Where it all began.
I'd tried my hand at competitive sports before joining the boys cross country team as a seventh grader in the fall of 1983 at the middle school I attended. Let’s just say I knew I’d never be on a coveted baseball card (“I’ll trade you these Cal Ripken, Jr., George Brett, and two – TWO! – Reggie Jackson cards for a Kirk Bey! Come on, man – let’s make a deal!”), nor would there ever be a television commercial jingle in which someone would sing he wanted to be like me. Are you kidding? I was a less cool, more awkward version of Sheldon Cooper.
There was the summer I played a very low level of little league baseball for the local Boys Club, one in which the coaches were the pitchers and every kid on the team got to play, meaning there usually were about eight to 10 outfielders. I’d begged one of my teammates to let me play shortstop for one inning. He let me, I let two ground balls go through my legs, and I found myself back in left field the next inning.
Then there was the fall I thought I could make it in the Boys Club’s tackle football program. My family scraped together the cash to buy me football pants and shoulder pads. But after looking at the other guys, most of whom weighed considerably more than a puny kid who might have reached 100 pounds drenched and decked out in full gridiron gear, I could tell after a few practices that I didn’t belong.
All I remember about my first couple weeks as a member of the cross country team is that running was a lot harder than it looked, and the coach yelled at me for attempting to walk during the intrasquad meet. I don’t remember if I convinced myself I could do better, if I wanted to stick around just to see the cute blonde I really liked on the girls team, or if there were threats from my mother to significantly reduce my Atari 2600 time if I quit the team, but I stayed put. I ran the entire 2-mile course my first race. My times kept dropping with each subsequent meet. The coach named me “Most Improved Runner” at the end of the season in mid-October. I think for at least a few days anyone who walked by the glass display cases outside the gymnasium would have seen that fact written on the team posterboard.
Did I think that I still would be a long-distance runner 37 years, two marathons, a few dozen half-marathons and 10-kilometer races, and tens of thousands of miles later? I remember having to write my autobiography for an eighth-grade English class and predicting that I would perish at 85 while running on a very hot summer day. It still could happen, and I could say that I’d lived fast (I once could run a 6-minute mile), died old, and left a good-looking corpse, or at the very least a reasonably physically fit one.
Oh, the years and the mileage have started to take a toll on my body as I close in on 50. I’ve had this nagging ache in my groin for a year that just won’t go away. My last visit to the doctor in the spring of 2013 revealed I had very little cartilage left in both knees, which really ache on chilly mornings like the one we had here Tuesday. But almost every morning I double-tie my pair of Brooks and run a few miles. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night -- or in most cases, the ass-crack of dawn -- keeps me from my jaunt around the city.
My first marathon -- and I lived to tell about it.
I might not be able to run 50 to 60 miles a week like I once could, and the 3-hour, 14-minute marathon I ran 10 years ago is all but a memory. But I still can move at a pace that falls somewhere between “Eat my dust, twentysomething punk!” and “Hey, I’m not embarrassing myself” middle-aged guy. I’m proud of the fact I’m still in pretty good physical condition and my pants size has only increased 2 inches since I graduated from high school 31 years ago, because I need as much stamina as I can muster to keep up with my soon-to-be 15-year-old son, Nolan, who has Autism and is nonverbal.
The mental boost I get from running is just as beneficial. Perhaps more.
Nolan had to transition to virtual learning for nearly two weeks in November due to someone in the special education classroom testing positive for COVID-19. I had to be out the door before 6 a.m. to get my run in – which is never easy during a time of year when it seems like there’s only about five or six hours of sunlight on a good day – and I’ll have to do it again during Christmas break or if the demon virus temporarily halts in-person learning, whichever comes first. The way I see it, if I can get my backside out of bed and my body moving in the darkness, I sure as hell can handle redirecting an irate teenager back to the Chromebook sitting on the kitchen table and making him finish an assignment.
And then there are the days when I wake up with an excess of worries and a lack of sleep, and I just need that outlet to burn off the stress and tension that’s built up in my body to the point of overload. There are mornings when I ask Cindy 30 times if she thinks Nolan will be all right despite the fact he’s been up since 4 a.m., has had toileting challenges or a major meltdown before the bus arrived. These are the days she really encourages me to enjoy my run and not worry. I swear she’d chase me in her car for a few blocks just get that point across.
There are constant reminders the world is a stressful place, perhaps now more than ever. The time I spent running every day is my time to either devise ways to tidy it up or forget about everything that’s plaguing it altogether. Having the time to get my body and mind in a good place, then taking a deep breath and knowing I’m ready to face whatever lies ahead, is very satisfying.
Maybe I was never going to be a professional athlete, or even the guy at the end of the bench who got to play sparingly, and that’s all right. Long-distance running still brings me happiness, and I’m happy I still can do it.