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Thursday, December 6, 2001
Updated: December 10, 2:53 PM ET
'Going the Distance' -- a three-part suite

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Part 1:
You might have done this, too. You tie your shoes tight, zip up your sweatshirt, flip the hood over your eyes and start to bounce, slowly, on the balls of your feet. It's early and you've promised yourself this is the morning the new regimen begins with a run through the streets of your neighborhood.

Rocky soundtrack
Who hasn't imagined recreating Rocky's run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
Your first strides are awkward and jarring, your hands swing stiffly in front of your chest. This is a terrible idea, you think, but you press on.

You need a rhythm, something to set your breath to, something to get your mind off the fact that it's cold and there's already a sharp, stabbing pain in your knees.

Then, just as you're about to slow your rickety machine down to a walk and start telling yourself that once around the block is a good start and tomorrow maybe you'll go for two, it happens: A sound rings inside you. It's a bell. Four steady chimes. There's a subtle string accompaniment, too, something that climbs and pushes, something that moves you forward. Now it's French horns and trombones pulsing: ba ba ba ba ba ba ba baaa baaa, ba ba da ba. (Forgive the lame transcription.) What you hear are the opening bars of "Going the Distance" from the "Rocky" soundtrack.

Now you're moving. Your shoulders are settling into a smooth roll, your feet are rising up out of a shuffle and into a bona fide run. This is a workout.

You're tapping into a nostalgic "Rocky" thing, sure, imagining yourself on the streets of Philadelphia, just a lucky bum with a dream, willing to sacrifice and suffer to make it happen. More than that, you're getting caught up in the feeling of the song itself, in the way it builds and soars.

You're throwing shadow punches now.

  The song's fanfares and sweeps are making your first rusty morning on the road feel like a heroic achievement. You're weaving in and around neighbors' cars and trash cans, jumping to touch street signs. Man, what you wouldn't give to have a fruit vendor throw you an orange right now. The music is coursing through your veins. As long as you can keep it playing in your head, you are light and fierce and relentless. 
  

The song's fanfares and sweeps are making your first rusty morning on the road feel like a heroic achievement. You're weaving in and around neighbors' cars and trash cans, jumping to touch street signs. Man, what you wouldn't give to have a fruit vendor throw you an orange right now. The music is coursing through your veins. As long as you can keep it playing in your head, you are light and fierce and relentless.

You can't keep this pace forever, but as you slow to a jog, the song's closing bell tolls in your ear, the run isn't torture anymore. The regimen isn't something you put off, it's something you do. "Going the Distance" has gotten you over.

There might be other songs that do this. On other mornings, deep into the new routine, you might call on another tune. But "Going the Distance" is special. It's the ur-text for your commitment.

It's hard to say how it works, hard to know whether it touches your head or your heart most. At some level, you don't want to understand it, you just want to feel it.

Maybe the woman down the block runs to the "William Tell Overture," maybe your neighbor prefers the theme from "Chariots of Fire." Your sister was once partial to "What a Feeling" from "Flashdance," and you knew a really laid-back guy once who said he always worked out to George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." To each his own.

As for you, you'll take "Going the Distance," because you know -- know it in your bones, know it in the electric itch you get on the back of your neck -- that it's the single most inspirational song of all time.

Part 2:
David Burns was my best friend in the fourth grade. We were pretty much the same size -- skinny and short -- and had almost all the same interests: sports, movies, fifth-grade girls, sports. Both our moms worked, so we hung around after school every day playing wiffleball or basketball until the light faded.

Rocky soundtrack
The "Rocky" soundtrack has served as the inspiration for many an aspiring athlete.
On Friday nights, I'd stay at his house or he'd stay at mine. We'd snack on bowls of Trix and sort through our baseball cards. After dinner -- it was the same every week -- the game was Nerf hoops.

David was a neatnik; he chalked his tennis shoes to keep them white, ironed his socks, practiced his handwriting to get his cursive Zs and Qs just right, that kind of thing. Anyway, it wasn't enough for him to have us play Nerf in a bedroom, the place had to become an arena. He laid masking tape down on the carpet to mark the free-throw line and the key, out-of-bounds lines skirted the edge of the dresser and around his 76ers shrine in the far corner. There was a low-tech scoreboard on one wall, complete with cardboard flip numbers, and a lamp up high on a book shelf, shining down on the "court." The crowning touch was the sound system, a drop-down turntable with fold-out wing speakers on the floor of his closet.

Neither one of us had a lot of records; we couldn't afford them. He had some Tower of Power stuff his mom didn't listen to any more, I'd pilfered Cat Stevens' "Teaser and the Firecat" from my Dad's collection.

There was one album we pooled our allowances and went in on together: the "Rocky" soundtrack.

We played the entire record a lot, but "Going the Distance" was our favorite track. We loved the drama of the bell ringing at the beginning of it, I think. After a while, the song became the soundtrack for our Nerf games.

David would set the needle down and I'd start describing a last-second fadeaway shot, as I spun and fell back onto the bed. He'd pick up the ball, pretending to dribble and weave through a crowd of defenders and then lay it up over the front of the rim. Then we'd get serious about a game of one-on-one.

"Going the Distance" marked the time of our imaginary games. The action began with its opening bars and ended with its closing bell and timpani rolls. It was better than a clock, though, because it had a better sense of story. Like boxers, we'd feel each other out in the early going, as the song built up to its orchestral heart. In the middle, we'd move quickly and aggressively; I'd dip a bony shoulder into his chest, he'd get leverage for a dunk by pushing off the wall.

We played the song over and over, one 2-minute, 40-second game after another. (The neighbors must have loved us. Only now, thinking about it right this second, do I have a full appreciation for the kind of love and patience David's mom displayed in not coming in the room and breaking the album in two.) Through repetition, we got to know the tune pretty well, and we could place ourselves and pace ourselves within it. We knew roughly how much time was left at each phrase and passage.

Near the end, as the bell began to ring again, our game got frantic, and we each tried desperately to put more points on the board. The game resembled a fight in those late seconds, more pushing and punching than dribbling and shooting. Buckets were eked out and every inch of space was contested.

Some nights I pretended to be Apollo Creed, because I wanted to play with his cool and quickness, some nights I'd be Rocky because I liked to mimic his steady toughness and strange angles. David was sometimes Apollo, but he was usually Dr. J.

Every once in a while, it was just us playing, no surrogates of greatness or style, just two kids on a Friday night in a Long Beach apartment, getting more than their money's worth out of a song.

Part 3:
Last year, about this time, my wife was getting ready to defend her Ph.D. dissertation before a committee of art history professors at the University of Iowa. We were living in California and had flown back to Iowa to stay with a friend.

A "diss" defense is a weird event. You spend three or four years, sometimes longer, researching and writing a book-length project that's supposed to be both definitive and groundbreaking, and then give it to four or five readers, who sit you down and ask you questions about it for a couple of hours. When it's over, you're a doctor.

In most cases, the defense itself is relatively painless -- if your project is too weak, the committee shouldn't let you schedule the meeting -- but the days and weeks and months leading up to it can be torture.

All your insecurity demons come out of the closet when you write a dissertation. Every sentence, every phrase, is a chance to become more convinced of your inadequacy. Somehow -- hypnosis, therapy, fear of disappointing your parents, a stout glass of wine at noon and another one at 5 o'clock every day -- you get it done. But that's all it is: done. It's not good, and it's not worth reading and it's nowhere near the project you hoped you'd have when you started. You can barely stand to look at it.

That's what makes the last days before the defense so painful: You're sitting around waiting for the committee to ask you what the hell you thought you were doing when you tried to put this flimsy, illogical piece of sham scholarship over on them.

Suffice to say, my brilliant, fearless Gwen was a weak, desperate creature those first couple of mornings in Iowa last November. I felt helpless, too. I knew things would go fine, but you can't convince a diss writer of that -- they wrote the thing, they know how bad it is and they are absolutely sure everyone else is about to find out, too. My words of wisdom and comfort bounced off her like drops of mercury hitting a lacquered tabletop. After a while, she barely knew I was in the room.

So, I wandered over to my friend's computer to check my e-mail. There, waiting in my inbox, was a perfect jewel of courage and comfort. My friend Royce, who suffered through grad school with us and now works for this fine organization, had sent a sound file attachment of "Going the Distance."

I double-clicked on the icon and sat back, letting the rising tide of the song fill the room. Gwen had been in a fetal ball, rocking on the couch like that autistic kid on "St. Elsewhere," but now she lifted her head.

She's no big fan of "Rocky" (I married her anyway&), but she has lived in the United States for most of the last 25 years, so she knew the song, and I could see it working its magic on her. As the horns thump-thump-thumped and the strings flew off over the horizon, her body opened up a little and a fragile, brave light began to shine in her eyes.

"I can do this," she said.

"Your damn right you can," I said.

We were dancing, arms aloft, giddy for the fight.

After she'd gone out the door to slay dissertation dragons, I played the track a few more times for myself and I teared up. No joke.

Royce grew up in Henderson, Tenn. I grew up in Long Beach, Calif. We didn't know each other when "Rocky" came out, and I can't remember us ever talking about it in the years since we met in grad school. Still, the song worked like a shorthand between us.

It said a bunch of things. It told Gwen to be strong, have courage, feel confident. To me, it said, I know how much you love your wife and how you're worrying for her now -- give her this, it will make her feel better. It said, Lighten up, this ain't nothing but a thing, too.

More than anything, what Royce said with the song was I know you, I know what you were like as a kid, how you drew pictures of your favorite athletes, how you stacked your Sports Illustrateds just so, how you wore ankle weights around the house, hoping to increase your vertical, and how you threw a tennis ball against your grandfather's garage for hours at a time, making diving catches on the lawn. I know how you hid in the bathroom at the theater to watch "Rocky" three times in a row one day, too, and how you wanted more than anything to take the chances and feel the joy that athletes and artists and simple people do every day. It was 1976 and we were worlds and miles apart, but I did stuff like that, and I wanted those kinds of things too. That's why we're here now, why we're friends, why we'll be friends for years to come. Ain't life grand?

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.