The Worst Running Playlist Of All Time?
I have a lot of stupid ideas, and try to act on as many of them as I can get away with. This is the story of one of those ideas: I ran a marathon and let other people choose the music I listened to.
I made it a charity thing: Give some money to a good cause (I recommended 350.org and a local organization that provides services and support for homeless families), get four minutes on the playlist. Because of an MCL sprain during training, I knew I’d be walking some as I was under-trained (my longest training run was only 13 miles), and so I announced I would take up to five hours of music, figuring I wouldn’t finish earlier than that. To all those who donated and added songs to my playlist, thank you. In the end, just under three hours of music was submitted, much of it through my wife, Lisa, who gave herself the title Track Coach and managed the playlist to make it a surprise for me.
This was our process: I made a five-hour playlist of music I like, and dumped all the donor songs I knew of at the beginning. Lisa then added the ones that came to her directly. She had the freedom to put them in whatever order she liked. In part to ensure I heard everything, and in part because iTunes makes reorganizing large playlists very challenging, she elected to put all of the donor music first. I’d start the race with the music you all chose, and end with my own picks.
The Disneyworld Marathon begins at 5:30am, and the only way to get there is on shuttle buses that you have to board between 3 and 4am. It was cold out when I woke up at 2:30 after only a couple hours of sleep: 36 degrees, with a “feels like” reading of 27. I dressed in running shorts, warm-up pants, a short-sleeved shirt, and a crappy $8 Target cotton hoodie. I hadn’t packed for an extra-cold version of Florida. I drank coffee, ate a banana, a leftover cinnamon roll, and one bite of a terrible protein bar thing I bought at the marathon expo out of some sense of obligation, rather than out of belief that humans should eat such things.
As I ate, I packed a bag that included my bluetooth earbuds among other items. I also filled my water bottle and tossed it into the bag. That last action was a terrible mistake. Unbeknownst to me, the bottle was leaking in my bag, and the headset, though water-resistant, was not built to take a bath. By the time I discovered the mistake, my earbuds had died of drowning. Fortunately, I had a backup: my old wired set of earbuds with a crooked jack, brought along in case the bluetooth set’s battery died mid-run. If I held it carefully at all times for 26.2 miles, I’d avoid bursts of static.
By the time the race started just outside the Epcot parking lot, it was up to 38, feeling like 30. I’d planned to check the hoodie and warm-up pants, but instead started the race wearing them. You can abandon clothes along the course and they’ll be picked up for donation. I didn’t really want to donate my pants, but I also am a wimp, so I kept them on. I crossed the starting line under fireworks, hood up, hands inside my sleeves, at 5:40am, and pressed play.
The first sound on the mix was Lisa’s voice, introducing my 6-year-old daughter, who wanted to sing me a special motivational song. What followed was 30 seconds of her improvising new lyrics to “Skunk City,” a song we sing when we encounter road kill. This led immediately into the Queen/Bowie “Under Pressure.” OK! This is a good start.
Next up, Bob Marley’s “Jammin’.” No mystery who did this. Lisa and I sing the word “Jammin’” to one another very frequently, probably daily. There’s a backstory, of course, but the habit has long outstripped its origins. A call-and-response of “Jammin’” in our household could mean any number of things. I assume all marriages have a “Jammin’.” Conveniently, our “Jammin’” happens to be “Jammin’.”
Now I was well into Mile 2, and everything was easy. I was jammin’. Things would remain easy, as post-Marley, I heard the unmistakable Randy Rhoads intro to “Crazy Train” and again, there was no mystery here. This was the work of Steve Kleinedler, who isn’t technically my spouse, but with whom I have a “Jammin’” that happens to be an Ozzy Osbourne song. AYE AYE AYE! My pace was FINE. No reason to start walking. Everybody loved me and had only sent songs that were good for running.
And then it happened. “Lady in Red.” Do you know CVS Bangers? No? Google it now and give it a listen. Take the whole hour. It’s more important than this… OK, now you know, and here we are. “Lady in Red” is a CVS Banger. That whole class of songs, when I hear them, all I think is “BANGER” and I insert the airhorns. I thought, “Oh, this is fun.”
Not anymore. If you ever want to rid yourself of overconfidence, here’s a recipe: Blast “Lady in Red” into your ears at 6am, running down a highway in the dark with strangers, freezing in a hoodie apparently made of cheesecloth, occasionally passing a RunDisney truck with loudspeakers blasting some hit you’d missed, effectively creating a mashup of Chris de Burgh and the soundtrack of a Life is Good airport boutique, and spend the entire 4 minutes and 16 seconds realizing that you’ve got 24 miles of this ahead of you and that your legs are feeling as good as they will for the next week, and that soon you’ll be in physical and emotional agony that you chose to invite into your life. It works!
And then Prince arrived. When I made this offer to let people choose my music, I assumed everybody would torture me, but look! Here is not only Prince, but “Let’s Go Crazy.” I’ve never pole vaulted, but if given the opportunity right then, I could have cleared that Welcome to the Magic Kingdom arch. My friends, some of you really are better people than me. If the roles were reversed, I absolutely would have given you “Lady in Red.” Next up, Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” Totally solid running song. The scorecard is very much in my favor and my pace was good.
Then Swayze arrived. “She’s Like the Wind.” Oooooh, boy, another banger before sunrise, with nothing but the road and an approaching parking lot to share my mind. As it ended, I breathed a sigh of relief. And then a song I didn’t know started. The first 25 seconds were mostly acoustic strumming, a band coming in piece by piece behind. I had a bad feeling. And then a particular type of male voice arrived, and in one second I knew. I didn’t even need to hear him finish the word, I said aloud, “NOPE,” and that was a “NOPE” built on a long history of nope-ing. In the car, when I hear a song of this type, I can NOPE it in a single note, changing the station to get away from that late-90s-into-the-oughts bent, overly-emotive vocal style that gave false depth to nu-metal singers and to dudes who started bands based on a spiritual experience they had during a 311 concert. I looked at my phone to learn that the song was “Outside” by Staind, and I couldn’t “NOPE” it away. I had to endure it all the way through the Magic Kingdom parking lot, a location parking lot enthusiasts rate highly for its sheer scale, and Staind fans would rate highly as a venue, no doubt. I said “nope” a few more times, fell into a boxer’s pre-fight hunch, and endured.
...and as I approached the monorail station, an angel spoke to me.
WHITNEY F’ING HOUSTON sang to me, “If I… should stay…” and I knew this song was in the playlist somewhere, but oh dear god, it’s time for “I Will Always Love You” and this monorail station has just this retro hint of an old airfield and despite the strange hour and weird procession of silent, freezing runners, when Whitney gets to belting the chorus, well, this isn’t the greatest stretch after all, and no this song doesn’t fit the moment at all, but I’m at a goddamn monorail station and Whitney Houston is singing a love song and life is being lived fairly fully. I think my pace fell off a bit.
(I want to interrupt myself here and note that there is a truly great monorail song, and it is Danger Bob’s “Ride My Beam.” I don’t know if the internet has it in stock, but when you see me next, I’ll sing it to you.)
So Whitney’s finishing up, I’m approaching an underpass, and there’s, what is this? SPECTATORS? And Helen Love’s “Debbie Loves Joey” kicks in and this was my friend Rod’s power song when we ran this marathon three years ago and I know why now. It’s a wonderful song, and if you’re going to be running through a crowd of cheering strangers and getting a speed burst going down a hill under a walkway, you can’t do better.
Unfortunately, it faded right into the rhythmically lax, soprano-sax, jazz-flecked greeting card McCartneyscape of “Listen to What the Man Said.” The only person who’s ever had a workout to this song was the guy playing the bongos on it, who was in the unenviable position of ceding control of the tempo to, as near as I can tell, the backup singers. It was hard to tell. I’ve never appreciated this song, but by the end of my early morning listen, I actually was sort of enjoying the “wonder of it all” noodling, but terrified I was about to turn down Main Street, USA listening to this thing.
PRAISE THE LORD, though, it was not to be. As I made that turn, “Danza Kuduro” by Don Omar & Lucenzo arrived, a gift from my friend Dana, who couldn’t have known her song was going to hit at the iconic highpoint of the run, but threw a bullseye. Seriously, go to Disneyworld and just sprint down Main Street, USA listening to this song. It’s super-fun.
A life lesson now: nothing lasts forever. Sometimes you’re listening to Danza Kuduro and life is great. You lose yourself in an experience larger than yourself. Enjoy the moment. Because the next, you could be listening to the breathy faux-sexiness of young Britney Spears covering “Satisfaction” for no apparent reason. The song is performed with a charmless, passionless whisper and grunt demanded by a room of middle-aged men based on demographic research into what moves the wallets of America’s least-rebellious party people. My friend Rachel selected the song a month or so before, and we had a great conversation about her fascination with Britney at the time of her first album, when Britney was playing the role of Britney. I have a hugely conflicted relationship with Disney and early Britney Spears covering the Rolling Stones with a thin-broth rendition of “Satisfaction” is 100% in line with my darker expectations for the entertainment megaplex I was running through. And yes, this early Britney Spears theorizing is actually the yesterday I was thinking about in Tomorrowland at 6-something AM on January 8th.
As Tomorrowland became Fantasyland, fate threw another bullseye. David Bowie’s “The Laughing Gnome.” A lean 3 minute song had almost no chance of landing in the exact right place on the course, and here it was. Non-believers, find the Lord. This novelty duet between Bowie and a squealing gnome played as I ran through Fantasyland, Cinderella’s Castle, and Adventureland. David Bowie sang the words “roasted toadstools and a glass of dandelion wine” as I was running by the Mad Tea Party. Bowie and the Gnome go on to a successful career writing radio comedy. I went on to run through a gate by Splash Mountain, leaving the Magic Kingdom behind.
That’s when tragedy struck. Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” It can’t possibly pace a good run, but it also comes with the added baggage of being associated with approximately 10 million viewer hours of ASPCA video of malnourished animals. That led to the theme song to The NeverEnding Story, which is just an absurd thing to listen to while running, but unexpectedly keeps a nearly unbroken beat all through. Worse things have happened to people. Like Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.”
This stretch of the run on its own is VERY boring. Six miles of flat Florida road separate the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. Those miles include an out-and-back stretch down a side road solely to get the course to 26.2, and a run past the compost center and solid waste processing area (the smell really beats Skunk City). It’s a great six miles for existential despair.
Fortunately, it started with a boost. C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” is a real joy to run to. I had no idea. I may be adding it to my regular runs. Post-convoy, my friend Greg’s voice appeared. Greg was at my side when I started and finished the race three years prior, along with our friend Kristina. Greg’s recording was personally very touching and included the voice of a friend no longer with us, and if you’ve ever been unsure if you’re laughing or crying, well, it’s a thing that happens. The recording ended with a crazy 40-second blast of song from another dear friend and former roommate along with her husband, singing a song about Greg. Naturally. What’s on your goddamn running mix? Do you have that?
This was followed by four minutes of Cisco’s hold music. Yes. Soothing. I was soothed. Soothed and held. It was a bit mesmerizing, listening to the loop. It fortified me for what followed: Alanis Morissette’s a capella “Your House,” a desperate, echoing song about snooping on a lover and discovering infidelity. It’s a pretty tough track under any circumstance, but the sun had come out during the past few songs, and now it’s morning and Alanis Morissette is wailing “I SHOULDN’T BE HERE” and for the first time Alanis and I are really connecting. Sure her context is a little different, but she gets me. Was that song also about Dave Coulier?
The very opposite of Alanis Morissette singing a capella is the Red Hot Chili Peppers doing pretty much anything. If Staind is an average NOPE band, RHCP are the Beatles of NOPE. Anthony Kiedis is the Platonic ideal of a NOPE manufacturer. Perversely, the Chili Peppers might be the most perfect artists I’ve ever encountered, insofar as their superhumanly dreckish anti-achievement is laser-precise. But even great artists surpass themselves, achieving great works even by their own standards. Our dear Peppers are no exception, as somehow this shirtless foursome transcended their own meager gifts and produced the next song on my playlist, their opus minimus, “Suck My Kiss.” As I trudged along, listening to Kiedis do his standard Hickory Dickory Dock nose rap thing, my brain mapped the Chili Peppers to Andrew Dice Clay for the first time, and I now can’t untangle them. “Suck My Kiss” exists at the point where alternate-dimension Kiedis went into adult nursery rhyme comedy and parallel reality Diceman grew his hair a little longer and met a bass player. Neither reality produced something I want in my ears.
Weirdly, I kind of like Flea. Probably just a Lebowski thing.
I don’t think I listened to anything more closely than I listened to the next song. I was pretty certain it came from my friend Jennie, but I couldn’t tell what it was. It was densely-layered, a thousand instruments playing at once, but not just noise. I couldn’t make out melodies, but there were shifts throughout the four minutes. It triggered a visceral memory of something I still haven’t quite placed, not musical, but visual. Something I encountered that was composed of a million moving parts layered atop one another. It turns out I wasn’t terribly far off. The piece was “Weiss/Weisslich 22” by Peter Ablinger. Jennie described it as "the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, condensed into 40 seconds each.” YES, that makes sense. It’s very cool, and if it piques your interest, Jennie’s written about Ablinger here, including Weiss/Weisslich 22.
Next up, someone threw me the first softball in awhile: thanks, Marcelo! The Dandy Warhols “Bohemian Like You.” Totally works for running, as did the next two, The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and “The Obvious Child” by Paul Simon. I wouldn’t have thought to put either of them on a running mix, particularly the Paul Simon song, and as I was running, it struck me that I have a pretty narrow view of what various songs are “for.” “She Sells Sanctuary” checks ever box for a song you want on a running mix. And why wouldn’t I have ever looked at Paul Simon for a running mix?
I’d consider this further, but I was then confronted with the fact that God hates me. Or my friend Katy does. It’s unclear who bears ultimate responsibility for Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” appearing on my playlist right then, as I was approaching the Bear Island Road turn westward for the out-and-back stretch to nowhere. It was still cold out, but I’d been unzipping and rezipping the crappy hoodie and struggling with whether it was time to do away with it altogether. I was also starting to take walking breaks, as I’d remembered I was undertrained. Into this, throw Heartlight, one of the least-five runly songs of all time. “Runly” didn’t trigger spellcheck. Huh. “Spellcheck” did. I give up. I know I just told you I need to take a broader view of what songs are for, but let’s be reasonable. Don’t run to “Heartlight.” In fact, don’t do anything to “Heartlight.” Just let it live in your memory. Or tend a plant while listening to it.
“What She Said” by the Smiths is a totally solid running song and “Where the Streets Have No Name” probably is too, but at the time I was listening to it, I finally had entered full scale psychological breakdown over what to do about my stupid hoodie that wasn’t even supposed to be on the course with me, and good god, what about these pants? Was I going to stop and take my damn pants off? Why couldn’t I have just packed for this trip like an adult who makes decent life choices? I’m not a U2 fan, but Bono seems like a guy who could calmly assess such a situation, and who probably would have packed appropriately to begin with. As the song ended, I didn’t resolve the situation, but I did snap a selfie and send it to Greg and Kristina, figuring it was late enough in the morning that if I woke them it wasn’t a war crime.
“Where’s Me Jumper?” by the Sultans of Ping F.C. came next, and if you don’t know it, it’s a touching number about a confused young man who lost his jumper. Well, it touched me, as my hoodie isn’t a jumper exactly, but I was having a garment crisis. No, that’s not sincere. Sincerely, I love this goofy-ass song, and was delighted to have it playing then.
The next song, though, was one of the sinister masterworks of the whole morning, and the first of a chain of NINE straight killers. Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” Quick, take a poll of everybody on earth asking them for a song to run to. The total number of people who answer “Christopher Cross’s ‘Arthur’s Theme’, of course” is ONE. I know that ONE person. I’m thinking I must be on the precipice of Animal Kingdom and I’m singing along, “If you get caught between the moon and New York Ciiiii-ty. The best that you can do… The best that you can do… is fall in looo-ooove.” Oh Christopher Cross, you got me. You’ve captured my heart.
“Mele Kalikimaka.” Jimmy Buffett version. In my post laying out the terms of this whole deal, I put an extra price on the Chili Peppers, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and Christmas music. Pete fired one bullet and hit two targets. This is abuse, but also tactically genius. I’ve gotta say, it could have been a lot worse. Christmas takes the edge off the Buffett, and Buffett takes an edge off the Christmas.
Now I was in two worlds at once. Officially, I was in Animal Kingdom. Spiritually, I was transported to a world that couldn’t possibly be real. I was listening to a cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” performed by Wing. I did not know Wing, but she seemed to have a some sort of Asian Florence Foster Jenkins/Wesley Willis thing going on. It’s keyboard and flute and tuneless vocals, and it’s the entire song, all six-plus minutes of it. I gazed upon Disney’s Tree of Life and Expedition Everest as Wing sang of heartbreak. I gave up and walked. Wing broke me.
I was picked up slightly by something equally unlikely: “Dueling Banjos” by Jingle Cats. Take a guess. Really. What do you think Jingle Cats is? What’s their “Dueling Banjos” going to sound like? Don’t think too hard. Let go of everything you’ve ever experienced and let instinct take over. Go with the easy answer, even if it’s the one that couldn’t possibly be true. That voice you’re trying to silence, it’s the right one. It’s the one that’s saying, “‘Dueling Banjos’ featuring cats meowing in opposition to barking dogs.” Yeah, I know. Sometimes I don’t want to be right, either. Hey, though, it’s got a pretty good tempo, and I was rested.
Hulk Hogan hasn’t been in the news as a role model in a long time, but he rap-chanted a song called “I Want to Be a Hulkamaniac” with The Wrestling Boot Band in which he dispensed life advice to kids, such as:
If you’re looking for something cool to do, just pick good friends to be with you
Can you feel the music, can you feel the beat? You don’t need drugs to move your feet. When the dealer tries to push on you just tell him what you’re gonna do.
Always go swimming with a buddy, work real hard and always study
The only time I nearly vomited during the race was during this song. It wasn’t because of Hulk, but I appreciated the coincidence.
“Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an inspired pick. I mean, what? What. what. (I was listening to the original Broadway cast recording, but was transported to a performance at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, KS, in 93/94.) Also, I crossed the half-marathon mark while listening to this song.
The theme song from “Happy Days” escorted me out of Animal Kingdom and then immediately started again. “Happy Days” - twice. It was just so strange. But I also loved it. This is exactly the sort of nonsense I expected, without having any precise idea of what would be unleashed. “Happy Days.” But twice. On a single play, it’s a ludicrously repetitive song. And then it ends very clearly. If you haven’t experienced it, and I’m 100% sure you haven’t, here’s the thing about playing it on repeat: there’s a solid 4 seconds of silence between the plays. When it starts again, it wouldn’t be unusual for your mouth to open and exclaim, “What the fuck?” and then start laughing. Your mouth might do that.
I couldn't place the next song, Laura Branigan’s “Self Control.” I knew I knew it. Like, I could sing along a bit. It sounded like a smash-hit of the early 80s in every way, and clearly I'd heard it, but couldn't match it to any real world memories. I imagined it was huge in Miami. As I ran through the Animal Kingdom parking lot toward Osceola Parkway, I finally placed it: the song appears on one of the fake radio stations in Vice City. I didn't have real world memories of it. And with that, a huge gust of wind blew through my brain, cleaning off a whole section of memory I didn’t know was there.
I needed Tylenol and started looking for the next medical tent. I saw it at mile 14.8, the exact moment that the most terrifying sound came through my earbuds. A bit of demented carousel-style music and a woman saying, “You’re getting to be a big boy!” It was the theme song to “Caillou.” Not just the theme song. The theme song on a loop. For four minutes. I paused Caillou to speak with a medical volunteer. I took two extra strength Tylenol. I threw my hoodie in the garbage. I ran away without my phone, but quickly realized I should probably go back for it, even if that meant bringing Caillou with me. Reluctantly, I put the earbuds back in and started off again. “You’re getting to be a big boy!” It was too late in the day to think death would save me.
This was followed by The Meters’ “Mardi Gras Mambo” which was perfectly fine running music aside from a stretch where I wondered if it had been recorded from a skipping record as the title was just repeated over the same musical phrase for what seemed like at least 45 seconds.
And suddenly, it seemed like everything was over. The next song was “Space Walk” by Lemon Jelly. That was part of my playlist. “Queen of Hearts” by Fucked Up. Also on my playlist. “Use It” by the New Pornographers. OK, the rest of the race was mine. I was turning toward ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, the part of the race that nearly killed me last time. I was glad to be feeling pretty good, walking just a little, and in control of the music.
And then I heard talking. It was stand-up comedy, and it was familiar. It was John Mulaney. About 20 seconds in, I knew the bit, and had a premonition. OH NOOOOOOOOO. If you don’t know John Mulaney’s “Salt and Pepper Diner” bit, please listen to it now. It’s on YouTube and it’s about 6 minutes, and you should just listen to it for your own sake. John Mulaney is great. Listen to it.
OK, you listened to it, right? Well, here I am, slowly jogging up the ramp to the ESPN Wide World of Sports, and I’m thinking “SOMEONE’S GOING TO MAKE ME LISTEN TO THAT SONG 7 TIMES. Or 11 times. This could ruin me.” And sure enough, as the Mulaney segment ends, in rushes “What’s New Pussycat?” It’s every bit as bizarre a song as you remember and as Mulaney describes.
It’s sunny, and I’m in Central Florida at mile 17.5 of a race I’m not trained for, and I’m listening to Tom Jones sing “What’s New Pussycat” on an uphill highway off-ramp, and I’ve been explicitly threatened that I’m going to be listening to it for a long, long time.
The song ends.
And then it starts again.
Nooooooo-OOOOOOOOO-oooooooooo. I had just gotten control of the jukebox! As the song wound down, I resigned myself to the terror of 20, maybe 30 minutes of Tom Jones.
But when it ended, Tom Jones didn’t come back. Instead, I got something much, much better for running: “My Shot” from the Hamilton Mixtape, by The Roots with Busta Rhymes, Joel Ortiz, & Nate Ruess. Confession: I was the last American to finally hear anything from Hamilton. Surprise review: it was really good for running. It got me up the hill, and into the Wide World of Sports.
And it was followed by The Pipettes’ “Pull Shapes.” My playlist was back, and it never left for the rest of the race. To the finish line, I heard Run the Jewels, Girl Talk, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Phoenix, The Faint, Curve, Bob Mould, Los Campesinos!, Outkast, Passion Pit, Haim, Bloc Party, Blur, Sleigh Bells, Sonic Youth, The Shods, Star Ghost Dog, The Strokes, Sugar, Danger Bob, Pixies, Front Bottoms, Elastica, Saul Williams, Battles, and TV On the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” which needs to be on every running playlist for all time.
I finished the race in 4:56:40. My legs work. My ears work. I will probably never run a full marathon again, but if I do, I will train better. I think I could do it without walking. I also think I could do it without Wing.
Thanks again to everybody who contributed. It was ridiculously fun.