Another from The Penguin Chronicles archive.
How my running life began, and why it’ll never get old.
There was a time when becoming a runner was the farthest thing from my mind. Runners were, or so I thought, a lost group of tortured souls with tortured soles, achy muscles, and creaky knees. They were – as best I could tell from the safe distance I kept from all matters requiring movement – either pain addicts or fools. If they were the former they were to be pitied. If they were the latter, they were to be unmercifully mocked.
At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois and I knew only one runner. I listened to him describe his latest foray into marathon madness with equal measures of shock and amusement. And as he told in graphic detail the exact place and degree of chafing that occurred on his body, my amusement turned to horror. His stories of blisters were not for the faint of heart.
Somewhere between the black toenails and bleeding nipples I decided that he simply didn’t have the courage to actually kill himself in one fatal act so he was going to accomplish it one mile at a time. Worse, to my way of thinking, he was actually proud of himself. Did he really think that a group of non-runners would applaud this lunacy? We didn’t. We sat in silence. It was madness pure and simple.
In time graduate school, my runner friend, and his stories faded into the shadows of my memories, and I pursued employment and other endeavors. Thoughts of running disappeared for more than a decade. Then, at 43, when I was an associate dean at Oberlin College, I had one colleague who was becoming a runner and another who was an avid cyclist. They seemed to have something I didn’t, although I didn’t know what that was. I couldn’t bring myself to run at first, so I bought a bike. Later, I decided to try to become a runner.
Like most beginning runners, I ran too much too soon. I ran too fast and too far. I discovered almost immediately what I was running from. I was running from where I had been, where I was, and where I was headed. But like so many runners, no matter how far or how fast I ran, I always ended up right where I had started. With myself.
I got what help I could from this magazine. I took what I could understand from Hal Higdon, Joe Henderson, and the late, great running philosopher George Sheehan. I read their words but didn’t really know their meaning. I knew what it was to run, but had no idea what it was to be a runner.
The only way I could make sense out of my running was to write about it. It started simply enough by keeping a logbook. That soon gave way to writing a running journal, and that eventually gave way to writing fervently about running. I discovered early on that it wasn’t the sport of running that attracted me but the act of running. It was in the pounding of my own heart, in the rhythm of my own breathing that the answers began to come. The answers came if, and only if, I kept running.
I had written to a group of runners on the Internet. “Runner’s World” editor Amby Burfoot called me and asked if I would write eight columns. That was the original agreement. One phone call, eight columns. And with that my life changed.
I wrote in one of those first columns that my running shoes had become giant erasers on my feet. Each footstrike wiped away the memory of some earlier indiscretion or failure. Each new pair of running shoes carried the potential of unlocking some secret place. Each pair of worn-out running shoes carried with them the scars of a healing soul.
One hundred columns later I am still here. More importantly you, the readers, are still here. You are, and have always been, the greatest gift that I have gotten from writing. We have dared to share our lives with one another. Together we have seen each other through 100 months of successes and failures.
I’ve seen life as a non-runner and as a runner. I can tell you with complete assurance that I’ve chosen, and will continue to choose, running. Without running there are no runners. And I’ve learned that a runner is everything I hope to be.
Waddle on, friends.
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What others are saying: Because of runners like John, the wall of intimidation has crumbled, and tens of thousands of Americans are now believing in themselves. John has helped raise self-esteem and self-confidence in people all over the world. Nothing is more important to a person’s well-being.– Dave McGillivray, Boston Marathon race director