Friday, April 25, 2008

As a youngster, my sport of choice was cricket, and I did not run until my junior year in High School (this was in a small town in South Africa), when a friend and I decided to see if we could make the track team. We trained like crazy over the summer that year, 1969. I mean crazy. We ran a 3-mile circular route as fast as we could on Day 1, recorded our time with a cheap stopwatch and wrote it down in a black notebook. We did exactly the same thing the next day. And the next. In fact, we tried to improve on our best time every day thereafter, for weeks on end. Easy days? You’ve got to be kidding! We were dead serious. We ran through several injuries, including devastating shin splints, too stupid to know any better and too young to care. There were no books in those days to tell you how to run. Like Emil Zatopek, we knew how to run slowly, we just wanted to run fast. Oh, and we thought it was a bad idea to drink anything – like water – before or during running.

Well, I made the track team – finished 3rd in the mile the following season. My friend Sam (nowadays a veterinarian near the Kruger Park) hung in there for a few months and then suffered a ‘career-ending’ Achilles tendon injury. Much as we secretly hoped to be, we were no budding Steve Prefontaines. We didn't set any records and we didn't seriously challenge the established track team stars. Even so, that summer of running turned a couple of slackers into pretty decent athletes. Those few months gave us a hint of the exhilaration of really feeling our legs under us, flying along a country road a world away from everyday worries & cares, but always closer & closer to our own personal limits.

In the end, this youthful lark turned into a never-ending love of running. I just cannot imagine myself not bathed in good clean sweat practically once a day, or running myself close to total physical exhaustion, every now and then. Sounds like fun? Of course it is. Don’t you just pity those ordinary mortals who will never experience the relief of cresting a hill, the joy of hitting a target pace in a mile repeat, or feeling just a little bit smug running 20 miles before the rest of the neighborhood is even awake? Not to mention the thrill of running in new shoes, trying the latest gadget, competing in races, breakfast with running buddies, setting a new PR, thinking about running Boston! It really doesn’t get old, even after 39 years.

With a few breaks here and there, I have never stopped running since Sam and I first pressed the button on that old-fashioned stopwatch with the long red second hand, on our now decades-old, long-abandoned quest for athletic fame. Getting married to another runner 26 years ago helped to reinforce the habit. A first marathon in 1991 led to several more. For many years, thoughts of qualifying Boston were easily dashed by looking at the qualifying times. Run a 3:10 marathon – in your dreams! But with age comes a bit of wisdom, so we lose a little weight, train a little smarter, get lucky when Boston adds a few extra minutes for the old geezers, and then get very, very lucky by qualifying with one second to spare, in January 2007. I am truly fortunate to have discovered running that many years ago and to have never lost the joy and the fun of it.

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