Sunday, August 7, 2011

See How They Run

 Word is Team John has begun preparations for next March's Atlanta Run for Your Life 5K. That's the reason for this repeat.

Runners are among the greatest wonders in the athletic world. I wonder about them all the time. I wonder why they do what they do.

Running all day in pursuit of a ball is normal and healthy. Running all day in order to run all day seems a little perverse.

Runners brag that they do for fun what other athletes are forced to do when they upset the coach. Does the term self-flagellation ring a bell?

The runners I know, however, appear to be normal, more or less. They're hardworking, well-adjusted, pleasant, contributing members of society. How, I've long wondered, did they get that way when their idea of fun is so unlike anyone else's.

A few years ago at the state cross country meet, I searched out the Pymatuning Valley girls after the Division III race. When I found them, one of Gruskiewicz girls, I forget which one, was hunched over, exhibiting obvious signs of gastro-intestinal distress. It took a few minutes, but the discomfort passed, she stood up, turned around and smiled the biggest smile you ever saw.

It's just not normal, I tell you.

In an effort to better understand this enigma, I recently picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. As a young man, Murakami operated a bar in Tokyo. But on April 1, 1978, he went to see the Yakult Swallows play the Hiroshima Carp. In the bottom of the first, the Swallows' Dave Hilton drove the ball to left, and when he pulled at second with a double, Murakami, a beer in hand, decided to write a novel.

His first novel was well received, and after writing a couple more successful books, he gave up the bar to write full-time. The sedentary life of a writer eventually manifested itself in flab, and Murakami took up running. By the time he wrote this book, he had run in 25 marathons and several triathlons.

Some of what he says sounds familiar. He talks about joggers running "like they had robbers at their heels." That reminded me of the cross country runner from Jefferson - Amanda Carney - who said her plan was to "run like I stole something."

Some things sound very foreign. The year Hilton's double inspired Murakami to write, the Swallows won the pennant. They couldn't use their home stadium in the Japan Series, however. The team's prospects appeared so dismal at the start of season that it's home field had already been booked in the postseason for college games.

And there are reminders that runners, after all, are just people. In 1983, Murakami got an assignment from a men's magazine to run from Athens to Marathon and write about his experience. He ran the entire distance, which shocked the photographer sent by the magazine. Apparently, most of the runners who do that type of story stop running once the photographer has taken an adequate number of pictures.

Murakami also makes a lot of wise observations. He talks about runners competing primarily against themselves. Murakami calls himself a mediocre runner. "But that's not the point," he writes. "The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday."

Endurance and focus are two of his favorite themes. He writes about reaching that point in a marathon where he feels as if he can't go on. It's then that he focuses on running the next step. That's it. If he thought about the miles left to go, he'd be overwhelmed. Taking it one step at a time, he can get there.

Murakami is also concerned with age - he's in his late 50s and his times are slipping. But he isn't intimidated by the inevitable march of time.

"As long as my body allows, I'll keep on running," he writes. "Even if my time gets worse, I'll keep in putting as much effort - perhaps even more effort - toward my goal of finishing a marathon."

He also says of growing older, "... since your faults and deficiencies are well neigh infinite, you'd best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have."

Good things to remember when you find yourself sliding into slackerhood. Although, 179 pages later I'm still not sure why runners do what they do.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, December 9, 2009.

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