You will enjoy this one.
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I don’t like to admit it, but I started running to lose weight. Worse yet, I got past the initial hurdles because I was captivated by the story of a famous “Ultramarathon Man.” Worst of all, I picked up that book because the dude on the cover was ripped.
Like many new, middle-aged runners, I was active as a kid. I played organized baseball into my teens. I never hit for power, but was always proud of my speed. Mookie Wilson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Lenny Dykstra, Rickey Henderson; these were the guys that got me excited. I had never heard the names Pre, Kennedy, or Rogers. “Salazar” evoked “Luis.” From about age 14, my afternoons, weekends and nights were consumed with pick-up basketball. At 5’ 6”, I wasn’t mixing it up in the low post (too much). But, I could race up and down the court with anyone.
As with many others, I put on a bunch of weight in college and grad school, mostly to impress a girl whose circle of friends included not a few football players. “You’re skinny,” she once said, poking my ribs. (I got the girl, the muscles and a lot more. Not a bad deal, on balance.)
Determined to return to my former fitness, I started running in my early 30s, first on a track. 1, 2, 7 and 9 miles, round and round. I am largely unaffected by cold (I warm up quickly) or the absence of external stimuli (To be out and moving and in presence of God; there is little sweeter to me.)
Like any other uncool newbie, my first race was the longest local race I could find: a half marathon which I completed in 2 hours and 14 minutes (!), in cotton (!!). My next big goal race was, of course, a marathon which I ran like a special ops mission. (Through the Hamptons. I know, right?)
About three years ago, I found my way to runningahead.com. And, again -- romantic or not -- it was an Internet community that has made all the difference in my running. People on there started talking about running fast as well as far. A runner I admire a great deal, who goes by mikeymike, frequently emphasized training to race. I now realize that all that talk of racing sparked a connection with my first childhood loves: the intertwined joys of running fast and of competing. When we played hoops, we didn’t hate the other guys, but we sure wanted to beat them. We weren’t playing to get in shape or lose weight or “do cardio.” We played hard because, with nothing up for grabs, we wanted so badly to win. And, win or lose, we all went out for pizza afterwards.
Over the last year or so, my race times have really improved, thanks in very large part to Jeff (Yes, this Jeff.) I initially connected with him because, like me, he cares a lot about the relationships among running, spirituality, and philosophy. Under his (free and copious) guidance, I recently brought my half marathon time down to 1:29:51. This year, he admonished me to be more focused in my training and to do workouts in a logical order. I ran hills and drills. I sharpened. I treated races more like races and less like parades.
Nowadays, people ask me “When’s your next marathon?” I never get past “I’m actually trying to get faster at shorter-” before the person, visibly embarrassed for me, looks down and changes the subject. My need for approval (which sometimes feels pathological) notwithstanding, I won’t run a marathon any time soon. I may never run another marathon.
Like many of you, I do not really know why I run. Thankfully, I rarely have to answer that for anyone. I suspect it’s because television, magazines and pop-up ads have given them answers which they think are mine. Or maybe they just don’t care, which is just as well.
No matter what, I am firmly fixed in this thing called Running, which helps me forget at times, the thing in life that kills me most, that I spend most of my hours hunched over a desk, working for a living and not for something meaningful. But on many morning jogs -- snot dripping over my lips as I greet day laborers waiting and hoping to earn something for their families -- I have had time to think that maybe this elusive “meaningful work” is just a nonsensical name for an illusory castle. I have learned on those runs to find meaning in the now, in the presence of God and man.
And, with each good effort, I become a better version of myself. I feel younger, stronger, more secure and more free. I peel away another layer of slowness and weakness. I have reached the fast end of slow and I am grateful for that.
There are mornings I can’t get the legs moving. Then, in a low voice, “Runner’s run.” Yep. And, with a grunt, I am off.