What if you don’t do it to stay healthy, but to stay sane?
In mid-July, I spent a week on the Greek island of Andros with my wife, our six-month-year-old son, and a few friends. We lived in a house together and the general idea was to consume vast quantities of filo pastries and take sporadic dips in the Aegean Sea. That’s about it. You know those high-adrenaline adventure vacations where you can snorkel with piranhas or eat a decomposing walrus? This wasn’t that sort of trip.
I was, however, down for a bit of voluntary unpleasantness. I’d signed up for an early fall marathon a while back and was committed to putting in some decent training while in Greece. Bad idea. Beyond the heat and gnarly terrain (our AirBnB was on a steep mountain road), it didn’t help that all of my fellow vacationers were strict non-runners. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I sometimes got the feeling that my vigorous exercising wasn’t vibing with our Hellenic hedonism. Even old friends, it turns out, will regard you with suspicion if you pass up grilled octopus and ouzo to run 15 miles in the sweltering dusk.
One morning, as I lurched onto our terrace post-workout, my friend’s four-year-old daughter wanted to know what my deal was.
“Why you go running?” she asked.
The girl’s mother was standing nearby. Perhaps she was afraid that I was going to corrupt her child with jock propaganda, because she answered for me.
“He runs to be fit and to stay healthy,” she told her daughter, who, seeing me steady myself against the porch fence, seemed skeptical.
Well, no, I thought. That’s not really true at all. For a moment, I considered saying something pompous and intense, like how a good run was one of the few things that kept me from despairing at the futility of existence. That seemed like a little much to unload onto a four-year-old in floaties, so I just gave her a perverse thumbs up and staggered towards the shower.
The episode brought home the fact that, at some point in the not too distant future, my own kid will probably want to know why his father excuses himself for an hour or two every day—only to return sweaty and strangely elated.
If my son asks me why I go running, what do I say?
I can see how, on the hierarchy of stuff that you don’t want to talk to your kids about, this might not seem like a big deal.
In recent years, whenever I’ve been forced to take an unplanned hiatus from training, I’ve been despondent. As result, I’ve had to grudgingly acknowledge that running is more essential to my psychic wellbeing than I want to admit. What’s more, even though I’m not a professional or even a particularly accomplished amateur, the way I run has sneakily become fundamental to my sense of self-worth. I find this tremendously embarrassing. Like any addict, I’d always assumed that I could quit at any time. Not true, it turns out.
So, if you were to ask me how I might explain all this to my son, I would tell you that I don’t have the faintest idea. (Ask me again in two or three years, but, from where I sit, one of the big conundrums of raising children is that you don’t want to burden them with too much honesty too soon, but you also don’t want to feed them lies.) And perhaps I wouldn’t have to explain it, if it weren’t for the fact that running is an intrinsically selfish pursuit that eats away at time I would otherwise spend with my family.
On Andros, there was a 400-meter track about three miles from the house where we were staying. (Total coincidence. Obviously.) One morning, I headed down with the intention of banging out a session of 1,000-meter repeats. But I’d left it a little too late. By the time I finished my warm-up, the sun was already bearing down. That day, I really didn’t feel like doing a hard workout and, for the first time in recent memory, I dealt with this impulse by not doing a hard workout. I bailed on the 1,000-meter repeats and headed home.
When I got back, my buddy was smoking on the porch.
“The athlete has returned!” he announced.
I didn’t feel like an athlete; I felt like a fraud. For the rest of the day, the guilt from my abandoned track session metastasized until, by mid-evening, it seemed preordained that I would never achieve anything again. It was totally preposterous. Of course, no more so than the inverse scenario: the irrational joy that comes after a workout or race goes unexpectedly well. Either way, such dependency that makes me nervous.
To be able to offer an adequate answer to the “Why do you go running” question, in other words, means acknowledging a vulnerability—which I believe is my parental duty to keep hidden. That might sound weirdly antiquated or macho. I’m sure there are parents who get all weepy with their kids. Cool by me. It’s just that I think there’s a time in early childhood where it’s necessary for kids to believe that, if anyone has their shit together, it’s got to be their parents.
And I do have my shit together. Especially if I get a run in.