Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Running Kool-Aid: Why I Have Drunk It and Why You Should Too

My aunt and uncle had two things they swore they wouldn’t do when they had kids: make guests listen to their kids play musical instruments and have their kids leave the message on the answering machine. They put up a noble fight but, in the end, they succumbed. A few short years after the promise, there I was, on the couch, when the suggestion was floated out there: maybe cousin Ricky should drag his trombone up from the basement and serenade me with a few toots. And sure enough, when I called on the phone and nobody was home, whose adorable voice did I hear asking me to leave a message? Three year-old cousin Lyla’s. There are some forces you just can’t beat.

And, when I took up running a few years ago, I swore that I would not become THAT GUY who had to preach on and on about how absolutely wonderful running is and why you just absolutely had to give it a try yourself. I think we all know where this is going. What can I say? When you find God or Amway or crack cocaine or whatever it is that gets you out of bed in the morning, you want to yell it in the streets. Or at least e-mail it to your closest 200 friends. Or, better yet, post it on your blog. You can stop reading any time now. Unless you’re already a runner, this could get nauseating. If you care to read on, here are my top five reasons you should start running.

Reason Number One: Running is Easy

Professional runners will deny this, but running is easy. They will tell you that, like any sport, becoming a great runner takes a lifetime of practice and commitment, that there are a million subtleties to conquer. Not true. You’ve seen people run. All you have to remember is that after you put your left foot forward, you then have to put your right foot forward. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. That’s it. If you mess up and do, for example, two left foots in a row, you’ll be skipping. And it’s hard not to notice when you’re skipping. I’ve glossed over a few steps. You should drink a glass of water before you go out for a run, and you need to know how to tie shoes. If you have a hard time with either of those, you should probably stay away from sports generally.

Reason Number Two: Running is Cheap

This point can be made most powerfully if we compare running to another sport. Pick a sport, any sport. Let’s say, I don’t know, how about polo. If you want to give polo a shot, you need a stable of horses, boots, one of those black fuzzy helmets and a big mallet thing. Once you throw in all the peripherals – a Jaguar XJ8, a horse trainer, prep school tuition, some rope – you’re talking probably half a million bucks just to get started. To be a runner, on the other hand, all you need is a pair of shoes. Some of the most elite Kenyan marathoners started out, as kids, running with rubber flip-flops. You could pick up a second hand pair of those for under fifty cents. Even if you want to go seriously high end, you can get shoes custom-fitted, by a guy with a PhD, to match your exact pronation and arch for about $110. That is the absolute upper limit. You just cannot spend more than that on a pair of running shoes, even if you are specifically trying to get gouged. I guess you need socks too. So add another seven bucks for a real fancy pair. That’s it. You’ll hear runners talk about wicking shirts, anti-chafing shorts, Gu, GPSs, UV shades, and on and on, but that’s all just first-worldy running magazine-marketed stuff designed to keep cash flowing and make runners feel like they’re part of some real sport. Even clothes are optional. You hear from time to time, seriously, about naked 10Ks. Up to you. This may sound sexy, but I’m sure it’s really not. Also, do a quick read through your local indecency ordinances before setting out in the buff.

Reason Number Three: Running Lets You be Holier Than Thou

Be honest with yourself for a moment. What is your main motivation for doing anything? Mostly so that you can think you’re better than other people. Right? Come on, of course it is. Unless you live in Boulder, Colorado, there will be an article in your local newspaper every single day from tomorrow until the end of time about how obese and unhealthy everyone in your community is. Running doesn’t solve all health problems, but it’s generally good for you, so that’s close enough. That means that, if you’re a runner, you can turn your nose up at every article pointing out what a public health crash course we’re on, or how horrifically complacent and out of shape the general population is, knowing what a long, healthy, lovely life you are going to live. Applying this to your workaday life, you can paste on a smug little smile with the knowledge that every jerk that cuts you off on the highway or boss that only skims your emails probably has a higher body mass index than you.

Reason Number Four: Running Lets You Eat Anything in the World

If you run enough, you can eat ANYTHING you want. A good, long run burns around 2000 calories. That’s about as much as you need to eat in a day, which means that if you eat a healthy breakfast, a sensible lunch and a full dinner and then run 20 miles, when you get home, you can eat another entire healthy breakfast, sensible lunch and full dinner without gaining an ounce. Or you can stick to the regular number of meals and live off of a three-beer-and-a-bacon-cheeseburger-a-day diet with no net caloric change at all. One caveat here is that the beer does still tend to go to the gut and so, if you’re trying to avoid the ridiculous-looking beer-swilling runner’s physique (120 pounds, half of which protrude from between your waist and your nipples), you’ll want to think about adding on some kind of abdominal regiment as well. Otherwise, you’re free to pound the pavement and then settle down every evening on your regular stool at the Cheesecake Factory bar.

Reason Number Five: Running Makes You Feel Good

And finally, the clincher: running makes you feel good. It’s the endorphins. Endorphins are as much fun as any other drug, and they’re free, transportable across state borders and don’t have to be purchased from some sketchy high school dropout. Endorphins are designed to mitigate extreme pain. They’re supposed to be secreted right before something horrible happens so that your body doesn’t go into shock. Running manipulates your body into producing a dose of self-medication that lasts all day long. Some would say that there’s no manipulation involved, that running is exactly the kind of “something horrible” that endorphins are meant to counter. I won’t argue with that. Despite the whole poetic wax-job in the preceding paragraphs, I’ll be the first to admit that running itself sucks. The first five miles of any run are horrible. All the rest of the miles are slightly less horrible, but certainly not at all pleasurable. It’s when you get done that you start to feel good. Kind of a reverse hangover. Pain first, then pleasure, and only very rare instances of doing something stupid that you don’t remember, but later discover on YouTube. For the 18 hours following your run, you’ll feel relaxed and generally more equipped to deal with whatever shit the universe deals you over the course of the day.

So there you have it – my little unsolicited dose of self-righteous prosthelytizing. You can take it or leave it. But even if you don’t immediately start living the nirvana of a life I’ve offered up for you, at least you’ll understand why the guy in tights you see every morning checking his pulse by the sidewalk looks so appallingly serene.

P.S. Here is a video dispatch from my tri-state Thanksgiving run through South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota:


jms1 said...

Dan - fantastic article on running. You just explained almost my entire life for the past
30 years.

Unknown said...

Brother Dan...these blogs are awesome! I guess it isn't enough that I live the running life vicariously through you and Leslie? Great stuff in are so $#@^^&* funny!!!

Anonymous said...

Dan: your raw footage from the Tri-State area has that docu-drama feel, particularly the "cob" analysis and your "running" commentary accompanying it. The revelation for me, as it must be for you, is that corn grown in different states is well....still corn. But, oh the scenery! It could be direct lift from that iconic crop duster scene in the 50's thriller, North by Northwest. Hitchcock has Cary Grant in this barren landscape running away from nefarious pursuers who are trying to gun him down from the air. Course, you're no Cary Grant...and I don't think you're running from anything, are you?

Dan J said...

Note from the editor: Please ignore the flip comment implying that tying shoes is a no-brainer. The January, 2009 issue of Runner's World includes an article entitled "Knot Perfect." The introduction to the article explains the problem as follows: "This is one of those seemingly trivial stories that could actually change your life. It's about a man who has a noble quest: to revolutionize how the world laces its shoes. Go ahead, laugh—but there's a good chance you're tying them wrong."