Those of us growing up in the 1950s had one big advantage over today’s kids. No, we didn’t have PlayStation or GameCube. There were no MP3 players, no iPods, no cell phones. No cable – we didn’t even have color TV. But we did have summer vacations. Not the overprogrammed kind, but long, lazy days filled with hope and promise unencumbered by adult organization. Whatever fun we had came from our own imaginations.

The day started when a friend stood outside your house and called your name. The closest you came to planning was looking to see if he had a baseball mitt hanging over the handlebar of his bike. If you woke up early, and you were the one standing outside and yelling, then the day’s activity would be your choice. Some kind of game involving a bat or at least a ball was a given. If there were enough guys around for two teams, we had a game. If there were only a couple of us then it was running bases or playing catch. And on that rare day when you found yourself alone, you spent hours bouncing a rubber ball off the front steps.

This all probably appears quaint to a kid today. It must seem positively primitive to have a summer without sports camps or academic camps or vacations when the adults are thrilled and the children protected. But for the baby boomers, for those of us who remember lying on our backs on the package shelf of a four-door sedan and watching the sky zoom past the rear window, summer was a time of exploration, discovery, and even a little danger.

We may have been the last generation of kids allowed some risk. We had scrapes and scars, black eyes and jammed fingers and bruises on our legs. We knew that blood was red because we saw some, ours or someone else’s, almost every day. We rode steel bikes with balloon tires and coaster brakes, and never thought about wearing a helmet. We played baseball in the street and put pennies on railroad tracks. Without even knowing it, we were a generation of daredevils. (Maybe this is why I don’t remember any of the neighborhood kids being overweight. It’s hard to get fat when you’re let loose all day in the outdoors.)

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise, as this generation reaches something that used to be called middle age, that we’d be looking to recapture that spirit of risk. We naturally want to break free from passive restraints and protective packaging and total security and do something that scares us a little. It’s what we grew up on. It’s what makes us feel alive.

I don’t know what it’s like at the front of the pack, but back where I am, it’s an adrenaline party. We’re scared of finishing last, of looking stupid, of covering the distance – 5-K, marathon, whatever. We’re scared of blisters, we’re scared of chafing. We’re scared of getting one of those wedgies when our running shorts disappear between our thighs.

But the truth of it is, that’s why we’re there. Sure, running is a heart-healthy activity. Yes, it’s great for weight management. But standing at the starting line of a race, or heading outside when it’s too hot or too cold or too wet, is about the scariest thing I get to do these days. My life, all of our lives, are so regulated that the simple act of running has become an act of defiance.

How else do you explain men and women of all ages and sizes lining up for the sheer rush of going as far and as fast as they can? What else, other than the need to feel alive, would provoke the enthusiasm you see in so many 5-Ks? Running lets us rediscover what we knew as children: That being safe all the time isn’t very interesting. There are no air bags in our running shorts. We are vulnerable to the whim of fate and the blindness of serendipity. But we are not held hostage to fear. We boldly go where we know we belong. The fun is at the edge of the unknown. I know because I’ve been there. I’ve peeked over that edge. I’ve scared myself for no other reason than that it felt really good.

And tomorrow when I tie up my running shoes, I’m going to do it again.

Waddle on, friends

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