The Runner

I never thought I’d be a runner.

I mocked runners. I’d think, “Oh, ha ha, look at them, gallumphing about, sweating like perps. They’re not getting anywhere. What are you running from, asshole? Go ride a bike. At least you can get somewhere on a bike.” Then I’d laugh and high-five myself and not go ride my bike.

As a kid, running was a small misery for me. I had something called Osgood Schlatter’s disease, which is basically the “growing pains” you hear about, except these growing pains form a pair of knobby protrusions beneath my kneecaps — like knots on a tree, like elbows beneath my knees — and when I ran, it hurt like a sonofabitch. This was, of course, also an excellent way of getting out of gym class. “Sorry, coach, can’t engage with your physical fitness regimen today because, hey, look at these knees.” Then I’d go and I’d sit on the bench and read a book or hang out with those other guys who forgot their gym uniforms that day.

It was a very good way to excuse myself not running.

A great way, in fact, to excuse not pushing myself at all, physically.

supreme way, perhaps, to train my mind and my body to pack on a little weight.

And pack on a little weight, I did. Never epic weight, but often enough to be uncomfortable, certainly enough to earn myself those little whispers I imagine others whisper (even though they probably don’t) about how I look or what kind of weight I’m carrying around.

I’ve tried all kinds of things. Various diets and exercise plans. They all work until they don’t, and they stop working because they mostly suck. By which I mean, they’re unpleasant and not easy and offer uncertain reward and just when you think you’ve worked out something that does work along comes a study that says that thing you’re doing is going to kill you and that’s enough for Doubt to get its wriggly toe in the door and make you taper off what you’re doing. Low-carb works but it’s low-carb (CAKE COOKIE ICE CREAM BREAD PASTA PIXIE STICKS egads I feel like a prediabetic cookie monster over here). The elliptical works but you have to stand in the same spot the whole time and spin those legs and accomplish nothing while staring at the wall or the TV. Going to the gym works but hot damn, I have things to do and the gym costs money.

I got a toddler. I’m a writer.

Time and money, c’mon.

Still. I’ve committed. So I do a mixture of all this stuff. An inelegant smooshy wad of various options and approaches and clumsy methodologies. I got myself a Fitbit. I have yet to lose it. I walk 10,000 steps a day. It’s working. Some weight has gone. Slowly. And surely.

Just the same, I kept thinking it wasn’t enough.

And I kept thinking about running.

I’d heard it was a good way to lose weight.

I worried that it was bad for my knees. Or was just so awful I’d never stick with it.

Then the Oatmeal’s cartoon about running came out.

And I thought, huh.

I’ve flirted with running before. Never seriously. I walk a lot every day and so I’d once in a while break into a run and thirty seconds in I didn’t hit a Runner’s High so much as I hit a Sisyphean Nadir where the boulder rolled back on me and crushed my lung capacity and so again I’d return to that notion that running was for chumps and, pssh, pfft, I was no such chump.

Still, as noted, we have a toddler. And as of late it has become increasingly clear that he can run like a motherfucker. He’s like a bullet fired from a gun. It’s like something out of the Matrix — he can defy physics and turn on a dime and zip and dash and zoom.

He’s like a tornado made of wolverines.

And sometimes a thing will happen where he runs boldly toward danger.

A road. A countertop corner. A starving velociraptor.

A firm parental yell (aka “Daddy Voice”) stops him in his tracks.

But if it didn’t –?

I wondered: Could I catch him?

If I tried to run after him, would the toddler win out?

So, I decided to try running.

I decided to try it for real this time. I Googled how to do it, which felt like one of the most absurd Google searches of my life and I half-expected Google to return a single result which was the text: DO THE SAME THING YOU DO WHILE WALKING EXCEPT DO IT QUICKLY, DUMMY, then maybe also adding a lovely little infographic that shows left, right, left, right in clear and colorful diagrams. Running for Dipshits, the graphic might be called.

Except, turns out, I had a bit to read. And as I am a writer and a reader, I like it when subjects give me things to read — if I can distill a physical action down to an intellectual reading exercise, that really helps. And one of the most beneficial things I read basically said, at least initially, do not run yourself directly into misery. Right? At first, just run until it sucks, then stop. Then walk home. Because if your first experience with it is just a sack-punch of pure anguish, you’re not likely to do it again the next day.

I went out, bought a new pair of shoes. Running shoes.

Then not quite two weeks ago, I took my first run.

It was equal parts horrible and wonderful.

I felt like I was dying.

And at the same time, I felt like I was really living.

As my limbs pinwheeled and my body tumbled forward like a crashing passenger train – a graceless flopping about, really — I felt my heart throbbing in my neck like a hummingbird, I heard my breathing start to sound like the panting of a heat-struck dog. My knees hurt. My back hurt. My eyes were wide and my tongue was thrust out. And yet at the same time…

The evening was beautiful. The woods were loud with insects. No cars on the backroad. A distant dog barking. A nice breeze, utterly unlikely in August. My chin was lifted. My chest was out. My initial enervation reversed and suddenly I felt weirdly bright and oddly capable.

I was, that night, able to run for a minute and a half without having to stop and basically die.

The next time, I ran two minutes.

Then three.

Then four, twice in a row.

Then five, twice in a row.

Last night I ran six minutes without perishing in an explosion of sweat and fire.

The first time I ran, I ran fast, faster than I’d run in a long time.

The third time was awful.

The fourth time was revelatory.

My legs hurt. My back hurts.

But I want to keep doing it. I want to race the Devil. I want to outrun death (because really, that’s what running is about — it’s a race we will all lose, because life, like pinball, is a game we can’t beat). I want to enjoy the mornings and the nights while running.

If I think about running when I’m running it hurts, it’s awful, I hate it. If I think about other things, then it’s nothing at all. No pain. Just clear sailing.

I’m not good at it. I’m no expert. I’m so far beneath amateur hour that I wouldn’t even be allowed to join the Bar League. But I think I’m going to keep doing it.

I run now, so I guess that makes me a runner

At least for now.

92 comments

  • Osgood-Schlatter’s high five! I’ve tried to do the running thing because it looks so freeing and because my fiance is such a good runner, but I couldn’t get past the knee pain. Granted, my knee pain is joined by other knee, hip, and ankle pain from fifteen years of dance. Imagine having those ultra-knobbly knees and having to wear ballet tights. Not cute. Never cute.

    So I swim. And I thank God that waterproof mp3 players became a thing because staring at the tiles at the bottom of the pool was coma-inducing.

  • I have been SO TEMPTED to start running again. But after running a lot in my late teens, early 20s and being of Stout Irish Stock, I’ve been told by doctors that I essentially have no cartilage left in my knees. I’m damn trim for 315lbs (seriously, there’s very little body fat on my limbs), but I’m scared I’m going to do irreparable damage if I start running again.

  • I keep thinking I need to be more active, since everything I do involves sitting down (I work in a cube, I commute on a train, I read and play video games…). Running sounds like torture, I don’t know how you do it. I want to die after running up a flight of stairs to catch my train…

    But maybe I’ll give it a try. I need to do something and the gym is so… well, scary. I don’t know how any of that stuff works and I still wear the psychological scars of gym class in high school with bitchy girls insulting me. I can’t shake it.

    I guess I can’t go running in my Chuck Taylors.

  • Welcome to the dark, sweaty, slightly obsessive side. Advice: go to a real runner store and get a gait analysis. See what kind of shoes you need, and get those shoes. Replace them as appropriate for your mileage (which, as we all know, varies). Check your gait every so often. I started out ten years ago in motion control (wicked Q angle, tendency to pronation) and have worked my way down to light stability as my strength and gait improved. However. I will never, ever, ever be able to run in the cool Nike Frees or the barefoot running or whatever. Wrong biomechanics. But I wouldn’t know that if I hadn’t done the gait analysis first. The spouse, rot him, has springy runner feet and a near-perfect gait and can wear the light, neutral shoes in the awesome eyebleeding colors. If I’d tried to wear shoes like his, I wouldn’t be running now.

  • I’ve been a runner most of my life–even as a kid. I played soccer and baseball, and us neighborhood kids came up with a flipped game of tag we called Fugitive where one person ran and everyone else (a crowd of up to 20) was “it.” We’d give the fugitive a 100-count head start and then begin the chase. The only rule was you weren’t allowed to go indoors. The chase covered a 300-acre neighborhood, with a 50-acre forest in the middle, so a good game could last half a day. I loved being “it.”

    I ran sprints in high school, but the track coach had been an Olympic miler and he got us all running distance. I loved the zen of it, being in the zone, the flow of moving through terrain focused on nothing more than breathing. Even when I worked as a backcountry ranger in wilderness areas, hiking 10 or 20 miles a day, I’d still go for runs. For 30 years I ran mountain trails and backroads, averaging 50-60 miles a week.

    Compared to most people, that’s weird. But mingle with runners and you’ll find many kindred spirits–people who love the feeling of running.

    Then at 50 I shattered my left ankle in a fall. At 52 I had major neck spinal surgery. At 54 I no longer run and I miss it like a phantom limb.

    But I’ve also always biked, road bikes and mountain bikes, so I still do that 5-6 days a week, and I hike a lot, cross-country ski in the winter. I moved to Montana 34 years ago despite the low wages and mouldering economy because I needed the open spaces to move through. I’d be miserable without access to the hundreds of miles of trails here, with trailheads just four blocks from my front door.

    Honestly, I can’t bear sitting down to write if I don’t get my daily fix of leg-pumping cardio.

    It’s never too late to start moving, to discover what your legs and lungs and heart are capable of.

    THIS IS IMPORTANT, TO BE LEARNED BEFORE YOU HURT YOURSELF: Embrace cross-training–not just running, but cycling, swimming, hiking, ice skating, skiing, dancing–anything that gets your heart rate up. A mix of activities keeps it fun and greatly reduces your risk of repetitive stress injuries.

    Have fun!

  • I LOVE this! And – yes, you’re a runner! Know why? Because you already appreciate that it’s about more than what you get out of it. Sure, you want to run so you can lose weight, catch your kid, etc. But you also want to run because you’re discovered there’s magic in being out there – beauty in the doing of it. S

    I didn’t start running until I was 40. At 51, I now run 3-4 times a week and I couldn’t live without it. I don’t run fast, but sometimes I run pretty far. And I blog about it because that it helps me appreciate…well, everything. And it keeps me sane…and drives me a little crazy sometimes.

    Incidentally, I get the part about wanting to take your mind off what your body’s feeling when you run. It does hurt sometimes – especially at the beginning. But, when it starts to feel easier, I’d recommend you try running a little more “mindfully”. Your body has important things to tell you and you don’t want to miss them.

    Congrats! And happy running!

  • I’ve been wanting to start running. I purchased Nike Frees (any other running shoe I’ve tried has been too heavy) and got the sensor to track workouts, etc. My only problem is my stupid knee. So walking has been the ticket so far. I’d like to get to the point that I have an accessible pool that I can swim in the mornings and then run/walk in the afternoon. Low impact and high impact, both good cardio workouts. It’d be great. However, I probably will have to stick with just walking for now.

    Great post. It’s encouraging to see that kind of starting point that you had…and the correlations to writing.

  • I’ve been running on and off for years, but never ‘seriously’. This past xmas my life went kablooie and I needed something to concentrate on that wasn’t the PhD and wasn’t writing. Something physical. So on a whim I signed up for a 10K and had about 3 months to train for it. A marathon-runner friend sent a training schedule and I followed it religiously, running 3x a week, building up to 15 minutes, then 25, then, amazingly, an hour. I ran mostly on a treadmill, though (to avoid injury) but did the 10K in 67 minutes! Running sucks and is awesome at the same time. Sort of like writing ;)
    Good luck with it!

  • Welcome to the club. I call myself a “runner”, because I run consistently… but I’ve never gone above 3 miles. Still, for my former couch-potato self, that in itself was a HUGE accomplishment.

    My favorite thing about running is that it allows me to start my day outside, away from computer screens and smartphones and everything else that dominates the daily route. I get 30 minutes to myself, to actually push myself and accomplish something–and then I feel ready to go tackle ALL THE THINGS. Those 30 minutes suck while I’m doing them, but afterwards it’s always worth it.

    If you haven’t already looked into it, the Couch to 5K is pretty great.

  • Thanks for your blog, and thanks for the link to the Oatmeal comic which my son and I read while we were supposed to be working at the job that pays for things like really expensive running shoes. We laughed, we cried, we discussed. You rock, your commenting public rocks, just thanks.

  • I also started running recently for pretty much identical reasons. I was a runner and somewhat of a gym rat. Then I got a desk job, house, married, and a toddler and suddenly find myself out of shape and in my mid-thirties. The best thing I did was the couch to 5K program. It works extremely well and for the first time I have been able to stick with running. I bought the Zombies Run 5K app because if I figured it would be fun to make a game out of running and it’s a little extra motivation to get me out the door.

  • Welcome to the dark and sweaty side! As a longtime runner myself, I love reading about people discovering running and the pains and joys that come with it. I won’t get too gushy, but it really is a wonderful world, the runner’s circle. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it so much that you’ll consider doing a 5K in the future. It might seem silly, but there’s a certain magic in running a race that I can’t really get across with words.
    Also, your post reminded me of Marc Parent’s “Newbie Runner” column in Runner’s World magazine, you might enjoy it.

  • I gave up on running a couple of years ago because of knee problems. I think I’ve got those worked out so I started running again recently. Now, I was never a “runner” runner. I ran to try and stay in shape not because I think turning purple and breathing like a freight train was cool. Never someone who thought the idea of a marathon sounded awesome (five miles was my limit) but I think I’m in okay shape from all the biking and swimming I do. How quickly running disabused me of this notion. All I could think of on my first run was the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz and how my joints were dying for some of the oil from his can.

    But it’s gotten better and I even managed to run the whole 5K portion of my last sprint triathlon rather than doing a sad run/walk/stumble thing to get across the finish line. So congrats on getting started and good luck!

  • Glad to read this! I started running again 1.5 years ago, spurred on by similar reasons, though my kids were older than yours, and the first few weeks sucked. It was February; cold, dark, not the least bit motivational. But each run became a little easier, and each time I’d go a little further. Not only did I lose weight (30 lbs!) but I had more energy, a clearer mind, and have felt healthier overall ever since. Kudos to you; keep it up!

  • Screw running! Ride a bike!

    Okay, yeah, but I do ride a bike. The first time I rolled out on a for-real mountain bike trail was 13 years ago. I weighed 311 lbs. These days I way 10 lbs less than when I graduated high school and ride around 100 miles a week in the summer, road biking and still mountain biking. It’s amazing how far you can go beyond your imagined limits. It’s fun, it’s spiritual, and you come to crave the pain. Like eating hot peppers – the first time you try it just a little bit burns and you run away screaming. But you come back because there’s something there. Years later you’re chomping away on fresh jalapenos and if it doesn’t hurt real good you feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth.

    It’s imperative that we create tests and challenges for ourselves, and physical challenges are as important as mental ones. Good on ya for finding your burn and smacking the blerch.

  • I walk quite a bit at work – I need to try Fitbit – but it’s usually walk and not run. I got back on the treadmill some last week and it wasn’t too bad. I have enough ledge for my nook so I can read as I walk. It’ll be more useful in winter when I can’t go out. For more I walk our daughter to and from school when I’m home. The 3ds has a step counter but that varies from 100 to 1400 “steps” per trip.

  • I was asthmatic as a child, so for me running anywhere for any length of time held the same appeal as having my eyeballs dipped in acid (i.e. none at all.) Running meant a purple face, a chest that ached so hard it felt like it was about to explode and the nagging terror that, if I couldn’t manage to suck another breath into my shrivelled lungs at some point within the next few seconds, the vacuum might cause me to actually suck myself inside-out. There wasn’t any point in running anyway; I’m not sure how I achieved this, but even when I flailed my limbs like the raging clappers I was still slower than a narcoleptic tortoise. So I gave up on the idea; running was someone People Who Weren’t Built Like Me Did. People Built Like Me just walked everywhere – we may not get there as fast, but at least we didn’t have to keep stopping every ten seconds to regain the ability to breathe and squeegee the sweat off our limbs.

    Now I’m a (much older) adult – still asthmatic but at least it’s better controlled with medication and stuff. I can now actually run for longer than I could as a kid and require far less CPR when I stop – but it still takes something on a par with a national emergency to actually make me DO it. Still hate it, probably always will. So while I applaud your new-found zeal for the sport, Chuck, and wish you well in your future running endeavours – I shall very much be cheering from the sides of the racetrack, if that’s all the same to you. I’ll be the one holding the silver capes and the orange slices when you charge through that ribbon thingy at the end, okay?

  • Ah! HIGH FIVE I had the exact same reaction to that comic. I reckon Oatmeal started a silent revolution of bad runners with that one. The night after reading that, at 2am, I climbed out of bed, put on some trainers, and ran through the empty rain-soaked streets. I’ve been going out secretly every other night since then, and it’s seriously one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to carry on when winter comes around (these summer nights are so lovely – they make all the pain worth it) and I can’t afford proper running shoes, but now that I know what all the fuss is about I’ll give it my best go. I love being a night runner.

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