Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Running Thing

As I was coming of age in the Nineteen Seventies, I commenced my life-long adventure as a runner. Some readers will be old enough to remember that there was something called “the Running Boom” back then, sparked to some degree by Frank Shorter’s victory in the Olympic Marathon in ’72 in Munich.
Amidst the odd cultural flux of the “me” decade, with it’s back to nature movement, and post Sixties search for meaning, being a serious runner seemed life affirming, even heroic. Many people tried the Running Thing who ultimately hated it!
These days, serious running is left to serious runners, but for a few years there, it captured the cultural zeitgeist and was part of the national scene. Top Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine, holder of numerous American records in distance events on the track, was a colorful national hero, embodying the rebellious, rugged individualist ethos of the Seventies runner. Even president Jimmy Carter was a runner!
Before it became a national craze, I used running for transportation. That’s right, transportation. As a junior high kid in a semi-bucolic suburb, I lived on my bicycle much of the year. I hail from Western Massachusetts, where winters are heavy with snow, so I was generally off the bike from December to March. Wanting still to hang with friends who lived several miles off, too young to drive, I took to plodding through the snow at a variable paced trot until I reached my destination. “Geez Steve, you’re drenched in sweat!”.
I had loved running all my life. As a five year old, P.F. Flyers advertised their sneakers on TV, promising me that I would “run faster, jump higher”. Branded! I begged my mom for a pair, and soon was running faster, and jumping higher in the back yard.
From then on, I would race at every opportunity. Always, I was convinced that I was invincible! Imagine how crestfallen I was when my cousin Kathy beat me in a dash across our back yard… of course, I was five and she was twelve—that may have been a factor.
I persevered, and when the official “field day” came in third grade, I advanced to the final of the ninety foot dash! Off to a good start, I was once more sure of victory, when this chubby kid named Albert got his stumpy legs just CHUGGIN’, and he took off like a bat outa hell. So I got second place.
Throughout grade school, suffering from the usual desire to fit in, I tried baseball, football and basketball, both on the playground, and in more official school or town sponsored settings. Although the tallest kid in the sixth grade, I was able to score only two points in a whole winter of intramural basketball! Lucky for me I could get the ‘bounds, feed them to my arch enemy/team mate Bobby Petroff, and we won our share of games.
Little League, however, was a complete bust for me. Two seasons, no hits. Okay, so I did get on base a couple times on walks. To this day, I’m unclear why I subjected myself to that ongoing torture.
Was the old self esteem affected by my failings at these traditional means of gaining stature among ones peers? Not too darn much, yet I still longed for some accomplishment at sports to prove myself with.
Jeff Campbell, my friend who lived across the street, was a year older than I. He went out for cross country upon arrival at Longmeadow High School. Although he was but an average runner, he enjoyed being on the team, the camaraderie, and the sense of accomplishment it gave him. Repeatedly, Jeff encouraged me to go out for the cross country team upon my arrival in high school. I decided it wasn’t for me! All those miles of trudging along—it sounded exhausting (of course, I was captain of my high school team by my senior year, at Lincoln Sudbury High, after my family moved closer to Boston).
Contrary to Jeff’s advice, I had figured out my own route to athletic glory. Knowing I had a lick of speed and decent endurance, I would run the half mile. It was the shortest distance that was not a sprint. I was confident that I would be good at it.
So it was that I went out for the track team at Longmeadow High School as a freshman in March of 1972. On that first day, my best friends, Steve Cimini and Paul Lewia, speed merchants both, attempted to convince me join them in the sprinter group. Knowing better, I went with the distance guys. Lewia screwed up his face, telling me I was making a mistake.
From the first workouts under the watchful eye of Mr. Winseck (the coach, also a history teacher), I could barely believe how hard it was. The “interval” workouts were agony, leaving me with sore, sore legs, and a stomach ache. Running these workouts was near impossible, with the intense oxygen debt induced. All the while, Mr. Winseck, a Paul Lynde lookalike with a high pitched voice, would scream, “Come on Lafler, you’re doggin’ it.”. My pal Lewia did a great Mr. Winseck impression.
Despite my difficulty with the workouts, I knew I was literally on the right track, as Mr. Winseck enthused, “It’s nice to see a big strong kid like you come out for the team”. Huh? You talkin’ to me?
Gauging my stride during workouts, Mr. Winseck announced to me that I would be running the mile, not the half. My heart sank at the prospect of having to run hard for such an enormous distance!
But the guy knew his stuff. Not only did I win the event late that season at a big three way junior varsity meet, leading almost post to post, but I actually made the varsity team as a freshman, placing third in my very first high school track meet! I was off and running, as they say.

Back then, I was in it for whatever glory I could pluck from the arena of high school track competition. Running fast, running hard was difficult, and I didn’t see myself doing any serious running after high school; hell, I wasn’t even sure I would run all through high school! I did not know that running would become key to my mental and physical well being. I did not know that I would come to regard running as a rhythmic breathing meditation that could help me solve sticky problems, and calm my nerves. I didn’t know that, invariably, when I stepped out the door for a run I would come back refreshed, literally feeling better than when I started. And the much touted “runners high”; for me it clicks in about 30 – 35 minutes into the run, and from there on out, I am floating on air.

As a twenty year old college kid, between the indoor track and spring track seasons, a moment stands out. On run from my parents’ house in Sudbury, Massachusetts, winding down a wooded New England road, the March sun gathers itself for a peek through the still-bare trees. There is the earliest hint of green grass coming back for spring, the moisture from melting snow smiles on the pavement under the friendly sun.
I’ve been running for several miles already; turning over my latest problems in my mind. School, money, girls, car, all the dumb stuff a twenty year old worries about. As I get loose, the worries drift away, assuming their proper smallish stature in my mind.
The late afternoon, late winter, New England light, the warm air, the suddenly flat stretch of road, mix with the easy rhythm of running. Unconsciously I pick up the pace, it’s effortless.
Although I am all awareness, all action, a small part of me is still thinking in words, informing me: “I’m running almost as fast as I can, and it’s effortless; I could keep this up for miles”. And that’s just what I did, continuing back to my mom and dad’s place at a pace somewhat less than five minutes per mile, finally feeling the effort, the strain over the last few minutes, celebrating by picking up the tempo even more, and ending with a flat out sprint over the last few hundred yards, followed by a yell of pure joy in the act of running.

In due course I became a decent high school runner, spurred on by the sterling example of a plucky kid from Wayland, the town next to Sudbury. This kid, one Alberto Salazar, had the nerve to cover two miles at the same pace I had managed for one!
Later as a collegiate runner I won just a few races, as the hedonism of the Seventies and my emergent interest in art-making took over. My ego and self esteem would slide up and down with my fortunes on the track as a young man, until I realized my true talents lay in other areas. Then I was free to simply run.

Competition aside, I always suspected, and have long since confirmed, that I was not really in it for the glory—no, for me it’s the moments of transcendence, the beauty of the experience of the moment, that are meaningful in running. Sure, I still like to get fit and compete, but it’s more process than goal oriented at this juncture (but do look out if there is less than 200 to go, and I’m running next to you!).
“I am running” is a phrase meaning you are engaged in the physical act of running, but it is may also be used to describe a state of being.

Steve Lafler ©2005

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