Posts Tagged ‘running’

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.

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“I tell them to thing of the play, and not of the fame,
‘Cuz if they have any future at all, it’s not in the game,
‘Cuz they’ll be crippled and starting all over again,
Selling on commission, remembering when they were flying,
Remembering dying.”

-Stan Rogers, “Flying”

The Olympics are always a wistful time for me. I never watch them, but I remember that I might have competed in them myself, if I had chosen not to accept my limits.

That’s not fantasy or boasting, either. I used to train with one or two young men a few years older than me, and they qualified. So, with more dedication, I might have managed the same. But probably I’d have been lucky to be a finalist. I never would have won a medal, which was the whole problem.

From Grade Eight to my second year of university, competing in cross-country races and long distance track events was a major part of my life. In those years, I averaged seventy to ninety miles a week. Often, I’d train by doing half mile intervals up 17th Street in West Vancouver, or along the seawall at Ambleside Park. My summers were marked by track meets, and my autumns by road races.

And in my age group and distance, I was a standout. My legs are too short for me to compete successfully over 800 meters, but at 1500 meters and above, I won my share of gold medals and cross-country championships. I also set several records that stood for a few years. At high school, I was known for running, so much so that, decades later, that is what many people remembered me for.

Quite literally, I was a front-runner. I would take the lead early in a race, and keep it. As a tactic, this habit lacked a certain variety, but it was psychologically effective. Other runners thought it so natural for me to be in front that once I won a cross-country race with the ‘flu. My time was slow, but nobody thought to challenge my lead – although if anyone had, I wouldn’t have been able to defend it.

But that was high school. At university, running was an altogether more serious matter. In high school, I had usually trained alone, and my coach, not seeing any reason to argue with success, was content to let me do so. But, at university, I was under pressure to train with the team. More – I was expected to support the other jocks and do things like paint banners to display on campus. Since I was commuting by bus several hours a day, I had trouble meeting those expectations.

Even more importantly, for the first time in my running career, I was at a disadvantage. Not only was I suddenly competing against fully-grown men, but I was still recovering from smashing my knee into a steeplechase hurdle. Suddenly, I was no longer the star.

I soon realized that I would have to make a choice. I could focus on running, cutting down my classes and taking up weights and cross-training, spend some time in physio to strengthen my damaged knee, and make training a more regimented and even larger part of my life.

Or I could drop out of athletics altogether. In the circles in which I was moving, there were no places for casual athletes.

Eventually, I realized the obvious: I was good, and with proper training I might become very good. But I wasn’t great, and I never would be.

The realization troubled me, but the choice was clear. If I put in the kind of time I would need to remain a serious competitor, I would spend years in which my life was defined by competition, and, in the end, have little to show for my efforts. It wasn’t that I needed to win at all costs, so much as I recognized that the effort simply would not have been worth the results.

This was one of my first realizations of my limitations, and for about eight months I struggled against the unavoidable logic. I didn’t have any moment of realization – it was more a matter of priorities – but at the end of one spring semester, I cleaned out my locker in the gym and knew that I wouldn’t be coming back. At that point, I had drifted so far away from the running team that I didn’t even have anyone to say good-bye to.

Almost immediately, my knee improved and running became fun again. For years, I logged the sort of mileage that I had done while in training. But gradually I eased off, and now I do as much swimming, cycling, and walking as I do running in an effort to preserve my creaking knees. And it’s been years since I exercised with a stop-watch.

Looking back, I am confident that I made the right choice. Still, every now and then, I hear news about long distance running. Then I regret the necessity of my choice, and grow nostalgic for things that never happened.

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Four years ago, a doctor diagnosed me as having a mild case of osteoarthritis in my knees. I had run too many kilometers for too many years on blacktop, and now I was paying the price. My running days, he told me, were over, and the best I could do was light exercise. But trial and painful error has shown that the doctor was mostly wrong. If I was selective, I found, I could still do the kind of heavy daily exercise I’ve been accustomed to since I was eight. I simply had to make some changes in my routine.

The first change was to add some exercises to my daily routine. Half-squats, I’ve found, are ideal for building up the muscles around my knees to take some of the strain from them. I also do some stretching, one leg at a time, with a piece of surgical tubing while sitting on a bed or mat, and lie on the floor and walk an exercise ball up the wall.

For my main exercise, I’ve left the road for the gym. I now do repetitions on an exercise bike, varying the speed, tension, and duration from day to day and repetition to repetition to keep my interest up. The bike allows me a sweaty workout, but, because my weight is off my legs, pedaling puts very little pressure on my knees – in fact, even more than the exercises, it helps to reduce the aches around my knees. True, switching from running to cycling has changed the shape of my leg muscles, but that’s a small price to pay.

Recently, I’ve also added sessions on the summit climber. At first, I thought the motion would be too much like climbing stairs for me to manage, but the machine is designed to minimize pressure on the legs. If anything, the summit climber is even better than the bike for strengthening my leg muscles so I can work around my lack of meniscus. However, it is harder on the knees than the exercise bike, so I only use it in moderation.

Sometimes, too, three or four kilometers of walking is beneficial. I’ve never liked the slow pace of walking, but I can do it.

The doctor was right that I can’t sustain the sixteen kilometer runs that I used to do. I can run one without trouble, but on the second day, my knees start to give way. If I am stupid enough to persist for four or five days, my knees start to swell.

But I can manage five kilometers a day indefinitely, especially when they are added to my time on the bike and the summit climber. And, every now and then, for a change of pace when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can do ten or twelve kilometers. If my speed isn’t what it was – well, growing older was slowing me anyway.

At first, I worried that these exercises would hurry the degeneration of my knees. However, from experience, I doubt that is the case. My legs are stronger and my knees hurt less after a session on the bike, and I am now healthier and more active than I was when the doctor delivered his verdict of doom, and generally have much less discomfort in my knees, too.

Obviously, how active you can be with osteoarthritis depends on its severity. I’ve been lucky that my problems are relatively mild. But I’m convinced that the exercises I have discovered can not only help alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis, but also keep many of those with the condition far more active than they (or my former doctor) imagines. My only regret is that the doctor who diagnosed me has since moved away, so I can’t have the satisfaction of telling him that he was wrong.

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And if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running


“Aren’t you the guy who used to be running all the time?” a man I went to school with asked when we met recently in downtown Vancouver. I’ve been hearing variations of that question all my life, from everyone from clerks in local stores to potential employers. That’s not surprising, really, because, aside from reading and writing, few things have been a part of my life as much as running.

When I was in the first grades of school, we used to play tag in a little pieces of woods on the edge of the school ground. I soon found that, while I was only the third or fourth fastest of the boys participating, the longer the game went on, the less likely those faster were likely to catch me. The same thing happened on the soccer field, where by the last minutes of the game, I could outrun everybody.

However, it was in grade three that I first took up running seriously. Like many decisions in my life, it was taken by a wish to prove someone else wrong. The school’s PE teacher had assigned people from each grade to participate in a track meet with two other schools – and he hadn’t included me. Stung by this unfairness in a way that only the very young and self-righteous can be, I determined to make him regret his decision. While his chosen few practiced each morning on the makeshift track on the playing fields, I started doing laps of the school ground, sure that he would see me and be so impressed that he would have to reconsider.

If he ever noticed, he gave no sign of reconsidering. But the habit lingered, and soon I was running three mornings a week before school with several of my friends. I was reasonably athletic, although in team sports I made my mark by enthusiasm and energy more than skill, and I took running very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that when I discovered that a couple of people had cheated on an after-school training run that, when I saw them a block ahead of me, I charged towards them, yelling “Cheaters!” at the top of my lungs, wild with rage and determined that they weren’t going to get credit for finishing first. I beat them, too – although probably I was helped by the fact that they didn’t care as much as I did.

In high school, I had more than my share of firsts in cross-country and distance running, largely on the strength of having discovered that all you needed to beat most rivals was to train every day. Moreover, since my only strategy was to rush to the front of each race and then hold on, I learned the importance of psychology. I won several races when woozy from ‘flu solely because everyone else expected me to be out in front.

Somehow, though, I didn’t have get the victories in the provincial finals that everyone expected from me in grade 12. I was sick at the time, but I wonder now if the illness wasn’t an unconscious rebellion against the increasing seriousness I was finding in sport. By that point, I had been several years in the Vancouver Olympic Club, training under the legendary Lloyd Swindell, and not only had I found several rivals, but the seriousness of the training I experienced seemed to take the fun from the sport.

In university, the seriousness intensified. Not only that, but, as a team member, I was expected to help paint posters for other athletic events and show up to football and basketball games. Since I was commuting three hours a day to university, I couldn’t have given the time to these things if I had wanted to.

Moreover, the competition was tougher, too. At eighteen, I didn’t have my full adult strength (such as it is), and I was competing with fully grown men from across North America. Increasingly, I realized that, judging from the success of some of my older peers at the university and at the Vancouver Olympic Club, I might make qualify for the world championships or the Olympics in the five or ten thousand meters if I devoted four or five hours a day to training – but I almost certainly would not reach the finals, let alone finish with the medals. Reluctantly, I acknowledged to myself that I was a good runner, but not a great one, and somewhere near the end of my second semester, I ran my last race.

But that didn’t mean I quit running. Even then, it was too much a part of my life to give up. It was a form of meditation, a collection of peak moments of exertion and early morning sights that I could never give up. I’ve run up hills in Glacial National Park while on holiday, and several thousand meters high at Mount Lassen with my lungs on fire. Early in the morning, I’ve run through the streets of Berkeley on glorious summer mornings and Tacoma’s skid row, through the fog, and the outskirts of Indianapolis in the snow and stabbing cold. I sometimes feel that, until I’ve run an area, I haven’t really experienced it.

Admittedly, my mileage has dropped and my speed is a joke, especially in the last few years, when I’ve started varying my exercise with swimming and cycling to spare my knees some strain, but I don’t expect to quit altogether so long as I can hobble, however slowly. I sometimes joke that I won’t consider any retirement home that doesn’t have an all-weather running track.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running.

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In high school, I ran long distance track with some success. But it was the four meet cross-country season that I loved best. Long distances around a track require a tolerance for repetition that even the most disciplined teenager lacks, while cross-country requires endurance over changing terrain, making it better suited to the strengths of a boy with overly short legs. Over five years, I received two first place season total and two second place ones – and would have had a strong chance of another first place finish, if a crippling ‘flu hadn’t caused me to miss a couple of races. But, of all my victories, the one that was most satisfying was the first race of my Grade 9 year – not least because it was a group victory as well.

I had been a strong but largely untrained runner in elementary school, finishing fifth in the provincial championships in Grade 7. I managed a consistent second place finish in my Grade 8 cross-country season, and was well-satisfied with it; I’ve never been one to believe that “silver is the first loser’s metal,” and was pleased to be a contender.

However, at the same time, I was determined that, next year, I would beat the runner who had always finished first to my second. That was the year that I began to train seriously, running every day over the summer and fall, and boosting my daily mileage, first to fifty miles a week, and then to sixty and seventy, and encouraging some of the other lead runners on the team to do the same. Come the March cross country season next year, I was fitter than I had ever been in my life.

Nervous but focused, I arrived with my school team at the first meet of the season. As I warmed up, I kept looking for my nemesis of the previous year, but couldn’t see him. However, with a couple of hundred runners in each of eight categories, that wasn’t surprising.

At the gun, I was running hard to take an early lead, certain I’d see my nemesis near the front with me. I didn’t, but I kept going strongly. Taking an early lead is a tactic that can sap your strength if you aren’t well-trained, but can be psychologically devastating to others, especially when they face you repeatedly; I believe that I won one of the races in the year of the ‘flu simply because people expected to see me out front, despite the fact that I was still feeling weak.

Besides, my nervous tension left me little choice except to explode into action at the start.

Before half a mile, I had enough of a lead that I couldn’t hear any footsteps behind me. However, as a Vancouver runner, I had been raised on the story of the 1954 Miracle Mile, in which Arthur Landry lost to Roger Bannister because he looked back at the last moment, and I was determined not to do the same. For the first mile, I ran all out, and kept my eyes front, resisting the temptation to look back.

At the halfway point, when the course turned into a path through the woods, I could wait no longer. I twisted back, and suddenly I had one of the moments of pure joy in my life.

Ten yards behind me was another runner from my school. Twenty yards behind him were another two from my team, with the next runners a good thirty years back.

I was elated, but also alarmed to see the next runner closer than I had imagined. As the cedar chips began to fly up from under my shoes, I accelerated down the trail as fast as I could. By the time I reached the finish line, I had at least a thirty yard lead. Then, bending over to catch my breath, I watched with fierce exaltation as our team took the first four positions.

Considerable wordless shouting and thumping of backs ensued, you might say. Even our coach, whose normal mode of expression was sarcasm, couldn’t help grinning happily at us.

The only disappointment was that my rival from the previous year was no longer running. But I did beat his course record by almost thirty-five seconds, so I felt that, in one sense, I had defeated him regardless. I kept hoping for the rest of the season that he would show up, but he never did, not until a couple of years later, when smoking and lack of training made him finish well back in the pack.

We couldn’t keep up our perfect score all season – not quite. But we did win the team score that season, as well as three of the top four individual positions, including my perfect first place score. Yet none of the other wins could quite compare with the feeling of pure victory of that first one, or the sense of being part of an apparently unbeatable team.

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Looking at temperatures across Canada, I see a depressing number of minus signs. The sole exception is the southwest corner of British Columbia, where we are already enjoying temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. Several weeks ago, we had our last snowfall, but now we’re starting to see the first signs of spring. Does anyone wonder why those of us in Vancouver have a tendency to phone friends and family in places like Calgary and Winnipeg to have a nice, warm gloat?

Many city people probably pay minimal attention to the seasons. Except for short dashes to their cars, they spent most of their time in heated buildings. However, for those of us whose daily exercise takes them out into the elements, the coming of spring has a certain urgency – although far less, granted, than it does for a farmer.

For one thing, running or cycling on snow is either difficult or impossible. For a runner like me, it’s like running on sand, with every kilometer feeling like two or more. And, like sand, it’s hard on the ankles. Add unplowed sidewalks and the need to contest the streets with cars, many of which lack all-season tires, let alone snow tires (Vancouverites are almost in as deep denial about receiving snow as they are about rain), and getting any sort of exercise becomes an ordeal. The fact that sweat pants bind my legs is just a winter torture unique to me.

Then, for morning exercisers like me, there’s the dark. Cars full of sleep-deprived, caffeine-motivated drivers are dangerous at the best of times, but trying to dodge them before sunrise adds a new dimension of horror, especially when you suddenly find yourself tiptoeing across a patch of black ice, waving your arms wildly and trying not to scream in panic as you try to keep upright.

But, somewhere in the last ten days, spring has definitely gained a hold. It was like trench warfare for a while – a tiny advance here, followed by an immediate setback, then the cycle repeating somewhere else – but at some indeterminate point, winter lost its grip.

Now, the only remains of snow are the mounds heaped up by snowplows – and they are diminishing everyday. The sun rose today just after 7am, meaning enough light to see by (and be seen) exists by 6:30, and the roads and sidewalks were mercifully ice-free. Crocuses and daffodils are thrusting up shoots of desperate green on the grass. In Dunbar, the first buds are showing, which means that, around our townhouse, they will appear within a week.

I’m not a victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and of course Vancouver winters are laughable by the standards of the rest of Canada. All the same, in December and January, I had the sense of keeping my head buried in my work, hunkering down in our living room as though it was a bunker in a war zone and waiting for better days.

Now those days have come, I feel a sense of relief, and a renewed need to be up and doing. With all these first signs of spring, the first cherry blossoms should be less than a month away – and then I’ll know that winter is gone beyond any recall.

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I’m lucky in my choice of exorcisms. When things get too much, other people get too drunk or turn on the people around them. But through no virtue of my own, when I get restless from too long at the computer, or overwhelmed by all that I can control or haven’t done or should have done, I get rid of the tension by violent exercise. Something about the lightheaded edge of fatigue calms the frustrations that would otherwise build up like a slow poison.

The physical aspect is one aspect of the release. When I reach the point when my lungs are burning from my effort and my legs and arms are nearly trembling, not much room is left for depression or self-pity. At that point, I’m held upright by the adrenalin and the endorphins swamping my blood. To a point, the harder I exercise, the longer I can exercise – or so it seems.

But, for me, the most important aspect is the mental. All exercise, whether inside or outside, running, cycling, swimming, or walking, consists of repetitions of a few simple actions such as the movement of the legs and arms, and the regular intake and outake of breath. These repetitions make exercise a form of meditation, a heightened state of paradoxical quiet, for all I can hear my laboring breath with my ears and feel my increased heart rate. It’s rare that I don’t come back from a run with the problem I was working on solved, or with a stoic optimism replacing my doubts and uncertainty. Exercise tells me, not that my mental state doesn’t matter, but that there are other rhythms in the world that keep me going and that are somehow enough in themselves.

For most of my adult life, my exercise of choice has been running – and I mean running, not jogging, because the pace I set myself was always a demanding one. However, in the last few years, I’ve branched out more in an effort to preserve what’s left of the battered cartilage in my knees. And, in doing so, I’ve found that each form of exercise with its characteristic set of repetitive motions is its own form of meditation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me running is a creative meditation from which I retrieve the structure of the piece of writing I’m working on, or an idea to develop. By contrast, swimming, while often leaving just as tired as any other form of exercise, has a calming effect – perhaps because even the breast-stroke that I prefer involves a deprivation of the senses. Cycling, though, is best for an all-out assault on negative emotions of all kinds (or at least the intervals I do at the exercise room are), while walking is more contemplative, and brings a deeper awareness of trees and temperature and people. But all of them leave me focused, relaxed, and renewed. The best days are usually those that involve more than one of these types of meditation, and the main advantage of holidays is that I can fit more of them in. It’s a rare day that I don’t burn over 800 extra calories, and a satisfying one when I burn more.

I suppose that the long-term fitness that my exercise regime bestows helps me deal with tension, too (I have to get something out of it; I have a heavy build that, with my clothes on, doesn’t look fit). But it’s the day to day relief that I value the most, especially at the end of work. So long as I can exercise, I rarely have trouble sleeping or keeping motivated. I count myself lucky that my escape from myself takes such an effective and easy to obtain form.

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I woke this morning to a couple of centimeters of snow. Part of me was mildly outraged that snow should fall so late in the seasons. Snow may be continuing to fall in places like Calgary and Saskatoon, where they’re still experiencing lows of -20 or greater, but I’ve been running in shorts since New Years, and was starting to expect the first signs of spring in two or three weeks. Still, like most weather extremes in Vancouver, the snow is unlikely to stay for more than a few days. Meanwhile, this morning, it was enough of a novelty that I could enjoy the experience of an early morning run through it.

Speed, of course, is totally lost in the snow, especially when it covers a thin layer of ice, like this morning’s did. So, frequently, is balance and dignity – I fell twice this morning, although, with the feeling of an unexpected holiday that comes with snow in Vancouver, I took both with surprisingly good humor. But I was in no hurry, and slogged along, my ankles getting as much of an extra workout as they would have if I was running over sand.

The worst moments were crossing the roads, where the few cars on the road had stripped the layer of snow and left only black ice. I tiptoed with exaggerate caution over the intersections, arms spread low for balance and head high so that I could check for cars.

I’ve always enjoyed the sensation of being the only person stirring on a morning run, but the snow adds substantially to that feeling. True, even at sunrise, the tracks in the snow indicated once or twice that I was not the first person stirring. Yet for long stretches, mine were the first footprints in the snow. And even where I could see the signs of others, the sound-muting qualities of the snow were in force, and the quiet intensified the sense of solitude. Literally, too, I was one of the first stirring, with no more than a single car passing every kilometer.

I didn’t experience, as I have in other snowfalls, being the fastest thing on the road. This year, Vancouver has had enough snowfalls that most people were prepared for driving in the snow. However, the snowfall intensified before I had finished half my run, so I had a good twenty minutes of feeling that I was falling into an endless well of snow flakes.

Then came the welcome relief of a hot bath and dry clothes – to say nothing of the rosy glow of virtue that comes from finishing something difficult and mildly against my inclinations.

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If there’s one thing I know, it’s recovering from a leg injury. In fact, sometimes, I think that recoveries define my life: I remember, for instance, the period I spent limping around after my knee crashed into a steeplechase hurdle, or the time I tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk and lost long strips of skin from my leg and palms. For the past few weeks, it’s been a torn muscle – and a long and dreary time, it’s been, too. Frankly, the process, is getting repetitive – and my apparent inability to learn wearisome.

To start with, many of my injuries are due to strain. Although I haven’t raced for years, I still tend to push too hard and fast when I don’t have the energy. A denial of middle-age, perhaps? Or, more likely, I’m so much in the habit of training that I drag myself out for exercise even when I shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a residue of macho – at least, I hope I’m not that shallow.

Then there’s the question of which injury actually deserves rest. Some injuries, I know, disappear if I do more stretching and ease up a little. For others, that’s the worst thing I can do. But knowing which is which is almost impossible. So, I have the choice of either gambling or resting just in case, neither of which appeals.

And if the original injury isn’t enough, a few days of limping around, without or without crutches or a cane, often produces collateral damage in the other leg as I try to keep my weight off the injured one. That can go on for two or three rounds, long after the original injury is healed.

Meanwhile, I’m sticking close to home and rapidly spiralling down into cabin-fever. It’s one thing, I find, to stay at home out of choice, and entirely another to be confined there. Moreover, if there’s one thing I hate more than being subservient, it’s being waited on, even when doing things myself take twice as long. And, while in theory, spending time reading, watching DVDs and playing computer games sounds like a leisurely break from my regular routine, none of these activities are so enticing when I’m using them to fill up time rather than relax.

The only good thing about this enforced inactivity is that escaping it gives me a good incentive to start my comeback. I need all the help I can get, too, because the first few days of returning to exercise make me feel decrepit. But if I can endure the first few days, exercising slowly gets easier (although, more than once, the thought that maybe I’m getting too old for all this crosses my mind). If I persist, I know that I’ll soon be enjoying the benefits of heavy exercise. But at the start of the process – where I am now – I feel a sort of constant low-grade irritation at just about everything.

The worst thing is, I don’t really know how to break out of this cycle of recoveries and crashes. Paying more attention to my physical state is probably key, but one of the disadvantages of being a life-long heavy exerciser is that you get used to taking a high level of fitness and health for granted. For over fifteen months, I have been being careful – but one moment of carelessness, and I was back in the cycle.

If this is what growing old is like, I’m tempted to say, I don’t want any part of it. The only trouble is, I’m already too late for the alterantive of dying young. As for leaving a beautiful corpse — well, that was never an option in my case, anyway.

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The Courage of the Early Morning is the name of the biography of World War I flying ace Billy Bishop that was written by his son. It refers to the characteristics needed to get up in the dark and cold and risk your life after too little sleep. It’s also a phrase that I like to apply to going out for a morning run in the damp and darkness of fall and winter.

Admittedly, I am not facing planes that are waiting with machine guns to knock me down, although in the dark, cars and half-awake drivers aren’t a bad substitute sometimes. Still, I like to think there’s the same sense of going against the inclinations of comfort in order to do something difficult. And, if I’m honest, there’s also a sense of perverse satisfaction in believing that I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t make a completely hedonistic choice.

This bit of self-dramatization (because that’s what it is) dates back to my days of playing soccer and rugby when I was growing up. When going to practice or play and hearing someone voice a variation of “Sooner you than me,” I used to like to think that I was tough enough not to let bad weather discourage me. Of course, in reality, I had all the toughness of boiled spinach, but adolescents do need some shred of self-assurance to cling to. And, rather than admit myself a hypocrite, after the first tackle that left me sliding through the mud, I soon found myself taking a grim satisfaction in my ability to adapt to a condition that others still shied away from. It was a good way to score, too, because those who weren’t muddy themselves would often avoid me as someone who was slightly crazed.

Something of that same insanity persists in me to this day. When I leave the warmth of the bed and stumble outside into the wet and cold of autumn, I reflect that hundreds of people around me wouldn’t consider doing what I am, and then I don’t feel so miserable. Except on the coldest days of the year, the satisfaction lingers enough for me to fall into a rhythm and to warm myself with the exertion, so that the misery I’ve walled away disappears.

I suppose that something of the same train of thought drives people who take up dangerous sports or take chances. By comparision, my courage of the early morning is a very minor strain of the attitude at best. But middle-age, I find, needs its illusions as much as adolescence, and if it gets me out the door each morning, this is one to which I’ll cling.

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