27 October 2012


A couple weeks back I snuck out for a lunchtime run, which isn’t unusual seeing as I’m fortunate enough to work from my basement office and enjoy a two-flight-of-stairs commute on days when I’m not seeing clients. Granted, I pay the price on other days, but at least in my office there’s no worry about whether amenities are available like a post-workout shower.

On that particular day I sauntered down to the high school track and proceeded to launch into the workout prescribed by one of our Greater Boston coaches. The day’s excitement was a series of twelve-hundred-meter runs at a target pace that shouldn’t have bothered me, but on that day felt entirely unworkable. After one, I groaned at the prescribed number and questioned whether I’d hold out, especially doing the workout solo with nobody to egg me on. Deal with them one at a time, I told myself, and eventually I clicked off the appointed count, pleasingly picking up the pace a second or two on each. Completion of this most minor goal – one workout – brought satisfaction.

A bit less than halfway through this test, onto the field arrived a high-school phys-ed class. I half expected to be expelled in a frenzied concern that I might be a child-molester, but neither the instructor nor the students seemed to care about my presence. Slog on. And observe.

What I observed was that the activity of the day was Ultimate Frisbee, and what ensued was a seriously low-energy version of what could have been great exercise. The cones were laid out, half of the participants donned the obligatory red pinnies, and they were off…slowly. Well, some of them, at least. I counted twenty-two students in the class. I counted ten who actually played. The other twelve – over half of the class – were excused for some reason or another.

Keep in mind that all walked onto the field. None were on crutches, in casts, or otherwise visibly impaired. I can bet that my assessment of bodily functionality was wrong on at least one or two of them who probably did have some sort of ailment or legitimate woe. But I’ve got to question twelve of twenty-two being considered unfit for fitness. Four sat in the stands and soaked up the sun; call it Vitamin D therapy. The other eight split into two groups of four and “walked”, a word I place in quotations because the pace at which they edged around the track wasn’t measurable.

Unmolested, I continued my twelve-hundreds, pausing for two minutes between each to regain some oxygen and sanity. During one such pause, when a group of boys happened to happen by, I casually inquired obliquely, “On injured reserve?” They responded in the positive. My lighthearted invitation to them to join me on the next rep met with expected incredulity.

It’s probably wrong for me to judge, but I can’t avoid it. There’s simply no way that fifty-five percent of that class was unable to play a seriously low-energy form of tossing the Frisbee. With no specific knowledge of each individual case, the blame can be distributed in all sorts of directions: the kids themselves, parents, teachers, administrators, the culture of lawsuits, you name it (at least the culture didn’t overreact and kick me off the track!). But in the end it’s really easy to observe that it’s little wonder we’re facing a fitness and obesity crisis amongst our population.

Contrast this to what I observed on last Saturday in a park near Springfield, where over a hundred athletes gathered to relish in the joy and pain of racing across fields and through trails at the Western Mass Distance Project’s Cross Country “Festival”. A festival might be an odd description, through a festival has music, and Zeppelin blasted from the sound system as we raced from the field start, and a festival gathers friends, which certainly qualified, and a festival has people doing what they love, so perhaps the word fits the bill. People come willingly to a festival.

None of these folks showed up because they had to. No phys-ed grades were on the line. And while there were a few cash prizes available, the reality was that few were in line to claim them. The rest were there for the love of the sport, for their own fitness, for the sheer fun of it. No t-shirts, no swag, and as with most trail-based courses, not even an assurance that you could compare your time to anything else you’ve run in your life. Just come out and run, and they did, with the friendship aspect uniquely captured in a multi-team group shot after the main event (and this was only the men, there were more) (go ahead, try to find me, I’m in there!).

Frankly, it was a pretty mediocre race for me as well as several of my traveling companion teammates. Coming off the previous week’s race and a mid-week hard twenty-three miler, the last big one before New York, I was feeling the pain of a number of bumps and bruises, and my performance reflected that – it certainly wasn’t one to write home about. My compatriots found themselves in similar situations. To add to our results ambivalence, we all found something a little odd about the course splits which seemed to imply that every one of us tanked wholesale in the last mile. But we simply didn’t care. We enjoyed a gorgeous day in the park doing something healthy, running around with friends.

I got to thinking about the motivation of this group compared to the motivation of that phys-ed class. I often told the middle-school kids I used to coach that if I didn’t run every day that something hurt, I’d rarely run. As much as I stepped onto the field in Westfield with various bits hurting, I can make a pretty good guess that a lot of those other guys, even the young, hearty and hale ones, were in similar stance. But unlike the fifty-five percent in that gym class who for the pain of a hangnail (I theorize, of course) copped out, here the bruised and battered dove in instead. We make these choices every day: dive in and play the game, or sit out and go stale. I make the point in regard to fitness, but you can extend the metaphor to any life endeavor.

We can’t fool ourselves into thinking that our choice to dive in makes us invincible. The fact is, we’re all going to reach our end someday, and we may reach it in ways that surprise us. Runners do have heart attacks, runners do get cancer, diabetes, and all sorts of other mean, nasty things, and one of those things will beat each and every runner, some well before we’re due. Contradictorily, some of those who loll, laze, live hard, and generally take the course frowned upon will see their hundredth year and beyond. Statistically there’s really no logic to it.

But isn’t it worth putting up the good fight and enjoying knowing that you’re stretching your odds? Which side of the contrast do you want to be on?

Shout-Out, or perhaps a Bail-Out, to niece Kristin, about to embark on her first full marathon within hours. Your first marathon is always a memorable adventure, but it will be hard to top this one: she’s running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the city. This will truly be an interesting day. Send the Marines, put a smile on your face, and have at it. You will have unbeatable water cooler stories on Monday, that is, if you can get back to your water cooler… Go Kris!

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