NOTE: This is an excerpt from a larger project I am working on. But I think it explains a lot in terms of how someone like me, an avid non-runner, became a runner. Have a read, and share your stories with me.
I used to hate running. Or rather, I grew to dislike it very much. Every kid likes to run around all day, or ride their bikes or whatnot, but there came a point when those pesky indoor habits took over just around the time I started to attain my adultish size. That’s when running, whether for sports conditioning or just for general exercise, got hard.
I ran for awhile with my dad in high school, mostly as a means to get in shape. I was a skinny little whip, and a few years of sitting on my butt playing video games had done nothing to make a man out of me. Some mileage at the local park seemed like a step in the right direction.
But after a time those daily trips to the park wore on me. I didn’t find the love for it that a lot of people did, nor did I find a use for it in terms of helping out in other areas of my life. Instead, as a junior in high school, I discovered the weight room, and after a few weeks of pumping iron I discovered my pecs.
When it comes to instant gratification, or something close to it, it’s hard to beat that “pump” after a good lifting session, and as the days turn into weeks, when the stick-like frame of adolescence starts packing on some bulk, well, it’s a little addictive.
Needless to say, I’ve been a gym rat ever since.
But weights as a cure-all for fitness are pretty one-dimensional. Lifting is great and all, but there are just some things that won’t happen if all you do is lift.
What will happen, aside from bulking up, is you won’t be able to last long on the basketball courts. You won’t be able to run very far. Cycling becomes a chore. And unless your diet is spot-on, you’re going to get fat. Gyms are filled with a lot of characters, and among them are really strong guys who are also really fat and are well on their way to dying young because they sport huge frames with sub-par cardiovascular systems. The idea of having a heart attack or stroking out is unnerving to me, and has been all the way back to when I was a teen.
So I did what a lot of non-runners do. I cross-trained. Sort of.
There were the cardio machines, but they were a last resort kind of deal. I played basketball with co-workers and friends for years, and got a lot of benefits from that — great workouts, feeding my competitive urges, and gaining camaraderie with the dudes I’d play ball with.
They didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t very good. I was what you might call an “effort” guy.
In the midst of all that, I got into a job that gave me a once-a-week night shift that left me with some free time during the day. In the town where I lived I saw this martial arts studio advertising jiu jitsu, and thinking that sounded pretty cool, I signed up without even knowing what it was. Seriously, the first time I heard the word was when Keanu Reaves incredulously asked “Tank” if he was really going to learn jiu jitsu about halfway through “The Matrix.”
I wasn’t so fortunate to have a computer program beam Royce Gracie greatness into my brain. It took awhile for it to stick, but stick it did. I did that for about seven years, and eventually became an assistant instructor. I met a ton of great people, learned a lot about combat sports and found another way to stay in shape that did not involve running.
That’s not to say I didn’t dabble in it from time to time. I hit a stretch in my late 20s where I started running again, and I think that actually lasted a couple of months. Occasionally (like once every six months) I’d head out the door to get some outside time and lumber around the neighborhood. There were also a few times when basketball or jiu jitsu were on hiatus that I’d force myself to do something, and that something was usually a mile or so of running at the park or in the neighborhood. It would feel good afterward, but not good enough to make me a runner.
And then life began to change. My work schedule blew up those lunchtime basketball games with my coworkers, and the thought of jumping on an elliptical or a treadmill just crushed my spirit. One day after work, I headed down to the gym, lifted weights for about an hour, then peeked out the window. Within sight was a running path, not even a mile and quarter long, that wound its way around some small ponds and through a couple of tree groves. It was approaching dusk and the temps outside where somewhere in the 70s.
I looked at my options. The treadmill. The elliptical. The stairmaster. Then I looked outside again.
What the hell, I thought. I needed to do something, anything, besides the cardio drone thing.
So out I went.
And that, my friends, is when the magic happened.
The “trail” — really a concrete path with short and long loops — was deserted. As I started out, it was the little things I noticed in between labored breaths.
Turtles on the shoreline jumped into the ponds at my approach, then poked their tiny heads out of the water to see what I was doing. Ducks muttered their little quacks as they paddled on the water’s surface. Sometimes I’d see some geese fly in on approach, their great wings spanning wide, then flapping hard for a soft splashdown. All sorts of furry little friends were out rooting around in tall prairie grasses, and smaller birds darted through the skies feasting on an airborne buffet of insects.
I made a turn back toward the trailhead, and from behind a small stand of cedars, there they were: four white-tailed deer, munching on grass and keeping a wary eye out for coyotes and people. They froze as I rounded the bend, then gracefully — and quickly — bounded away. The beauty of their athleticism has stuck with me, burned into my memory in a way I can’t explain, other than the fact that I know for certain I would not have enjoyed that little moment had I stayed inside and succumbed to the contraptions designed to raise my heart rate while taking me nowhere.
I’d covered a little ground, man. I’d seen some things no one else got to see, at least not right then. I breathed clean air that didn’t come in from a vent. Aside from my own labored breathing and heavy footfalls, I heard absolutely nothing but birdsongs, duck calls and the persistent prairie winds blowing through the trees.
With so much upheaval going on in my life at that time, it was on that jogging path that I found a small slice of peace. The solitude of the mountains I treasured so much, and yearned for so badly when I wasn’t there, was right here all along. I simply hadn’t recognized that I didn’t have to drive halfway across the country to find it. In a small way, that evening provided me an escape that was akin to a lifeline to a drowning man, but it was always present, ready to pull me out of the chaos every time I laced up my shoes and headed out the door.
That was the day I became a runner.