Walking Before You Run
I like to run. I suppose it is really jogging since two guys pushing a car once actually passed me on Weed Street. Suffice to say, it is movement beyond walking. My gait resembles a hobbled horse and at night, my hulking silhouette sometimes causes oncoming cars to swerve. “Good God, Sue, what the hell was that?” For all I know, I could have been mistaken for the bear haunting the hollows of Lost District last year.
While my “prosperous” physique seems inconsistent with my exercise regimen, the fact is jogging has been an important thread in the fabric of my life. The fact that I even admit this is quite the revelation since the first 20 years of my life had me gravitating toward any activity that involved the least amount of physical exertion possible. In Southern California, there were no curling teams or chess clubs so I chose baseball as it seemed a sport with a lot of standing, sitting and the occasional ninety foot run if you were lucky enough to hit the ball. Players like Boog Powell, Willie Stargell and Tony Gwynn waddled their ways around the bases and into the Hall of Fame. These beefy bombers were my heroes. They clearly preferred Sprites over sprints.
In a weak moment of bravado, I consented to play Pop Warner football. It was Dante’s Inferno – each day a virtual Bataan Death March with two a day practices in smog and heat that would have me literally dry heaving – – before even arriving at practice. No place was safe from activity. In school PE, we had a day a week where we had to run a timed mile. 24 hours prior to the weekly “600s”, I developed a series of mysterious ailments that would defy logic, my parents and our pediatrician. Within 48 hours, the symptoms would lift miraculously as if I had drank water from the grotto at Lourdes. There were times when I simply could not avoid the hell run hosted by our PE teacher “Herr” Stebben, whose Leroy Neiman moustache would twitch with sadistic anticipation as the herd of shuffling seventh graders moved in a great dust cloud for the first of three 600 yard laps around the school. At the far end of the baseball field was an equipment/scorer shack where the running rejects would hide like Christians in the catacombs bonded by a physical aversion to exercise. Like Rosie Ruiz, our plan was to rejoin the third and final lap and claim victory. It was in this dingy garret that my blood brothers in lethargy and I would tell whopping lies about our prowess in sports and with girls.
Baseball eventually betrayed me and became more physically taxing in high school. I was so optimistic with the advent of the designated hitter. No fielding, just hitting and sitting. Unfortunately, our coach was a fan of the National League. We ran wind sprints and engaged in endless base stealing drills. Given that I had the mobility of a house plant, I played first base. This carried to college where I was switched to third, an equally immobile position, and dubbed “The Turtle “ for my cat like reflexes. I remained inspired by such physically fit pro players as a young David Wells, Cecil Fielder and Gorman Thomas.
Upon graduation I met and fell in love with a woman who had run practically every day of her life since the age of 12. Her father had calves the size of Popeye and a six miler was routine to start a Saturday. On our first date she suggested we run a few miles and I eagerly agreed without any hesitation. Within a half mile, my lips were purple and I had gone five shades of gray. “Are you ok?”,she asked putting a hand on my shoulder.
“Fine” was all I could chirp for fear of hurling my breakfast all over her. Another mile and I suggested we stop while I use the bathroom where I promptly threw up. I awoke the next day with sensations not unlike the bubonic plague and knots in my hamstrings like the rubber bands on a wooden glider. Yet, I kept with it and running became my primary means of exercise as I traveled on work and vacation. I dropped 30lbs and started to run 10Ks and half marathons. Ever the balanced, moderate person, I would get up at 4am to be sure I could get in my run. I would feel so alive, intoxicated by endorphins, as I navigated dimly lit residential streets dodging dogs, trash collectors and the occasional flying newspaper. I had become what I used to despise – – a runner.
While living in Europe, jogging gave me a deeper appreciation for the cities where I was conducting business. I had a favorite running route in Barcelona down the Rambla and across the marina to the beachfront and on to the Olympic Village. The route returned through narrow alleys and ancient streets through the Jewish quarter and spilled onto the Plaza Catalunya. Madrid’s Parque Retiro was lined with great shaded elms and a sanctuary to jog at dusk as generations of family members would walk arm in arm. The pace of Spain reminded you that you need not always be in such a hurry. Rome was a death defying chaotic ballet as you navigated Vespas, cars and trucks, swirling like mosquitoes. You course through the bucolic Villa Borghese, winding down to the Spanish Steps and finish triumphant at the Forum. Paris is remembered as a chilled winter jog across the Trocadero and down to stand under the Tour Eiffel, watching steam rise from your body as the colored lights danced up and down the great Tower. Istanbul was a cacophony of honking horns, traffic, staring people and motorcycles. It always felt as if I was wearing a giant sandwich board saying, “ Hi, I am soooo foreign. I would make a great hostage”.
In London, the short winter days had me running at night and invariably, into the wild, Wimbledon Common that transformed from peaceful oasis by day to malevolent woods after dark. A particularly gruesome murder had occurred years back on the Common and its memory lingered like a black fog and became the stuff of local legend. The suspect who was identified but never convicted was rumored to still be living in a flat adjacent to the running trails. I remember jumping about ten feet in the air whenever a spectral squirrel or sinister rabbit would cut across my path. I am ashamed to admit that on one highly paranoid night, I grabbed a six foot branch and ran with it like a jousting ram ( I assume in hopes that a would be pursuer might actually attempt to assault me from the front and in doing so, I could skewer them) After running a half mile with the medieval weapon, I fell out of the woods exhausted near the Fox and Grapes pub where three young men looked at me as I stumbled, gasping for air holding my giant stick. “Right” was all they said.
These days, my jogs are half runs and the occasionally bout of walking. Spies routinely report me to my spouse by innocently saying, “I saw your husband out walking today”. “Walking?” she would say and then I get that disappointed “you lazy man” look. Alas, my cadence has changed from thoroughbred to Clydesdale. Yet, there are times, when the knees stop hurting and the hip is not acting up, when I find myself in that perfect zone. A song by Blind Melon comes on the old iPod and I am suddenly flying along narrow country roads lined by ancient stone walls and sequined ponds. The wind whips up and hints that something exciting is on its way. I stop and soak it all in – – walking slowly, breathing deeply and enjoying the moment. A car approaches from the west and veers slightly to pass as I stroll basking in my solitude. The driver recognizes me and honks a greeting.
Shoot! I think they saw me walking….