Running in Place

I was on the high school track team.  Initially, this was because a) terrified freshmen tend to do things in herds and b) the track team didn’t cut anyone for insufficient athletic prowess.

The idea was to compete in the high hurdles, which seemed the coolest track event.  The insufficient athletic prowess thing got in the way (so did the hurdles).  Then I tried sprinting; being a teenager, I wanted to get the exertion part over quickly and get back to grab-ass with my friends.  Athletic insufficiency struck again.  The coach suggested I try the 440; I was surprised to find that tiring though it was, I was pretty good.

Coach Kaufman (you knew you’d arrived when you could call him Fred) kept pushing me into longer and longer races until I was running the mile and working out with the distance team.  Sprinters ran up and down a sweaty basement corridor.  Distance runners hit the streets.  Thermal shirts, wool caps and sweat socks on our hands we ran through 1970s Western New York winters, always wearing shorts.  It was a point of pride.

The mile also required thought; distance runners considered sprinters a heedless lot of panicked dashers.  You had to resist the urge to rabbit (i.e., start too fast only to fade), know when to draft an opponent, how to play mind games while monitoring breath, stamina and pace.  Run fast; die young, just like Steve Prefontaine.

Then came college and cigarettes.  I ran three competitive races in the decade after high school, then nothing until Lejla joined her junior high track team.  Trying to be a good dad, I went to her track meets.  Unable to repress my inner dork, I was soon standing trackside, shouting encouragement and advice to any kid that seemed to need it (or not).

I dug out my 30-year-old track shoes and after two brief runs, the soles came off.  I bought a new pair and kept running… five or six times.  Middle-aged running, I learned, is different than high school running.  For one thing, there’s no two-hour slot reserved for it each afternoon and there’s no handy cohort of runners of more or less equal ability to join me.

Didn’t matter.  I had the bike in summer, skates and skis in winter.  I could live without it.  Recently, in a quadrennial burst of energy, Lejla wanted to join the downtown Y, so she signed us up for a family membership and gave me strict orders to not go when she and her friends are there.  (Probably thinks if I see how much effort she’s capable of, I’ll want her to do more chores around the house.  Probably right, too.)

(Actually, the membership dodge was paternal connivance on my part.  I agreed to subsidize the bulk of the membership, but wanted her to pay for some.  I know I’ll get my share to her each month, whereas if we put the membership in my name and I had to get her to give me cash every month…) (I don’t fear being caught.  She never reads these things.)

So now to get my endorphin fix, I’m in the Y basement several times a week, on a treadmill, running intervals with relaxed hands.  (I’m a follower of Emil Zatopek.)  Earbuds in, iPod cranked, watching distance, calorie and time elapsed displays in front of me.  Two minutes slow, two minutes fast, gradually getting faster, gradually going longer.

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere; I’m just not sure what it is.  Am I a traitor to my youthful self, paying a monthly fee to run nowhere while empty streets (and serious hills) beckon?  Am I a character escaped from a story, like John Cheever’s swimmer?  No, not Cheever; I never had that kind of money.  Maybe a Ray Carver character, running and running, never catching up.

Am I running from or running to?  Perhaps I’ll know when I get there.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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