Running on Empty

In his glory days, he ran track and won many a race. These days? Not so much.
Running on Empty

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

As I find myself just a few years from turning 50, I also find myself with the very predictable mid-life interest in physical fitness. While health and longevity are my primary motivators, I can’t deny the influence of vanity. It’s not as if I’m hoping to grow six-pack abs, like The Situation on Jersey Shore; but I could do without the tire—a poorly inflated one at that—around my mid-section. To get in shape, I’ve turned to running because it’s what I know. Or what I sort of remember. Roughly 35 years ago, I started running on the track and cross-country teams in elementary and high school. Not that you would know it now.

Perhaps you’ve seen me running around town. I’m the guy who’s moving slowly while looking good in my top-of-the-line running shoes and attire. (Right, that guy.) True, I can’t buy the kind of physical fitness I enjoyed as a teenager, but I can purchase the serious running gear that makes me appear capable of running a minute or two faster per mile. (Clearly, age does have certain advantages, such as disposable income.) While my attire may not match my abilities, it does match my fantasies, in which I chase Olympic glory or at the very least a respectable showing in a local 5K.

I began running regularly again in June, my legs looking like bleached concrete and feeling about as heavy, my lungs seemingly expelling as much phlegm as air. By August I had built up enough endurance to run three to six miles every other day, though the heat and humidity made each mile feel like five. If there is ever a moment when even a fan of running will question the sanity of doing so, it’s in 97-degree heat with 85 percent humidity. That’s when it takes a Herculean effort to silence the voice of reason calling for rest, ideally at a nearby pub with an icy cold beer. And maybe some cheese-smothered onion rings.

As much as the heat can break a runner’s spirits, freeze-your-ass-off winter runs are no joy either. I’m writing this in mid-October, which offers some of the best running weather one can hope for, but I’m already anxious about staying motivated through the winter. The August heat waves and the January blizzards didn’t bother me when I was young. In fact, in my school days, I ran over a three-year period without missing a single day of training. No temperature was too high or too low, no storm was too long or too powerful to stop me from logging a few miles—though my streak nearly came to a frozen halt due to my over-heated mother.

It was the winter of ’78. Sustained, brutally cold temperatures had closed schools and businesses for days. Warnings were issued every hour on the radio to stay indoors or risk frostbite and even death. But my running streak had passed the two-year mark by that point, and I wasn’t about to let it come to a premature end because of a little inclement weather. So I stood just inside our front door and donned my gear: two warm-up suits on top of two T-shirts, a sweatshirt, and not one but two pair of underwear. I took the extra safety measure of stuffing a bathroom hand towel down my pants because there was a story circulating among my eighth grade classmates about a guy from Colerain whose penis froze off. I also had two knit caps, mittens, and gloves at the ready before I stepped outside and into the southern region of the Arctic. As I struggled to zip my outer jacket over all my Michelin Man–like layers, my mom rounded the corner.

“Where you going?” she asked.

“Bowling,”  I said, knowing full well that she knew full well where I was going.

“No you aren’t,” Mom said in a voice I had come to know as the you-best-not-mess-with-me-or-I-will-ground-you-for-life voice.

“Mom, I have to!” I pleaded. “I need to keep my streak alive!”

“I don’t care about your damn streak; it’s you I want alive,” she said. “You aren’t going out there. No. No. No!” She walked away and I followed, begging and pleading, even trying to get Dad on my side. But I might as well have been asking to stay up until midnight on a school night. Mom stood her ground like the giant frozen air mass that held our city hostage.

I went to my room, sat on my bed, and stewed. And plotted. I thought about making a dash for the door, knowing that once I got outside Mom couldn’t catch me, even with a towel down my pants. Then an idea came to me. I grabbed a yardstick and a calculator and went to the basement. I measured the distance from one wall to the next and did some simple math to determine that I would need to ping-pong from wall to wall about 100 times to log one mile. In part to spite my own mother, I ran back and forth 500 times (roughly five miles) in the basement that day. That’s dedication—with a dash of teenage insanity.

But time passes and some of us grow wiser. If that kind of weather returns this winter, don’t look for me outside. Or in my basement. About the only thing that would get me outside in a blizzard now is a one-pump, extra-hot, extra-whip mocha from Starbucks.

Regardless of the weather, the thing I think about most when I’m running these days are the old days. Like in eighth grade, when I won the Catholic Youth Organization’s city championships in the mile run, finishing in 5:07. Or when I won the freshman and reserve Catholic high school cross-country championships. These memories of youth and speed keep me going now that I’m old and slow. When trudging along Montgomery Road in Pleasant Ridge, I fantasize about being in, say, a 10-mile race, and winning my age group by finishing in less than one hour, just as I did 30-plus years ago. When I’m feeling particularly good, I up the stakes considerably and imagine myself running in an Olympic marathon—coming in first, of course, and setting a new Olympic and world record in the process! This I do despite the fact that I’m running only a few miles (versus a marathon’s 26.2) and that my pace is nearly four minutes slower per mile than would be required to win a gold medal (meaning I would finish almost two hours behind a real Olympic champion). So, Chariots of Fire it’s not.

This sort of athletic fantasy is particularly helpful when actually racing, which I have begun to do again. I use the term “racing” loosely because I’m not a threat to the top-notch guys in my age division. When I first started running, races were nowhere near as commonplace as they are today. Now hardly a weekend goes by, at least from early spring to late fall, in which there aren’t multiple races to choose from. The larger, more established ones typically attract the better runners across all age groups, making the smaller, less competitive ones better for my delicate ego.

My return to racing began in August with a 5K (3.1 miles) run through, as the race flyer put it, “the rolling hills of Amberley Village.” That must have been written by someone who drove the course because those so-called rolling hills felt more like ski slopes, creating a most unpleasant experience in the suffocating heat and humidity that accompanied the 6 p.m. start time. About a mile into the race, it occurred to me that the half-dozen or so guys running right in front or alongside weren’t moving fast. It took a few more strides for my oxygen-deprived brain to surmise what that meant: I wasn’t moving fast either. I finished well behind the leaders, including several women, and even a guy pushing a baby stroller—with a real chunker inside, I might add. My glory days felt like distant history.

A few weeks later, I ran another 5K, this one in Loveland on a mostly flat course. Again, I finished way behind the leaders, but my chief nemesis was not a fit dad pushing a fat baby but a scrawny 12-year-old who quickly got 50 yards out ahead of me. I simply couldn’t catch him. I thought about all the 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings I beat when I was a finely tuned 12-year-old and wondered (as I had not then) if that pissed them off the way this kid was getting under my sweaty, flushed skin.

About a half mile from the finish, I noticed a sudden surge in the energy level of the few spectators along the race route. For a moment, I thought they were cheering me on, hoping to see this middle-aged man catch the fleet-footed punk. I felt a rush of adrenaline, my legs a bit lighter, my lungs not burning quite as bad. I’ll catch that kid, I thought. Not just for me, but for the other AARP’ers and near-AARP’ers cheering me on. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of someone about to pass me with considerable ease. It was a woman, the lead female in the race. The applause was for her, not me. My energy level plummeted, my legs stiffened, and my lungs burned. She motored on by and I tried to find the silver lining: she wasn’t pushing a stroller.

I ran a few more races in September and October, including a 5K on the University of Cincinnati’s campus sponsored by the Junior League. It was an absolutely stunning fall morning and I felt ready to run. Thanks to the small turnout—and the fact that the really fast runners were competing in other races around town—I sensed I had a chance to do very well.

My instincts proved to be spot-on. Almost immediately, I found myself in the lead, following a campus motorcycle cop who was supposed to guide us. In my mind, I was leading the New York City Marathon with police cars and TV news crews blazing the way. Unfortunately, the cop must have been in a hurry because he sped away and I soon lost him—and then my way—on the poorly marked course. I had to guess which way to go. I guessed wrong. By the time I got back on course, I was so far behind the other runners and so frustrated that I quit and walked back to the start/finish line to complain to one of the race organizers. That’s when I learned that it’s hard to be pissed at a bubbly Junior Leaguer who’s devoted to raising money for good causes, in this case the eradication of childhood obesity.

I told her that I would be back again in 2011. And I meant it. Give me another year to train, I figure, and I will be one year closer to who I used to be.

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Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki

Originally published in the December 2010 issue.

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