Friday, May 6, 2011

#322: Evolution of a Runner

It's 11:00 at night, way past my bedtime, and I'm too wired to sleep. I am sitting here filled with excitement about the run I have planned tomorrow. How crazy is that?

My knee was pretty beat up after my run last Saturday. I even carried a cane during that night's performance. I took most of the week off to let it heal, then ran three very easy miles on Thursday. Right now, I feel so good. It's as if I could go out and hit the road right now. Several times today I felt frustration because it was a recovery day and I couldn't go out and run with the dogs. Tonight, during the show, I sat in the dressing room and fantasized about doing 6.5 miles tomorrow. That's a long way, and I'll probably go less than that, but I don't think I ever imagined I would get to the place where could hardly wait for my next chance to run.

When I was a fat boy, running was a kind of punishment. The losing team in gym had to run laps. The kids who missed the foul shots had to run steps. During the few weeks I tried to be on the High School wrestling team, we would run steps until we puked. There were only two reasons to run: to make you tough, or to teach you a lesson. I don't think I ever knew anybody who ran because it was fun.

Nobody gets this bread!
I can remember winter nights in Dormont when Mum would send me down to the Stop'N'Go for a loaf of bread of a gallon of milk. I would run home down the snowy sidewalk, my groceries tucked under my arm like Franco Harris. I scored the winning touchdown every night in those days, sprinting until I reached the last street light before our house, where the goal line and the Super Bowl trophy awaited me. The crowd cheered. The girls screamed my name. As I panted in the cold air, I felt so alive. I loved every one of those hundred yard dashes.

Oh sure, they look great on HIM...
As a teenager, I remember getting up early trying to run the hills in big, heavy basketball shoes. I got blisters and sore feet. I ran in sweatpants and those little gym shorts that we wore in the seventies, and my big fat thighs rubbed together and chafed so painfully that I could hardly walk. I tried running with stronger, fitter friends, and they either left me in their dust, or else they shuffled along with me, which made me feel pitied and pathetic.

In college, I ran for a while because I wanted to lose weight. I once bet a girl in my acting class that I could lose 20 lbs in a month and did it with ease by running a mile around the football field every night. But running to lose weight was just another way of affirming how fat and ugly I thought I was. I stopped and found other ways to occupy myself.

I don't think I ever ran in Grad School, or California or New York. Of course, just being alive in New York City means walking a couple of miles every day. I wasn't exactly fit, but I did OK.

Then we moved to Kentucky. I immersed myself in my work, whatever it was at the time. I had left the fantasy world of the Big City and felt like I needed to make a living like a grown-up, no matter what. I had a couple of jobs, a couple of careers, each one more "grown-up" than the last, and each one farther from my heart. I guess we were doing OK.

What my legs used to look like.
Until the night I noticed a sore, hot, swelling on the inside of my right thigh, where I had what I always assumed were varicose veins. Mrs P made me go to the ER and they diagnosed me with blood clots. I had become so sedentary that my blood was congealing inside me. I could either sit in my chair until my body gave up, or I could do something. As soon as the Doc gave me the all clear, I went to work.

We joined Promatx gym, and they showed us how the machines worked. I started going almost every day. First I walked on the treadmill and pushed the machines up and down. Then one night, while Mrs. P was in her spinning class, I turned the speed up a little and tried to jog. It was probably the first time I had tried to run in 25 years. I felt so heavy! With each step, it seemed that my hips might snap off under the weight of my 400 pound body. But I didn't snap. I didn't break. I ran! When my wife came out of her class and stood in front of the treadmill, beaming at me, I felt more like a husband and a man than I had since we were married. By august, I had lost over 50 pounds.

The feeling was great, but it didn't last. When the recession hit and I lost my job, I went into such a deep depression that I gave up exercise altogether. Stupid of me, since exercise it the best cure for depression that I've ever found. I set about trying to be a grown-up, getting jobs I wasn't good at, working hours I couldn't take, and eating whatever I could grab on the run. The weight piled back on. Clothes didn' t fit any more. All the "Fat Pants" came back out of the back of the closet. I had to ask for an extension for the seat belt on airplanes. I didn't fit in theatre seats. I was a mess.

Then, cancer. While I was sick, I read about Lance Armstrong and how bike racing had helped him through his recovery. I watched the pounds melt off of me as the cancer gobbled muscle and fat indiscriminately. I tried to walk in the summer heat with my big floppy hat over my head, and sometimes even made it all the way to the corner. Then around the corner. Then around the block. As the treatments finished and the scans started coming back clean, I knew that I wanted to keep on living and being healthy.

In December, we joined another gym. I plodded around the track over the basketball court. I thumped out quarters and half miles on the treadmill. I did squats and lunges to try to get my leg strength and my conditioning back. Then one day, in February, I think, I ran a whole mile. Someday, I just might run a marathon, but I don't know if finishing it will feel any better than that mile did. It was proof that cancer hadn't whipped me. I sat on the bench in the locker room, dripping sweat, gasping for air, and feeling so alive.

When I was a kid, I ran in the snow, under the streetlights, because it was fun. Now, fifty years later, I have finally found that fun again. I'm sure I look ridiculous jogging in circles around the dog park with Jake and Clare trotting happily ahead of me. I don't hear the crowd roaring any more. Rocky Bleier isn't there to block for me as I spring free of a tackle and head down the snowy sideline toward the end zone. It's just me, just a fat man running with his dogs, dodging the chuck holes and the poop piles, and feeling like a kid with a loaf of bread tucked under his arm.

I can' t wait to go out and run in the morning....




  1. This is inspiring! I was looking for pictures of running silohouettes on Google Images and found your site. I'm happy for you and your accomplishment! keep it up!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I learn more every day that our capacity for growth never wears out. God bless you.

  2. Do you care if I use the the black and white running silouhette for my kids running group?
    It's really cool!

  3. ME TOO!! Was looking for running kids silhouettes and ended up reading your story. is it ok if i use the pic in some work am doing??
    Kind regards

    1. Shame on me for not replying sooner to you both. I am so sorry. If you click that gif, it will take you to the page where I found it. I'm afraid I do not own that image.

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