Anybody remember the 1977 best seller, The Complete Book of Running? Great book. The cover was a picture of the author’s bare legs topped off by a pair of red running shorts. When he wrote it, Jim Fixx had a story to tell about his journey from overweight couch potato to confirmed running junkie. His message was clear: Barring very few physical considerations, you too, can be a “runner.” I read it in the early 80’s and there are a couple of odd tidbits in it that cling to the cobwebs of my brain even today. For one thing, Fixx claimed that while perspiration produced by sedentary folks was stinky, the sweat generated during running was “virtually odorless.”
“So, go ahead,” he encouraged the corporate masses, “Take that run during your lunch hour, skip the shower, and suit back up!”
True or not, this is, in my opinion, just one of those things that give runners a bad name. This conjures up images of the Boston marathon champion Uta Pippig, who, with diarrhea streaming down her bare legs at the finish line, told the TV commentator that she “looked worse than she felt.” Uta, sweetie, you just crossed a widely televised race finish line in front of thousands of onlookers. You did not stumble incoherently out of the Amazon having just survived against insurmountable odds! You are giving the average spectator way too much credit. I’m pretty sure there were only a handful of people who cared how you felt at that point, most were horrified at first by how you looked, and then by your shamelessness about ignoring it for the sake of a run.
Then there was Amber Miller, who ran/walked the Chicago marathon at 39 weeks pregnant. She later noted that race medical workers seemed “startled” to see her as she hauled that huge belly past mile markers. No kidding. She actually began laboring during the race, and about seven hours later was fortunate enough to deliver a healthy baby girl. To her I can only say, “Dear Amber, There’s no ‘do over’ in pregnancy and childbirth. There will, however, be other races.”
And then, of course, there’s ole Jim Fixx himself, who dropped dead of a heart attack at aged 52 while he was, of course, running.
There’s an undeniably elitist mentality among runners too. Secretly, they’re all purists, believing that running is far superior to any other exercise because it requires next to nothing, there’s no class at the gym, no equipment, and no instructor. All you need are your legs and a pair of sneakers. You just go out the door, thumping bass music optional, and it ends when you want it to end. “Elite” runners, especially marathoners, don’t even bother to conceal their condescension when you mention things like Spin classes or Zumba. They smile, and maybe even throw out a dismissive, “that’s great!” Right before they tell you that you should just run. Or not. Which may be even worse. Because then you just might be getting the pat on the head, the atta boyreserved for the little kid who just struck out…again.
In spite of all of this, I am happy to be counted among those who love to run. There’s a part of me that completely understands the mania of it, the unadulterated compulsion to hit the pavement. I was a runner for the better part of 30 years. My Sauconys are the first thing I pack when I go on a trip. I have run on boiling hot asphalt and cool early morning beach sand. I have made running playlists on my iPod to help me escape the monotony of the treadmill, and had near-spiritual experiences while running trails through the woods in Autumn. I have, as Jim Fixx promised I would, found it easier to breathe while running in the rain because of the higher nitrogen content in the air.
Here’s a little insight for those of you who think we’re nuts: Only non-runners see people out “jogging” and think it’s about weight management or getting a little exercise. “Real” runners find that attitude just a little precious. Real runners know the truth, and we can spin it a thousand positive ways, (and they would, in fact, beat the alternative) but it pretty much comes down to those whacky madcap twins: Addiction and Obsession. I recently posted a “status” on Facebook that was essentially a good long moan about how much I needed a good run right now. An old high school friend who has been sidelined with an injury commiserated with me, saying that she literally cried when she drove past people out running. God, I so got that. I was really glad she said it too, because I had felt it and thought I was being melodramatic.
Truth: I have never heard anyone express anything close to that kind of desperate yearning to get on the elliptical, or to (yawn) go into warrior pose at “Yoga in a Toga.”
Oops. I’m sorry. That was a little condescending wasn’t it? Just a little slip. My bad. Maybe I’m just jealous. At this point I want to love both of those things, but I can’t seem to work up the same passion for them, and it’s killing me (softly).
My friend Vivian opted to have two hip surgeries in less than a year even though she was told she could live a completely “normal” life without them. That normal life, however, would not include running and for her, there’s nothing normal about that. This is a woman who has run a marathon a year for as long as I’ve known her. Being “grounded,” first by her injuries and then by her recovery period has been a tougher road for her than the ten plus miles she routinely does just because it’s a Tuesday.
“I feel like a part of me has disappeared,” she admits. “I miss the wonderful feeling I get when the endorphins have kicked in, especially after a very long run, and I am on top of the world. It’s a ‘high’ that lasts throughout the day.” As a writer, she has found running to be a catalyst for creative ideas. “Sometimes,” she reveals, “I’d even run with one of those little golf pencils and a piece of paper in my running shorts.” In fact, her blog, Catching a Third Wind/The journey from injury to recovery (www.athirdwind.com) was created in part to chronicle her surgical experiences and the dreaded physical therapy that follows, as well as to provide a forum for others who are temporarily derailed from running due to an injury or surgical procedure.
I’ve never run a full marathon and I have a bad case of marathon envy. I was training for a “half” when I began experiencing the pain that yet another MRI would reveal stems from a labral hip tear – the same tear my friend Vivian had repaired. My situation is a little different, and I decided to try a different path to recovery, but I can tell you that I completely understand her choice toJust Do It. And then do it again.
I personally prefer to run alone. Over the years I have just pounded anger, anxiety, frustration and fear right into the pavement. People have told me they’ve seen me (looking slightly deranged, no doubt) with my fingers flying, playing the air-piano as I run and I know it’s true. If it’s classical music on my iPod, I’m a featured soloist. During my runs I’ve carried on (both sides of) conversations that I wisely never ended up having, and composed letters I’ve never sent. I’ve mulled over the day ahead, and made up stories. I’ve cracked myself up, and let myself cry. I’ve left the house happy and contented, and come back euphoric and brimming with a sense of endless possibility. I’ve run to escape the bad neighborhood of my head and returned to place more like Easy Street.
Hell, I ran when I still drank and smoked cigarettes! (And my buddy Jim told me, in a somewhat conspiratorial tone, that I could do that too.) In my twenties I ran off hangovers and, to borrow a Charlie Sheen-ism, the “cringeable” behavior that goes with all of that.
I tell anyone who is just beginning to run that the best kept secret about running is that anyone can be a runner. Anyone. Put on a pair of sneakers and go out the door. Start with five minutes, walk, do it again. It doesn’t matter where you begin, from the very first step, you are a runner. I also tell people that in my experience, no matter how long I’ve run, the first mile is almost always the hardest. It takes that long to get your rhythm, for your heart rate and breathing to level off, and to feel like you are in the “zone.” It’s after that first mile that the magic kicks in. I don’t think I’ve ever run far enough to “hit the wall,” but the “runner’s high”? Absolutely. And let me tell you, adrenalin is good stuff. What that means for me is that fairly consistently there’s a point on my run when I get this invincible, I could run forever feeling, as long as I keep running forward. But of course, my runs are always large loops. As I round the bend to head back, I’m reminded that you can run away from your problems at least temporarily. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Here’s another thing running guru Jim Fixx said, and I’m paraphrasing here: He said that in his opinion, running is to exercise what vodka is to alcohol consumption. In other words, it’s the most direct and potent means to an end.
I haven’t tasted vodka in a long time but, for a variety of reasons, I like the analogy. Running is the most direct and potent means to an end, and the end is way more than exercise. It is, pure and simple, the best way I know of to untangle thoughts, dilute toxic emotions, and positively channel the overdrive nature of an obsessive personality. That’s the way it works for me, and that’s why I keep coming back to it.