My single-song routine and my running career started together in the summer of 2003. I was 19, and I hoped Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” would inspire my unathletic body to keep repeating the half mile from my mom’s house to the main road and back. I was teaching myself how to run using the run/walk method, and I figured if the song could get me through the first couple of minutes of the run part, it could get me through the next (and the next and the next). Every time the song hit its glissando (the key swipe) at the 3:50 mark—“It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to wiiiiiiiiiin”—I started it over. And it worked: I kept running, for 20 years so far.
Since then, I have maintained the serial song-repeating habit. It’s a kind of meditation: I loop a song 10 or more times during a run, and it grounds my mind in the present during difficult miles. If I have a successful workout while doing this, the run and song become fused, so I can jolt my brain and body back to that focused state just by playing that track again. Most of all, listening to a single song over and over keeps me believing that I can do it: get to the end of the street, climb the hill, finish the race, repeat.
I curate broad playlists for seasons of running or specific races, but one song usually rises to the top of each. It’s the one with a good beat, a touch of nostalgia, and lyrics rooted in personal meaning. Flo Rida, Phil Vassar, Arcade Fire, and the Lumineers may not have a lot in common at first glance, but each artist has landed a song in my repeating loop at some point. Gavin DeGraw’s “Best I Ever Had” got me, exhausted, heavy, and crying, over the finish line of my favorite 10-miler the year I was 20 weeks pregnant. When there’s less at stake, Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” remains my go-to for twilight jogs on summer nights when the smell of the air makes me feel like a kid again.
I think this works by some combination of mental time-travel and mantra repetition. Two years after my beloved grandmother died suddenly, I was still struggling with deep grief when a friend convinced me to run a Ragnar relay race on Cape Cod. As I began a 13-mile leg along nonexistent shoulders on busy beach roads at sunset, I felt the mounting pressure of a team waiting for me. Then I became fixated on “Shut Up & Dance” by Walk the Moon. For two hours, the lyrics “Oh don’t you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me…she said shut up and dance with me” pushed me through mile after mile. I was running at night in a strange place, yet the song kept telling me repeatedly to shut my mouth and keep going. By the end, I found that it had lightened my grief as well—or at least gave me the confidence I could work through that, too.
Over time, the songs absorb bits of my life, making years’ worth of memories accessible at any time. I can put on a particular track and hear the sound of loose pavement, feel the heat of August nights. I remember bygone pre-kid years, and all the revelations I have had while those rhythms kept going: bravery to ask for what I need, forgiveness for unrequited relationships, peace after years of wishing I was someone else. In many ways, lacing up my sneakers and moving through mile after mile has the same effect—connecting past and present, helping me process the unending passage of time. Running is repetition, after all. Why not use music the same way?