Friday, December 7, 2007

The Reluctant Runner

The so-called literature of sports abounds with examples of heroic people who so loved running that they overcame great obstacles—poverty, political oppression, legs blown off by bombs—to become great runners. You can find their stories in any issue of Runners World.

But there is a shadowy corps of runners in the margins who run, not because they love running—they don’t—but because they must. These people run under penalty of death or disability, to lower their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, to reduce stress, to stretch the capacity of asthmatic lungs, to lose weight (or in some weird cases, to gain it), or to cheer the hell up.

I am one of those runners. For me, the brisk morning air, the rhythm of my breathing and the chuff-chuff of my feet is not something to look forward to, but something to be endured. The meditative state that other runners blather about eludes me. My feet hurt, my knees swell, my lungs squeak, and I am bored. I am convinced that a significant minority of those people chugging along on the roads and trails are, like me, reluctant runners. We persevere, not against great impediments, but against a collection of petty annoyances. We get out of bed in the morning with a metaphoric gun to our heads, and if we can visualize our own personal gun, we take the miracle cure. We run.

My hope is not for speed or medals, although those seem nice when others achieve them. My hope is for health and longevity that my history, habits and genetics would otherwise deny me.

Look at me and you can guess some of the challenges I face. I’m fat. Slim until middle age, I then filled out into my grandmother’s portly build. And that bane of the Baby Boomers, the foot soreness known as plantar fasciitis reduced my former eight-hour hikes to two-hour painfests.

Then a third shoe fell, the problem I had always called by the Victorian-sounding name “weak lungs” got worse and was diagnosed as asthma.

And finally, that Loch Ness Monster of the gene-pool, heart disease, set its sights on me and my bloodstream. I cried “uncle” and started training for a half-marathon.

There it is. No drama, no big mountains to climb. It’s more as if I’m balking on the slow march toward the inevitable.

I found myself in the company of the fatties—oh, come on! You’ve thought it, too—those pained and abused women and men who have almost reconciled themselves to running at the back of the race; the triathletes who strip off wet suits and sit down to a piece of chocolate cake or a Slimfast before getting on their bicycles to continue the race. These are not the returning all-state champions who run for the love of it. No, we hope to finish, and by finishing, we hope to put off the ultimate finish for a little longer.

We form the shuffling rear guard, looking out for each other’s hydration and egos, each of us realizing she or he might actually be the one who carries the ultimate burden--the burden of being The One who Finishes Last. But that’s better than death. If only marginally.

Here’s another case: a woman who suffered from lifelong depression and, in her twenties, anorexia. Before she began running, her body had the texture of driftwood. I know because I used to give her massages. She had been hospitalized for starvation. She lived on one can of tuna a day—about enough to keep a cat alive. She was well on her way to accomplishing her ultimate goal of self-anhiliation when, somewhere in her regimen of self-punishment, something backfired. One day she tortured herself to run seven miles--and got a completely unexpected boost of euphoria. “It was the first time in 20 years that I didn’t feel depressed,” she said. Every time after that, when she ran at least seven miles, she got the same euphoria. Gradually, running 49 miles a week enabled her to eat. She gained weight. She got herself a job in a grocery store. She saved her own life.

So out on the roads and running trails of Boulder, when you see the guy or woman slogging patiently along with the paunch and the shorts riding up, drawn on by thoughts of the next dessert, don’t mistake that for some kind of heroism. That’s just the same running from death that most people do, only more literal.

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