sure how I'd slipped past security. His large palm was dry and cool. On the shiny striped couch, I leaned forward to speak, but my voice came out on the same frequency as the room's ambient noise. No one heard. I was in a silent movie.

I run my moistened fingertip in the corners of the picture frame, dig a fingernail into one of the cuts in the plastic — nothing. There's no more denying the end has come. A car engine turns over, a thrown newspaper thuds against the stoop, the morning clearing its throat. The shades are drawn but I know what lies behind them: first light, the color of a corpse, as inevitable as a train, God's flashlight. I'm twenty years old, on leave from the University of Vermont. Freshman year hadn't gone as planned. Actually, it hadn't gone at all. I'm living with my parents in a small apartment in Somerville, working at a bookstore in Harvard Square. They're in Vermont for the long Thanksgiving weekend. I wipe the cold grease from my forehead. A bike I don't recognize leans against the stove. I have to be at work in a few hours. In the other apartments, decent folks are slipping from the warmth of their bed covers, brushing their teeth, starting coffeemakers. They terrify me. Even sober, I can never look them in the eye. I hold my breath. Are they hissing about me? Will they rush their kids past me on the stairs? I stare at the half-empty Budweiser with burned butts bobbing like dead bugs. The thought of stacking books and running a register, counting out change to proper citizens with lunch dates and money market accounts and 401Ks, sets my heart thrashing. I feel so alone I wonder if I still have a reflection. I try to remember where Mom keeps the sieve, but my brain only coughs and sputters. I pour the beer into a coffee mug and pluck out the cigarettes. I'll be calling in sick. Again.

It was early morning, three weeks before the gun. The Boston Marathon is held every Patriots' Day, a state holiday marking the Revolutionary battles of Concord and Lexington, though neither makes an appearance on the race route. I was tackling the back part of the course. I'd started near Kenmore Square and the famous blinking Citgo sign and ran up Brookline's bustling Beacon Street to the stony hilltop campus of Boston College in Newton, then down the Newton Hills, and out to the Woodland T stop across from the country club. And back again. A twenty-two-miler. The farthest I'd ever talked my legs into carrying me.


Excerpted from "Running Ransom Road"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Caleb Daniloff.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Author's Note,
113th Boston Marathon,
21st KeyBank Vermont City Marathon and Marathon Relay,
29th Asics Moscow International Peace Marathon and 10K,
119th Bemis-Forslund Pie Race (4.3 miles),
40th ING New York City Marathon,
2nd Middlebury Maple Run (Half Marathon),
35th Marine Corps Marathon,
About the Author,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A vital, honest, and arresting account of one flawed runner’s emotional and spiritual renewal with each step toward the finish line."
Publishers Weekly

"Daniloff’s raw descriptions of his alcohol and drug abuse...are some of the most compelling parts of the book. They harshly illustrate the destruction of addiction and the courage it takes to walk away and build a new life."

"In an engaging voice, the author brings the courses alive for readers. He replicates the physical demands of running such courses and the barriers, mental and physical, that need to be broken through to get to the finishing line. He interweaves the story of each race with memories and dialogue from the past, and he is candid about his childhood problems and his competition with his marathon-running father. Confidence in the future lends appeal to this deeply personal memoir."
Kirkus Reviews

"Daniloff’s unblinking, ultimately triumphant account of his journey from mean, hopeless drunk back to humanity and himself—through distance running. It’s a searing tale of spiritual redemption —one marathon, one mile, one brave, difficult step at a time."
—Steve Friedman, co-author of New York Times bestseller, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Path to Ultramarathon Greatness

"Caleb Daniloff once poured everything he had into his drinking, and it nearly killed him. Then he poured everything into his running, and he was saved. Now he pours everything into writing about both, and we are graced by the result. Running Ransom Road is a brave, necessary, and uncompromising book."
—John Brant, author of Duel in the Sun: Alberto Salazar, Dick Beardsley, and America’s Greatest Marathon

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Running Ransom Road: Confronting the Past One Marathon at a Time 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
markmatthews More than 1 year ago
‘Running Ransom Road, Confronting The Past, One Marathon At A Time,’ by Caleb Daniloff, is an incredible book where the author’s attempt to come to terms with the self-destruction of his past is experienced during the visceral, spiritual, and emotional maelstrom of running a marathon. The result is perhaps my favorite book on marathoning. It is certainly the one with the most dog-ears on my paperback copy, and definitely the one which spoke most personally to my experience as a marathoner and recovering addict who is constantly running to stay just a few steps faster than the addiction demons nipping at my heels. What is wonderful about the book is that Daniloff is a gifted writer first, or at least that’s what shines through, and his personality is one which has all of the interesting jagged yet fragile edges of an addict, and with all the determination and stubbornness of a distance runner. The metaphors he uses are tremendous, and I am thinking that a handful of writers could make a living off the scraps of metaphors Daniloff has come up with but never used. And there isn’t a marathoner out there of all speeds who won’t connect with his writing descriptions. I’ve always felt if running could be fully described, then it wouldn’t be running but something much less, as it’s effects escape meaning that words can give. Daniloff describes the joys of running in a spectrum of phrases that came close, and more importantly, it was clear that he “gets it”- as running elitist as that sounds. The near stream of conscious running descriptions rival those of any running book, and are fresh, subliminal and poetic. All of this, but you’ll also find the mundane yet near universal experience of navigating a pee in the bushes at the beginning of a marathon, the importance of body-gliding one’s nipples, and the constant runner’s math all of us do trying to push our body past the finish line in some arbitrary time trying to prove we’re worthy. If you’ve read a ton of running books, you may not have read one like this, and if you’ve read a ton of self-discovery books, where there’s a final AA speech in front of a crowd, and you get your token, and then your spouse appears at the back of the room, and everybody cries, and true love lasts forever, and a REM song plays. No, this is not the one either. Illuminations and epiphanies sprinkle down during runs, and they are received with a questioning uncertainty of one who is always running to figure out who they are. This is what life is, this is especially what recovery is, and as the author states, “No longer do I run from my demons, but with them.” but the run must go on, since, “ you never outrun your demons, but if you maintain forward motion you might just get them to tire a little.”
Carstairs38 More than 1 year ago
Caleb Daniloff opens up about his life as an alcoholic as he travels to the cities he used to live in to run marathons. The book mixes the past and the present to weave a compelling and emotionally captivating story. I really got caught up in his story and enjoyed every page of it. And as a running, I certainly identified with the descriptions of the races.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago