By Araina Bond
Michael Collins makes a nice living writing fiction. His eight novels have received critical acclaim—two were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year—and his screenplay for Julia, a French film starring Tilda Swinton, earned rave reviews in 2008. Most of his work deals with the social and economic inequality that he witnessed while growing up in Ireland and after immigrating to America. But his real-life story is perhaps his most dramatic tale. One August evening in 1995, Collins, a University of Illinois doctoral student at the time, was walking to a train station in a Chicago ghetto when a crazed drug addict stabbed him in the back and slashed his arms with an eight-inch blade. A police officer found Collins and got him to the hospital. He had lost more than a liter of blood. Released from the hospital two days later, Collins was loath to return to his rundown neighborhood, but his starving-student status left him with no other option.
The incident became the turning point of his own personal plotline. Unable to relocate and without access to a car, Collins resumed something he had left behind as a "boyhood fancy": running. "After the attack, I was scared," he says. "I found myself racing down streets. I had a mantra of survival I repeated over and over: I've got to get fast. I've got to get fast."
Collins had come to the United States on a college track scholarship, but running had been a means to an end for him, a way to get out of Ireland in the 1980s. Although his athletic career showed promise, he gave up the sport after graduating from Notre Dame in 1986.
Collins didn't return to running for nearly a decade when, six weeks after the stabbing, he signed up for the Chicago Marathon. The race was a mere week away. Powered by his commuter mileage, he ran a 2:30, good for 39th place. That performance reignited a passion for the sport that pushed him toward ultra distances. "I like the spirit of old explorers," he says. "Go and see if you can survive."
He not only survived, he excelled. In 1999, at 35, he won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race and the Mt. Everest Challenge Marathon. "I was experiencing the world through running," he says.
Collins never hit the trails without a pencil and paper in his pocket. In 1999, he sketched out his first novel, The Keepers of Truth. "I began training hard, 80 miles a week, stopping here and there, writing down expressions that became the touchstones for what I would write about later that night after work," he says. The book was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and won the Kerry Ingredients Irish Novel of the Year in 2000.
To Collins, writing and running are natural companions. "Beginning a book on a run has always been the most natural process," he says. "I could not imagine sitting before a blank computer screen. Having that pause in the day with the release of endorphins frees up ideas."
Collins, now 46, lives in Dowagiac, Michigan, with his wife and four kids, and he teaches creative writing at Southwestern Michigan College. In November, Collins competed in the International Association of Ultrarunners 100-K World Championships in Gibraltar. His ninth novel, Of Uncertain Significance, will be released in January.
Fellow Irish ultrarunner Richard Donovan says it's not surprising that Collins has accomplished so much in his running career. "Michael has this amazing combination of athletic talent and intellectual ability," Donovan says. "Michael also values the camaraderie of ultras. After a race, he's the first guy to sit down with you for a beer and ask about you."