I have a love-hate relationship with running. On one hand, I love to run. And yet on the other hand, I hate to run. You see, I love the exhilaration that comes from pushing your body to the limit, mocking your cardiovascular system, and burning enough calories to be able to choke down that whole pepperoni pizza without feeling the least bit guilty. However, I hate the agony of your lungs burning, your hamstrings searing, and your gut heaving as your body goes anaerobic on that final uphill sprint. It’s one thing to feel the wind at your back and the sun on your face on a cool crisp autumn morning, the endorphins kicking in as you float effortlessly in your target heart-rate training zone. It’s totally another thing to be afflicted with shin splints, arthritic knees, recurring blisters and plantar fasciitis of nearly 60-year-old feet pounding the pavement over the race course of time.
This familiar love-hate connection started nearly 35 years ago right after I entered the US Army as an out-of-shape, newly commissioned dental officer. As part of my basic training back then, Uncle Sam serendipitously pointed me down the jogging path of fitness and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love simplicity in my lifestyle so a daily exercise regimen requiring just a pair of good shoes and the open road was bound to win me over. Subsequently for the last three decades, my Nikes have sprinted all over the globe–circling the walls of the Kremlin to the back alleys of Istanbul. My New Balances are multi-cultural– having dashed on top of the Great Wall of China and past the statues of Easter Island. My well traveled Adidas once outran a hungry Doberman along a muddled cul-de-sac in Athens Greece. I’ve often asked myself if I would continue to run even if there are no internal health benefits at all. My answer is an unequivocal “yes”. I hate the temporary torture, but I love the priceless, long-term benefits.
With that in mind, I want to take you with me to share in the exhilaration and agony of running in the annual July 4th Bluegrass 10K. This is the 40th running of the race, about 10 of which I’ve been a direct participant. I’m joined today by nearly 2500 other registered runners–from world class athletes to weekend warriors–plunking down $30 apiece and looking to prove themselves through 6.2 wet and soggy miles of self flagellation. As always, I feel a special downtown vibe on race day–the distinctive anticipation of the upcoming competition combined with the camaraderie and fellowship among active Central Kentuckians bound together by nothing more than this morbid interest in resting heart rates and electrolyte levels.
The start of the race on Main Street is always chaotic. Even with computer chip timing, the mass of humanity surges forward regardless, inching closer and closer to the starting line. As Daniel Boone fires off his Kentucky long rifle, it’s the usual lawless stampede where my main goal is not to get kicked, tripped, or trampled by the suddenly un-caged masses. I dodge my way around the numerous inconsiderate plodders who somehow secretly wormed their way up ahead of me in the starting chute. I find myself nearly sprinting just to make up for the lost time. We’re half a mile into the race and already I feel like I’m breathing acid and wearing concrete blocks on both my feet.
For the first mile of the race, I’m cruising in a pack with my Saturday morning running buddies. We’re part of a group who have been faithfully running together for nearly 15 years, tackling all the world’s problems on our weekend jaunts even as our waistlines have expanded, our bladders have shrunk, and our pace has inevitably slowed with the passage of time. Today is not the day to set them straight on their usual liberal agendas and misguided worldviews –so I press on ahead.
Miles 2 and 3 are spent trying to develop the optimal race rhythm and pace. Start too slow and your less-than-stellar results will be shamelessly published in the Herald-Leader. Go out too fast and you risk being spotted doing the dreaded suicide shuffle across the finish line. I glance around at the usual cast of race-day competitors–Captain America is here, as are the Village People, and the steroid junkies with their shirts off.
We’re now approaching the double back point on Richmond Road–that portion of the race that either inspires or crushes you. I’m immediately disheartened as I see the lead runners coming toward me on their way back to the finish line. I think to myself that it’s humanly impossible for all these runners to already be so far ahead of me. To distract myself from further discouragement, I start fantasizing about Mellow Mushroom pizzas. For some strange reason I also start thinking about deadmau5. And the Seinfeld episode creeps into my mind where the guy running the NYC Marathon nearly misses the race because his alarm didn’t go off.
Midway between miles four and five, I start to hit the wall. I was just passed by a guy wearing jorts and sporting a huge beer gut. Half a mile back a little prepubescent punk ran by me like I was standing still. Even my dad’s elderly ophthalmologist is still lurking somewhere ahead of me. I can understand being overtaken by the Kenyan grad student or even the hot chick in spandex, but it’s humbling to fall further and further behind the dude who looks like Kenny Rogers, or the portly accountant who does your taxes.
The good news is that I can finally see the finish line. The bad news is that because the home stretch is so flat and straight, nirvana is still over a mile away–at least another 8 minutes of pure torture. Against my better judgment, I make a commitment to just suck it up and go for it. Body be damned, I’m leaving everything out here on the rain slickened asphalt. The final kick is one of indescribable torment. Trust me, there’s no runner’s high anywhere to be felt. Every lung alveoli is stretched to the limit, every muscle fiber is at full twitch, stomach bile’s rising, temples are pulsing with fists and molars fully clenched. After 48 minutes and 26 agonizing seconds, the persecution mercifully ends as I stumble across the finish line, barely edging out the guy wearing a rival orthodontist’s T-shirt. It takes everything I have not to upchuck all over myself (and him). My timing chip indicates that I placed 297th overall and top 17 in my old man category. Hmmm, not bad at all for someone who hates to run. Where’s my pizza? Pass the Ibuprofen. I love to run!