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Confessions of a Peg-Legged Water Balloon

Michael Grady | Mar 18, 2013, midnight

But you keep going, until you finish or the answer becomes yes. Running is hard and unpleasant. Its early appeal is precisely the same as hitting yourself in the face with a shovel: it feels so good when you stop. You keep waiting for it to get easier. It doesn’t. And in your frustration you don’t seem to notice things like you’re sleeping better, and the rest of your day doesn’t seem quite as stressful.

New runners always think they’ll acquire some kind of athletic grace, and one day stride with the fluidity you see in the opening sequence from “Chariots of Fire.” This, too, is a lie. Some years ago, a friend emailed me a jpeg of me running in a 10K. I clicked on the link without reading what it was. It looked like a photograph of my dad being electrocuted. Grace is in the eye of the beholder. Two decades into running, I still look like a rolling seizure. Parents pull their children off the sidewalk as I approach. Surly bus stop teens have been known to mock me behind their cigarettes. I trudge on, rasping with the silent satisfaction that I will probably outlive them all.

The curious thing about running—or anything you make an abiding commitment to—is that, by middle age, it starts paying off. I am nobody’s Usain Bolt. But I don’t need a camera phone to know what my toes look like. When I visit the doctor, the only bad news is the co-pay. And here’s the most curious payoff: some of my best ideas, clearest decisions and most useful insights have come to me while running. Once you cycle past those early survival mantras (“Am I having a heart attack?” “Am I having a stroke?” and “Is that car going to hit me?”) you discover a marvelous clarity in the things that come to mind.

The other day, I heard a guy in a sporting goods store tell the clerk he was “taking up running.” The clerk quickly chimed in with a list of “must-haves” that easily took him north of $100. (People will sell you anything. Someday soon, I’m sure they’ll come out with a line of streaking accessories.) Got tennis shoes? Congratulations, you’re a runner. Accessorize after you’ve done it awhile. But, for now, a few inexpensive rules of the road:

• Look terrible: Any attempt at vanity is doomed. No tracksuit or accessory will offset the fact that you’ll be heaving like a fireplace bellows and smelling like an ox. So, go with it. Embrace the horror. Every villager you frighten away is one less person to trip over.

• You can never spit as far as you think you can: So turn your head and do it discreetly, or it’ll be your boutonniere.

• Every dog sees you as a traveling pork chop: I adore dogs. But they very seldom get the chance to show off the “protector” part of their resume, and if they’re out on a walk and see you coming, guess what? Give them a wide berth or you’ll collect Chihuahuas like barnacles.

• Pedestrians won’t see you until the last second: Especially in the age of ear buds. So grunt or cough when you’re still at a safe distance—especially if you’re approaching from behind. Because it’s hard to find your way home when you’re blind in one eye and reeking of mace. And of course…

• Drivers don’t see you at all: Drivers, poised at crosswalks or stop signs tend to look right through you. So wave at them. Drivers are, for some reason, more reluctant to squish the friendly.

If you’ve never tried running, I would really recommend it. You’ll hate it ... until you work through that valley. Then you begin to realize that, like life, it’s a journey. Look around. Enjoy the night stars. Enjoy the rising sun.

Don’t look too long, though. Small shrubs and street signs tend go for your legs.

Michael Grady is Valley-based freelance writer, reporter and playwright.

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