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I’m A Competitor: Nicholas Sparks

This bestselling author likes to run, and he still owns a record from his college days.

This bestselling author likes to run, and he still owns a record from his college days.

For almost 20 years, Nicholas Sparks has embodied romance. His best selling books like “The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Safe Haven,” and the movies that each inspired, provide a generation with a definition of love.

The author’s next book, “The Longest Ride,” tells two love stories that “cover the gamut of humanity.” It might be hard to imagine, but the man behind all these stories of passion and heartbreak is a hardcore runner. He went to Notre Dame on a track and field scholarship and set a record that stands today. And just wait until you read about his current workout.

When did you first start running?
I ran in Junior High School in seventh and eighth grade. I just ran during the track season, which was probably six weeks long. In ninth grade, I went out for the high school track team. It started in early March and by May, I decided it was something I really wanted to do well at. We were blessed with a wonderful runner on that team, Harold Kuphaldt. He ended up going to University of Oregon on a scholarship, was a two-time All American, and broke four minutes in the mile. One day we were running, he was running beside me, and he said, “you could be good at this if you really tried.” So I said, “I’m going to try,” and I started taking it seriously. I trained by myself all summer, and made the varsity cross country team.

Why did you start track in Junior High?
I got cut from the basketball team. I was too small to play football, and even in those days the soccer players started playing when they were really young, so I never would have made soccer or swimming. Track was just the sport where I thought there was the most even playing field, that I thought I could be good at. At that point in my life, I wanted to be good at something, wanted to be good at a sport.

And you went to Notre Dame on a track scholarship?
Yes, my senior year I was fairly heavily recruited, I had offers from a lot of different colleges. Notre Dame ended up being the best decision for me in the long run, but at the time it felt like a compromise. My Mom wanted me to go to Dartmouth, I wanted to go to University of Arizona. But in the end I’m glad I went to Notre Dame because I got a really good education there.

You have a track record that still stands. What is the record?
I ran a lot of different things, but my record that still stands is in the 4 x 800 outdoor, which I set in 1985 at the Drake Relays. They’ve been trying to break it, but they can’t.

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Did you continue running after college?
By the time I finished my college career, I was injured. I had surgery on my Achilles and plantar fascia, so I took a couple years off, and then started again when I was 24. I ran very consistently until I was 38, then I tore a calf muscle, so I didn’t run for a few years, but I picked it up again last year. Now I run 4 to 5 miles, three to four times a week.

Do you do races?
Not yet, but maybe in time I’ll do another 5K. Right now I don’t really have the desire to go out and race, or even compete in a fun run. You give up your entire Saturday morning, and there are a lot of things I need to do with my time. I have a lot of work responsibilities, plus I have a large family. But the other thing is that the desire isn’t there. I had my track career, and I’m so glad I did it, but that time is over.

How do you fit running in with your schedule?
It’s usually the first thing I do after I have coffee in the morning. I try to get it done early. It’s a long workout, because I don’t just run, I do a lot of different things, so it takes one to one and a half hours. If I’m starting by 7, I’m done by 8:30, 8:45, then I shower and head to the office.

What are the other things you do for your workout?
There’s a horrible workout that I’m doing now, but I’m very excited about it. It’s a full body workout. I do 100 burpees, it’s very hard to wake up to burpees. Then I do 75 chin ups, 75 bar dips, 200 weighted squats, 100 lunges with dumbells, 100 pushups with claps, and then 100 exercises for the stomach, which I vary. Then I do deadlift to a plane and back to the floor, 25 of those, with 135 pound weights. So that’s what I do, then I hop on the treadmill and run 4 miles. By then, my legs are very tired, but I do intervals, or progressively speed up the run as I go.

What do you think about when you run?
That I’m tired. You can jog, jogging’s easy, I can jog for a long time. But because I have a limited amount of time, I try to get as much fitness into a 30-minute run as I can, so it’s hard.

Do you ever run outside or are you usually on a treadmill?
I sometimes run outside. As a general rule, I’m on the treadmill because it’s easier on the joints. We don’t have trails near my house, only asphalt, so if I wanted to get away from asphalt and run on trails, I’d have to drive to them.

Why does running continue to be important to you?
It’s just something I’ve always done, it makes me feel better. It does wonders for my emotional health, mental health and physical health. It’s been part of my life since I as little, I was always active as a kid. So it’s something I’ve always done and I enjoy the way it makes me feel.

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Does running help your writing?
Since I’ve been writing, I’ve been running. Running actually taught me a lot of lessons about writing. When I sit down to write a book, I only write a small portion of the book in a day, so it’s like training. You put the time in, put words down on pages, and in time your novel will be completed. With training, you don’t get in shape in one day, you don’t win a medal after one day of training. There’s going to be challenges, up and downs, and things to overcome, and those things are endemic to track and field, but also all lessons for writing as well.

How long do you think you’ll continue to run?
Maybe until I’m 70. But then if I’m running at 70, I’ll say until I’m 85.

You funded a state-of-the-art track at your son’s school. Why did you decide to do that?
My son was very fast, but we live in the rural south so there aren’t a lot of places to run, and their track was covered in asphalt. I didn’t think you could train on that. My son was good, and I wanted to try my hand at coaching for a while. So we put in the track, and the whole school uses it, plus it’s a wonderful asset to the community. It allowed them to form a track team at that school that became just about the best high school relay team ever. My son has set two national high school records — and one was also a junior world record — and was heavily recruited. I’m hopeful the life lessons I learned from track and field will ring true for him over his life as well, those lessons of perseverance, that life is full of ups and downs and challenges, and you have to keep going.

You also host a 5K — how did that come about?
I have a foundation, the Nicholas Sparks Foundation, and we had a celebrity weekend in New Bern to raise money, so that was part of the weekend festivities.

Your new book “The Longest Ride” is about two very different couples. How did you come up with these characters?
That’s the magic question. Creativity is not a faucet that you can turn on and off, that’s the frustrating part about it. When I have ideas for a novel, you don’t get an entire idea, a whole book doesn’t just pop into your head. You start with a germ of an idea, and from that small seed you grow the rest of the idea. For this book, I had an idea of what I wanted the climax to be, and from there, from that little seed of what I wanted the book to be in the end, I began to ask myself questions like what kind of characters would there be, how would they do this, what’s going on, 10,000 questions to develop the story. I do most of this in my mind. But I’ve had ideas inspired by lots of different things, by events, by an image, by a scene. All novels are different.

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What do you like best about your new book?
I think people are just going to love this book. I’m very proud of “The Longest Ride.” It covers the gamut of humanity. There’s a young love story, that’s one part of story, and I think a large audience will relate to that young love story. But then there’s another love story that spans decades, and people will appreciate that too.

Are any of your book characters are runners?
Paul Flanner in “Nights in Rodanthe” was a runner, a Duke All-American. And in “Message in a Bottle,” Theresa was a runner, so here and there I stick them in.

Tell me about your foundation and the work it does.
It supports global education, curriculum development, and international programs to help develop global citizenship in high school students. We are piloting the program at the school my wife and I founded in our home town, with the idea that we can help other schools develop their own high-quality global studies programs.

How will you do that?
Right now it’s just one and a half years old, so we’re just getting started. We’re doing the research necessary to show how various programs, international classes, and experiences can be beneficial to students everywhere. We’re working with the school my wife and I founded to develop curriculum and programming that provide the education students need in the 21st century. This is a really big thing, a goal that can’t be accomplished in one year, two years, even five years. It’s something that’s desperately needed at schools around the country. No schools are really doing it well at the present time, so we have to be pioneers in a way, so the information we learn we can share with other schools.