A searching, self-deprecating memoir of a man on his way to eating himself to death before discovering the anxiety and fulfillment of distance running.
“Uplifting, emotional, and just plain hilarious, The Running-Shaped Hole may even inspire you to put down your fork and pick up those running shoes.” — JAY ONRAIT, TSN host and broadcaster
When Robert Earl Stewart sees his pants lying across the end of his bed, they remind him of a flag draped over a coffin — his coffin. At thirty-eight years old he weighs 368 pounds and is slowly eating himself to death. The only thing that helps him deal with the fear and shame is eating. But one day, following a terrifying doctor’s appointment, he goes for a walk — an act that sets The Running-Shaped Hole in motion. Within a year, he is running long distances, fulfilling his mother's dying wishes, reversing the disastrous course of his eating, losing 140 pounds, and, after several mishaps and jail time, eventually running the Detroit Free Press Half-Marathon.
At turns philosophical and slapstick, this memoir examines the life-altering effects running has on a man who, left to his own devices, struggles to be a husband, a father, a son, and a writer.
About the author
Robert Earl Stewart’s first collection of poetry, Something Burned Along the Southern Border (Mansfield Press), was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. His poems have been published in journals in Canada, the U.S., and Great Britain. In 2010, he received the Windsor Endowment for the Arts’ grant for Emerging Artist in Literary Arts. He is the lead singer of the band Waker Glass, and lives in Windsor with his wife and their three children. He is working on a novel.
Excerpt: The Running-Shaped Hole (by (author) Robert Earl Stewart)
Prologue: A Deathbed Promise
While she was lying on her deathbed, my mother asked me to promise her that I would lose weight and get in shape.
But even as she lay there at fifty-eight years old, dying from an insidious Cytomegalovirus infection that was devouring her organs, I denied her that promise. I had the gall to make an excuse. Sitting at the foot of her hospital bed that June day in 2006, I looked into her desperate, dying face and told her, “I just don’t have the time. I’m just too busy” — too busy being a writer who hadn’t really written anything yet; too busy being the editor of a weekly newspaper. I was too puffed up on my own self-importance to realize what a terrible son I was being.
I wasn’t a child. I was thirty-two years old. And I sat there in a chair pulled up to the foot of a hospital bed that my mother would never leave, too sad and afraid to make eye contact with the person who had brought me into this world. My father sat at the head of the bed, holding my mother’s hand. I heard my name escape his lips, whispered with exasperated disgust.
One could argue that my inability to make that promise to my mother stemmed from my wanting to remain in a state of denial about her health, wanting to pretend, even if only for a bit longer, that my mother was not dying. Making a promise of that magnitude seemed tantamount to admitting that this was, in fact, her deathbed. If I could persist in a state of stubborn self-delusion about my weight, which at the time was topping three hundred pounds, and the impact it had had on my health for years on end, then surely I could also imagine a world where my mother convalesced; where the person I loved did not incrementally disappear from her body; where she did not linger through emergency surgeries in which long tracts of her intestine were removed; where death did not become the best option; where death did not take her from us too soon. Promising something, anything at all, in the dire confines of Intensive Care just seemed too final, too terrifying, too real. Living in that state of denial was a way to insulate myself from my guilt — a guilt I would never be able to escape, of course, as it would descend on me like a shroud of shame whenever I recalled my failure at the foot of her hospital bed, which was often.
“That’s no kind of answer,” said my father, once my mother had closed her eyes and slipped into over-drugged unconsciousness. His own eyes were puffy and red with grief. We were only a week into what would become a torturous five-month decline. “Would it kill you just to make a little effort?”
I wanted to tell him that it might but knew this was not the time. “I just don’t know when I would fit it in,” I whined. “Getting in shape? That’s a lot of work, and I’ve got the newspaper, and the boys, and Jen and the baby …” I was quickly out of excuses, and my excuses were all excellent reasons to put some effort into my health — both physical and mental.
Everyone knows the sound their father makes when he is disgusted with you — for failing to clean up your bedroom, for having your second bike stolen in a single summer, for being caught with a dubbed cassette copy of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, for coming home drunk for the fifteenth time in high school … That was the sound he made then as he turned away from me to place a cool cloth to my mother’s fevered brow.
“That’s all she wants from you, Bobby,” he said, choking back sobs. “She wants you to be happy and healthy. Apparently, that’s too much, though.”
What would have been the real harm, I’ve always wondered, in saying “Okay, Mom, I promise,” whether I meant it or not, when hanging in the balance was some thread of hope and happiness for a terminally ill woman: a vision of her adult son, healthy and hale, instead of the bloated gastropod slumped in embarrassment at her perfect feet. The harm, I knew, was that if I promised to lose weight, to exercise and eat right — promises I had made to myself many times, in vain — I might actually have to make some monumental changes, whether she lived to see them or not.
So, I stayed “too busy.”
She was too weak to argue with me, but my mother wore her deep disappointment and her sadness on her face. She may not have been able to eat, but she could still be mad at her son.
Flash forward to November 2012. I’m driving northbound on Howard Avenue in Windsor. I’m thirty-eight years old. I weigh 368 pounds. I’ve just left an appointment with a cardiologist, and I’m crying my eyes out behind the wheel of my minivan. My mother has been dead for six years. She slipped away on an October day in 2006 while my dad walked from the hospital to their nearby home to eat supper. At the time, I was likely fresh in the door from work at the newspaper, on my hands and knees digging a Luke Skywalker action figure out from under our old upright grand piano with a school ruler. The phone rang; my wife, Jennifer, answered and after a too-brief conversation handed me the phone. The tears of what she feared was true rolled from her eyes while our son Nathanael, four at the time, stood looking up at me while I listened to my crying father tell me my mother was gone.
But I’m not in tears at the thought of my mother, nor am I in tears because I can barely fit behind the steering wheel. I’m in tears because I want to go to my favourite restaurant and eat my face off, and I’m in tears because I am realizing something — something crucial. My visit to the cardiologist hadn’t been a social call. For months, I’d been out of breath, dizzy, and increasingly immobile — those were just the obvious physical symptoms. I was also depressed and scared out of my mind that I was too far gone; that failure to promise my mother that I would lose weight had poisoned my soul; that my selfishness and my gluttony would not only kill me, they would result in me dying a disgrace in my mother’s eyes. The only thing that would make me feel better in the depths of all of this self-loathing and self-pity was stuffing myself sick with food, ignoring the fact that the reason I was leaving a cardiologist’s was that I was eating my heart right out of commission.
I’m realizing I have reached some kind of crisis point.
My troubles had started several months earlier when I began noticing I was having trouble breathing while talking. Even speaking at regular, conversational volumes, I was running out of air; mid-sentence, I would just peter out. But after recovering with some gasping breaths, I would just dismiss it as some kind of acute, one-off anomaly before continuing. The very act of talking, something journalists have to do a lot of as part of their jobs, was becoming too much for me. I would sweat freely just speaking aloud.
Once I became conscious of it, I started to worry obsessively about it. One night, I was asked to read aloud at a meeting I attended with some other recovering alcoholics. Following the meeting, two older women approached me and asked if I was okay; they said it had seemed as if I was struggling to breathe through the entire reading. I acted surprised and suggested that maybe my allergies were to blame. They weren’t buying it. One of them suggested that maybe I should see a doctor, that my colour wasn’t good. Now, other people were not just noticing that I was losing my breath while talking; they were calling me out on it and telling me that something was wrong. They were forcing me to get honest, to stop blaming my seasonal allergies for an inability to breathe. I knew what the problem was, obviously. My lungs were having trouble expanding — unsurprising, given the large amount of weight piled on top of them; my heart was having trouble pumping blood to my muscles and tissues and organs. I was on the verge of some kind of respiratory collapse: an infarction, a heart attack, cardiac arrest.
I was now willing to consult a doctor. Still, I was hoping against hope that a medical professional would confirm that allergies were the cause of my breathing problems. Maybe they would even go further, maybe they would compliment me on carrying my weight well — for years I had been telling people I weighed “about three hundred and ten pounds,” but truth be told, I had no idea how much I weighed at this point, since our digital bathroom scale said I weighed “Err,” for “Error,” because it maxed out at 340 pounds — and send me on my way with a fresh lollipop.
Stewart conveys his athletic journey in a compelling and animated way that won't leave sedentary readers behind.
Quill & Quire
Robert Earl Stewart’s The Running-Shaped Hole is a deeply personal memoir that you’ll love whether you run or not, weaving mind, body, city, love, and faith together. A story about figuring it out and running toward something rather than away in Windsor, a post-industrial city that’s as much a character in the book as the people are.
Shawn Micallef, author of The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure
This is a book about honesty, and family, and love, and health, and faith, and reading and writing and rock ’n’ roll, and Windsor. It’s also about running, kind of, and about gaining from our losses as we pound the pavement together. Robert Earl Stewart’s big heart beats on every page and the beautiful intimacy of his writing carries us across the border that so often separates us from ourselves and the people we live with. The Running Shaped Hole is a memoir that will move you, literally, and in all the more important ways, too.
Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize-shortlisted author of Light Lifting
Robert Earl Stewart’s compelling and moving memoir is at once a deeply personal search for redemption — unnameable obsessions manifesting in booze, overeating, and finally an unexpected reckoning with the criminal courts — and a tale of running-as-obsession in which any runner will hear the echoes of their own footfalls. Ultimately, we run to run — but we never outrun ourselves.
A.J. Somerset, author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun
Running is much more than an endurance sport in Robert Earl Stewart’s wildly kinetic memoir. It’s a tour through the pitches and squeezes of the human soul. Running is surrender and transcendence, a bright flight through the mad tumble of moments that comprise our lives. At turns harrowing, heart-rending, and gut-punch hilarious, The Running-Shaped Hole recounts how Stewart, through sheer bloody-mindedness, a rock-solid family, and chafed thighs, pulled himself from the pit of addiction onto a new path, one paved with grace, faith, and redemption. Sometimes, he reminds us, we need to fall down if we want to grow up.
David Whitton, author of Seven Down
Uplifting, emotional, and just plain hilarious, Robert Earl Stewart’s The Running-Shaped Hole may even inspire you to put down your fork and pick up those running shoes. No offence to forks.
Jay Onrait, TSN host and broadcaster
Robert Earl Stewart’s The Running-Shaped Hole is a memoir that speaks to the spirit of persistence, commitment, wisdom, and great wit. Stewart conjures up his hometown in a vibrant way, so that Windsor comes alive in your mind’s eye. At the core of it all, Stewart writes about the empty spaces within ourselves that we so desperately try to fill in. You don’t need to be a runner to read this book; it’s a story that will resonate with anyone who has come face to face with themselves in their quest to grow as a person.
Kim Fahner, author of These Wings