Patchwork Design Lab

April 10, 2010

How I Became a Runner

Filed under: Running and Related Obsessions — Lonnie @ 4:48 pm

Before starting to write this I read a bunch of how-I-became-a-runner testimonials. This taught me one important lesson. People who read how-I-became-a-runner testimonials don’t really want a lengthy scholarly analyisis of motivations and circumstances. So I’ll try to keep it brief, or at least narrative rather than analytical.

First, although I loved the book, I was not Born to Run. My right femur is longer than my left. If my weight is on my right leg, I’m 6’1″; if it’s on my left, I’m 6′ even. This places funny stresses on your left knee and right hip. So if you’re interested in an explanation of why I never took up running seriously until I was 57, there you go. Nevertheless Born to Run was the catalyst. But of course I had to be set up first.

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto a review of Louis Lebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science, now out of print (click the link to check out the price!). The review was very good (sorry I don’t have a link for it), and it left me curious; it seems that if Lebenberg is right and his experience with the Kalahari Bushmen representative of hunter/gatherer methods from way back, then distance running is an essential element of being a human. It’s something we evolved to do.

So the soil had been prepared; I was predisposed but not yet really motivated. Then one day last fall, my girlfriend came by saying she was going for a run. I invited myself along, more to have an excuse to hang out with her than from any embryonic aspiration to become a runner. We ran a couple of miles, and she told me that I ran “like an elf” (okay ,so we’re Tolkein geeks — sue us). That was the second milestone; I found that it felt good. I was already in reasonably decent shape from 20 years of steady Aikido practice and, more recently, a fairly regular routine of kettlebell workouts. So the cardio was there, but the joints were still something of an issue, hence my ginger, elf-like stride. And hence the careful sidestepping of any intent to begin a regular regime.

A couple of months after that I went to Kuwait on business for a couple of weeks. No kettlebells and nowhere to train combined with sumptuous hospitality in the form of marathon meals left me desperate to find a way to break a little sweat every day. The hotel where I was staying, the Plaza Athenee, is situated near the shoreline, so I decided to get up early every morning and go for a run along the shore. The first day was like heaven. I ran along the Persian Gulf watching the sun rise through the mist like a big orange balloon. Pausing at my chosen half-way point to watch the morning for a few minutes I met a fellow runner, Gopal, a physicist from Mumbai who is doing solar energy research at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. We talked for a while, and he gave me his card, saying, “call me if you need anything, even if it’s just a glass of water.”

I walked funny for three days after that, and it was almost a week before I attempted another run: sore hip and cramping calves. I had discovered that landing closer to the balls of my feet rather than heel-stiking is easier on my joints, but my calves weren’t yet used to the workload and decided to let me know it in no uncertain terms. After that period of adjustment, though, I was able to run every morning for the last few days, and it’s one of my favorite memories of Kuwait.

About two weeks after my return, my girlfriend went Donna Lee on me. For those of you who may not be jazz nerds, Donna Lee is a Charlie Parker tune based on the changes to “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Which is where she went: back home to Indiana. Her reasonable concern about the lack of career opportunities here in Fort Stinkin-Desert as well as her future with someone significantly older drove a wedge into our relationship and away she fled. Just before Christmas. Meanwhile work prospects dried up and the “economic downturn” rolled over New Mexico like a tardy tsunami.

Over the Christmas Weekend, I house/dog sat for a friend, which is where I found the book Born to Run. In a funk and needing a distraction, I gobbled it up. Reviews abound, so I won’t add mine to the pile. Sufficient to say that it made me want to run. It made me want to run ultramarathons. And, I guess, pathetically, it was a way to convince myself that I’m really not so old. The phrase that stuck with me was, “he’s didn’t stop running because he’s old; he’s old because he stopped running.” Into such foundations are fixed the posts around which life decisions pivot. So I started running the week after Christmas. I started running in a pair of old sport sandals, which got me some funny looks in the dead of winter. But I was convinced by the book’s argument that too much cushioning and support can contribute to knee injuries by preventing you from developing your calves, achilles tendon, and the muscles in your feet so that you can absorb more of the strike impact before it hits your knee.

Running, training for a 5k (to begin with), was a way to move forward that didn’t depend on anyone but myself. I started a run-walk program and followed it for a couple of weeks. That was interrupted by a construction job that lasted a couple of weeks and left me plenty sore and tired at the end of each day. After that I started over with the 13-week walk/run program from the Beginning Runner’s Handbook, coming in on week 3. Pretty soon, I found that running along the acequia trails down in the Bosque near the Rio Grande, watching the mountains and the sky, left me feeling relaxed and complete. Peaceful. Who needs a stinkin girlfriend? Or a job? Well, okay, a job right about now would be very welcome. And timely.

I’m on the last week of the 13-week program and running 4.5 to 5 miles on my longer run day. I’m running longer intervals with shorter walking breaks, up to 40 or 50 minutes at a time. Not bad for a 57-year-old-never-been-a-runner. I spend a little time every day pouring over marathon training regimes; I’ve even begun toying with the idea of training for a triathlon, ultimately the iron-man, of course. Do you think I may have a problem?

Hello, my name is Lonnie and I am a runner. Not looking for a sponsor, though.

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