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Why Are We Running?

Notes on pounding the pavement from someone who hates to.

Walk the trash out to the curb on any given summer evening and you can hear them approaching slowly, soft "thump, thump" of air-filled ultra-shock-absorbing gel-soled shoes carrying 12 hours of pent up stress and anxiety up the sidewalk and out into the neighborhood.

They’re runners, and they’re everywhere.

I’m not talking about the sweaty herds of high school kids chasing track scholarships in the early morning (stumble home three hours past last call and you’ll see them) or the sinewy hardcore running junkie (every neighborhood has one) who seemingly runs all day and night, oblivious to daylight responsibilities like grocery shopping or, you know, a job.

I’m talking about the rest of us (yeah, I’ve been infected) who never ran in our youth (at least without being chased) and who have suddenly thrown all our energy into this one, singular fitness pursuit.

Why are we running?

I took up running later in life, somewhere between my 20s, when I could devote a day to the gym sweating out a hangover, and my 50s, which are just beginning to peek out (not unlike my stomach) over the horizon. The older you get, the more you realize there simply aren’t enough hours in the day (week, month) to devote to the treadmill and flat bench—unless your kids are old enough to spot you, and mine aren’t.

So you strap on those spiffy new running shoes you got for Father’s Day (I wanted a Weber Smoker), pull on that goody bag t-shirt from last October’s sales conference in Knoxville (MAKE IT HAPPEN! 2011), point yourself toward some imaginary destination (like, say, Gyros King on Ogden) and start running.

On any given night (unless "Deadliest Catch" is on, or I work late, or the kids want to play in the yard, or I’m grilling out, or it's raining, or it's not..), you can find me running (more like a plodding shuffle) slowly around a stretch of my neighborhood I’ve dubbed The Tony Loop. It’s a torturous 3.6 mile tour of uneven sidewalks, hyperactive poodles with long leashes, and overgrown rose bushes ripping at my calves.

I hate it. Nothing can make me look forward to this ritual.

I’ve gone so far as to load an iPod with four hours of blast beat stacked thrash metal for a deafening motivational soundtrack for my runs. Nothing like Cannibal Corpse to keep your motivation from lagging, or at least give you the illusion that Beelzebub himself is running behind you.

Still, it’s difficult for me to focus. My friends who run talk about this mythical place called "the zone," some kind of runner’s Shangri-la where each stride is effortless and you can’t hear your knees crunching like Chex Mix between each song.

Personally I don’t think this zone place exists, at least not without a healthy dose of pre-run pharmaceuticals (Aleve is my personal favorite) and a Starbucks double-shot chaser. That’s a place I call "the haze," and it’s pretty much what it takes for me to get through my runs. Zone, shmone.

I’ve been running weekly for about a year. I’m chafing. Men shouldn’t chafe. No one should ever chafe.

So why are we running?

I asked a friend who is a recent convert to the Church of Chafing. She took up running a few years ago and recently completed the Chicago Half Marathon.

Why are you running?

“I’m a mother of two, but running is something I can do just for me, a completely selfish act that helps me stay in shape, helps to clear my mind. I can do it alone, gets me out of the house for a few hours, then afterwards I can justify having that scoop of Ben and Jerry’s while I’m watching Letterman.

"As a Mom you lose part of yourself because you dedicate so much to your kids, your husband and job. Running is something I do just for me."

Makes sense for the busy mom, but what about the middle-aged dad/husband/semi-professional who still thinks he’s 24? Why am I running, especially since I completely, utterly, really freakin’ hate running?

Because I fear death (bonus points for you if you recognize that reference).

See, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion, after years of rationalization and denial, that I am indeed getting older. No really, this was a shock to me; happens that fast. One morning you wake up thinking about that girl tending bar at Alumni Club and where did I write that phone number down, and the next morning you find an ear hair—and it’s gray.

 So you start running.

For all of you newbie runners who have never owned a pair of gym shoes that cost more than 30 bucks I offer these tips on beginning your training routine. Remember, regardless of what anyone tells you, you will never really like running. The goal here is to make you forget what you’re doing for as long as it takes you to complete three miles. I figure that’s worth at least a six-pack of Sam Adams Boston Lager.

  1. Easy does it. Slow down there, Jim Fixx (who ironically died after a run). Just because it’s called running doesn’t mean you have to. Just keep up a steady pace and try and think about something else, like how your neighbor’s siding needs painting.
  2. Buy decent shoes. No, you don’t have to spend a million bucks, but those black Converse All-Stars in the garage are a recipe for shin splints. Head on down to Runners Grove, 5155 Main St., Downers Grove. They’ll set you up.
  3. Have a Goal. Or at least a destination. I can’t figure out how runners simply keep running without actually GOING anywhere; seems counterproductive. So pick a place to run to and you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you arrive. A favorite restaurant, a bar or a liquor store.
  4. Run alone. This is the exact opposite advice you usually hear from runners who advocate a running buddy, but the whole reason you're running is to work out your frustrations. Do you really want to spend an hour sucking wind and listening to someone else’s problems? Me either.
  5. Create a Soundtrack. Forget about the music you like, focus on music that will force your legs to move even when you begin to loose interest—and you will. Here are a few suggestions: "Bleed" by Meshuggah, "People = S**t" by Slipknot, "Funeral Hymn" by Exodus and "Sentimental Journey" by Esquivel (just to mix things up). That equals approximately two miles.

Good luck and remember, you’re never too old to start. Your maturity may cause you to focus on how futile the endeavor is, but as long as you focus on the cold beer waiting for you when you finish, you’ll be fine.

Jim Pokin June 27, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Another guy who needs to start worrying about chafing. http://www.wellsphere.com/triathlon-article/the-fast-the-furious-illinois-marathoner-rob-blagojevich/534473 (In this article, he appears to have a different first name, but from the hair it's the same guy.)
Tony Cesare June 27, 2011 at 09:09 PM
It is cultish, isn't it? Try as I may, I just haven't been able to 'drink the kool aide of running' so to speak. However, I agree with Maggie the accessories of running culture are tempting...
Jeff Ward June 27, 2011 at 11:23 PM
Tony, I run to keep one step ahead of my readers! My favorite is speed work at the track! Jeff
jayne Aspan June 28, 2011 at 10:30 PM
Hi Tony, I am the owner of The Runner's Soul in LaGrange and Elmhurst...I loved your story..I started running because I gained 45 lbs after my first child and could not lose the weight...Running did the trick. When I first started I hated every moment but eventually the pounds came off ..but the more intersting thing is I loved theway it made me feel..Running is good for the Mind theBody and the Soul...7 years later here I am living my dream something that changed my life forever..So, If you want to keep it local in LaGrange or Elmhurst stop by we would love to meet you!!!
Chad D. Walz June 30, 2011 at 03:06 AM
Tony wouldn't want to cheat on Downers Grove based Runners Grove though! ;)

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