First Hand Report by the Jogger Himself!
Getting started is easy. Too easy. Posters and magazine covers featuring good-looking couples in handsome gear all conspire to make running very inviting. But by the time the sweatsuit has been through laundry a few times, running loses its sheen. The novelty wears off, and monotony sets in. So, why would I keep doing it for 21 years? My quick answer is fear.
I was a young husband, a father of two, an executive moving up and an ex-athlete who thought he was indestructible. I lost my father to his third heart attack at a time when we were just beginning to enjoy an adult relationship. He was 55. I was 29 and on a disastrous course.
Then I learned that my blood pressure was 200 over 110, my cholesterol over 400. My estimate of the situation told me that instead of slowly rebuilding my body, I should rapidly build an estate. I began buying all the life insurance I could afford. Now, that’s fear.
The Pre-Jogging Era
About that time, I read a borrowed copy of a book on aerobics. What it said made a lot of sense. I began to believe that I had a fighting chance to live beyond age 45.
Aerobics offers a menu of ways to improve the cardiovascular system, but I chose running. Walking takes too long. Bicycling is dangerous where I live. I swim like a rock, and I’ve never been much a dancer.
Next, I needed a routine. How far, how fast and where should I run? At football practice, one lap around the track was punishment; now we were talking miles. I sneaked out before day light so the neighbors wouldn’t know what I was up to, and I chose a path in the woods for the same reason.
As for my wardrobe – there were no role models. No Reebok or Nikes. No running suits in neon colors. I wore discarded high school gym shorts, a torn undershirt and thin-sole canvas deck shoes.
So there was this shadowy figure, clumping with determination through forest in the predawn hours, heading face-first into dew-laden spider webs and stumbling over branches – but blazing a trail others would soon follow.
Eventually, I came out into the open. I graduated from a shaky mile to a steady three. My workout regimen was five days a week, never on Sunday. After a losing struggle to run a six-minute mile, I realized that, for me, there are no medals for speed, so I decided to settle for a comfortable 30-minute run.
I was over my fear of dying, but I worried, how long can I keep this up? What’ll I do when I’m 50 – or 60? I wasn’t tired, just bored. Three miles yesterday, three miles today and three miles tomorrow – and tomorrow and tomorrow. But that’s how I got to ages 50 and 60 – one day at a time.
Humps and Hazards
Recognizing that there is no greater bore than a reformed smoker, drinker or cardiac candidate, let me jump to the moral of this story.
First, I’m 61 years old and it’s great to be alive. My blood pressure is normal, my pulse rate is 50 to 55, my cholesterol is within the normal range, and my weight is about what it was when I was in college. My doctor suggested a stress test a few years ago – and the treadmill finally settled for a standoff. I figure that I’m 10 or 15 years on borrowed time – and still counting.
But what about all of the backsliders? One day I’m joined by beautiful young men and women loping along in their matching Pierre Cardin outfits; a few weeks later, they’re nowhere to be seen. I miss their company. They’re missing out on some enduring benefits.
The key is getting over the hump, and there are ways to make that easier. I know that birds, bass fishermen and my grandchildren are probably the only natural early risers. But once it’s part of your morning routine, a run or walk can be a terrific way to start the day. It’s peaceful, quiet and beautiful.
Even more rewarding is running in far-off places. I have to travel a great deal on business and have left my footprints in Stanley Park in Vancouver, on the sidewalks of the French Quarter in New Orleans, along the C&O Canal in Washington, D.C., and over the hills of San Francisco.
Along the way, running is a great conversation piece. Someone says, “I heard you ran in the 10K last week. How long have you been at it? Holy cow, I wish I could do that.” And when you answer, “It’s nothing. I’m just stubborn, I guess,” you have automatically committed yourself to another stretch. So you keep going, and after a refreshing shower, sipping orange juice and coffee and poring over the morning paper are just rewards for your efforts.
Of course, there are hazards. Friendly neighbors sometimes have unfriendly dogs, but mostly they are just pleasant pets that wag a green light as I pass. When I start out in the morning, other creatures are just returning from nocturnal ramblings. An owl responds to my poor imitation of his call. A mother raccoon gives her three young ones a fishing lesson in the middle of a stream near my home. On one occasion I was charged by a skunk – but only because my path had placed me between her and her babies.
The only serious encounters have been with the morning newspaper carrier, akin to those between Dagwood Bumstead and the mailman. After several near misses in the dark, I explained to him that if we each stayed on his own left side of the street, nothing could possibly go wrong. He didn’t and it did. He was an average-size kid. I’m six foot three and weight about 200 ponds. The neighbors now recall it as the first known case of child abuse in our area.
Nay-sayers often overstate their concerns about running. I heard from them when Jim Fixx had his fatal heart attack and again when Jack Kelly Jr., a classmate, met a similar fate with similar notoriety. When it happened to the man from whom I’d purchased my life insurance, they thought they had me. I’m not a gambler, but you have to go with the odds. Jimmy the Greek would tell you that stronger heart muscles, greater lung capacity, a slower pulse rate and controlled weight will greatly improve your chances of winning the race. Those incidents are long shots.
Looking back, those 21 years went by quickly. Today, the combined experiences of countless runners and gear manufacturers have created an industry that continues improving the state of the art. That’s what makes it easy to walk right out the front door and start running. No one stares these days. There are no funny remarks. I think of that first dark morning and sat, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Now I’m wondering, what’ll I do when I’m 75? Maybe I’ll have my size 14 L.L. Bean shoes bronzed and collect the cash value of all those insurance policies.