Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Years ago, when I was about 13, I started running. Our next door neighbor, Hal, was a slightly overweight guy who liked to run. One day he invited me along. He was a fun guy with a collection of campaign memorabilia from the sixties and seventies - some of it extraordinarily valuable. He'd even been McGovern's state campaign manager for Kansas. He was well read, married to a beautiful ceramic artist, had a great dog, and didn't once ever treat me like a kid.

When we started to run, I was in pretty good teenage shape. Back then, there wasn't a lot on tv, and the internet, let alone computers, weren't even on the radar. Papers due in school were still typed out, and White Out was a best-selling product. So I hadn't yet developed the bad habit of sitting in front of a screen for hours, sucking down soda and popping chips into my mouth (that would come later).

Anyway, Hal was into LSD... that's Long Slow Distance running - get your mind out... So each day after school (me) and work (him), the two of us would set off on a run averaging 2-4 miles. On the weekends, we'd do a run that was a bit longer, and then take the following day off in order to let the lactic acid that had built up over the week diminish.

I quickly fell in love with the sport. Running is so basic. All you need is a good pair of shoes. It is also a sport where you mainly compete against yourself going for longer distances or better PRs as you progress. And progression is rapid. You might start out running and walking a mile and finishing the workout completely exhausted, dripping with sweat, and feeling as though you're about to do a Linda Blair from that one scene in the Exorcist. But within a couple of weeks, that mile seems easy, and you've gone onto two, then three... I view running a lot like painting a house. It is one of the few things in life you can do where you can see the results of your work.

Hal and I ran for years. We started to run road races. My first one was a 4th of July race in Lenexa, Kansas. It was a seriously hot day. I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of people there. I ran a crappy race, was ditched by Hal and our other partner, Steve, by mile three, and finished the race about as ill as I've ever been in an embarrassing time - 6.2mi in 54 min. For a teenage 'athlete,' that was demoralizing. By the time our next race rolled around, I was wary, but I did a lot better. On the final 6.2 I did during that time, I had my best race ever. There were a lot of serious track people in that race. The course was as flat as a pane of glass. When the race started, I kid you not, every single runner except for six of us took off and was out of sight by the end of the first mile. The follow car, even pulled in front of us at one point, and gave us a half mile of sucking in its exhaust. But that day I felt great. I told my partners I was going to run ahead. So I set out on a 6 min/mi ish pace, and started to see some people ahead of me. By the race's end, I had caught every runner I could see. And, while still finishing in something like 89th place (out of 120), I considered this my best race ever. I had shattered my previous PRs, and could have gone around the course a second time.

Horrible races, for me, came when I changed distances. I once did the Hospital Hill run in KC. It is a nine or so mile run that goes up and down some serious hills. We arrived at the finish line before the start of the race, and boarded buses that took all of the runners over the course to the start - nine+ miles away. I remember very well at age 16, sitting in the back of the bus and getting scared about the hills and the distance. It didn't help that Hal, who had done the NYC Marathon a couple of times by then, and Steve, were both in seats next to me psyching me out by talking about how hard the hills were, how long the course was, and how hot the day was going to be. I won't go into the gory details of the race. But, at one point an emergency service worker looked at me as I ran by and shook his head. At another point, I was passed by a very overweight girl running along with a hairbrush in her hand (she'd accidentally taken it on the bus to the start, and didn't want to lose it). It took me a loooong time to get over that experience.

When I went to college, my runs with Hal ceased. I had moved across town, and ran a bit with friends, but had lost the fun, kindred spirit that I had in Hal. I entered a couple of races. Dnf'd one, and actually won my age group in another - a 3.1 mi race in a downpour that I completed in 16min and change. After that race though, I never really ran again.... until about two years ago.

When I took up running again, now 20+ years after I ran my last road race at age 19, my pant size was 40. I worked out a lot, but I also ate a lot. I biked a great deal and played some tennis. For the past decade, though, biking had been my main sport, with huge rides completed across several states and, in one case, France. A bicycling coach and I recently had a conversation. When I mentioned that, while I still bike a bit, I had switched to running, he said that he could tell because I'd lost a lot of weight. His thought was that biking, while a great sport, makes one hungry, while running seems to suppress the appetite. Only speaking personally, I tend to agree with that comment. While I had been in great shape, I was pretty overweight before I took up running.

And, the years were not kind when I started to run again at the high school track near my house. I jogged each day for 1 mile. Each time I finished, I'd be absolutely exhausted and drenched with sweat. The jogging wasn't fun at all. I felt this huge mass of flesh from my groin up to my neck jostle up and down with each step. I went through a bit of self-loathing when I thought about where I used to be in the sport, and compared that to where I was now. But you know, something happened that was wonderful. Each day for a couple of weeks, I did the same thing; jogging a mile and then slowly adding a walk/jog of a quarter mile at the end. Pretty soon, I was jogging a full two miles, which for me was (and I still think is) a major accomplishment. The mass that I carried with me slowly began to diminish, along with an appetite for large meals. Pretty soon, to make the jogs/runs more interesting, I got in my car, and began mapping out 2, 3, 4, and (gasp) 6 mile routes in my neighborhood and the surrounding countryside. And over the course of the next year, I was able to do them all. Pounds fell off, and my waist size went to 32.

I now have a certain joy when I run. It is a joy of self-knowledge, of limits being tested, being self-sufficient, and being proactive. While it was fun to run for year with a partner, I rarely go out with anyone else these days. The solitude I am provided each day allows for some real me time. There's no bullshit when you run. It is just you and the road. You know your speed, strength, and stamina. When I go out around 5 in the a.m. I have a chance to look at a calm world on an equal footing with it (not glazed over by the windshield of my car). It really helps me get through the day. I'm a bit ADD(my friends reading this are probably laughing at the words a bit), so if I miss a day I kind of freak out. But it's a trade I'll take. It is rare to find something so basic that one can enjoy so much. Running brings solitude, contemplation, and a sense of well-being to me, while bettering my health. There is little else that can match it.

I'll certainly have more on running in the future, but for now....

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