Revisited: Running for my life

Creature of habit that I am, I’ve been running for exercise now for almost 30 years. Keeping up an average of at least two miles a day over that stretch of time, I’ve traversed almost 24,000 miles, meaning that if I’d headed directly east when I started back in the ‘70s, I’d be all the way to, well, I’d be right back where I am now, I guess. Which probably says something about all the good this amount of mileage has done me.

When I started running shortly after college, it was at the beginning of what was then known as the jogging craze. I imagine I took it up to be fashionable — to this day, I must admit I’m a vision in my beat-up torn t-shirt and short shorts — but soon found it to be a great way to relax that didn’t involve showing up outside some vague acquaintance’s door asking if he had “any.” I didn’t much care for the pavement pounding and the midday heat of the Florida panhandle. However, like hitting yourself with a hammer or watching “Oprah,” it felt really good when I stopped, appealing both to my desire for a sense of accomplishment and my desire for being high.

Most of the early years of my running habit took place outdoors, since until the late ‘80s treadmills were reserved for cardiologists trying to stress-test their patients into infarction. It was a great way to see the sites in faraway places I visited for both business and pleasure. Looking back, I’m still amazed I navigated my way through traffic in places like Chicago, New York, London and Manila without being run over. I was always less concerned with the danger of being fatally injured and more aware of petty aggravation of running in public: drivers pulling up next to you and asking for directions, rude comments about my jiggling physique from passing teenagers, the nerve of cars showing up at a previously empty intersection just as you approach. And a special irritation we have here in the South, too-polite drivers who wait for you to cross in front of them when you’re still a quarter-mile up the road, requiring you to increase your normal pace or risk the wrath of motorists lining up behind them.

The outdoor roadwork was probably essential when I hit my running peak around 1990, since I was working toward a goal of completing a marathon. I finally accomplished this after five grueling hours slogging through a rainy January day, and I have the tiny proof copy of me crossing the finishing line to attest to it. I remember the satisfying agony I experienced for days later, followed by the realization that approaching my fortieth birthday, I was probably getting too old for this.

I still enjoyed exercise at a more moderate level so I found myself turning inward (to climate-controlled health clubs, not yoga). Finding a reliable facility that was going to be open today as well as tomorrow proved to be a challenge. These clubs tended to fold up and disappear like so many investment banks, though they smelled slightly worse. I finally figured that my best bet was to join a YMCA, as the whole Christianity connection lent an air of stability despite summoning up the disturbing image of Our Lord and Savior pumping away on an elliptical machine.

It took me a while to get used to running on a treadmill. Trading the fresh air and the constantly changing scenery of the outdoors for the mundane plodding on the same kind of belt your groceries enjoy at the checkout line was initially pretty boring. I was overwhelmed at first by all the options available on the control panel of the machine. There’s a so-called “safety clip,” which is basically a long piece of twine that attaches your shirt to a dead-man switch so that if you fall, the belt will stop before you’re propelled into the cluster of free-weight guys just waiting for an excuse to pummel those meek jogging types. There are helpful graphics so you can tailor your session to achieve goals like weight loss and toning. (I particularly appreciate the line graph showing how your target heart rate declines with advancing age, starting at 170 for age 25, falling to 115 at age 65 and presumably hitting zero shortly thereafter). I figured out the “quick start” option, which lets you pick a speed at the touch of a button, and the small built-in fan that cools while it disperses any offensive odors you feel like releasing. Instead of controlling your own pace and incline you can also choose from several pre-programmed regimens with evocative names like forest path, trail blazer and alpine meadow. We’re getting new machines soon with even more elaborate options, including built-in TV screens and more realistic trail options like rain-soaked mudpath and chased by dogs.

I must admit I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how welcoming the Y has been and how little they require of you spiritually. I’m able to crank up my iPod to drown out the Christian rock of bands like Puddles of Lamb and Boo to Boo-duh and replace them with my own upbeat and inevitably sacrilegious favorites, like the Village People’s “YMCA.” The wall-mounted TVs carry mostly news and sports channels, though in the corner there’s a primitive closed-circuit station flashing inspirational messages, urging viewers to “eat right,” “be responsible” and “don’t faint because we aren’t trained in CPR”.

I’m not sure how much longer my knees and other joints will allow me to continue my pursuit of exercise-induced endorphins. At my age and weight, most of my contemporaries have traded running for more sensible hobbies, like golf or permanent disability. I would seriously miss the so-called “runner’s high” and the feeling of physical accomplishment that accompany these daily workouts. I guess when the time comes that my legs can no longer carry me, I’ll find some other way to uselessly expend effort.

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One Response to “Revisited: Running for my life”

  1. planetross Says:

    a good read!

    … I’ve got nothing … I may put a safety clip on my ashtray though.

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