Art of the Playlist

Something’s at the edge of your mind, you don’t know what it is
Somethin’ you were hopin’ to find but your not sure what it is
Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talkin’ says the things you want to hear

I’m young, I’m wild and I’m free
I got the magic power of the music in me

“The Magic Power” – Triumph

Photo Credit: Earl - What I Saw 2.0 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Earl – What I Saw 2.0 via Compfight cc

One of my favorite things about running is putting in the earbuds and letting the music take me to another place and, often, another time.   Who needs a modified DeLorean?  Twice over the years,  I tried listening to books while running , but I couldn’t take it very long.  I switched back to music after a few miles.

This past weekend, I completed the last of my super long training runs.  My next marathon is less than three weeks away, and that means I’ve reached taper time. Tapering is when the toughest training is over and the workouts ease up to let my body recharge for the race.  So, now it is time to turn to what might be the most important part of race prep – my playlist.


“OK, Let’s do it”

A few years ago, I signed up for the Palmetto Half Marathon in Columbia, SC.  The Palmetto Half is a very good event, but the course is sneaky.  The first half winds its way downhill, suckering you into running too fast.  Know what happens if you run mostly downhill for 6 1/2 miles and then have to run back uphill for the return 6 1/2 miles?  Pain, that’s what happens.  I learned this the hard way the first year I did the Palmetto Half.  But this was my second Palmetto Half, and I came prepared this time.

“OK, let’s do it”

Freddie Mercury spoke those perfectly timed words to me as I passed the halfway point of the race and entered the tough uphill stretch.   He really  spoke those words to a  Queen concert crowd in Montreal in 1981 at he beginning of their song “Somebody to Love”.  Thanks to an iPod and a playlist he also spoke those words to me that day.

It was no coincidence those words came at the right time.  I planned it that way by creating a race playlist tailored to my target pace.  I went on to set my half marathon personal best that day with Freddie’s help and some other inspirational messages at the right times.  Abba’s “Waterloo” at another tough long hill late in the race gave me both a chuckle and a reminder to not let the hill defeat me that year (it had the previous attempt).

Here is the video of the song I’m referring to. Freddie speaks to me at the 0:58 mark:



In almost all my races, I have a goal time to beat.  I use the term “race” a bit loosely because I am rarely in contention for any kind of medal.  I am mostly racing against Father Time and previous personal bests.  When I create my playlist, I try to make the length of the list match my goal time.  For example, if I’m shooting for 21:30 in a 5K, I’ll try to make the last song end around 21:30.  This way, when the final song starts playing, I know it is time to push it and make it to the finish before the song ends.

Depending on the length of the race, though, I have slightly different strategies for the content of the list.  5Ks and 10Ks are very similar, since they are pretty much all out effort for the entire race.  The music is very upbeat from song one.  Inevitably, there’s some rocking, guitar driven ’80′s tunes.  Some Night Ranger is good for this, and songs from one of my all time favorite albums, Van Halen’s 5150,  have been known to be in my lists (1986 was a good year!).  Finally, at the end, I’ll make sure I have a power song to push through to the finish.

I also have a couple variations for short races.  If a race just so happens to fall on say October 13, as the Ray Tanner 12K did in 2012, I’ll have an all Sammy Hagar playlist.  Why?  October 13th is Sammy’s birthday, of course!  For the Sleigh Bell Trot 5K night race under the Christmas lights of Saluda Shoals park, I like to go with all Trans Siberian Orchestra.

The Long And Winding Road

For marathons, though, I take a different approach, almost like a play with three acts.  Act I – the first 4 to 5 miles – is a time to settle down.  It’s important to start with mid tempo songs, nothing too upbeat.  Adrenaline is already high, but a marathon is a long way. The goal in Act I is to settle in and ignore that inner voice saying  “Hey, forget your training, you can push it today!”.  I like to throw in a reminder song here like “Cool the Engines” from Boston.  “Long Way to the Top” by AC/DC is a favorite in Act I, as well.

Act II is a long one to fill.  For me, this is around a two hour block of time while I march my way to the mile 20 mark. Sometimes, I put large chunks of live concerts.  Billy Joel, Journey, Van Halen, and Loverboy can make appearances in this phase.  Toward the end of this block, I like to put in songs like “Don’t Stop” from Fleetwood Mac or “Used to the Pain” by Keith Urban.  “Can’t Get There From Here” by REM cracks me up during this act as well.

Finally, there’s Act III, the  Grand Finale, the brutal and seemingly never ending last 6.2 miles.  Since this is the last 10K, I structure the list similar to my standalone 10K lists – up tempo and then a couple of all-time favorite full-throttle rocking songs for the end. I also like to sprinkle in tunes from Boston just to remind me what I’m striving toward.

Sometime, I end my marathon playlist with the fourteen minute live version of  Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”.  It may start out slow, but the last half is pure guitar driven joy.  “Freebird” gives me a wide finishing target.  Unlike shorter races where my finishing times are usually within a minute of each other, my marathon times can vary much more than a minute.  I’ve found that in marathons where I hoped to end on a three minute up-tempo song, I kinda missed my time target.  This is usually because my target race pace ends up being more optimistic than race day realities.

Photo Credit: familymwr via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: familymwr via Compfight cc

So, what will be the target finish song this year?  Too early to tell, but Triumph’s “Magic Power” is the leading contender. The live version is 6 minutes, and I think I can hit that landing zone.  Plus, I’ll need all the magic I can muster.

If you have any suggestions for musical magic and  inspiration, please leave them in the comments.  Thanks!

Triumph- “Magic Power”:




4 thoughts on “Art of the Playlist

  1. I love a good playlist. Some of my favorite running songs are: Stronger, Kanye West, Dog Days are Over, Florence + The Machine, Born this Way, Lady Gaga, So What, P!nk, Empire State of Mind, JayZ, Run the World (Girls), Beyoncé. Very different from yours! However now I’m humming “Magic Power” 🙂

    1. I think I had a JayZ song on my iPod once when I messed up iTunes and accidentally transferred some of my son’s tunes. 🙂

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