A Non-Inspirational Inspirational Memoir - Dundurn
Mar 10, 2022

A Non-Inspirational Inspirational Memoir

Much has been made of the image of the doughnut on the cover of The Running-Shaped Hole. So why is there a Simpsons-esque doughnut on the cover of what is billed as an inspirational memoir about weight loss and distance running?

From the very beginning, I have been conscious of not turning this book into a gooey self-help one. I didn’t want it to make promises (unrealistic or otherwise) or to try to convince the reader that they can change their life through cringe-inducing cheerleading, inspirational cliches, vision boards, and other kinds of motivational gimcrackery. I would find that kind of book embarrassing—even depressing. It would make me turn in short order to a stack of doughnuts for solace. I know all too well the rebellion borne out of being told what to do by someone else, however well-intentioned.

I think this is where many of the other running books I’ve read have failed. They are too prescriptive; too invested in pushing a method, or a physiological or scientific approach to something I relate to on a spiritual level. They may even be too prideful. I’m trying to invite people in by telling them a story, not push them away with data and programmatic rigidity.

The doughnut, then, is symbolic of my painfully human downfall — the failings and suffering that inform so much of the story and haunt the margins of everything I do. I feel this is more realistic. More relatable. Because even when I am training for half-marathons, overeating stalks my thoughts and appetite. And even when I am setting personal bests and eating well, I am filled with self-doubt. There are no claims of perfection, or even middling success.

Sound like too much of a downer for an inspirational read? I can say that The Running-Shaped Hole became more inspirational during the course of its writing. There were two failed attempts to run the Detroit Free Press Marathon—something I had hoped would be the book’s climactic event. One year it was a simple clerical error. The next, it was a serious legal issue resulting from a neighbourhood fracas over a pathway in a local park that prevented me from running the race. The resulting courtroom drama and a stunning revelation that came to me in the comfort of a counsellor’s office bring everything — like, everything — the book was supposed to be about full circle.

Eventually, I do run the Detroit Half. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to that day, from my wife and kids pinning on my race bib, to my crossing the finish line in the art deco canyons of downtown Detroit in a state of absolute surrender. My training and my results are gloriously modest — no better and no worse than the hundreds of thousands of other runners who run half-marathons every year. But running the Detroit Half was, for me, a life changing event. It was indeed climactic, but it does not mark the end of my story. 

Listen to the Spotify playlist now, perfect for some background music when reading The Running-Shaped Hole, or on your next run! Listen here.

Robert Earl Stewart’s first book of poetry, Something Burned Along the Southern Border, was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and his poetry has been published in This, Magma, and The Best Canadian Poetry. He spent fifteen years as a newspaper reporter, photographer, and editor. Robert lives in Windsor, Ontario. Read more here.