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Confessions of a Peg-Legged Water Balloon

Michael Grady | Mar 18, 2013, midnight

As spring approaches, you’ll see a lot more runners dotting the sidewalks and parks. My admiration goes not to the lean, sinewy ones running in top-of-the-line gear, but to the bulbous newcomers, puffing along because this is the day they wouldn’t put off.

In organized running events—10Ks and marathons and such—there are always corridors of people to cheer you on during those last miles. I wish we could have those people cheering on the newcomers, when they first start running. The hard work is in those first few miles: when your chest hurts like hell and you move like a peg-legged water balloon. You’re running in that Valley between hard work and tangible results, moving forward on faith alone.

The first time I went running, I must not have been going very fast because someone tried to sell me something.

This is true. I was already hyperventilating when a junior high student, with a box full of band camp chocolate bars, pulled up alongside, matching me stride-for-stride, and started his pitch.

“Have… to … exercise…” I gasped.

“You can go exercise after you buy these,” he told me. “Look! They’re three for four dollars.”

“No,” I told him, “… exercising now.”

“Really?” He looked me up-and-down, then shrugged. “OK.” He said, then he beat me to the corner, and turned.

I don’t know where he went after that. Probably not Hell, but a guy can hope.

That was 20 years ago. I have been running ever since. I’m really not much better at it than I was back then. But we all have different obligations that necessity imposes on our lives. Running is my example of how, with patience and age, an obligation can morph into a blessing.

I started running because it was cheap, I was fat, and health clubs depressed me no end. They’re like pick-up bars where everybody is checking each other out and no one has a chance. And so many mirrors! If I liked looking at myself, would I be at a health club? I used to hide in the sauna, with the raisin-esque old men, whose long stories can be had for a question. (“What’s that hip? Titanium?”)

A sport was what I needed, but I wanted one that didn’t have a costly, equipment-heavy subculture wrapped around it. Golf is front-loaded with expenses like greens fees and ridiculous pants. Pick-up basketball is cruel to those of average height and entry-level skills. But anyone who has ever lobbed a brick at their former employer’s window knows how to run.

My only previous experience with running had been high school, where it was used as a punishment for performing other sports incorrectly. So I thought I might hate it. But I was encouraged by some leathery, thin people I knew. They assured me that, once I got started, I would find it a transcendent, Zen-like experience.

Boy howdy, did they lie! I really hated it! The only thing Zen-like about beginning a running program is that you do have a mantra: “Am-I-having-a-heart-attack? Am-I-having-heart-attack?”

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