There’s a popular ice breaker that I’ve used with groups just getting to know each other. Tell us, I ask, something about yourself that most people don’t know and that might surprise us. My own ready response is this: For many years I was a regular runner. I once calculated that over the years I had run farther than the distance around the equator. With the passing years, from looking at me, that news seems increasingly more difficult to digest, but it’s the gods’ honest truth and there’s a story behind it. Apologies to those of you who have heard it from me before.
When I was teaching fifth and sixth grade in a small, semi-rural town in southern New Hampshire, every student in the US was required to participate in something called The Presidential Physical Fitness Test. It was launched by President Lyndon Johnson with the goal to “make being active part of their [students’] everyday lives.” One section of the test required students to run a distance which increased as you moved through the grades. For my kids that distance was 600 yards, roughly 1/3 of a mile.
As a city kid, I came to the country with some romantic ideas about my country counterparts whom I imagined spending their days cavorting (when will I get another shot at using that word?) in field and glen like wood sprites. So, I was dismayed to see how they wilted after completing the run. They returned to the classroom spent and incapable of anything more than resting their heads on their desks; they were done for the day.
In reality, most of my students were certified couch potatoes. When they got home from school, they grabbed whatever unhealthy snack was on offer and plunked themselves down in front of the TV until dinner. The two recesses we offered at the school were the only times many of them engaged in physical activity.
Something had to be done to address this crisis and since I was their principal as well as their teacher, I was in a position to mandate action. I let parents know that I expected every student in my class who didn’t produce an excuse note to arrive at school 30 minutes early to run with me. I explained that I thought it would be good for their health and might even improve their academic performance.
And, dutifully, the kids arrived, at least initially. After warm-ups we spent the time jogging around the perimeter of our rather spacious playground. Things went well for a week or two, but slowly the numbers dwindled until one memorable morning when I found myself circling the playground all by myself. Game over for the kids, but not for me. I discovered that I liked the discipline of daily exercise and God knows I needed it. Up through high school I played softball and basketball, but beyond that my life was devoid of physical activity.
I moved my base of operations to our house and began running circles around the house, gradually increasing in number. Before I knew it, I was logging a mile, then two, three and four. That’s roughly where I leveled off. I was looking for a point that was beneficial to my health without becoming an ordeal. I never had any desire to run a marathon which seemed more like torture than reward. I once ran eight miles unintentionally because I had gotten turned around and had to struggle to make it back home. So much for distance.
When we moved to Houston, I traded New Hampshire’s hilly terrain for Houston’s flat but sweltering running conditions. In the summers when I was out of school I ran in the early morning “cool.” The heat was already punishing but it had not reached the 95 degree/90% humidity level which prevailed from May to October. When school was on, I ran at the end of the day. It was my time to release the build- up of tension and anger generated by that day’s encounters with parents, kids, administrators, colleagues and the system at large – ambulatory therapy is what it was. All through our 13 years in Houston, I ran almost every day, shirtless and hatless, ignorant of the effects of those brutal rays on my sensitive skin. My dermatologist reaps the reward through my periodic visits where she explores the endless eruptions for pre-cancerous interlopers. It’s a heavy price to pay but those runs in the sun helped me survive those years with dramatically reduced blood pressure numbers.
When we were traveling, I loved to go out early to run in new surroundings. It was a quick way to get oriented to a new city. I would return as my wife and daughters were awakening with news of an intriguing bakery, a closer subway stop or a park with unusual playground equipment. These runs of discovery, like my runs of reflection when I was on familiar ground, were almost always solitary. You’ll often see people running alongside partners, chatting as they go. For me that defeated the point of the run, which offered an opportunity for internal or external discovery. Conversation would have been a distraction.
I can remember only one exception. Rosellen and I were in the middle of a month-long residency in Bellagio, the Rockefeller Foundation study center in Northern Italy, the closest experience to heaven on earth available to mortals. One of the other couples in residence was the now legendary political scientist Robert Putnam and his wife Rosemary, now life-long friends. Bob and I discovered our shared running addictions and on one memorable occasion ran together through neighboring villages on an evening when festival processions were taking place. Threading through those lines of pilgrims carrying their religious icons and statuary was one small example of the visual gifts running bestowed to compensate for the many hours of tedium that were more typical of the daily jog.
Now after hip problems ended my running career, my physical activity is confined to walking and to indoor exercise on the bike and elliptical in our apartment. I’ll never stop being grateful that I’m still able to handle those, but in spite of the pleasures of watching 30-40 minute segments of a mixed bag of movies while I’m on the indoor equipment, there’s nothing that compares to moving through a kaleidoscope of landscapes and experiencing the occasional high of pushing your body beyond what you thought it was capable of. It was those moments when you wondered whether the pleasure lay more in the satisfactions that came from having run than from the running itself.
A sedentary friend once goaded me on my commitment to running by declaring that he had calculated that the amount of time the healthful activity of running added to your life was probably equal to the amount of time you “wasted” running. He may be right, but I don’t regret a single stride, all achieved without support from Fitbit.