What I learned while searching for my own can of spinach.
People are always calling me names. I’ve been labeled a baby boomer, a hippie, a yuppie, cool, uncool and clueless. In addition to these, I’m part of the Television Generation.
It’s true. Growing up, I spent time with Roy and Dale, the Lone Ranger, Pancho and Cisco, and Sky King. I learned about truth, justice and the American Way from Superman, a guy who flew around in a red-and-blue leotard with a cape. I thought families looked like Ozzie and Harriet and behaved like the Cleavers. Well, I thought other families did. My family reminded me of the Munsters, loving but a little strange.
I watched cartoons, too, and knew all the characters-from Huckleberry Hound, Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse to Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Beanie and Cecil.
One of my favorite cartoon characters was Popeye. Of all the heroes on TV, he had the best system. Any time there was trouble, which almost always involved Bluto’s attention to Olive Oyl, all Popeye did was reach into his shirt, pull out a can of spinach, squeeze it open and pour the spinach in his mouth. Presto! He had instant muscles, instant strength and instant solutions.
The idea of instant solutions captivated me. No matter what Popeye had done, no matter how huge a mistake he’d made, help was only a squeeze away. Get to the spinach, Popeye, and you’ll be okay. So I began to look for my spinach.
I wasn’t as smart as Popeye. I figured caffeine, alcohol and nicotine would work just fine. Whenever I was in trouble, I reached for one of those. It sort of worked. Caffeine made me feel stronger, alcohol made me think I was stronger, and nicotine, well, it made me worry less about how strong I was. Sometimes when I was in big trouble, I’d reach for all three.
I was a Popeye runner at first, too. There wasn’t a “spinach” for running that I didn’t try. I looked for vitamin spinach, supplement spinach, clothes spinach, you name it. I was the guy at the race expos looking for the latest, newest, most surefire way to become leaner, fitter and faster.
The first time I ran a mile in under 10 minutes, I immediately went out and bought racing flats. Shoe spinach! I wouldn’t have to train better or harder. I’d just lace up the shoes and-voila, I’d beat all the Bluto runners.
When I read that a certain chemical would reduce body fat, I bought it by the case. Pill spinach! To me, it seemed much better to pop a pill than to actually monitor my food intake. If it worked for Popeye, it would work for me.
So why didn’t it work? Because I’m not a cartoon character. My progress as a runner has consisted of frustratingly slow, small gains. I’ve gradually learned that, in order to improve, I need to inch my mileage up and, sometimes, slow my pace down. I’ve realized that when I do the work, even though I don’t see the results immediately, I’m rewarded in the end.
I know a part of me still wants to find that can of spinach. I peruse articles and books hoping to discover some previously unknown potion that will transform me. My adult self knows it’s not out there, but my inner child still thinks of Popeye.
While I’m waiting for the instant solution, however, I’m going to train. I’m going to pay my dues. I’m going to put my body to the test and demand that my spirit not give in. I’m going to make myself an athlete one workout at a time.
That way, if Bluto does show up, at least I may be able to outrun him.
Waddle on, friends.
Originally published in Runner’s World Magazine, October 2001