Call me crazy, but I don’t often run with music.  Sure I’ll take some on the occasional fast track workout to get me pumped up, but I’ve never listened to music during a race, and very rarely have it on during a training run.  My life as a high school teacher is so loud and exciting every single day that I head to the trails for moments of peace and quiet.  I choose to focus instead on my breath, my steps, and the nature and sounds around me – unless, that is, I’m listening to a podcast.

A good, engaging podcast is the perfect compromise for me – I can keep one earbud in and still hear the birds chirping around me or the pack of angry dogs that’s about to pummel me from behind.  A short hour or so episode still gives me quiet time on a long run, but fills up some of the monotony of a climb I’ve done umpteen times before and lets me zone out a little bit on something besides the thoughts in my head.  That being said, it’s difficult to find a podcast that meets my desired criteria – short, concise episodes, an engaging storyline, and a bit of music to mix things up.

I do enjoy some of the big running ones (Trail Runner Nation, Ultra Runner Podcast, etc) especially after learning the trick of focusing on the female-centered episodes and videos (my wise friend once said “I don’t know, it seems like women always just have more intelligent things to say”), but am always looking to diversify.  And so to help you, dear reader, not have to wade through all the garbage out there, I present to you – my top 5 all-time running podcasts for running:

1.  Serial – Season 1

This is the one that started it all for me – like the first transcendental Phish second set you witnessed (Vegas 2003 for me, if you don’t count Big Cypress), this is the one I’m always chasing and my metric for all podcasts heard thereafter.  I still remember where I was running when I heard certain parts of this story unfold – those sections of trail forever etched into my brain along with the misadventures of Adnan Syed and his pals.
Serial Season 1 is a murder-mystery at its core, but it really is so much more.  High School senior Hae Min Lee disappears one day afterschool in 1999 and her ex boyfriend Adnan is arrested and sentenced to life in prison for a crime which he claims he did not commit.  Adnan’s friend Jay claims that he helped Adnan bury the body, and while you immediately get the feeling that something is up with Jay, you also get the feeling that nobody is telling the whole truth.  It’s a brilliant narrative spun about the complex world of high school relationships, immigrants in the United States, our flawed but kind of working judicial system, and an average person’s inability to ever recall all the relevant details as a witness, especially when they need to.
If you haven’t heard this yet – stop reading right now and put this on your phone or mp3 player (do people still use mp3 players?  I would be lost without my Sansa Clip 4GB!)  Exercise a bit of caution if you like to run alone in the middle of the night deep in the scary woods – there are some scenes from the first few episodes that might get a little spooky out there!

2.  S-town (Or since The Donald gave us permission, Shittown)

This one starts with an email with the subject line: “John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama”, and goes downhill from there.  It’s an incredibly compelling mix of a somewhat mal-adjusted genius living in the very rural south, and what starts as an investigation into allegations of a murder takes a 180 degree turn early on and heads in directions that can’t really be predicted.  I especially loved the imagery of this one, as I felt I could really picture exactly what John and his crew of Alabama rednecks were looking at and going through as the story unfolded – so much so that once I googled a few actual pictures of the story and its inhabitants and was disappointed, like when you see a bad movie made from an awesome book.  It weaves a fascinating motif of time, antique clocks, and sundials throughout the story, as well as apocalyptic fears for the current state of the planet and global warming.  Stick with it through the first two episodes before you decide it’s not for you, as it takes a while to really get spinning.

3.  Snap Judgment

When I tell people I like listening to podcasts, at some point in the conversation they will ask if I like listening to The Moth.  To which I can easily reply, sure, I like The Moth… but have you tried Snap Judgment?

Yeah, it’s another in the NPR family, but man it’s good.  “Storytelling with a Snap” is their motto, and it’s generally true – they are 10-20 minute stories, usually revolving around a central theme, set to just enough music to keep you moving.  Some of them are heavy, some of them are light, they all usually have some funny parts to them, and they all leave you thinking about what you heard for days to come.  It’s incredibly consistent in my opinion – all the episodes are pretty darn good – but if you’re looking for some favorites to start with, I would recommend The Scientist and the Psychopath along with the entire Rose Colored Glasses episode.

4. Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lightly

Okay, this is my sleeper entry for the year but honestly as I think about it one of my favorites.  I was a little weary of a “Hip-Hop History meets biographic” podcast but it blew me away.  The interviews, the storytelling, the quality of the history, and the music – it’s all there in a brilliant description of the life of an extremely influential but not widely known Hip-Hop mogul.
The first episode lays the foundation for the art form arising out of the streets of early 1980s New York City and goes on from there.  It includes one of the most clear descriptions of the origin of Break-dancing that I have heard, and the imagery is all there as well – you will feel like you are rolling out the sheets of cardboard in the Bronx back in the day.  

As the series unfolds you start to question and wonder about his 2012 death that was portrayed as a suicide.  And while he is not intending to solve a mystery, Serial style, the producer and narrator Reggie Ossé (aka Combat Jack) consistently raises the bar throughout the whole series and keeps you asking questions the whole time. Don’t sleep on this podcast – save it for your long ones and queue up a couple of episodes, because chances are you won’t want to go home!

5.  Welcome to Nightvale

Welcome to Night Vale is a twice-monthly podcast given in the form of community and news updates for the fictional, sci-fi desert community of Night Vale.  I love the desert and all the weird shenanigans that go along with it, and Night Vale does an excellent job of capturing that overall creepy desert vibe.  The episodes are short (20-30 minutes) and contain what you might expect to find in a small town’s daily news briefing, along with the weather (which is usually an original piece of music that often has nothing to do with the weather) and esoteric warnings about supernatural beings roaming around the streets.  The imagery is great, it’s nothing so serious that it will stress you out, and you can really come and go as you please.  The website claims you don’t even have to start with Episode #1, although I certainly did.  Give this a shot if you’re kind of weird, ever been into any kind of sci-fi, like weird desert communities, aliens, dog parks, hooded figures, or creative weather forecasts.


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