I started running 42 years ago this week, and I did it for only one reason - to survive boot camp, which was only two weeks away.
It would've been no problem if I'd been in decent shape, but unfortunately I wasn't.
That January I'd graduated from college with a dual major: cigarettes and coffee. I was very accomplished at both, and they were great for my image as a cynical, existential hipster. But they were lousy for anything that required the slightest endurance - like hauling my stuff to the laundromat or walking down a flight of stairs without breathing hard.
This was all back in the Stone Age of running. There were runners, of course, but almost all of them were in sanctioned programs: high school, college or otherwise. Someone running for the heck of it was pretty much unknown, and a jogger was a rare sight. Nonetheless, I knew running was the best way to get in shape, so I was going to do it.
There was one authoritative book about jogging for health - "Aerobics" by Kenneth Cooper - but it was about as well known as the rituals of Freemasonry. Certainly, I never saw a copy till at least a year later. As for specialized running gear? Competitive runners had access to all that stuff, but some zhlub like me? Fergit it.
My outfit was the standard workout gear of the day: Heavyweight gray cotton sweatshirt and sweatpants. They were noticeably heavy from the start, but once soaked with sweat, they felt like they were made of wet cement.
On my feet I had a pair of ancient high-top Converse All-Stars. They weighed as much as a shot put, and the soles was as stiff and shock-absorbent as boards.
But so what? I'd decided to run, no matter how poorly equipped I was. Besides, I was completely ignorant about running, so I didn't know how bad I had it. But I found out soon enough.
On the road
In order to avoid being seen, I'd waited till dark and then drove to Betters' Hills, on Kiwassa Road. When I got there, I felt as alone as could be. OK, there was no one to see me make a fool of myself, but there was no one was to keep me company, either. It was just me with my goofy get-up and a head full of doubts. And at that point I was a lot more aware of my doubts than my goofiness.
Finally, I shook my arms and legs, took a few deep breaths and then just took off.
At first I felt surprisingly good. I was moving at a faster pace than I'd imagined, and my breathing was sure and regular. That lasted maybe five minutes, and then everything went downhill. There was no warning, no gradual decline, no transition. Instead, one second I was cruisin' and groovin' and then next I was plodding, gasping and sweating.
But I was doing something else - I was going forward. And that became one of my three goals. The second was to get to the lake and back. The third was to go the whole way without stopping or walking. Since I hadn't measured anything, I'd no idea what "the whole way" actually was. It could've been a mile; it could've been more; it could've been less. The distance was irrelevant anyway, since I could only measure the run in pain and persistence.
After I made it to the lake and turned around, I really had my work cut out for me: Ahead of me was one very long uphill.
Fortunately, due to oxygen deprivation, the way back was almost a total blur. But I do remember one thing perfectly: My head was drooping so my eyes were on the road when, suddenly, I saw a crushed pack of cigarettes. It was a strange moment - not an epiphany, exactly, but certainly an insight, into just how stupid I can be.
Fortunately, my shortness of breath and aching everything soon replaced my insight (though I don't know which was more painful), and I was back to doing what I had been - pickin' 'em up, puttin' 'em down, stumbling, spitting, cursing and then repeating the process.
And somehow, after what seemed like half the night (but couldn't have been more than 15 minutes), I lumbered back to the car. I had no feeling of triumph - only a stitch in my side, cramps in my legs, a pounding headache and a rheumy wheeze that sounded like my lungs were full of 10-weight motor oil.
But, contrary to my doubts at the start, I'd finished what I'd started. And no matter how lousy I'd felt, I hadn't stopped once.
The shape of things to come?
Like everything else, there are no secrets of running. But there is one fundamental truth, and I discovered it that night, on my first run. It is: Anyone can run. Maybe not fast, far, gracefully or even comfortably. But anyone can run. And if you want to run faster, farther or more gracefully and comfortably, all you have to do is be patient and keep running.
To the runner, distance is only there to be covered and conquered, never to beat you. And if it does beat you, you can recover, rethink, retrain and then beat it in the return match. And you'll do it the only way anyone can - one step at a time.
When I got home, I sprawled out on the living room floor, waiting for my breath and pulse to return to normal. I looked like hell and still felt pretty shaky, but on the inside I was beaming with my triumph and my newfound sense of self.
And then, mid-beam, my mother came in the room.
"Good Lord," she said. "What's with you?"
"I'm - getting - in - shape," I rasped.
There were two things about my mother about my mother I could always count on.
One was whatever she lacked in subtlety, she made up for in bluntness. The other was she always had the last word. And this time was no exception.
"Well, from the looks of you right now," she said, "the only thing you're in shape for is Pine Ridge Cemetery."