A squadron of spectators screamed and hooted, and Liam could feel his legs lighten. It was possible. He could run at any speed now; he would accelerate and accelerate and accelerate…
When Liam Walker joins a running club in New York City, it’s with some trepidation. Liam has always loved running, but the world of team racing, and the camaraderie that goes with it, are new to him. Still, after years of stagnancy—working for the same magazine, living in the same apartment, and jumping from one short-term boyfriend to another—he’s ready to try.
At the club, Liam meets athletes of every stripe. Some are fiercely competitive, others more interested in the after-race bagels or team nights out partying. The revelations on the track hardly compare to what happens off it—the romance and heartaches, rivalries and injuries. And as the year unfurls leading to the ultimate challenge—the New York City Marathon—Liam starts to realize all the ways in which life is measured by hills and valleys, in how far you’re willing to push yourself, and in who’s waiting for you at the finish line…
Robert Lennon works in corporate business development at a large global law firm and is a former president of Front Runners New York—one of the largest LGBT athletic clubs in the world. A former journalist for The American Lawyer magazine, Rob spends much of his time writing. As an avid runner who has completed the NYC marathon five times, Rob fuses his talents as a writer and a runner through this work. Rob has a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a BA in History and Psychology from Duke University. He lives in Connecticut with his partner, Mark, and their twin sons.
The morning could not make up its mind. The strong sun
yielded, more and more, to the army of clouds taking
hostage of the fall sky. Icy winds gusted around the fields of
Van Cortlandt Park trumpeting the coming of winter, but
then let up as the sun winked through the heavy sky. It was
the middle of November, and the seasons were duking it out
over New York City.
Like many of the runners, Liam waited by the baggage
check, wearing his warm-up pants and gloves. He hopped up
and down and ran in place to stay warm. The moment would
come, and shortly, when the officials corralled everyone to
the starting line, and Liam would need to strip his pants off
and exchange the fleece pullover that warmed his upper
body with his skimpy racing singlet. Having just joined the
running club, he felt it was important to don the team uniform
The megaphone honked some indiscernible instruction
and the throng of long-limbed runners jogged toward the far
end of the narrow playing field. The grass had already
browned and much of the normally soft dirt had hardened
with the recent cold fronts. Liam felt the uneven turf
through the thin soles of his racing flats. No matter how
many races he ran, stretching back to grammar school, Liam
always savored and dreaded this starting-line moment. There,
standing among a sea of determined athletes, he understood
that the race was still a font of possibility, the result dormant
in the fast-twitch fibers of everyone on the starting line. This
beautiful and cruel fact of running connected Liam with all
of the other gangly runners out on this 45-degree Sunday
morning at just a shade past dawn.
A wizened man, who looked to be in his early seventies,
whistled to command the runners’ attention. The wind shot
down from the hills just north of the field, lassoing the man’s
thin wisps of white hair into a makeshift Mohawk. Nervous
laughter rustled through the crowd as the man furiously batted
down the errant hairs. Bristling from the unwanted attention,
he picked up the megaphone to hasten the start of the
race. “On your mark!” the old man shouted. Liam canvassed
the start one last time to get a sense of the competition. After
doing just a smattering of local races, Liam already recognized
a few familiar faces among the anxious masses. After
deciding to get back into running following a long postcollege
hiatus due to burnout, Liam had participated in
about a half dozen races solo before being approached to join
the Fast Trackers. Apparently club leaders used their gaydar
to scout for potential new members at the start and finish
lines of local events. Having viewed running as a solitary
endeavor for so much of his life, Liam looked forward to the
camaraderie of being part of a gay running team. But right
now, Liam enjoyed the eye candy offered by the super-fit
runners from the other teams present at this race. One, a
hollow-cheeked guy whose chocolate eyes and full red lips
bestowed a vaguely French look upon his underfed face, had
inched past him at the finish of the last 5K. Runners tend to
remember moments like that and plot careful revenge. The
gaunt man’s eyes twinkled as he acknowledged Liam’s stare.
And the gun went off.
After jostling through the first hundred meters of the field,
Liam began to feel comfortable and well positioned. He
kept telling himself to control his breathing; the adrenaline
could ruin a fine race with too fast a start. His high school
coach, Daryl Humphries, an almost-member of the 1984
Olympic distance team who lived vicariously through whomever
he was currently coaching, had always warned that a
road race could not be won in the first mile, though it could
easily be lost, “if you go out like a fool with something to
As he rounded the turn toward the backstretch of the field,
Liam caught sight of the three lead runners. They had already
picked up a sizable lead after only five minutes of racing.
There was something enviably effortless and offensively
unobtainable in the way their lithe bodies moved. The pale
November light emphasized the architectural beauty of their
sinewy arms and legs. The thin straps of their singlets moved
up and down on the knobs of their shoulders where the
collarbone protruded. Liam tried to control his breathing and
focused on his gait as those more naturally fleet of foot charged
up the hills and into the woods, where the race course truly
Autumn had come late this year, and mounds of recently
fallen leaves coated the middle section of the running trail.
Knowing how uneven and rocky this winding path was,
Liam looked for the open spaces between the leaves
throughout the race. He played a game where he tried to find
leafless patches large enough for his entire foot, and used
that challenge to keep his mind off the pain that now funneled
through his body. You weren’t running your hardest if
you didn’t feel these slight twinges of pain. That was another
one of Daryl’s famous running credos. Liam’s lungs were always
fine while racing, but his stomach heaved whenever he
ran at top speed for more than a mile. He knew that if he ignored the awful sensation, then nothing bad would happen
to him. The body can withstand amazing stress.
The first set of rolling hills proved to be easier than Liam
remembered. He had hit his stride and was neither being
passed nor passing other runners. A good omen. The course
took a sharp downhill and then hooked left before climbing
into a monstrous uphill. Even though Liam had readied his
body, the steep rise began to take its toll. He shortened his
stride and focused on quickening the turnover of his feet to
maintain his pace with slightly less effort. So much of running
well was about physics and mechanics. Liam didn’t realize
that his breathing had become grossly audible until the
Parisian runner strode up alongside him and asked if he was
okay. Understanding this as a psych-out technique, Liam
nodded and choked down his abbreviated breaths. He knew
that if he just stayed in step with this runner through the
crest of the hill, he would be completely fine. While not the
greatest uphill runner, Liam had complete faith in his ability
to tear down hills with unmatched speed. As they moved
above the peak of the trail, Liam imagined all the tension in
his spine uncoiling as he worked his arms and let gravity catapult
him down the hill. He knew that he had to step confidently
and allow the momentum he generated to glide him
through the next series of rolling hills, which would deposit
him near the finish line of this 5K loop.
As soon as he passed his newfound nemesis, Liam wondered
how far back he was and found himself listening for
his competitor’s breathing and for the fall of his feet along
the cross-country trail. Remembering a cardinal rule of running,
Liam refused to look over his shoulder and instead
concentrated on the runner ahead of him. The tall figure was
just a smudge in Liam’s field of vision, too far ahead right
now to be passable. Liam moved his arms with more force
and determination, so that his legs might not slow from the
Bearing right at the final fork of the cross-country course,
Liam could see the bright yellow banner that hung above the
finish line. He directed all his attention toward his legs and
leaned into his stride. He reminded himself that pushing
through the end of the race, speeding toward the finish despite
exhaustion, is what separates the extraordinary runner
from the average one. Anyone can run fast when they’re
fresh; it takes desire and determination to run fast when
In a matter of seconds, Liam realized he was closing
ground on the runner in front of him. Was he truly running
faster or had this other runner slowed down? The orange star
on the blue microfiber tank top soon became clear. This was
a team member whose head now bobbled and whose arms
flailed as he attempted to finish the race. A squadron of spectators
screamed and hooted, and Liam could feel his legs
lighten. It was possible. He could run at any speed now; he
would accelerate and accelerate and accelerate. As he passed
the Fast Tracker, Liam shouted, “Come on, man! Suck it up
and count to ten. We’re there!” And with that wake-up call,
the sluggish guy was roused and attempted to match Liam
stride for stride. Liam could not hold back, though he knew
that finishing on the line together would be a pleasant gesture
of camaraderie, a way for the new guy to show that he
was a team player. And Liam did think of himself as a team
player. But he had to be true to the instincts that overtook
him during races. What was the point of training to the brink
of exhaustion during workouts and then pushing your physical
limits on race day to suddenly rein it all in? Liam flew
through the finishing chute, practically crashing into the man
recording the times and places of the racers.
“Good job!” Liam felt the sweaty touch and knew it was
the Fast Tracker he’d just bested. As he lifted his head to
offer congratulations, Liam saw the emaciated Frenchman
cross the finishing line.
“That course kicked my ass!” It was the truth, but Liam
felt embarrassed to have offered up the least original thing
one runner had ever said to another.
“Yeah, right!” The sallow-faced man struggled to catch his
breath. “Your ass seemed just fine to me.” Now he brushed
some sweat from his brow before extending his hand for an
introduction. “I’m Gene . . . You must be new to the team.”
“Excuse me! Excuse me! Could you take the small talk
somewhere else? People need to walk through this chute to
get out of here.”
The Frenchman scissored by in a huff, but Liam couldn’t
help admiring the angles of his face and the self-important
manner with which he moved.
“Maybe he’s sore that I got the best of him out there.”
“You’ll get to know that one,” Gene said. “Didier Vallois.
He’s a real peach. All the Urban Bobcats take themselves
way too seriously. They’re the fastest guys in town so they
expect a parting of the seas worthy of Moses.”
“At least he’s cute.”
“Best part of running is the scenery. I’ve been saying it for
Mischief darted through Gene’s eyes. Liam had seen the
act before. Gay men couldn’t help but flirt, and nine times
out of ten Liam reciprocated the advances. Dozens of clever
lines sprang to his mind, but he resisted the temptation. This
Gene person seemed perfectly nice but completely sexless,
with a soft face and hairless arms and legs. Liam preferred
men whose sexuality howled through their pores. Plus, for
the time being, he wanted Fast Trackers to be an outlet
for making new friends and running buddies, not an avenue
for sexual liaisons or romantic dalliances. He had enough of
that combing the bar scene in New York City since graduating
college. Liam decided to take a cordial approach here;
after all, it never hurt to be polite.
(1) Liam admits to himself that he had felt lost prior to joining Fast Trackers and hopes the club will give him a sense of purpose. How is that sense of purpose defined – fitness, competitive focus, love or something less tangible? Does joining the club get him there and, if so, how? Do you get the sense, by the end of the book, that Liam has found what he is searching for?
(2) Throughout The Miles, Liam intimates at what running has done for him and how it has changed the shape of his life. In what ways is running a metaphor for the journeys and the purpose that one seeks in life and where does that journey lead Liam and the running club in this novel?
(3) Monroe and Liam have a best friends’ relationship that seems, at times, to border on flirtation and romantic love. As a result, Monroe has a natural jealousy over Liam’s relationship to Fast Trackers. What does this jealousy say about their relationship, about the nature of gay male friendship, and about human nature, more generally?
(4) When Liam brings Monroe into his family life, there appears to be a huge disconnect between what his family offers and what Liam feels in return. What tension is at play between Liam and his family and what do religion and suburbia and his upbringing symbolize to Liam? What does New York City represent to Liam and what has city life offered him that is in contrast to all that came before?
(5) What does the finish line represent in The Miles? Discuss the various people that Liam clashes into at the literal finish lines that thread their way through this novel and what each of those instances represents? There is also the ending of the book, which is entitled “the finish line” – how has Liam changed from the first finish line in the book to this last one? In both the start and end of the book, Liam is on the outside looking in at the club. Discuss what has changed in terms of Liam as a character, the club as an entity, and the other main characters in the book.
(6) The members at the “inner circle” of the club seem to belittle Gene and talk a lot behind his back. Liam reflects in the book that circles of friends need to have one of their members on the periphery as an outsider to poke fun at. Do you think this is, in fact, true? And if so, is it unique to gay male culture or a truth in any social grouping? Can making fun of friends help groups bond and bring people together and, if so, in what ways?
(7) From the outset of the novel, Didier personifies the un-gettable object that Liam can’t stop thinking about or pursuing. Why is it so important to Liam to chase someone who appears so unattainable? Does Liam ever, in fact, “get” Didier? What do you think transpired in their relationship and do you think it changed Liam? If so, how?
(8) Much of The Miles is concerned with effecting change in one’s life and moving things forward – running miles, racing faster, finding love, becoming a stronger person. On a literal basis, Riser embodies that transformation most completely. Do you think that his story line is a cautionary tale of these impulses taken to an extreme or does he represent something different? Do you think that the members of Fast Trackers did all that good friends could do to help him?
(9) Monroe and Gary both function, at different times and in different ways throughout the novel, as father figures to Liam. What does Liam get out of these relationships and what do Monroe and Gary get out of their respective friendships with Liam? How do the relationships differ from one another and is it significant that these two men end up together? If so, why?
(10) Fast forward a year in time, which of the relationships in the book do you think will be stronger, which do you think may end? Focus specifically on Gary and Monroe; Monroe and Liam; and the “four musketeers” of Liam, Gary, Zane and Mitch.