Running has been a major part of my life since I was eight. These days, I am slowly replacing it with swimming and cycling in the hopes of preserving my cartilage-challenged knees, but it remains a major part of my live – a break in the daily routine, proof of my fitness, and a sweaty, endorphin-inspired high unlike anything else.
I was always active as a boy. Good thing, too, or else with my bookishness and early speech-impediment, I probably would have been bullied. But although I played soccer and other sports from an early age, I didn’t pay much attention to running until Grade 3, when I discovered it out of pure envy.
My school was going to have a track meet with two other schools, and the gym teacher had assigned the students he thought promising to the various events. Somehow, he failed to assign me an event, an omission that I felt self-evidently wrong. I determined to show him the error of his ways, and began doing laps around the school ground before and after school, where I was sure he couldn’t fail to see me.
Likely, he didn’t notice me, but, if he did, I didn’t change his mind. But the idea of running stayed with me. For a while, I organized before-school runs with my friends, continuing the habit after everyone else grew bored.
In Grade Seven, I finished fifth in the provincial cross-country championships. That was the start of a string of second and first places throughout my school career, with the occasional meet or course record.
I still remember the highlights of those days: crossing the finish line first in the first race of the cross-country season in Grade Nine, distantly followed by team mates in second, third, and fourth, being cheered to a 1500 meter record in Empire Stadium, finishing third against all age groups in the James Cunningham Memorial Seawall Race. I had shared in victories in soccer and rugby games, but winning by yourself gives a fierce satisfaction that a team’s victory can’t match, no matter how important your role might have been.
Yet, somehow, I never quite did as well as I should have. I missed one high school championship because I was sidelined for two races with the ‘fl. Then, in my final year, which I wanted to be a triumph, I ended up limping for months after running my left knee into a steeplechase hurdle as I was trying to learn to leap over it without pushing off from the top. I had to sit out the season, and, consequently, the scholarships for which I had hoped didn’t materialize.
However, in the end, that was probably just as well. Track and field and cross-country were altogether more serious matters at university than they had been in high school, and, at seventeen, I was suddenly competing against full-grown men.
Nor did my commute leave me time for training with the team. In the spring of my first year, I won what was to be my last race – a fun run organized in my local community. I was good, I realized, but unlikely to be great, even if I found proper coaching.
Still, that belated modesty did little to change my habits. I no longer trained 75-90 miles per week, as I did when I was racing, but I still averaged 55-70 until a few years ago, with the occasional bit of interval training.
Keeping up the mileage was, to be frank, an important part of my personal pride. I was proud of my endurance and discipline, and, as I aged, of maintaining abilities beyond those of most people around me. When students on the football team mentioned that their ambition was, by the end of the semester to run up Gaglardi Way to Simon Fraser University without stopping to walk, I took a smug glee in letting them know that I did so several times a week, despite being twice their age. The fact that I never looked fit unless I ripped my shirt off (something that is hard to do naturally unless you’re the Incredible Hulk) only added to their astonishment and resentment.
By the time I was middle-aged, I must have run far enough to circle the globe three or four times. But, eight years ago, I suddenly found myself suffering from regular knee injuries. I took a while to understand the obvious – evidently I’m a slow learner – but, in the end, I realized I would have to modify my daily exercise or face an old age on a scooter.
Now, my running mileage is usually less than it was on a light day in my prime. I get my workout in other ways, but it’s just not the same. I still remember topping a hill just in time to see the sun rise on a chill winter day, and the feel of taking over the lead in a race. I suspect that in my dreams I will always be running, luxuriating in a sense of wildness that comes from the effort and the rhythm of the long miles on the road.