To write a book proposal on a woman known as the Marathon Goddess, John Hanc MA’83, a runner himself, spent a weekend shadowing Julie Weiss in Los Angeles — even running part of the 2017 LA marathon at her side. Weiss earned her nickname by running 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise funds for pancreatic-cancer research. “She said I really nailed her voice,” Hanc says. “I did that because I’d been with her; I heard her; I looked her in the eye and ran in her shoes.”
The author’s love of participatory journalism — immersing himself in the lives of the people he covers — is modeled after his hero, George Plimpton, the late editor of the Paris Review and a renowned practitioner of this journalistic craft.
Hanc channeled his subjects’ voices with precision and empathy when cowriting a string of award-winning memoirs, including Not Dead Yet with diabetic bike racer Phil Southerland, and The Ultra Mindset with endurance athlete Travis Macy. Hanc was on site when the city of Athens, Georgia, closed down for its historic Twilight Criterium — a grueling, 80-lap (roughly 50 miles) bike contest in which Southerland competed and lost. Hanc seized on the defeat and the intense atmosphere to open the memoir.
Drawing people into his method of telling incisive stories extends beyond the printed page. As an associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology — where he was voted the professor who made the greatest impact — he will often have students read his rough drafts “to let them see the writing process as it unfolds. Students love that immediacy,” he says.
Hanc’s own career took off after working postcollege in the public- relations department of his hometown newspaper, where he yearned to hone his journalism skills. With a scholarship in hand, he enrolled as a graduate student at the UW to earn his master’s. “I did the degree in a year, which almost killed me, but they taught me to think more critically and write more concisely,” he says. “I learned how to read research papers that turned out to be very helpful to this day. It was a thrilling experience to be there with so many brilliant, talented people.”
Hanc’s tenacity also drove him to journey 7,000 miles with 228 people from 15 countries to the bottom of the earth to take part in the 2005 Antarctica Marathon, which he chronicled in his own memoir, The Coolest Race on Earth. For 26.2 miles on King George Island, Hanc tramped through dense mud, loose rocks, and slushy glacial trails, eventually finishing 17th in four hours and 42 minutes. Some parts of the race went unreported because, he explains, he was “delirious with pain. While aspects of it were magical, improbable, and even laughable, it was a really hard slog.”
Story originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine.