Running Is a Hard Act to Follow
W.B. Yeats, the foremost lyric poet of this century, claimed that it is impossible to separate the dancer from the dance. In much the same manner, it is impossible to separate the runner from his running—and often impossible to separate the running from his lifestyle and career.
Bruce Dern, nephew of the poet Archibald MacLeish, but more famous as one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars, runs his life according to that adage. For Dern, the poetic bent in his family has been passed down to him in a power to verbalize every nuance of the running experience.
“The running is very definitely a part of my life,” Dern stated in a recent interview. “It is a habit. Aside from the fact that it’s an investment in your physical well-being and in your heart rate and all that kind of stuff, it is something I cannot give up.
“If they were to take my spleen out or whatever they do when they say you can’t run anymore, I’d find a way and I would compete with myself.”
Dern’s words aren’t prepared by a press agent and they aren’t uttered to impress. He sits in a modern director’s chair in his office in Beverly Hills; he wears a plaid, wool outdoorsman shirt, a pair of faded light blue jeans, no socks, and a pair of worn, white running shoes. He’s tired from having run many miles the previous day at altitude in the mountains near his Lake Tahoe home. But he’s not frantic-eyed or quarrelsome or distracted as he often is as a character of slightly demented bent in a Hollywood film. He’s calm and steady-voiced. He’s been to the mountain and if he hasn’t conquered it, at least he’s left his mark—even if it’s merely the imprint of a running shoe at a place where there reasonably shouldn’t be any runners.
“The thing that’s good about me is, number one, I’m a notoriety from another business, and number two, I’ve done it all. I’ve run on the track, I’ve run on the roads, I’ve run the ultramarathons, I’ve run the 50-milers, I’ve run the 60-milers, I’ve run three or four days in a row running 25-30 miles a day, so I’ve done it all. I feel that there’s really something to be said.”
Dern becomes animated and begins using his hands to complement his expression of feelings that have been building up in him, observations that he’s made on running in a career on the road and track that’s spanned nearly 30 years.
Bruce Dern started his running career in a gym class at Central School in Glencoe, Ill., as a seventh-grader. The class was expected to run around a city block, which was almost three-quarters of a mile. “The first time we ran the long block I went once around, finished, sat down, took off my shoes. Suddenly I realized, ’Well, no wait a minute, no one else has finished yet. I am much better at this than anybody else in the school. Much better.”
Dern quickly homed in on track as something at which he was competitive. Competitive track in Dern’s county meant going to high school at New Trier, something he was desperately anticipating. Unfortunately, Dern had been hanging around with a bad crowd in the seventh and eighth grades, and his parents, in an attempt to straighten him out, sent him to Choate School for Boys in Connecticut, promising that if he did a good job in his freshman and sophomore years, he would be allowed to return home to attend New Trier.
Dern waited until the spring of his freshman year at Choate to run. His first 880 [yard] time trial was a 2:22. It was the best time at Choate so he became a half-miler. In the season-ending meet Dern finished fourth. He had brought his time down to 2:07. He credits the dramatic drop in his times during his freshman year to the fact that Choate competed against college freshman teams.
“We had no real training methods at Choate. We would go out and run three 220s and go home. That was all we’d do.” In his sophomore year Dern never lost an 880, lowering his time to 2:03.
For his junior year, Dern got his wish and went to school at New Trier. It was not the bed of roses he’d hoped it would be. “My first six months at New Trier very, very, very tough—emotionally and everything else. I was coming back to high school, to a bunch of kids I’d grown up with but who suddenly hadn’t been good enough for me the last two years. They didn’t know that my parents had shipped me off because I was hanging around with them, so I couldn’t come back and say, ’Hey, that’s why they sent me away, because you guys are too grim.’ Because we didn’t run cross-country there was nothing to do, so I had to wait until the indoor track season my junior year.”
In his senior year, on the Tuesday before the state meet, Bruce ran a 1:58.5, the best time in the state during 1954.
Dern went on to the University of Pennsylvania and received a revelation about times and training that he’d never suspected while running in Illinois. “When I got to Penn and saw the workouts and the training that they did, I realized, ’My God, if I’d had any kind of training like that, it would have been different.’ We’d read about times guys were running in California; I couldn’t believe it: there wasn’t a guy in the state meet out there who was over 1:56. We were not in this class at all.”
It was while at Penn, at the Penn Relays in his sophomore year, that Bruce Dern began to decide to give up college and track to become an actor.
“We got in the four-mile relay because we were the host school and we had three guys that could run 4:20 and me, who had not run a mile in a year. I begged the coach to let me run the led leg. But he said, ’No, you’ll run number two.’ Wouldn’t you know it, the lead-off guy runs the greatest race of his life. He runs about 4:16 and puts us in second place in front of 60,000 people. This guy had about an 80-yard lead on me. I got the baton and I didn’t know what to do. I just took off. When you have some speed and you’re used to running the half-mile, the first quarter’s like nothing. I came by and coach shouts, ’Terrific, terrific 62!’ At the half I’m right on the guy’s back. Two-six! I’m not feeling bad. I go around the turn, into the backstretch at 1100 yards and it hit me. I don’t know what I ran but all I know is everybody passed me. I ran like a 2:06, 2:42. I was a disgrace. I finished my sophomore year running 1:56.8 against Columbia. I’d become disillusioned with my life, I guess.
“Anyway, the track season of my junior year came and we had a two-mile relay team that was pretty good. We won the first two races we ran. I ran a 1:57 indoors that year. I was disillusioned with track. I trained very, very hard. I did everything right. It’s just that they should have made me a miler. I didn’t know it, though. That is what a coach should do: find the guy, get him in the right event, and get him moving.
“I had come back with sideburns. They never said a thing about them during cross-country. But during track they said, ’Cut them of you’re out of here.’ I didn’t so I quit college, became an actor and stopped running.
“I didn’t run a step from January of 1957 until August of 1963. I gained 40 pounds. I went up to about 200 from 160. In 1963 I felt the urge, the need to run. I started running 10 minutes out and back. I had no desire to run fast anymore. I had no desire to run 880s. I just wanted to run, and I’d run three or four days a week like that and I enjoyed it.”
At that juncture Bruce Dern was to find the best of both worlds when he happened upon the Culver City Athletic Club in November of 1963. The club was the premiere marathon road-running club in America, winners of the team division of the Boston Marathon three times. Their president was Bob Carman, who Dern claims to have been the most influential man in his running life.
Carman was the father of distance running in Southern California. In one week in January of 1965 Carman ran three marathons—each of them in under 2:40. The long-distance bug bit Dern and he went into serious training during 1963-1965.
In 1965, at age 29, Dern was at a low point in his acting career. He claims that his lack of good acting jobs contribute to his increased interest in running. “It was a tremendous substitute, because it was something that nobody in my profession did. Now everybody does it, but then I was a freak. People would say: ’Are you an actor or are you a runner? You can’t be both.’ Running, especially at that point in my life, kept me psychologically stable.”
Through Carman, Dern began to learn important lessons about his running. Carman sent Dern an envelope each week; in the envelope were seven folded pieces of paper with a day of the week marked on each; when Monday came, Dern would unfold the paper marked Monday and he’d go out and do what it told him to do. “With all this training going on, I finally got into marathoning.” Dern pauses a moment to recall those days. “I wasn’t very good at it. But I did get to the point where I ran 10 miles, 420 yards in an hour.
“I trained very, very hard. I was running 110-130 miles a week and then my lung collapsed.
“Of course, I panicked. I laid off for 18 months. That’s heavy stuff. Somebody could be saying it’s over. Bob kept writing me letters and saying, ’When you come back think about ultramarathons.’ He’d just started into that.
“I started running again on December 6, 1967 and on January 7, 1969 I ran a 32-miler up in Santa Rosa. I finished sixth in the race and ran 4:24. All I wanted to do was make it.
“In August of 1969, with my new wife-to-be, Andrea, following, Bob and I ran a 50-miler in practice on a 90-degree day. We ran seven hours and 45 minutes. During this time I had started playing around with cola during running, because there were still no replacement drinks, and nothing else was helping me. What I needed was sugar and I wasn’t getting it. Cola got it there the fastest and, since I drank a lot of Pepsi anyway, it was something my system was used to.
“In October of that year Bob and I went to Rocklin to run the 50-mile championship. I finished ninth with a 7:06. It was pretty damn good for me. I got married the next day in Carson City.”
Dern’s career was still stagnant. He trained on an ambitious distance schedule, running 15 miles two days a week, eight miles two days a week, four miles two days a week, and alternating a 20- and 30-miler on Saturdays. “I enjoyed that, because there was no pressure at all. My wife would follow me and give me colas along the way and it became fun.”
Everything in Bruce’s life was about to change, though, and it would have a profound effect on his running. “In January of 1971 I made Silent Running and that was the beginning of my career as a movie star after 15 years of being just a little player in the movies. Suddenly, I didn’t care to go out for two or three hours on Saturday. From the day I began shooting Silent Running until today I’ve never been on my feet more than two hours. Well, maybe that isn’t entirely true. These Saturday runs I’m taking up near Tahoe amount to three or four hours, but the distances aren’t the same because at altitude you’re just making it—maybe 20 kilos.
“I’ve done some amazing things as a runner, but I never want to be out there for that long again. Fifty miles was a grind. The agony of being a good 50-miler or a 100-miler is not worth it.
“You’ve got to know what it’s like to be out there for six hours, it’s nothing like a marathon.
“It’s not meant as a put-down, but if running is the only thing you have to look forward to, you can look at a calendar and predict somewhere along the line where you’re going to break down—either mentally, physically, or psychologically.
“When I turned 40 in June of 1976, I made a determination to go back to the track and run the mile again. Since I’ve been 40 I’ve run a 2:12 half and a 4:43 1500 meters. In August of 1977 I changed my whole system of training.
“The most mileage I have run in a year was 3900 miles; now I’m running around 2100 but I’d like to move that up to about 2400. I don’t miss days. The longest streak I ever had was five years without missing a day. The collapsed lung stopped that streak, though. Since 1967 I’ve missed maybe a week, except when I broke my leg one time.
“But I made a commitment to go back to track. I decided last December (1976) that I’d run the first 10 miles of the Western Hemisphere Marathon. I try to do that each year. It’s better than running a 10-mile run on your own. At least you’re running with other people. I was running with Bob Carman and by the six-mile mark I didn’t give a damn. I used to like these longer runs but it just wasn’t happening. That’s when Bob made an interesting comment: ’Well, probably the hardest thing to remember about road-running is that it takes creative energy. Running is creative energy.’
“The long run just didn’t mean as much to me. ’Because it’s creative energy,’ he said. ’Like in Black Sunday or Coming Home, you play such emotional roles and you get so wrapped up in them and you give so much. You just don’t have the creative energy to go out and put in 20 miles on a Saturday or put in 30 miles on a Sunday.’
“And he was right. It is creative energy. Running is a creative thing and if you use up your creative juices all week in your job, maybe you aren’t going to have enough left to run creatively when you do get out onto the road for a long run.”
Bruce Dern’s abandonment of the long run except for weekends at Lake Tahoe and his reversion to track running has caused him other problems. One of them is a necessary trade-off between his career and his competitive running. “My weight fluctuates a lot. Joe Douglas, my coach, would like me to weight 10 pounds less than I do. Well great; I could run against guys who haven’t eaten for a year. First of all, I’m 15 pounds overweight as it is. I weight 169, 170. I’m supposed to weigh 185 for 6’2”. Well, he’d like me to weigh 155. All the guys I race against weight 155. But all the guys I race against were 4:16 or better milers. So I’m trying to find something at 40 that I never found at 20. But I decided when I turned 40 I’d throw all my old records out. I said: ’No more records, you don’t have fast times anyway.’ And every year I keep a log and make a list of my best times from 220 to 10,000 meters, plus a half-hour run and a one-hour run. And now every year since I’ve turned 40 I get a time on a track for each one of those things and I’m starting to improve. I think that I can keep improving on my times until I’m 45, 46.
“But as I said, the whole concept of my training has changed lately. It started with that piece on Lydiard Runner’s World ran a few months ago. It opened my eyes and suggested some new directions my training should take. That and Tom Sturak’s advice.”
Dern usually works out at 5:30 in the afternoon, often at the UCLA track. He builds his program on the concept of the cyclical year, with the culmination coming during the track season.
He does a foundation training on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday that is primarily interval work, with an hour run Tuesday and Thursday, a long run of about 10 miles on Saturday and a half-hour run on Sunday as a rest day. He always warms up before his interval work with a two-mile jog and his cool-down consists of 10X100 slow. As racing season approaches he lowers his times during intervals and concentrates on building toward a peak while taking care not to excessively tire himself.
Dern’s track workouts are serious and dedicated and usually take 1½ hours. He is, however, recognized while at the track and runners occasionally ask him questions as he passes. “You still have Specter as your agent?” He answers while continuing to jog: “Yeah, yeah; still do; trying to get him to run more.” He continues on down the track, perspiration rolling down his face, ready to pinch the button on his watch to get a time on himself for the next 220. There is the feeling that once begun, his workout will not be interrupted even by an earthquake.
Being recognized at a track event bothers him. “People respect Steve McQueen’s privacy when he competes at a motorcycle race; they let him alone so can do what he’s come to do. I don’t mind signing autographs at a track meet, but that’s not what I’m there for; I’m there to run.”
As it is impossible to separate the runner from the running, so it is impossible to separate the acting from Dern’s life. Trying to reconcile the acting to the running has provided some interesting insights and some rather strange arrangements in Bruce Dern’s career.
“If running is a part of your life like it is for me—I mean it really is a part of my life—I don’t have to make time for running. It is harder for me to make time for this, that, and the other thing, at times even my wife, than it is for running.
“When I went to Paris and did the movie for Claude Chabrol (The Laughing Policeman) two years ago, I stayed at the Lancaster Hotel, which is a very fancy, small, artistic-type hotel. Every morning at 6:30 I rolled out of bed and went out for a run. They couldn’t believe it.
“When I do a movie, I ask for three things to begin with. I ask for a make-up guy I’m partial to, I ask for a stand-in that I have, and I ask for a chauffer who knows the city that I’m working in who will be with me 24 hours a day and understands that he leaves me at the track for 1½ hours. He can sit and watch me or he can go pet the horses or whatever. But that’s part of what I have to have. It’s part of my life. And I don’t find it hard to separate the two.
“What’s hard for me is to separate, for example, the character from Bruce when the working day is over while I’m making a movie. And also, in the case of certain roles such as The King of Marvin Gardens, where the character stays with me for months after the movie is over, it is hard to get rid of him. It’s a frustration of the character. I think the same thing is true of running. All of my acting is on the theory of working from the inside out. Everything happens inside and then it comes out and the person grows out of that. Well, the running is the same thing for me. It happens from the inside out. It’s the need and the desire that then makes the body go out and do it. And the desire to improve. It’s not the desire of going fast because when I’m running 65-second quarters I feel I’ve done something, but it’s the need to maintain a certain profile of myself physically, mentally. It’s a tremendous therapy, the running.”
His efforts to separate himself from characters he’s playing after he walks off the set may fail in his normal life, but he has no trouble separating from the characters when he dons his running shoes. “I can separate the runner from the actor and I can separate the actor from the person, but a lot of times I can’t separate the person from the person. The characters becomes a person and then Bruce is a person and I can’t break free of one or the other. I have never, however, run or been able to run as a character. In other words, a lot of times when I’m on movies and deeply entrenched in things, I try to go out and take a workout as a character. But the character is usually so diametrically opposed to the values that I find in running that he can’t do both things.
“When I was doing Gatsby, for example, I was very much into Tom Buchanan and I would try to do some workouts with him, but I would find myself quitting. He was a quitter kind of a person and I suddenly found myself saying, or himself saying, Who cares? As soon as I got tired I just wouldn’t do it anymore. That I found interesting.
“I try to run a little bit in every film I’m in. Every film I’m in, if you’ve noticed, there’s always a shot of me somewhere doing something running. I try and work it in. In The Driver, I finally said, ’Screw it.’ Someday I hope to do a movie that is about running. And Coming Home, this movie about Vietnam, the whole beginning of the movie under the titles and everything there follows me running through all the Marine stuff as he’s getting ready to go to Vietnam.”
Expanding on his feeling for running as a therapy, Dern feels that running, a rhythmic act in itself, breaks the rhythm of life. “My style of acting is what you’d call moment-to-moment behavioral acting. Not only is that very hard to do, but it is an art form because you are not pretending. You are really being. Therefore, you need something to break that at some time every day. And that’s what running does for me. And that’s the big way it is the therapy for me.
“I hate to say I think running’s good for anybody because I’ve got a wife who won’t run a step. But for anybody who wants to run and get into running, if they stay with it long enough—it’s going to take them a few months to find out the changes that happen to them physiologically—it is good therapy, and for some people great therapy, and for a few people, an essential therapy, because it’s an investment you make in yourself. It’s something you’ve done for yourself; it’s something you can do by yourself; and it’s something you’ve done that somebody else hasn’t done.”
The greatest benefit of running, though, according to Bruce Dern, is that it builds integrity and honesty.
“I think that we can encourage the runner to be honest about what it is he thinks he can do or if he thinks he can do better; we know that if he runs 65 minutes for 10 miles he’s not going to do 57:20 the next Saturday; he’s not going to improve 10 minutes.
“I think that the ideal psyche for a runner is to know where he really is in his running program the day when he’s making a particular decision. Not where he wants to be or where he was or where he should be—but an honest evaluation, within himself, of where he is now.
“My greatest failure as a runner when I was in high school and college was that I was not honest with myself about where I really was as a runner. It would have saved me a lot of shock. I’d have never missed those six years when I quit to become an actor. I’d just have continued on running and would have enjoyed it. I would have gotten into road racing earlier, but I was not honest with myself. I believe a big dream. I believed the American dream that applies to everything. I always believed that if you were the best actor there was that you would then get the best roles. It doesn’t automatically happen. It doesn’t automatically come to the guy who does the best workouts.
“The reason that I ran, more than any other, is because it is the purest form of honesty that there is. You have point X and you have another point Y, and you go from here to there. The watch doesn’t lie. You go there in this much time. And there’s no bullshit. There’s no cheating. I’ve seen guys cut courses and all that kind of shit, but there’s no way to cut it, really. The watch never lies. You’re simply as good as the watch says you are. Running is the great purifier and life’s the great marathon. It’s that simple.”