Sunday, April 27, 2014

On the Run



Running is for people who can't NOT run.

Besides the fact that it takes a particularly rhino-hided brand of crazy to be found hoofing down the road in little more than your underwear, running is work. Most people can't be bothered—which is fine; that leaves the roads less crowded.

Me? I've had a running habit for 36 years now; I caught the bug during the second wave of the first running boom, in 1977. That was the year Jim Fixx published The Complete Book of Running, and all kinds of unlikely folk took up road-running. For most, it was a short-lived craze lasting til their first bout of blisters or sore shins. A few of us, the crazies, were addicted.

Fixx was a 200-plus-pound lard-bucket who smoked two packs a day when he started running. It can't be denied that, despite being a dedicated runner, Fixx died of a heart attack at the age of 52. Considering his father had died at 43, I'd still say that running probably prolonged Fixx's life.

So, no, running is no fountain of youth and instant health. But that's actually beside the point, for me. I learned back in high school that hard exercise keeps depression, to which I seem to be psychologically predisposed, at bay. I can get by on time in the gym, if I must, but, very simply put, running keeps my brains screwed in straight.

Running is a contemplative action, a Zen-like transcendental thing employing careful observation and control of breathing. A mile or so into a run, the world narrows to the point where my foot meets the road. Body fully occupied, my mind is free to process problems (code that doesn't work, problems with buggy software) and ideas.

Though much is made of the 'loneliness of the long-distance runner', no, we aren't especially lonely per se. It IS rather isolating, though, to find people don't understand our avocation, and put us down for it. We have a neighbor we discreetly refer to as Mrs. Grumpy, who occasionally calls to me from her front porch to let me know that I seem "slower than usual today".

Oh, yeah? Come on out on the road and say that.

There's more than one kind of running, of course. Some people say you aren't a runner if you don't race. I have two answers for those folks.

The short answer is: You go to hell, kimosabe.

The long answer is: Whether you're a runner or not depends on what you're here for.

Sure, some folks are in it for the competition—and the race swag. I hate the crowds at races; my ideal run starts at about 5:30 a.m., before the sun is up, and before hordes of other people are out.

Newport Avenue
I've been running in Webster for about 30 years, and I do appreciate the camaraderie of the road: exchanging a quick thumbs-up with other runners; waving to friends out with their dogs; greeting an elderly couple with whom I've swapped pleasantries for years, as they take their morning walk. I don't know their name or where they live, but we've smiled and said good morning year in and year out. Their pace has slowed, and become less certain; she's grown more stooped, and he's now so frail it looks like a good breeze would blow him away. Their smiles are as bright as ever, though, and their greeting warm and genuine. I hate to think there will be a day when I see one of them without the other.

Webster is runner heaven: rolling hills, winding roads, lush gardens, small critters. Most runners don't like hills; I do. I like the challenge. The camelback up Newport Avenue, from Kirkham all the way through to Laclede Station, is a roller coaster of six different-height rises. On a good day, it's a runner's high as a runner's high should be. On a bad one, it's half a mile of utter hell. Either way, just finishing it is winning.

Ditto the hill on Oakwood: a half-mile of 25-degree rise from the blind corner where Glen Road meets Deer Creek, it has one flat spot, and one dip. Otherwise, it's a relentless rise, and (if I time the run right) the sun rises over the trees just as I make the crest of the hill.

Webster's gardens are three seasons of joy, from the early-spring violets and bluebells  through dogwoods, azaleas, and peonies later, to honeysuckle, sunflowers, and Russian sage, and, finally, to fall chrysanthemums.

Math for my boys started on my morning runs: Mama ran 4 miles today, and saw 15 bunnies; how many bunnies per mile? Rabbits are easy to spot; cats, far rarer finds, I have to actively look for.

Dogs come to find me. Some, like the golden retriever who lives on Oakwood, will join me for half a mile or so of gallop. Yappy little dogs who bite ankles tend to be both territorial and bad-natured. Once or twice, such an encounter has left a nasty little dog describing graceful arc through the morning humidity, and Your Truly hoofing hastily from the scene of the crime.

There are all kinds of runners, from the spare, elegant grace of Alberto Salazar to the muscular ferocity of Steve Prefontaine.

I tend more to Prefontaine than Salazar, so I am racing, even when I'm alone on the road—the only person I've ever been interested in beating is me. The best moment of any run is that single instant of luminous certitude: I can do this. A small victory that's still a victory, every time it happens.

Yes, I'm older and slower than I used to be. But, in the words of the immortal John Bingham, The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.

Waddle on, friends.

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