Saturday, June 13, 2009

A writer on the hoof...

Awhile back, I gave up running for various reasons. Mostly because it hurts and I'm something of a wimp. But as soon as my broken toes heal I promised myself the supreme joy and mind bending torture of taking it up again from scratch.

When I first got into it, my reasons were many: Showing-up are those gym teachers who seemed to take sadistic pleasure in torturing the nerdy unathletic kid (how that would work, exactly, I can't tell you ), being able to sniff at joggers and say "I'm a runner", and mostly because I agreed to run a 5K for breast cancer.

Whatever my reasons, I kept with it (sporadically) for awhile because I discovered that running fascinates me. Admittedly, it’s sort of the same way that the strange itching ache and strange colors of the scab on my knee fascinate me, but all the same...

My main fascination with running is why we do it when no one's chasing us. Because - let's face it - running hurts. Period. I mean it, really, really hurts. A famous distance-runner once said that the best thing about running is that when it gets really, really terrible… it stops getting worse. Her name is Ann Trason and she was once clocked doing a mile in 6:44.

Not impressed? Then how about this, she did it 62 consecutive times to complete a 100K race in world-record time.

She does this for a living and is arguably the foremost female distance runner in the world. This woman is also - by all accounts - otherwise perfectly sane. I went out on the 'net to see if I could find anyone who had anything nice to say about running and was struck by the number of famous runners who agree with me.

Here’s more of what some of the world's foremost authorities on distance running have to say on the topic:
"You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming." Frank Shorter - gold medalist 1972 Olympics

"If you start to feel good during a [race], don’t worry you will get over it." Gene Thibault - x-country race champion

To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who's never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.Jerome Drayton - winner of Boston Marathon 1977

Marathon running is a terrible experience: monotonous, heavy and exhausting.Veikko Karvonen, - 1954 European & Boston Marathon Champ
And my personal favorite…

It’s like cutting yourself unexpectedly. You dip into the pain so gradually that the damage is done before you are aware of it. Unfortunately, when awareness comes, it is excruciating.John Farrington - Australian marathoner
In any other professional sport, these people would be called “ambassadors for the sport”. Ann Trason is practically the sport’s posterchild! Wow, sounds like fun, sign me up! 

These people must be nuts. What other sport do you find where the foremost proponents of the game describe every moment as “monotonous, heavy and exhausting”? Ever heard Wayne Gretzky describe hockey as painful drudgery, moaning about the agony of every minute they’re on the ice? Ever heard Brett Favre say that? Ok, maybe Favre would say it, but for most other high-end players, the answer would be no.

So what person in their right mind would put themselves through this daily horror of running necessary to compete in even a piddling 5K? When even the people who are at the front of the pack (which I am nowhere near) seem to hate it so much? People do this on purpose?

At this point you’re saying to yourself “Wow, Scott really hates running.” But I don’t. And that’s the weird thing, and why it - like the scab on my knee - is so fascinating to me. I love running. Since I started running, my posture has improved because you can’t breathe when you slouch (your diaphragm gets constricted). My legs are stronger and even when my knees ache, they feel better and stronger than otherwise. And when I’m running I get up earlier, sleep deeper and feel better 90% of the time. The remaining 10%? Well... that’s the time spent running and recovering from running. At that point I feel like crap. But it isn’t just the benefits of exercise. If it was, I’d take up weight lifting or yoga or something that doesn’t make you feel like crap. It’s not about exercise, it’s about the run.  The journey.

Truth be told if I was on a treadmill I really would defer to yoga or something. Momma didn’t raise no hamster. I gotta be going somewhere.

I live out in the country, on an island in Puget Sound and it seems made for this. There are long stretches of level blacktop with shoulders wide enough to accommodate a pedestrian and cars. There are hills that will kill you with a dull machete and hills that will apologetically stab you in the side with a sharp stiletto. The fog swirls around your ankles on morning runs and permeates your shuddering lungs with the fragrance of green and growing things and the distant tang of sea air. Much of my usual route takes me close to the shore, which is sadly lined with houses because that’s where the best blacktop is to be found. But what houses these are! Multi-million dollar estates framing the most breathtaking views (if I had any breath to take at the time) of Puget Sound.

If I’m out early enough, I get to catch the end of the lightshow from the distant city, as the night relinquishes its grasp on the world of man and the Xenon stars wink out at the onset of day. It’s a selfish sport really. It’s about personal bests. Whether you run a mile in 6:44 or 11:25 or 30:22, it’s not about the other guy. There is no other guy. Just you, the clop of your rubber on the tarmac, and the wheezing of your asthma-ravaged lunges whistling in your ears.

It’s a time for introspection, for measuring your stamina, for building your reserves, for proving to yourself once and for all that if you had to, if you really, really had to, you could outrun that maniac with a chainsaw you saw on the movie last night. You could just about outrun anything. Even sickness and sorrow and heartache.

It’s about life. The run. The journey.

And it’s also about staying a couple steps ahead of that lunatic with the chainsaw.

Wheezing and wandering… Yours faithfully, Scott

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).