Running isn’t always a race; it’s a way to a better life.
No one likes turning 40, but I assure you that it is way better than turning 41. On my 40th birthday, I was showered with gifts such as tickets to games and gift certificates to restaurants. I somehow found my way into three and four social gatherings every day across the four days of Thanksgiving weekend, despite many people being away and my own distance from family. My mailboxes were filled with greetings.
Life was going well. I’d been in the same business for over eight years, income was increasing and I was really feeling the pull of old lifestyle habits that had me way fitter than the 225-pound man that I’d become. The decline started in my mid-to-late 30s. With greater security, I kept leaning more and more toward the bon vivant side of life, and less toward the life of fitness and running that had kept me light of body and mind.
But I was going to change things and get back on track. After all, the big 4-0 called for it.
“It’s your 40th birthday?” my friend Andy’s dad asked quizzically. Andy, his parents and his fiancé were enjoying a pizza-and-game afternoon at a local hotspot in the North End of Boston. I guess the stigmas associated with being alone on major holidays are not nearly as bad as those associated with popping up stag on a major birthday.
“Yeah, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, and all my close friends are away, but I wouldn’t want to say that in front of your son,” I told Andy’s dad. Laughter ensued. Andy’s fiancé Crystal took hold of me. “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
I kept smiling and we talked about things like pilot’s licenses and falling in love. But what I really wanted was more immediate. The idea of facing another 40 years of life after all the steps it took to get to this slice of pizza was daunting — and it had been for a year.
“I just want my old body back,” I thought.
Living in Boston is a gift in itself. The city is full of hills, runner-friendly parks and its varying weather conditions can challenge even the hardiest veterans of the sport. But I was having trouble running up and down the hills of Beacon Hill. And I hated crossing from my new place through a high-traffic area onto the trails around the Charles River. I hated my body.
I was hiding. I was only running less-traveled paths before dawn. Now the lack of variety was killing me. “Help me,” I thought. “I am running out of places to run.” I was running out of diminishing fitness levels to fall past.
You have to understand, I was a fat kid growing up. I never thought I would escape that reality. My family was both abusive and indulgent. I ran track for the first time in seventh grade, and got lost. It was horrifying. Yet adulthood found me with a trim and toned physique, great self-esteem and a need for no more exercise than walking to the clubs and dancing.
I was working at a tech startup in my late 20s and decided to join a gym because all the other guys were doing the same thing. It was awesome. I was ripped at 185 pounds. Then someone asked me to go for a run. I was wearing wintery trail shoes, bad soccer shorts and a stupid surfer tee.
“Yeah, why not.”
I was hooked! I must have run three miles that night. I was up to almost 40 miles per week in no time.
Unlike when I turned 40, I received just a spattering of abbreviated electronic messages on my 41st birthday — which made me think back with envy. But on this day I was OK. The greatest gift I ever received came the year before — the map of a 3-mile loop in Charlestown that Crystal sketched for me. It was more than a map, however. It was the gift of running. The greatest gift of all.
Running means different things to different people. To some, it’s a drug; to others, a cure. Sometimes it’s a pain. For me, it’s a path back to a healthier physique.
What is running for you today?