He covered high school and college sports in Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s, and after Dallas, he moved on to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he covered the Eagles and the 76ers.
In 1993, Longman joined The New York Times, where he has followed sports that take him around the world. He primarily covers the the Olympics, but also running (he’s been reporting on Caster Semenya and attempts to force her to take hormone treatments to lower her testosterone levels), women’s soccer, figure skating and more. He’s currently in France, covering the Women’s World Cup.
“I always describe my career as a kind of extension of fourth-grade geography,” Longman says. “I just always wanted to see the world, and The New York Times and to some extent previously, the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowed me to do that. I’ve reported from approximately 65 countries, and that’s my main interest. Seeing the world.”
That wanderlust recently took Longman to the Sahara Desert in Morocco, to cover the Marathon des Sables, a 140.7-mile ultramarathon stretched out over six stages. It was there that he reported and wrote about Amy Palmiero-Winters, a 46-year-old woman from Hicksville, N.Y., who was the first female amputee to even attempt the grueling race, let alone finish it. His 3,300-word story, “Am Amputee’s Toughest Challenge Yet,” ran April 26 — less than two weeks after the race was done.
As a passionate runner myself, I was fascinated by the subject. As a writer, reader and teacher of long-form, I wanted to know how Longman covered such an arduous and remote race, turning it fairly quickly into a compelling narrative that takes you through a dramatic event without overplaying the drama. I talked with Longman by phone the day before he left for the World Cup. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you happen upon this story?
I’ve been very fortunate to travel to a number of exotic places to write about track and field and distance running. I was in East Germany a year before the Berlin Wall fell. I’ve been 13,000 feet atop a volcano in Mexico. I’ve been a mile underground in an old mine in South Africa. I’ve been in Kenya and Ethiopia, and ran a marathon in North Korea, so I’ve always wanted to go to these places I haven’t been, to write about running.
This (the Marathon des Sables) is one of the world’s best-known ultra-marathons. I’d been to Morocco before but had never seen the Sahara, so I thought “I’ve run seven marathons, how could somebody run six of them in six days?” Finally this year I had an opening, and I thought “Okay, this is the year,” so I just applied for credentials and got them.
Did you know about Palmiero-Winters before or after you applied for credentials?
After. The idea for the story was to use the race to tell someone’s story — not to put it entirely on the race itself. I was emailing the organizers, just asking them to send me the names of all the Americans who were participating, because I thought that one of the key things would be to get to know some of the athletes beforehand so they would be comfortable with me and they wouldn’t mind my being along every step of the way. I got a list of the American participants, and then I spoke to a guy named Jake Battchin. He essentially coordinates the American entrants. He knew all the Americans’ stories. That’s where I learned about Amy.
What did you do when you first heard about her?
I called Amy and had a long talk with her. She was very forthcoming. I thought she would make a good subject. Then she had a public appearance in in Manhattan so I met with her and interviewed her for a couple of hours. Then Brian Jones, the photographer, and Bidel Saget, our graphics editor, and I spent most of the day with her in Hicksville, on Long Island, at the prosthetic company where she worked, and we saw her train. By the time we got to the actual race, I knew a lot about her story, and I had enough rapport with her that she didn’t mind us being around. It was important to have someone who would be comfortable with us being at almost every checkpoint on the course.
Reporting this story forced you to go point-to-point, to essentially follow Amy through the desert. What was the biggest challenge for you?
I actually think the biggest challenge was just getting to know Amy beforehand, and making sure she was okay with us being around. We had a driver, an SUV — it’s a movable production. There was like a tent city, and each media group had its tent, and from place-to-place you had the same tent number every day. You knew exactly where your tent would be —where the bathroom, the shower, the cafeteria tent, the media tent would be every day.
That wasn’t so difficult, but it was hot. It would get to 98 degrees or so — the ground temperature seemed to be much hotter — but it wasn’t humid. I’m from Louisiana so I’m accustomed to heat, so that wasn’t so bad. I guess the most difficult thing was just planning where you’re going to be from moment to moment, but I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t have to worry about being stranded somewhere. It’s a very organized race, so it wasn’t grueling. The hours are very long, but you knew where everything would be every day, you didn’t have to scramble every day to find a place to stay or eat.
You’re a runner yourself. Were there ever times you were on the ground, running or walking with Palmiero-Winters?
The last days, the charity days, we walked whatever it was, 28 kilometers. We actually walked that stage with her in the desert. We were always on the ground, every day. Sometimes we would generally see her at the checkpoints every 10 kilometers or 12 kilometers. We were always on the course, in a car or sometimes we walked briefly with her. I didn’t run any of the race, but I did walk that last day. Really there was nothing else to do, you had to be there.
There’s a time in the first stage of the race when Palmiero-Winters had an allergic reaction and was having trouble breathing. You even have some mini-dialogue from her. How did you get that?
When Amy thought she was going into anaphylactic shock, we were right there, waiting on the field for her to come up to this hill. She got to the top of it and was all “I can’t breathe, I can’t —” Literally we were waiting under a rocky line. Our driver knew that that would be a good place to wait for them, so we were just standing there and she came up and said that to us. She was hesitant to use her epi-pen because she didn’t know whether she’d need it a second time or whether they would provide that medical assistance to her because the whole idea of the race is self-sufficiency. There was nobody around to make that decision. She hung in there. That was a scary moment for her, generally, but it was for us, too, because if she had dropped out I’m not sure what we would have done.
There is also the scene that you lead the story with, when Palmiero-Winters is having trouble getting her prosthetic leg over a rock. How did you get that information?
We were there when she was climbing this very steep, rocky outcropping. We couldn’t get to the top; we were standing below her so we couldn’t see exactly what was going on. She described that piece of getting her foot stuck. You couldn’t see it with your naked eye — it was just too far away. Because you’re there, you get to know a lot of runners, you see them at these checkpoints, so that’s a good way to get reconnaissance on what’s happening. People would ask me how (Amy) was doing, and you would talk to people about what conditions are like, so you ended up seeing people several times so they would know who you were, they would know you’re New York Times, and they were willing to talk. That was very helpful — just talking to as many people as you could at each of these checkpoints, either to catch up on Amy or learn about the conditions, what the terrain was like.
How do you take notes for a story like this?
I had my notebook with me and just took notes. I had done long tape-recorded interviews with her beforehand, and again a couple of days after she finished. I had long talks with her during the race; we would sit down or go for a walk or something, and I used my tape recorder then. During the actual stages, I just used my notebook.
Did you have to turn in copy on a daily basis?
No, we decided to write one long story. I sort of wrote it as I went along, most of it. I knew her life story so I knew I could write that section even before it started. I was in Morocco before it started and I would write, and I tried to write a little bit every day, stage by stage, just so I wouldn’t forget anything. And then after the race finished I went back and tried to make a coherent story, because we wanted to run it the following week, a week after the race.
I noticed that the headline and the lead into the story actually states that she finished the race. Was there ever any discussion to not state that out-right, to try and create some narrative tension, to make readers wonder if she was going to finish it?
It’s the No. 1 structural question I wrestled with. I often think that we don’t use enough narrative tension in sports writing. By my way of thinking, only half-jokingly, the score should be in the last paragraph, not the first, so readers will remain with a game story until the end.
Keeping the readers wondering might have been the better way to go in the Marathon des Sables piece. If I had to do it over again, I would have at least tried it in a draft. But, in this case, I self-edited for pragmatism.
The race ended on April 13 and I had to finish a draft on the 14th, so I could fly home on the 15th. The original plan was to put the story online on the 18th or so and run it in the paper on the 21st. So I decided to state upfront that Amy finished the race. My thinking was this: If I withheld the outcome until the end, and my editors felt that approach did not work, I risked having to do a significant rewrite at the last minute on a 3,300-word story. This, I feared, might also disrupt the completion of the graphics and photo layouts of the story and could delay publication.
In the end, the story was held for a week, so my concerns were unfounded. In retrospect, the piece might have benefited by trying the other approach.
You did one other story while you there, one that was kind of on deadline, right?
Yeah, there was a dog who entered the race on the second day and then completed the course. I don’t think it ever appeared in the print paper, but there was a lot of attention online about this fantastic nomad dog who had joined the race.
Was there anything you saw or experienced that was really interesting but for some reason didn’t make it into the story?
I’m sure in a desert you see things which would be funny or odd, but you just couldn’t get those details in. In general I think most of it was in there. There are always some details you couldn’t fit in, but not anything very important that got left out.
It sounds like a fun story to cover. Was it?
I enjoyed covering it, but to be honest with you, and I think I wrote this in that little piece about how I reported it, I didn’t quite see why anybody would want to push themselves that hard. I didn’t quite see the attraction or point of doing it. For me, it’s hard enough to run one marathon, much less the equivalent of six in a row. But it was fascinating to write about. I really liked the people. There’s a lot of ribald humor, and some of that just wasn’t printable, but was very funny, so I guess some of that stuff didn’t get in. I liked hearing the runners’ motivation as to why they did this, and because I’m a runner I guess I like to hear how people are doing during the race, what’s going right and what’s going wrong, I liked how they were portioning their meals — how things like that work. Just that general bit of granular interest that a runner would have in other runners and how they’re doing something like that. While I didn’t quite see the point of it, I was fascinated by their stories and how they actually did it.