Crafting the perfect playlist – 15K Edition

Lord Huron – Time to Run
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels
Warren G – Regulate (feat. Nate Dogg)
Radiohead – 15 step
Of Montreal – Suffer for Fashion
Flaming Lips – Yeah yeah yeah song
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Home
The Strokes – 12:51
The Beastie Boys – Hold It Now, Hit It
Broken Social Scene – Halfway Home
Architecture in Helsinki – Heart it Races
R.E.M. – What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Foo Fighters – Monkeywrench
Outkast – Hey Ya!
Japandroids – House That Heaven Built
Dead Weather – I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)
Arcade Fire – Ready to Start
Miike Snow – Paddling Out
Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now

I’ve never understood people who run in silence. I can understand the meditative quality – the peaceful, serene repetition of ones breath and footfall falling into rhythm with the world around you. What I cannot fathom is the mental fortitude it would take to close out the unrelenting and rambling trouble making my mind does. It reminds me of a Tibetan proverb, or, anecdote actually (and barely one at that). Also, it clearly doesn’t remind me well enough because I only remember the gist:

  • In Tibet (or, was it India, where do they hold elephants as sacred?), they would hold parades with elephants down the street. Walking by, the elephants would occasional cause mischief and destruction with their trunks. At times, they may steal fruit or trinkets from shop shelves. Other times, the swing of the trunk damaged the front of a shop all together. The people of the town were stuck – do they keep the parades and face the damages or do they stop the parades and upset the people? Finally, someone came up with an elegant idea. They simply gave the elephant a stick to hold onto. That stick, free (I’m assuming) and easy, provided the elephant with enough to do that their trunks got into less trouble.

My mind is like an elephants trunk – without a stick to hold onto, it looks to cause problems. That is why I am desperate to listen to things while running. I am sad to admit that I have canceled runs when I have lost my headphones and taken prolonged walking breaks when a string of songs in my shuffle were not up to par. I have run to baseball games, audiobooks, podcasts about politics, standup comedy, movie scores. You name it, I’ve tried it (and will likely write about it, just not here).

My latest, likely futile, quest is to create the ultimate playlist – a sequence of songs so flawlessly chosen and carefully ordered that they harness my mental energy for good and elevate the performance of my hamburger meat body. Above, I have posted the playlist in its current form. This was done out of respect for the reader as I often lose my mind when I click on a link simply looking for something specific like a list of songs or a recipe and have to read through page after page of gibberish and bullshit. Don’t trick me into reading about your life, just tell me about how to make bakery quality cookies without the guilt – thanks.

Before I go into the justification for each song – I want to lay out the method to choosing the songs in general. After literally years of a hit-or-miss style of song searching I started to be more mindful of what songs do it for me. I kept a note on my phone and would update songs onto it. Later I listened to these songs while not running. A few things I learned:

  • There was a common theme where most of the songs clock in with a pretty steady 150-180 beats per minute (BPM). In the most unscientific way possible, I began counting my steps per minute while running comfortable and, low and behold, I clock in at around 170 steps per minute. My earth shattering revelation was later minimized when I was told that Spotify uses the same idea to choose their smart running playlists.
  • I am a very dramatic person. I don’t mean that in the sense that I like to cause drama (although, it has happened in the past). More, I like to conjure up epic, dramatic scenes. Nothing gets me more amped up than when the song I am listening to ends the moment I pull into my driveway. I tend to visualize my life as a movie and my music as the score. A lot of the songs that click with me either have dramatic music and/or lyrics that easily conjure up images.
  • I despise long songs and unnecessary banter.

Seeing as I am being intentional about my running music for the first time ever, I wanted to assign an intention for the song. Why is it where it is in the order? What does it need to do for me? If each song is a little dose of medicine, what is the intended effect?

The playlist is designed for a 15k. More specifically, it was designed for the Utica Boilermaker 15k – America’s largest 15k and one of the best post-race parties in the country. It’s held yearly in my hometown of Utica, NY – the little city that could. Utica, when I lived there, was on a steady decline. Sitting near the bottom of the Adirondacks, Utica (and upstate New York in general) sits in a climate that provides crippling snow in the winter, unbearable mugginess in the summer, mosquitoes that could carry your dog away and hills – so, many, hills. It has slowly been making a come back over the past decade or so. I signed up for the Boilermaker as a good reason to go home, visit my parents and see how Utica has changed. For the last year, I have been living and running in Florida and, while I have gotten adjusted to the humidity I have completely lost all ability to run hills. As the race creeps closer, I know that I need every advantage to run well in my grand return to my hometown.

Without any more delay – here is what will be carrying through 9.3 miles of Utica asphalt.

Track 1 – Time to Run by Lord Huron

Intention: Warming up

Explanation: Okay, let’s start easy into this run. I suffer from crippling starters pistol amnesia (self-diagnosed). The moment the gun goes off I forget all strategy and everything that I learned about the course. What does the first mile look like? Probably flat – just go fast. What was the target pace? Let’s just keep up with who is around us. Or, nevermind, let’s try to catch those guys up there. Is there a hill coming up? Screw you, live in the moment bro. The rare times I can pace myself through the first few miles I tend to run better (breaking scientific finding!). Usually I only do that if I run with a far smarter person or if there is heavy congestion at the start of the race. I can’t count on either of those so I need Lord Huron’s easy 109 BPM to focus on, keep my pace slow and loosen up my legs. Also, the title is spot on.

Track 2 – Run the Jewels by Run the Jewels off the album Run the Jewels

Advanced warm up and adding bounce into my legs

I love Run the Jewels. They are fantastic – the music is super bouncy, the bass hits really well and they share my disdain for fuck boys. Also, this has been my traditional lead off song when running. It’s a slower BPM but has way more swagger than the folky Lord Huron. By the end of this song (about 8 minutes and 10 seconds into the race) I should be loosened up and about a mile in.

Track 3 – Warren G – Regulate (feat. Nate Dogg)

Relax into the run

I have always been an out fast and fade type runner (I am inhibiting the obvious joke). It is not by plan but out of hubris and inexperience. This is a race where I want to try to run smarter. I edited down the track to cut out the random chatter in the beginning and to shorten the song up. I don’t need to be bouncing at 95 BPM/Steps per minute for too long, just enough to remind myself to relax. During this song I want to do a quick check in and look for any weird/unwanted tension in my body. Where are my shoulders? How am I landing on my feet? Am I breathing right? For the next 3 minutes or so (I cut off a minute), I need to take the time to relax my body. If I can stay loose and flexible I’ll last longer and possibly go faster.

Track 4 – 15 Step by Radiohead

Focus on my cadence

If you have listened to this song, it is almost all pounding bass and weird, tweak out computer sounds. It’s fantastic. I mean, there is a lot of stuff going on in this song. One moment you have Thom York bellowing some melancholy stuff and then you have children chanting and a synth-like bassline to tear through the chaos. Throughout it all, there is a simple, heavy, repetitive beat. The BPM is low (and the last time it’ll be low) so I have the next couple of minutes to put all my attention into my feet. Can I hit on the beat?

Track 5 – Suffer for Fashion by Of Montreal

Time to pick it up

Of Montreal is the kind of band that is, on paper, a hard sell and makes me sound schizophrenic in my description. They are an Indie Glam Pop band fronted by a white man in drag who sings and performs as a black, multi-sex change transsexual who writes songs about mental illness, sexuality, addiction and other hard hitting topics. All the songs are set to impossibly upbeat music and have names that are sometimes nearly impossible to pronounce, let alone remember when making suggestions to people. I absolutely adore them. Suffer for Fashion is a great running song. Right out the gate it hits you hard, taking off at 148 BPM with Kevin Barnes singing about the need to suffer, to drag out and struggle for creativity. There is a nice bounce back and forth from lyric to hook and back again. It’s a fun song and a great way to push up the tempo now that I am sufficiently loose.

Track 6 – Yeah yeah yeah song by The Flaming Lips

Get up to speed and get cheered for it

What an uplifting song! A bit slower than target pace at 108 BPM but the energy of the lyrics really carry push me. The refrain (“yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah”) is there to increase confidence while the hook (“with all your power”) really pushes up the self-efficacy. I am strong. I do have power. And with all of this power, what would (or, could) I do?

Track 7 – Home by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros

To be sappy and sentimental

I made this play list specifically for the Boilermaker, a race in my hometown – a place I have rarely gone back to since I left. This is one of those movie moments where I get a flair for the dramatic and imagine the race in montage form. Also, this is a good time to let my mind wander a bit. The flaming lips have gotten me up to speed and it is early enough that I can zone out, keep the pace and think about growing up in Utica. It was the place I first started running in 2005 and I’ll take these few minutes to reflect on those 13 years. Of course – I edited the song down and cut out the talking part at the end (Jane…Alexander). At its best, that part takes me out of the moment and at its worse (i.e., when I’m running a race) I can see it sparking some anger inside me that won’t go well.

Track 8 – 12:51 by The Strokes

Get back on pace

Focus up and come back to earth. Listen to the beat and get back into rhythm. At 145 BPM, it is a good time to make sure I’m not falling too far below or above it.

Track 9 – Hold it now, hit it by The Beastie Boys

We are having fun, right?

This is fun. This is fun. This is fun. The Beastie Boys are fun.

Track 10 – Halfway Home by Broken Social Scene

Half way point check in

If everything is going well, I should be a little over halfway done. The BPM is 143 so a great time to check in with myself. If things aren’t going well, this is a good point to realize that something needs to change. This is the best time to evaluate the first half and make adjustments. This song is the time to do a mental check in (How is my mood? What am I thinking about?) and a physical check in (Any pains? How is my pace?). Also, this is when I have to check in other things I almost always forget about/ignore: are my shoes tied well, have I been drinking enough water, are my sunglasses smeared up and distracting, am I overheating and I need to pop this top off or take off my hat? At the end of the song there is a big band feel – the horns hit it, there are strong, pummeling drums and a lot of vocals that get me real lifted. When that hits, it’s time to get back into the race and finish up strong.

Track 11 – Heart it races by Architecture in Helsinki (also time to eat)

Reminder – Have fun

How far can you walk into the woods? Half way, and then you’re walking out. The same thing goes with racing (and running in general). I am no longer running into this race, I am running out of it. Why am I doing it? Because for some reason, some part of my brain finds running fun. This song is to remind me to have fun. Also, now is the time to eat – assuming I’ve remembered to bring something with me. Fuel up!

Track 12 – What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? (Live) by R.E.M.

No reason at all really

When Dan Rather was attacked in 1986, the two assailants were yelling “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” It was a random, senseless act of violence by a mentally ill person who thought that TV networks were sending signals into his brain. When I run, I too often get random, violent impulses. This song is to –

Okay, in reality there is no deeper intention for this song. I just really, really love R.E.M. and I have never had to, nor will I ever, apologize for that. The recorded version is a cool 95 BPM but they really ratchet up the alt intensity with a 208 BPM for the live version (the posted version is the album version).

Track 13 – Monkeywrench by Foo Fighters

Keep the beat, carry the pace, keep going and channel the divine power of Dave Grohl

The challenge of the middle third of the run is to maintain the pace. Historically, when I examine my splits I always have a significant dip right before the end. This may be as a subconscious energy saving technique. This may be because I’m getting bored. I have no idea (but will explore later). Anyways, Foo Fighters’ Monkeywrench has a lot of aggression, angst and a 174 BPM that keeps me right on pace. Also, Dave Grohl is not human – he is something more divine. He is outside the world of good and evil. He has simply been sent to us, as a gift, to rock our faces off. Everything he touches is magical – Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero were masterpieces, Queen’s of the Stone Age’s most successful, and consistently fantastic album was Songs for the Deaf, Foo Fighter’s have been rocking at a pace that would kill lesser souls – Tom Petty, Tom “I won’t back down” Petty, asked Dave Grohl to be his drummer in the Heartbreakers.  This says nothing of all the random stories you hear about Dave Grohl being the kindest, most genuine human being of all time. At its worst, this song helps to keep the pace. At its best, this song shimmers some Grohl goodness into your soul and will literally help you float above the ground.

Track 14 – Hey Ya! by Outkast

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Relax, the last third is coming up

This is the last call for personal inventory. If the plan is working, I have been holding a steady pace for the middle third of the race and we are about to descend into the final push of the run. While I check myself over and make sure I am not killing myself, I will bob my head to the beat of Outkast. If at all possible, I will bounce a bit in my stride and, if the gods of running are smiling, I may even mouth the words a little bit. As a personal aside – the acoustic cover of Hey, ya! was my first dance at my wedding for a marriage that lasted roughly 4 months. The irony of dancing to a song about how committed relationships can’t work didn’t occur to me until after the divorce. Luckily, the acoustic version is so distinct from the original that I have nothing but positive, soul charging feelings towards the song. It’s like Ike Turner and Little Richard started a new-wave indie rock band, hung around long enough to write one killer song and then split up to do cocaine alone.

Track 15 – House that Heaven Built by Japandroids

Signal for the final stage of the race

We’re into the last third of the run. We’ve held the pace, we’ve kept ourselves relaxed, we’ve eaten the goo and washed it down with water warmed by the sun and some poor volunteers hand. Now it is time to rely on adrenaline, excitement, training miles and cocksureness. If I do everything like I should, Japandroids are the signal that it is time to start running like an asshole and have fun. If you run to this song, I dare you to not fist pump in the air.

Track 16 – I Feel Love (Every Million Miles) by The Dead Weather

Swagger

I have an adult crush on Jack White. I take very little effort in hiding it. Everything he has done I find fantastic and I love every iteration of his music (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather, Solo, etc.). This song is dripping with swagger. The drums (played by my boy Jack) are pounding to the point of punishing. Alison Mosshart (of Kills fame) has a voice that is chilling. While I can’t pick him out, I know that Jack Lawrence (a bass player created in a lab with the DNA of Paul Pfeiffer from the Wonder Years and Marylin Manson) is in the mix somewhere, roaming and laying down a fat bass. I have an easy time imagining a very dramatic chase scene while this song is playing. Chasing down or being chased, I can imagine the soundtrack hitting as stationary objects blur by.

Track 17 – Ready to Start by Arcade Fire

Pacing

Almost at the end now. I can’t rely on my brain to keep up a good cadence. I am adult enough to know that. What is easy at the first mile is impossible at the end. Anybody can run the first half of a run (be it a workout or a race). It takes something extra to run the second half. Arcade Fire basically pumped a metronome through an amp on this song. At 190 BPM, it is a hard hitting pace but the combination of the drums and the bass give an extremely start target to shoot for. At this point, I am just trying to land my steps with the beat and take in the scenery. This deep into a run, my brain is the biggest obstacle. Time to turn that guy off and just go on autopilot. Don’t think, just run. Don’t worry about pace, just hit the beat.

Track 18 – Paddling Out by Miike Snow

Pace pushing repeats

This is a song I have used for years to push the tempo and do repeats while running. The chorus is extremely fun and catchy. It also hits extremely hard compared to the verse sections. Each time the music picks up, pick up the pace. When the chorus hits, hit it and go hard. Pull back for the verse – check in, relax, catch your breath. When the music picks up, we do it all over again.

Track 19 – Don’t step me now by Queen

Don’t you fuckin’ stop me now

Queen is the ultimate late-race/run band. Freddie Mercury is the biggest bad ass of all time. His voice has actual magical properties that inject energy and power into those who hear it. Brian May’s guitar tone was forged in the molten husk of a fallen star and his solos are scientifically tuned to the exact frequency that turns off pain. Don’t stop me now is my favorite song to run to.  Its BPM is at 156 – a great pace. Its message is uplifting and positive. The music is extremely punchy. Its fun. Running is fun. Finishing is fun. If I time it right, the ghost of Freddie Mercury will float down next to me as I turn the corner and run towards the Utica Brewery and the finish line. With every command (Don’t….stop…me now) I will push harder. With every plead (Don’t…stop…me now) I will pick up the cadence, (Don’t stop me) push off harder (Don’t stop me) feel light (cause I’m having a good time).

And then I will cross the line.

And then I will have a glass of water.

And then a beer.

And then another.

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