Monday, March 19, 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I can’t remember why I got into distance running as a teenager. The first few times I tried it, only going for a mile or two, gave me sore ankles, to the point where I’d have to take a week or two before trying again. A few years into doing it, I could have tried out for cross country and easily made the team, but didn’t. It was just one of those strange teenage obsessions I can’t quite describe, save to say that I started when I turned 14 and didn’t stop full-time distance running until the age of 30 or so.

If I could trace my intentions back to the start, I’d wager that losing weight was part of it. That summer when I turned 14, I magically lost all my baby fat – just the right combination of gaining a few inches in height and doing various workouts like tennis and weights. I’m certain that’s when I started running for real and making it stick. Like tennis, running (or “jogging” as it was called) was one of those late 70s trends people tended to try at least once. Once I got past the ankle pain, I found that I really liked the discipline; to run several miles a day repeatedly, you couldn’t fake wanting to do it. I also grew up in a small house with six other people, three brothers in one very small bedroom. Any chance I had to get off on my own, I took it. I grew up in the country, and running was a way to directly experience the sensation of space to move around in -- I sure as hell wasn't getting it at home.

It should have been easy to run back there, with the miles of back roads around my home town, but in all those years back there, I’d only see a handful of runners along the way. And I constantly took verbal abuse. I still remember a pack of construction workers on the roof of a house, one of them yelling, “Hey, what ya’ runnin’ for? I’ll vote for ya’! Haw, haw, haw!” A popular one was to call out “Hey, Rocky” – I guess because in the movie Rocky, Stallone’s big “Gonna’ Fly Now” montage was of him running through the streets of Philadelphia.

Usually, I’d just notice people staring at me through car windshields as if I was running naked. It could get dangerous, too. The roads back there aren’t designed for exercise (as they are in some places I’ve been with special biking/pedestrian lanes), so many’s the time I nearly got sideswiped by a pick-up truck, a few times clearly on purpose. I got in the habit of running early in the morning, as there were less shitheads out then. Late afternoon, I’d invariably run by a bunch of rednecks having a cookout, and get the usual shouted comments and buffoonish guffaws let loose in my direction.

Whatever. Most people lobbing bon mots my way were in terrible shape – smoking, pot-bellied, haggard-looking. So I took all that shit with a grain of salt. For every momentary diversion like that, the rest of the run would be peaceful. I don’t think that’s what a lot of non-runners grasp: how relaxing distance running becomes once you reach a certain level. I found that I could run fast for miles and slip into a zone that was like meditating – I’ve since learned the brain releases some type of enzyme that replicates the effects of marijuana smoking. And I believe it, because I’ve felt that sense of relaxation many times. This is hard to convey to people who get winded walking up a small flight of stairs, and run only when they’re being chased, i.e., never.

If I was in a hurry, I had the three-mile course that included Hampton’s Hill, which was basically a quarter-mile grade rising at about a 60-degree angle, a real challenge that always left me winded. If I was lifting weights that day, I’d do that shorter run. My “running days” were the seven-mile course that weaved all along the backroads around my hometown, ending on a two-mile stretch of Route 61 that lead back to my house. The good part about running back there was hills everywhere. Most not as challenging as Hampton’s Hill, but still enough to throw periodic jolts into a workout.

It didn’t take me long to get good at running, and by the time I was going to Penn State’s Schuylkill Campus, I was in great shape. Skinny as hell, too – boy, I’d like to revisit those days physically! Bonnie, one of the campus phys. ed. teachers, was always training for triathlons and liked to run along with me, knowing she couldn’t keep up, but it would be good for her to have someone that fast pace her as long as possible. I was regularly running sub-six-minute miles, every day. Not quite world level, but pretty damn fast. I also found some longer courses near the campus, one being 10 miles, and it was a personal challenge to finish that in an hour, which I almost always did. There were three days on campus where I had a class at nine in the morning with the next at two in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time to burn, and did so with running.

The only official races I ran in were at this point, a five-mile “fun run” at a local shopping mall, which I finished in just under 26 minutes, and this was with my stopping on the last steep hill, my lungs feeling like they were going to burst into flames, and another runner grabbing my arm and refusing to let me stop. (Like the asshole I was, I burst ahead of him in the last 50 yards and beat him. If I’d had any class, I would have finished with him, because if it wasn’t for that guy, I’d probably have just dropped to my knees and stayed that way for a few minutes.)

And the campus had a three-mile run, which I should have won handily, but didn’t. I knew the course that we were to run inside and out. The thing was, the always-drunk ROTC guys who were marking the course made a mistake and picked two wrong hills on the course, thus slowing me down immensely. It was so bad that I wasn’t even breathing hard on these hills, purposely staying with the pack because we were lost, when hills were my specialty, and I should have been opening up huge leads at each. I ended up losing to a guy who was a champion high-school sprinter – no great surprise. But hats off to him, too. If it had been six miles, forget it, but the race was just short enough so someone with that kind of training could stay close until the end then turn on the after burners.

Moving up to the main campus at State College, I still ran every day, rain or shine. Friends would be amazed to see me out running in a blizzard – running in the snow was actually pretty easy, and a very peaceful experience. Ice was about the only hard run, and even then, if you just ran slower and placed your steps carefully, it wasn’t hard to do. I also found that running was a great, if brutal, remedy for hangovers. Something about drinking alcohol would make me wake up the next day before 7:00 a.m., even if I’d been out drinking until 2:00. I’d be on the verge of puking, head feeling like a crushed watermelon, but I always found that if I got out there running, this would do wonders for me physically. Headache would fade away, as would the nausea. The first mile would be mind-blowingly awful, literally on the verge of passing out or puking, but by the second mile, the body would slowly wake up and respond. Of course, I’d end up taking a three-hour nap in the afternoon, but I wouldn’t spend the entire day feeling like a piece of shit. (These days, I spend the entire day feeling like a piece of shit, which is why I rarely drink to excess.)

This sort of high-level running went on well through my 20s, until I had two key injuries. The first was nearly blowing out my right knee when I crashed a bicycle in the intersection of 125th and Broadway – a truly painful experience for which I should have sought medical treatment, but didn’t as I wasn’t covered at the time. The second, I think I was 29 at the time, I was back home running in the fall, when I stepped on a beer bottle hidden by leaves by the side of the road, which unfortunately didn’t break. Had it broken, I might have cut my foot, at worst. Because it didn’t break, the bottle spun out from under me, causing my right ankle to bend at a horrible angle while the rest of my body lurched forward at full pace. How I didn’t break my ankle, I don’t know, but that one injury stopped me running for a good six months afterwards.

That signaled the end for me and daily running. I came back a bit after that, but I also had the problem of an adult life, and the only time to run being before work, which in winter months meant before sunrise (in the Bronx, where I was living at the time). While I loved running that early in the morning, and that was about the only time the Bronx was a peaceful place, running in the dark sucked. I was always coming across stoned assholes still wrapping up the previous night’s festivities on the streets, or stepping in dogshit and broken glass, both of which were everywhere and hard to see in the dark. After work, there was just too much traffic, car and human, to get in any sort of solid run. The Bronx was similar to my part of Pennsylvania with the hills and such, and there was a huge set of stairs between two avenues that made for a great physical challenge, but it just got to be too much of a hassle to get up every day at 5:30 (or earlier) to work this into my day.

I still run that seven-mile course when I go back to Pennsylvania. Nowhere near as fast as I once did, but there’s something odd about the body in that it never forgets how to respond to a physical challenge like that. I do that run easily – for every day I’m back there (usually about 4-5 seven-mile runs). For me, it’s a bit embarrassing that I run so slow now, simply being larger physically than I was in full running/late-teen prime, but when I tell friends I just ran seven miles, they act shocked, as if I was scaling Mt. Everest. I don’t know. Anyone who’s done any sort of distance running understands you could easily run 20 miles if you had to – the trick is speed over distance, and I’ve totally lost that sort of discipline, and most likely will never get it back, unless I take up running again.

But, I enjoy boxing now, which is different in many ways from running. When I ran, I was always annoyed that my body would never get bigger, which most guys want when they’re teenagers, to be physically imposing. You want to get bigger? Box. Your body frame will grow as much or more than it would with weights. It’s a different kind of workout in that there are short periods of intense physical stress, generally followed by short lulls – repeated many times over in a given one-hour workout. More like sprinting than distance running. Still, all professional boxers do road work, the kind of running I used to do, albeit probably much slower, with the idea that stamina is key to a boxer’s success. But I often get that same feeling with boxing, when I’m going full gun and feel like collapsing, that my body is adapting to the challenge, and I’m experiencing some sort of enlightened physiological level that would be impossible without this high level of stress. Also reminds me of those annoying pricks who used to yell “Hey, Rocky” at me. I guess I took their advice.


Quiet realization: this is the one-year anniversary (to the day) of starting this thing. What have I learned? The less work I get, the more I write. That’s about it. But I am glad to be regularly churning out material, whatever the quality. Like boxing or running, writing is something that has always kept me relatively sane, and most likely always will. Only makes sense to keep it up.

1 comment:


I was accidentally driven here so i dedicate this song to you by the best band ever

Iron Maiden - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner