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Friday, March 8, 2013

Eight Questions: Patricia Nell Warren


I have always told people that my favorite running book is The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren.  I first read the book in 1976, but it wasn't easy to find it in staid Dover, Pennsylvania.  I had to get my brother to sign it out of Pattee Library at Dear Old State in order to read it.

It all started when an English teacher became my advisor as Student Council President. Stop snickering, all those who know me. Yeah, I really was the Student Council President and ran on the Tea Party platform.  These modern Tea Partiers must have stole the name from me, but not the platform!  We were an all inclusive group but somehow got the "head vote" because they must have thought we meant THC.  I honestly had no clue. But there became a coalition of Nerds, Jocks and Heads who swept our team to victory.  Poor Mr. Miller had to somehow make us into an effective group of student leaders.  I can't thank him enough. He had very little to work with!

Mr. Miller was a confirmed bachelor teaching at a high school in a very conservative district.  No one ever questioned this because he was a rather good teacher.  One day he asked me the question "Are you a front runner?"  He knew I had been winning a lot of races and I was way too naive to answer anything but "I always would rather lead a race than run from behind."  The twinkle in his eye and sly smile tipped me off that I had better research this a little.  The internet would have given me the answer quite quickly, but this was 1976, so a trip to a library was in order. I don't even remember how I finally found out it was a recent book about running among other things.  I talked to my brother who finally took it out of Pattee Library for me to read.

To say that the book was an eye opening experience for a naive high school senior would be a dramatic understatement.  The book is a same-sex love story with an athletic backdrop very familiar to most of us.

Harlan Brown had been a stand-out runner at Villanova who became head track coach at Penn State, with quite a bit of success in the 60's.  But then he mysteriously dropped out and left coaching under a cloud of suspicion.  Meanwhile 3 superstar runners at Oregon get kicked out of school for being homosexual and find their way to Harlan for their post-collegiate coaching.  The best of them falls in love with Harlan while training for the Olympic games of 1976 in Montreal.
I credit the book with making me left-of-center on social issues despite coming from a school district that went on to be embroiled in the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution Scandal some years later.  Those who know me realize I'm still quite right wing on fiscal matters, but one of the important factors in moderating my social views is Patricia Nell Warren and her well-written "running" book.

I always had questions about the book which I figured wouldn't be answered.  But through the many good folks I have come to know through "herding cats" to our Track Reunion via Facebook, an opportunity presented itself.  There right on the "You May Also Know" section was Patricia herself.  I'm pleased to say I was able to friend her on Facebook and she has gone above and beyond the call of duty to answer eight questions for all us in the group.  I can't thank her enough.  Her story is quite remarkable and I'm happy to bring it to more of you. I'm making her an honorary member because I can!

Eight Questions

1.  What is your athletic background?  It has to include a fairly good
running career, right?

I got involved in long-distance running in 1968, when women were trying
to break into this sport.  At the time, the AAU rules limited women to
2 1/2 miles.  I was 32 at the time, and had no background in school
running because there was no track for women in high school or college
at the time I went through school.

Long distance was the first of the so-called "extreme sports" to develop
in America.  Up until then, most Americans considered the handful of men
who ran the Olympic marathon, and the Boston Marathon, to be crazy.
But in the 1960s, the jogging fad segued naturally into long distance
running, with more and more people of all ages trying it.  Serious male
runners were  pushing more deeply from short and middle distance
into long distance -- at the time, they were sanctioned to run up to 50
miles in AAU events.  There were 100 mile races too, but the AAU
didn't encourage that.

So women were looking to do the same -- especially
pointing to the marathon, and beyond.  Two women had already run
in the Boston in 1967 and 1968 -- unofficially, of course, and they
finished.  But they were surrounded by a climate of sharp controversy.
People were still not 100%  sure that long-distance running wasn't
harmful to men, let alone women, who -- they believed -- would fall
over dead if they ran that far.  Most AAU officials believed that
(though a few liberals among them supported us.)

I trained for a year, and ran the 1969 Boston with a group of 12
women including Sara Berman,Nina Kuscsik, Kathy Switzer.  We
crashed the race and ran unofficially, without numbers.  Six of us
finished...I placed fourth with a 4:20.

From there on, I was an activist involved with the politics
of change for women.  I served on the Metropolitan AAU Long
Distance Committee, serving as national publicity director for the Road
Runners Club of America (who supported the women), going to the
AAU conventions to lobby for rules change for women, and writing
about the issue in Runner's World and Track & Field News.

Was I a "good" runner?   I was not very talented --
it was largely mind over matter for me. But I trained seriously
-- at one point running 100 miles a week in
training, in hopes of getting my PB down into the 3-hour range.

Later, as things started changing, I ran in the 1971 New York City
Marathon, which was launched as a showcase for women's marathoning.  It
was the first marathon anywhere where women were officially given
numbers and scored. The AAU had finally allowed this.  Again I placed
fourth.

A few years later, the AAU finally changed the women's rules, and
sanctioned us up to 50 miles, same as men.

By then I had to stop running.  The spirit was willing but the
flesh was weak -- especially my knees, which haven't been the
same since then.

Ironically -- today the AAU is gone, and women run their own
Olympic marathon.

2.  How did you come up with the idea for the book, and how did it
center around running?

When I got involved in running, I was still in the closet and
heterosexually married, but I knew I was going to get divorced and come
out "someday soon."  1969 was not only my year of the Boston, but
also the year of Stonewall too, so you can
imagine the effect that event had on me.  In the course of my political
activities in the sport, I met a lot of people, both runners and
coaches, and began to realize that some of them were closet cases like
me.  Eventually a couple of them talked to me off the record about
their situation.

I had already published my first novel in 1971 and was looking to do
a second book.  I realized that this was an important subject --
LGBT people in sports -- that nobody had written about.  One young guy
who talked to me was an NCAA champion miler who had backed away from
his chance at the Olympics because he felt he couldn't come out and
make the Olympic team.  That was how the subject of "The Front Runner"
came to me -- a runner and coach who decided that  they'd meet that
challenge.

In 1973 I divorced my husband, wrote "The Front Runner" and found a
publisher for it, and started coming out.  That was a tumultuous year --
I often felt like I was going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

3.  How could you write so well from a male perspective about the topic
of same-sex relationships, let alone with running included?

I've been asked this question hundreds of times.  For me, as a writer,
it was not an issue to get into the heads of my male characters.
I've always thought it was a writer's job to write about BOTH
genders with sensitivity and respect and perspective.  For Harlan
Brown and other conservative characters in the book, I drew on
real-life conservative men I had grown up with in Montana -- some of
them in the cattle business, some of them in the military.

Originally "The Front Runner" was to be about a woman coach and her
female runner.  But after writing a few chapters, I realized the story
wouldn't seem real or believable to people.  At the time, in the
early 1970s, there were NO women track coaches active in the U.S.
Especially women coaches were glaringly absent at the level that
an Olympic coach would have to be working at.

So I junked those chapters, and started over with the idea of the male
coach.  Right away the story told me that it had to be told in his
voice, from his POV.  It was natural to set the story in the world of
running experience and AAU politics because I knew it.

4.  How did you pick Penn State as the school the protagonist coached
at before leaving under mysterious reasons? 

At the time, to be a track coach at Penn State put you at the top of
the heap.  Penn State was a big power in track, and had been for some
time.  Harlan Brown had to have that kind of positioning and prestige
and experience to think about pointing a protege runner at the
Olympics.

5.  Have you ever been to Penn State or State College PA?

I spoke to a gay group at Penn State sometime in the mid-
1990s, after publishing "Harlan's Race" and "Billy's Boy."  I was
also associated with the University of Pennsylvania for some time,
through an online youth publication called "YouthArts" that I helped
to publish.  It was supported by both University of Pennsylvania
and University of Southern California.  (It's defunct now.).  But
I haven't been to State College PA.

6.  Do you still exercise?

After I stopped running in the mid-70s, I switched to equestrian sports
for a while.  I owned several hunters and jumpers and showed in the
Northeast.  Horses were a natural for me -- I grew up on a ranch and
did girls barrel racing in 4-H rodeo.

I gave up horses around 1980 -- this sport was just way
too expensive for me, during that 1980-1991 period when I was
researching and writing "One Is the Sun."  My knees were getting worse,
and sport became working out at the gym for a time in the mid-90s,
weight-lifting, etc.  Eventually it was walking and gardening.

Today I'm 76, and have arthritis.   So I don't exercise much or work
out. I'm doing good to walk a block and dig in my garden.
Mostly what gets exercised is my fingers on the keyboard.

7.  Cats or dogs?

Cats.  But I love all animals, horses and cattle included, having
grown up on a ranch. Dogs too.  And they're all amazing
athletes.  I love watching them in action.

8.  What is your next book project?

I'm working on a new novel about growing up in a World War II civilian
world where the word "lesbian" is never mentioned.  It's called "Wrong
Side of the Tracks."  I'm also putting together a couple of new
anthologies of my own nonfiction short works.  My most recent book
was an anthology titled "My West."

Order a copy of the book from Amazon:

The Front Runner
The Sequel:  Harlan's Race
The Second Sequel:  Billy's Boy

2 comments:

  1. Dave,

    You were a front runner, .... Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the sentiment. It is true. I find nothing wrong with that. It's not for me, but I respect and care for many who feel differently. In our group, everyone is always invited.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for commenting. Keep up the good work! (Try to mention others to encourage them to comment too!)

 
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