A few weeks ago, I found myself in a throng of drunk collegiate football fans, marching through the streets of Miami Beach in a rowdy herd. We were headed to a shoreline pep rally for the Notre Dame football team, a few days in advance of their championship game against Alabama. We were running late and I was willing my group to be okay with that, but no such luck. My father-in-law, Drew, stuck by my side as his friends began to jog. He remained patient for a few blocks, and then his patience ran out.
“Mind if we run a little bit so we can catch up?”
I grimaced and nodded, and then lunged forward into an awkward gallop.
It was the worst thing ever. As the elegant people of South Beach strolled down Ocean Drive, being beautiful with a calm precision that only comes with practice, I was clomping past them like a flat-footed mastodon, chest heaving and voraciously sucking air.
Meanwhile, Drew was doing his best to keep pace with me. That is to say, he was basically running in place beside me, making every effort to avoid causing me to feel bad about myself. The man is in impeccable shape and he works out on a daily basis; he’s one of my inspirations for trying to get fit in the first place. Despite being in his mid-50s, Drew is in better shape than the average 20-year-old.
I ran for about a block before I slowed back down into a speed walk. I was saved by the thickening crowd, and by an apparent miracle: We had managed to catch up to Drew’s friends, and they were no longer running.
Despite Drew’s charitable nature, and despite the fact that I really don’t care what a bunch of protein shake spokesmodel wannabes think about me and my unique running style, I still came away from that experience feeling like a failure. Isn’t running supposed to be an innate human ability? Didn’t it sorta keep us alive through the first 185,000 years of our species’ existence? Isn’t it kinda sad that running feels as foreign to me as winged flight? Wouldn’t it be cool if winged flight was as natural to me as it is to Nelly Furtado?
These questions occupied my brain for a few weeks, and they took me on some magical journeys. As much as the whole zombie apocalypse scenario is well beyond played out, I couldn’t help thinking along those lines: What if some dramatic shift in reality occurred, and we were all required to run again in order to survive? I would be dead almost instantly.
I began harassing a few friends who are into running: Fitting It In’s very own Samantha Friedman, my friends Aaron and Erin, and others. Erin emphatically recommended that I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I tore through it in a matter of three days. Subject matter aside, it’s one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The overall thrust of the book is that humans are designed to be running creatures; it’s what sets us apart from the other Great Apes, and it’s what allowed us to survive and spread out before the advent of agriculture.
The notion that running comes naturally to people is challenging to me, primarily because I’ve never enjoyed running. I enjoyed playing sports as a child because I loved being part of a social activity with my family and friends, and I reveled in the spirit of friendly competition. Also, like any young, egotistical male, I enjoyed being good at things. I was an excellent point guard in basketball, a skilled defenseman in soccer, and a reliable first baseman in baseball. My least favorite part of all these sports was running laps during practice.
Runners are always going on about how much they love it and how good it makes them feel. It always made me feel like a beached sea lion, flopping around on solid ground and wailing unintelligibly. How is it that some people seem cut out to be runners and others simply don’t? Is it a matter of genetic predisposition? Sheer enthusiasm? Absolute delusion?
I’ve come to the conclusion that — like most things that involve body movement — it’s mostly a matter of experience and training.
As a baseball player, I was taught to swing a bat and pick errant throws out of the dirt. As a basketball player, I was taught to pivot with one foot and always keep my eye on the shot clock. As a soccer player, I was taught how to block a forward’s path to the goal. But when it came to running, the only instruction I ever received was, “Run laps.”
Turns out that running requires proper form. Not just in your legs and feet, but your entire body. Without some basic instruction in proper form, running is bound to be a painful process. Most contemporary humans aren’t required to persistence hunt for survival, so any running outside of gym class is strictly voluntary for most of us. Additionally, there are plenty of ways to get an amazing cardiovascular workout without running. There is almost no apparent reason to attempt running in the first place, let alone learn proper form.
I have this weird contrarian streak in me: If you tell me I can’t do something, I will make it my goal to prove you wrong. For example, this one time a certain band told me not to play shows unless I was opening for them. I responded by quitting my day job and playing 650 shows over the next five years. That’s how I roll.
I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life significantly overweight. Before that unfortunate evening in South Beach, I hadn’t even attempted to run in over 15 years. My immediate reflex was to tell myself, “You can’t do this. You can’t run.”
I’ve decided to accept that challenge and learn how to run.
Four sessions into a modified couch to 5k program, I’ve already exceeded a total of ten minutes of running intervals over the course of my usual three mile walk. Here’s an observation: When you first start, the process is inevitably awkward and kind of painful. Your stamina is absolute crap and you feel exhausted almost immediately. However, a few intervals later, you start to feel good for the first 10 or 15 seconds of each interval. Within the span of a few sessions, that period of time in which you feel good starts to expand, until you feel like a natural runner for 30 to 40 seconds at a time. That’s where I’m at now: So long as I maintain proper form, the first 40 seconds of each interval makes me feel like a fully actualized human being. The desire to expand on that time period of actualization is extremely motivating, and it makes me wish I didn’t require a day or two of recovery in between sessions. I’m totally into it.