Monday, February 1, 2010

The Long (and Not So Long) Run, R.I.P.

I wasn’t exactly Jekyll and Hyde as a kid, but in an area of life I didn’t really like—school—I was a classic underachiever by choice. In an area I loved, loved, loved—sports—I just wasn’t that good. I was Yin and Yang and two seemingly disparate entities all wrapped up as one.

I spent most of my school years, through early college, leafing through the Cliff Notes rather than read The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick in high school, or memorizing 75 Spanish words moments before the quiz, or taking yet another incomplete because I just didn’t do the work or study for the final. I was content to skate by on my photographic memory and general intelligence. And by the time I hit college, that wasn’t nearly good enough.

As for athletics, sure, I dominated the three neighborhood kids with whom I was closest in basketball, towering over them and swatting away their shots like a mini-Manute Bol. But put me into the larger pool of neighborhood or school kids who had some talent and I was, maybe, mediocre at best.

I was passionate about sports (and still am), but I froze up during basketball tryouts in 9th grade, struck out more often than not in Little League, and chickened out of playing soccer in high school after the coach asked me to try. He truly was desperate: the team hadn’t won a game in nearly three years.

I was also the guy who once scored so many points in a pick up game of basketball outside my cousins’ house in Massachusetts that the other team refused to play a second game. But I was also the guy who scored a total of ten points in the Jewish Community Center league in four years, and eight of those points came in one game, after which my coach blurted, “What’s gotten into you? Why can’t you play like this more often?”

My academic career was beset by intentionally missed opportunities, and my athletic endeavors were marked by, ahem, er, failure.

Until running.

I started running in 1978, several weeks after a conversation I’d had with the security guard in my college dorm. He was a retired firefighter, and he told me about a fireman with a bad back who had just won a race up the Empire State Building. I told him about a mayor in New Mexico who trained a year for a marathon.

Then I had an epiphany. I raced upstairs and told my best friend, Dan, “I am going to train for a year and run the Boston Marathon.”

He said, “So will I.”

So we wrote out pacts to each other and promised to train and run the marathon together. Dan had been a high school runner, so he could draw on his past. I was the underachiever who was usually picked near last for any organized sport. But I took to running like a junky craves his fix.

I didn’t have to be good or fast or graceful. The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment and victory came from just finishing a one, two, or ten mile run. I remember sprinting one night up the dead end street we lived on in Bloomfield, CT, and screaming the last 150 yards with blissful abandon, clearly in the throes of the fabled runner’s high. I slogged miles in the rain, or in the 95-degree heat with matching humidity. I once ran in a blizzard and someone called me crazy and I felt so proud to be doing something that few people did. And I was physically and mentally fit.

I loved running. I used to hold up my first pair of running shoes—New Balance 320s—in those first few weeks of newness and inhale their rubbery smell. Running was my friend, someone who accompanied me daily and often made me feel better. I met famous people while I ran—Frank Shorter, once, in a 10K race in Hartford, CT. I used to wave at the actors William Hurt (The Big Chill, Body Heat, Altered States, Children of a Lesser God) and Clarence Williams III (from the Mod Squad) as I passed them in New York City’s Riverside Park when I jogged during college.

More important than scrapes with fame, were the times I ran with friends and strangers. While I preferred to run alone, I’ve had running partners who have helped me as a runner and person. I learned how to stretch in college even if I ignored Marcia Markowitz’s advice then. She and I often went out for an hour or so after I picked her up at her dorm outside Barnard College. And my most recent running buddy, Kei, mother of four and ICU nurse, gave me an opportunity to talk about anything, mostly parenting and growing older. We teased and harassed each other and joked and cried together. She was a neo-natal nurse who couldn’t help but take some of her work home.

Running wasn’t always fun, but the benefits far outweighed the effort I sometimes needed to prod myself out the door. When I broke up with a girlfriend in the mid-80s and my heart was shattered, running daily in preparation for a marathon was a constant that aided my recovery. My life may have been falling apart in many ways, but running was there for me, telling me everything would be OK and I could still be a success.

If this sounds like a long-winded epitaph for my running life, it is. I found out a few weeks ago that I probably shouldn’t run again. I started having terrible back spasms in December and so I went to see a chiropractor. She took x-rays and showed me what I’d already been told by a Kaiser doctor: I had degenerative arthritis in my lower back. The chiropractor also said I had bone spurs, which she showed me, in my lower back and neck. We talked about how much pounding a body absorbs during running and the effect it has on one’s joints and muscles and tendons and ligaments.

“Will I have to quit running?” I asked her at that first meeting.

“No,” she said, “but you need to take a break.”

A few weeks later, though, her sub told me that running was bad, very bad. “I’m in a cycling club,” he said, “and half the members are former runners with bad knees.”

He said unequivocally that I should stop running so I can walk and exercise when I am 80. When my regular chiropractor returned from her brief business vacation, she didn’t dispute the other doctor’s assessment.

So I came home and told Verna, who is battling horrendous bone pain from her cancer and can barely move from the couch, and all she said was, “Consider yourself lucky. I’ve had to give up everything.” She said it without any rancor or ill will, just a nod toward the reality of her situation.

I drove to work and was struck by my utter stupidity. How could’ve I had said that to her? I called her up, for what was a quick conversation since we live so close to work.

“That was insensitive of me, venting about my running while you can’t even workout.”

“Yes, it was,” she said.

So I retreated back into myself and felt sad and wistful as I recalled so many wonderful memories of running and sweating and pushing my body beyond any limits I’d thought possible. I have completed four marathons, pushed my son in a baby jogger for nearly six years—rain or shine, jogged in Italy, Israel, England, Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and bleak Caliente, CA, a steamy backwater with two restaurants, a bookstore, a few motels, and a gaping sense that the town’s glory days died decades ago. I ran the day after the 1989 earthquake in the Bay area left Golden Gate Park littered with huge strips of Eucalyptus tree bark as an eerie calm hung over everything.

And now, for the good of my body, I probably have to say goodbye to a friend who helped me become a better person, someone who became an achiever and finished college and grad school.

Yes, I can still cycle and workout, but I will miss running, for helping me to believe in myself and returning that faith unconditionally.

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