The Observer: Running Commentary

Run long enough, far enough, often enough, and–somehow–it still may not be enough.
The Observer: Running Commentary

Illustration by Ward Sutton

Good evening and welcome aboard Bob’s Aerobic Express, Run #6552. I’m your internal narrator for today’s outing, and once underway, I’ll be pointing out various sights and highlights en route. Before we depart the house, I’ll remind you this is a two–ZIP code, round-trip loop with a total course time of approximately 90 minutes. Because Bob’s stride is more galumph than glide, please remain seated with seatbelts fastened for the entire run. As we taxi down the porch steps to the sidewalk, it’s important to note Bob’s running solo today, a long-standing personal preference that ensures no conversation, no sharing, no distractions, no latent competition or frustrating compromise of pace will occur. With such disturbances eliminated, a steady rhythm of footfalls and deep breathing will dominate, causing the cranial cabin to experience a significant, delicious drop in pressure. For those who prefer a more social, high-spirited aerobic adventure, we suggest you book next time with Lance, The Douchey Half-Naked Ballroom Dancer.

My pace is between fast and slow (7:45/mile). My distance is between 5K and marathon (7 to 17 miles). My addiction is between stoner and junkie (25 miles/week minimum, but no starting a run in an active thunder- or snowstorm; after a heavy snow, no running in the street until one lane (minimum) is plowed; no run when it’s below zero degrees or over 95 degrees Fahrenheit; a treadmill may be used only in the event of alien invasion or End Times).

What my addiction lacks in intensity, though, it makes up for in doggedness. Because despite such middling, ’tween stats, I have managed to log enough miles to circle the Earth more than two-and-a-half times. To put that in perspective: In coke-snorting terms, that’s the equivalent of perforating six septums.

As we take off on the run, are you feeling the gain in altitude? That’s due to the steep angle of the street Bob lives on, an incline the indigenous homeowners have long called Floods My Basement When It Rains. The reason for starting out uphill rather than down is to immediately set the run’s tone, to get to the punitive, purifying essence of it, a mind-set essential to converting a barrel of sweat into a pedestal of righteousness. In addition to this initial ascent, several more lung-busting ups and knee-bashing downs lie ahead, a fact local historians point to as proof Walnut Hills and Mt. Adams were not named ironically.

I found running in my early 20s. At the time, my most vigorous exercise was lifting cigarettes and joints to and from my lips several hundred times a day, a regimen that, when combined with a food pyramid buried beneath a landfill’s worth of McDonald’s, Doritos, and Coca-Cola, produced a man using more than his fair share of gravity. I was a study in lethargy, less interested in athletics than Donald Trump is interested in non-Donald Trump-related topics.

Why, precisely, I decided to take up any activity at all is lost to me now, the victim of time, all that weed, and a lack of foresight in not hiring a biographer. But I’m going to assume it was tied to a weight gain that threatened to move me from the Big & Tall department to the Bovine & Grotesque, and/or a family history in which heart disease fells our men like a twister through a cornfield.

Why I chose running over other activities, like swimming or cycling or tae kwon do or fencing, however, is less nebulous: 1) A pair of shoes is the only equipment necessary. 2) No facility beyond the sidewalk leading away from the house is required. 3) Instruction/lessons are unnecessary; I learned how to do it at age 3 and there have been no significant changes in how it’s done (at my level) since. That 1 + 2 + 3 = 0 investment was vitally important to an underemployed young man with two expensive smoking habits to support.

Along the residential blocks we travel, waving to neighbors out in their yards is compulsory; smiles are discretionary. Stopping to chat is forbidden as it causes a precipitous drop in heart rate, and besides, no one ever offers lemonade or cookies.

I run every other day. Seven, eight miles on workdays, longer on weekends. The shorter jaunts take about an hour, the long clock in at one-and-a-half to two hours. Elite runners, competitive runners, serious runners, go farther, faster, and far more often than that, which, as is common knowledge, renders them sexually dysfunctional, and within a year or two, bald. I’ll often cough out those sobering facts as I choke on the dust they kick up rocketing past me.

But hey, others are eating my dust, too. Not just the geriatric and lame, either (though, admittedly, I can’t provide supporting data). Regardless, I never consider passing another runner a victory. There are too many ambiguities. Is the passee a beginner? At mile 19 of a 20-miler? Coming back from an injury? An illness? Doing an homage to Boris Karloff’s The Mummy? Point is, one can’t know the skill and condition level, the circumstances, of others out on the road. Put another way, people are mysterious pains in the ass who should wear signs that provide context for curious, introverted strangers.

Ultimately, though, neither the swift nor the sloggers are important to me. Just one thing is: I’ve run eight miles several thousand times, double digit miles well over a thousand, yet each time I finish, as I wind down the pace, slow to a walk, and head up the driveway, ready to shower this latest one off, it always registers as an accomplishment. A success. Makes me feel good about me, about what I can do and just did.

I wonder if those erectionless, chrome dome elite guys feel the same? Because recent studies also indicate they’re dead inside.

For the next few miles, we’ll be wending our way through Eden Park. This natural sanctuary—its verdant landscape, river vistas, popular attractions, and rolling hills echoing with the sounds of families at leisure—is centering, a place of calm, capable of producing a Zen-like state that… Whoa! Cadillac! Crosswalk! In a crosswalk here! Jesus! Yo, Suburban. SUBURBAN! Turn down your music! It’s killing the birds! Hey, little girl, don’t pick those tulips. And little girl’s dad? No more kids for you.

I can be rather doctrinaire about running and that doctrine is, overall, simplicity. Meaning:

I don’t wear expensive clothing constructed of the latest synthetic technical fabric that’s lighter than gossamer yet can wick away more moisture than an industrial sump pump; is available only in the most au courant, wind-slicing colors; and springs fresh from the lab where it’s been competition-tested on Kenyan marathoners from the future. My shirts aren’t Under Armour or Nike. My shorts length does not rise and fall with the tides of fashion. The price of my socks is not a rallying point for Occupy Wall Street.

I’m not accessorized with heart monitor, GPS-equipped watch, music player, cell phone, earphones, water bottle, water bottle belt, CamelBak hydration system, desalination kit, energy bars, geothermal energy bars, trail mix, sunglasses, reflectors, fanny pack, stroller, flashing lights, side-impact airbags, or half bath.

I maintain no running log, subscribe to no running magazine, frequent no running websites, download no running apps.

Instead, I sport bargain bin cotton tees and socks, worn until they disintegrate. Nylon shorts or running pants, worn forever because they never disintegrate. A basic digital watch. And for extremely long runs only, a pack of Shot Bloks, cut in two, half in each shorts pocket for balance (added weight per pocket: 1.1 ounces).

Analogously, my runs are more monk’s pilgrimage than NASA mission. Though the monk does wear dual air-cushioned, dynamic Nike Flywire shoes for neutral stride heel-strikers with high arches.

Just ahead, approaching us and quickly closing in, is another runner. Note that while it’s currently 44 degrees and overcast, he’s shirtless and in shorty shorts, the distinctive markings of the Common Silly Bastard. It’s quite likely that before we’re through, we’ll see a wide range of individual adaptations to today’s atmospheric conditions: tights and a T-shirt here; full sweat suit, headband, and gloves there; maybe a pair of fitness capris with a fleece zip-up vest in the Magnolia Grove; compression shorts plus singlet lapping the reservoir. Forgive my tangent, but if we all can’t even agree on how the weather feels, our chances of reaching a consensus on climate change seem remote.

I don’t do races. Ever. Partly because running in the company of several thousand others sounds like something more suitable for Calcutta commuters trying to catch the last train out of the station or spooked wildebeests. But I have other objections, too. Like the ungodly hour most of them start (I’m an evening runner and I don’t relish the thought of hydrating with a triple espresso at sunrise) and the fact that the fastest entrants are put at the front of the pack (why not democratize the starting line through “first to show, first to go,” or a chili cook-off?).

Mostly though, I bristle at the thought of competing. At anything. The stakes appear simultaneously negligible and enormous. Winning hardly seems worth the effort given the weakness of the field, a weakness my winning irrefutably proves. On the other hand, to lose is to undeniably quantify and confirm the inferiority I normally only presume—and take my word for it, presumption’s plenty.

I’ve shared this conundrum with people who do race and they say I’m looking at it all wrong. (A marathoning friend once told me “For you, it’s not a race. It’s an event.”) Their motivation is—and mine, they suggest, should be—to “have fun” or “challenge myself.” To which I can only say, isn’t that what porn’s for?

[EEEEEEEeeeeEEEEEEEeeee] Please, remain calm. The alarm you hear is due to a sudden, unanticipated severe ankle pain. The cause is not traumatic. There’s no break or sprain. Sometimes such pains just happen—in an ankle, a knee, a glute. Current protocol is to keep going and see if it goes away on its own. Should the same pain recur on five consecutive runs, an icing regimen will begin. After 10 runs, it will be researched and diagnosed using the Internet. At 25 runs, a doctor’s appointment will be mulled but not made. Should it become crippling, well, it was unpreventable.

There are no vacations from running, there is only vacation running. Putting in miles while traveling is essential to maintain my condition and prevent jonesing, not to mention an opportunity to take in new sights, tackle different terrain, feel superior to an entirely new group of listless citizens, and if traveling in Canada, disobey the Don’t Walk lights and be put on the RCMP’s 10 Most Wanted list.

Often after a long flight or day of driving, the first thing I do once I’m checked in at the hotel or the tent’s up is change clothes and head out to run off the kinks and cobwebs. If my wife, Lauren, and I are travelling together, we actually have a little routine: She rolls her eyes, says “Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” and lays down for a nap, leaving me to head out alone, explore the area, do recon. At the very least, I’ll spot a nice restaurant for dinner or notice some intriguing little shops. Elsewhere, I may come across a picturesque waterfall or roll past the amphitheater where the park holds its nature programs. Later, we’ll return to these places together, places we may not have found, or found so readily, without running.

But vacation runs go far beyond the functional. They can lead to a lush Mexican jungle, exhilarating both for its scenery and the real possibility of being taken down by a jaguar. To Paris, along crowded city sidewalks to the Bois de Vincennes, the whole route an aromatic mélange of baking baguettes and women misted in exotic parfums. To a gravel road near Zion National Park that snaked me to and through an Old West ghost town not on any map. To Portland, doing an effortless 12 on an endless, soft dirt path zigzagging through soaring, shading, silencing Douglas firs, my dog, leashless, trotting by my side.

These are solitary, irreplaceable experiences, intimate in their way. An embrace shared by the thoroughly familiar and the completely unknown.

Straight ahead, in the near distance, is a bridge known as the Six Minutes From Home Bridge, so-named because by the most direct path it’s six minutes from home. It’s about here Bob could use some motivation, which he gets from his internal personal coach. Let’s listen in, live.

“Make it to the bridge and stop. Make it to the bridge and stop. Make it to the bridge and that’ll be 92 minutes straight up and you can stop. Come on, almost there, almost ALMOST ALLLLLLMOSTTTT. Yes! Bridge: Done. Bam! YEAH! Hey, don’t stop. GO, slug. Keep going. No way you can stop at 92. Do 95, that’s a clean number. Hit 95 and stop. Really. I mean it. At 95, it’s over. You’re done. Yeah, I know I say that every time and then I say “Don’t stop” at 95, too, but it’s important for you to believe my empty promises or you won’t even make it to 95, the stopping point we both know I won’t let you stop at because it’s so godfrikkindamnably close to an even 100. Just listen and accept what I know, you know, and I know you know are lies as truth and you can start looking forward to the stop that I know, you know, and I know you know you won’t make. At 95. But you’ll have the option. Including the option to withdraw the option. …”

Wow. Fantastic. That’s just the kind of inspirational incoherence Bob counts on from Coach Endorphins.

In the past three years, my per mile pace has nudged up 15, 20 seconds. In the past 10, where once I loved nothing more than grinding out major mileage in 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity, brining in a sweat sopped shirt, a muggy-ish low-80s day now has the potential to bring on a walk break. I also have a couple of nagging, recurring conditions that, while not incapacitating, are aggravations I must tolerate and work around and treat. (I could name them but such explicit complaints are better suited to Christmas letters.) All of which tells me that I won’t be able to do this forever. One day, I’ll need a hip replacement or have a stroke or get arthritis or Alzwhatever-it-is and I’ll be forced to stop.

“You don’t know that,” Lauren tells me. “There are marathoners in their 90s.” True. But unless I drop dead on a run, there’s sure to be months or years when, Nike mantra be damned, I just can’t do it. Then what? After 50, 60, 70 years of running, circling the globe three, perhaps four times, will I feel active and accomplished, righteous even, batting a beach ball around the activity room at the retirement home?

OK. Now I’m depressed enough that I’m going for a run.

This concludes today’s outing. As we arrive at the front door, please be sure to collect all your belongings before we de-Bob, as he has more than enough baggage of his own.

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