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.