Inside the Bubble: An Interview with Peter Bromka

Photo: Jody Bailey

My friend and former podcast guest Peter Bromka recently published a lengthy essay about his about his two-year chase for the Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier called, “The Bubble of a Dream.” And even though he’s written and spoken extensively about his sub-2:19 quest, this recollection of a journey that was filled with disappointment and self-doubt but changed him in ways beyond just becoming a faster runner is worth carving out some time to read. I got a sneak peek of the piece and recently interviewed him about it. You can read our exchange below.

Tell me about the name of the piece, “The Bubble of a Dream.” What inspired it?

At first, I attempted to write an essay titled, “The Meaning of Almost.” Because I thought I was supposed to have learned something profound by missing the Olympic Trials Qualifier by so little. After I wrote about it, I realized the story was much more about that feeling of being obsessed with a goal for over two years—the “bubble” I was in where I was focused on something intently each day.

You’ve written extensively—almost exclusively—on your pursuit of the OTQ over the past few years. Why this longer piece? And why now?

To date, I’ve written long pieces mostly about the races, occasionally about other feelings along the way. On Instagram, I’ve enjoyed highlighting experiences as the moment comes to me. But given how important this journey was to me, it felt worth taking the time to try and capture the whole experience in a single story. For some who’ve followed along closely many moments will feel familiar, but even as the person who lived it additional things stood out to me in hindsight.

Who is this piece for? And what do you hope a reader takes away from it?

Really it’s for anyone who’s thought, “What if I went all-in on this dream?” Full gas. Committed for years. Especially for runners, of course. I’m not a pro runner but this goal dominated the focus of my attention for years. If I’m being candid, it took energy and focus away from other endeavors, personal and professional. So there was sacrifice, but there was also so much gained in the rich experiences I got to live through.

Take me through the writing of this particular piece. Was it easy to write? What were your biggest challenges in putting it together?

I was daunted from the start, both because I knew it was more events than I’d tried to hold together in a single piece, and it was also a once in a lifetime experience I didn’t want to mess up in capturing.

I was also daunted by trying to make a story fresh that I’d put out in bits and pieces along the way. One thing I struggle with is the question, “Who am I writing for?” I’m obviously writing for people who love running, but what about all those who love adventures and athletics? I want to include them too, ideally. When you post things on Medium you never know who will see it, but my hope is that it’ll spread far and wide. Take the phrase “PR” (personal record) for example. I try to avoid it because if you don’t follow running closely you may have no idea what it means and that’d interrupt the story. I was scared that if I wrote too generally I’d bore avid runners and if I got into the details too much it’d lose everyone but the diehards.

This is also one of the first pieces I’ve written in the past tense. It may seem small, but I prefer to write in the present tense because it puts people right into the action—but it can also come off as a bit amateur. I fear past events will feel boring, so that was a challenge. Working in past tense felt like growing up as a writer.

I know you passed this around to a few people ahead of publication, myself included. What was some of the initial feedback you received and took to heart?

Initially, the original piece I wrote last winter immediately after the Houston Marathon was super focused on just the two [most] recent races. A close friend said, “You just got out of something huge, it’s like a relationship just ended.” That hit me hard and led to me setting it down for months. I needed space to figure out what it was really about. Once I stepped back I realized I wanted to tell the story of the two-year OTQ chase.

More recently, it was helpful when people said certain sections tripped them up or disturbed their reading flow. As a writer, I love those comments because I can always dive back in and edit or smooth the text.

One of the hardest things to do is go back in and delete full paragraphs. You’re just so close to the words. It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written, so when people said it was maybe too long I wasn’t sure what to do. This is the piece I ended up with, for good and for bad. For some it’s too long, others not long enough. I know it could always be better, but I decided it was time to hit publish.

I also changed the entire piece from present to past tense at the suggestion of a writer I trust. It took some work but I’m glad I did. It feels more honest told in the past.

Is this the last chapter of your 2020 OTQ pursuit? Or are there more aspects and elements to the story that you still hope to unearth and share with readers?

Memory is a funny thing. This is the final long piece. I feel like this wraps it up well. But I’m constantly remembering small things from the pursuit that I write about in my newsletter or on Instagram, and I’ve begun thinking about what it would mean to roll this within an even longer book-length story about life as an amateur runner.

As a close friend said, “Don’t worry about a book yet, you haven’t lived the final chapters yet,” which got me fired up for what could be next.

When you didn’t qualify for the Trials, did the bubble burst for you?

The dream burst as I came across the line in Houston over 2:19. But then I got to witness the aftermath in Atlanta—that’s what I learned. Even though I didn’t get the OTQ, I came to see the racers there as my peers in certain ways, which was special, and painful, and meaningful. We’d lived through similar things, each in our own way. But they got to live the dream in Atlanta, which I write about in the essay.

Near the end of the piece you write, “But embracing failure is the essence of our sport.” Can you please expound upon that and explain what you mean by it?

I realized that in some ways I was lucky. As runners, we always wonder, “How good could I really be?” And I got to find out. Three 2:19s kinda prove that that was my personal peak during these years. Our sport, more than most, is about facing yourself and pushing to your maximum.

Winning races matters but that affects only a few of us runners but even the winners are left wondering how good they could be once they reach that point of failure, when it’s you versus you.

Take the Lakers, for instance. They proved that  they were the best this season, but they didn’t find out how good they were, they just learned they were good enough to win. But when it comes to running, jumping, and throwing you’re always sort of haunted by that question of how high you could reach.

It’s not a bad, shameful, failure some people think of. It’s just your absolute max.

I often think about how if the OTQ wasn’t 2:19 that I might never have really faced failure. If it were, say 2:15, when I ran 2:23 in 2017, I wouldn’t have even tried to push myself to aim for it. I may have tried to improve, but I wouldn’t have really, really, absolutely pushed until I topped out three times.

When I say I’m lucky, that’s what I’m thankful for. While I do still dream of getting faster, that question lingers a little less for me because I found out.