It is 2003 and I am in my early 60s. S, a work acquaintance and a fitness buff, tells me, “You are built for distance running. You’ll do best at that type of physical activity. You need something.”
I moved to the suburbs of New York following a 1999 divorce. I have recently terminated fulltime employment and taken on a more flexible work schedule to enable my participation as an independent researcher in a unique experimental program that was established by the federal government in 2001. So I have the time to run. I mention it to my physician and he approves. I decide to give it a try.
My initial experience takes place in a health club on a treadmill. I approach the machine and step onto the platform. I study the console for operating instructions. A man on an adjacent treadmill says quietly and with encouragement, “Try 2.5 or 3 miles per hour. That is a normal walking pace.” I appreciate his recognition of my inexperience. I recall days in the military when an instructor during a field exercise told us, “Field troops with full packs are capable of covering 3 miles per hour.” That checks. “Thanks,” I tell my neighbor at the gym.
I learn that treadmills have several programs. I select “Manual” and punch the button. Instructions begin to flash. I experiment with speed, incline and time. I choose a sequence and enter the recommended 3 mph walking pace and hit start.
There is a brief hesitation before the belt lurches to the rear. I nearly lose my balance and reach for a hand bar to prevent an embarrassing situation. I quickly adjust my stride.
As my confidence grows, I find my attention shifting from the bank of televisions suspended from the ceiling and set to various channels, to the flashing display on the console recording calories, distance and time. When the session expires, I review a summary of the data. I like the system’s record-keeping potential. I am pleased by the way I feel, and resolve that I will continue using the machine and gradually increase my speed. I did not anticipate an interest of this kind at my stage of life.
Next, I try running on an outdoor track at the high school. I have no routine or schedule. I run when I have nothing else to do. I begin to see it as a challenge. I notice a sore muscle but pay no attention to it. I resume as soon as I am able to run without pain.
I decide to test myself by entering a 5k (3.1-mile) race sponsored by a local YMCA. I am curious as to what it is like to participate in an organized event and how I stack up against other runners. I’m surprised to realize that I am a competitive person.
On the day of the race, I find my way to the location and, after completing the preliminary administrative requirements, join the assembled runners. They are a small group, chatting casually about family and work. Most of them seem relaxed, but a few look intense and focused as they discuss strategy and other running issues. I get the impression that they have been at this a while; their hungry eyes, lean bodies and gaunt appearance — even their apparel — are unfamiliar to me. There is something special about their attitude that draws me, but I am unable to articulate what it is.
Race organizers herd the runners to the start, describe the course, sound the start and off we go. I experience the pounding of one foot in front of the other and attempt to synchronize my breathing with my feet hitting the pavement. The difficulty of doing so is alarming, but I manage to stay on course.
The terrain rolls down as we move toward the Hudson River. The first downhill allows me to catch my breath; I instinctively lean back and dig my heels into the ground as they strike the macadam surface. Then the course rises as it extends away from the water. The first ascent, a short roadway, is no significant challenge. The second, however, is different. We are well into the competition. The burning in my muscles and my heartbeat pulsing in my ears are accompanied by racing thoughts: “How much further? How much longer? Can I hold out?” I am determined not to stop. I look for a mile sign, which I believe, in some magical way, will provide the reassurance needed to complete the race. I cannot find one. I continue placing one foot in front of the other as I gulp as much air as I can.
Then the finish line is in sight. A sense of calm flows through me and I feel a smile of gratification and accomplishment as I end the run. People are waiting there yelling, “Good run! Way to go! Congratulations! Water and fruit in the lobby!” The praise I receive, customary and routine, impresses me nonetheless as genuine and increases the good feelings. I think, “They understand what it is like to run and appreciate the commitment and demands of the effort required.” I nod my thanks, breathing too deeply and frequently to speak.
Race sponsors are passing out bottled water, big bright yellow bananas and big bright oranges. “One each, only one,” they say as they reach to find a waiting hand in which to place the best looking fruit I have ever seen.
The crowd of runners in the lobby begins to swell. I listen as they swap race stories, sharing the good and not so good. It is a critical review of their performance conducted with obvious good humor and pride. The fatigue in the room is apparent but the mood is upbeat and energetic. There is confidence and satisfaction in the bits and pieces of their talk that I overhear. They sip from their water bottles slowly. They toast success with the allotted fruit as the smell of banana and orange fills the air. I think, “Healthy.”
Awards are presented in the gymnasium. I stay to see what goes on. I learn that I am to receive one in my age bracket. There is another participant present from our bracket, and we sit on the floor together like kids. I say to him, “We must be the only two foolish enough to attempt an activity of this kind at our age.” We both chuckle. Then I think to myself, “Yeah, but we are able to do this.”
Fatuous? Maybe, but I am having fun and I feel good. Truly, an unexpected thrill!