What I’ve Learned After 50 Years of Running
Thirty-one thousand miles later, the writer looks back at what a half-century running habit taught him about life, pathfinding, and working off lots of French wine
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I took up running—as so many have—because I’d gotten pudgy. My wife and I had been wasting a summer in a shabby Paris hotel, where the hard-pressed staff stole small objects from our broom closet of a room and the few stray coins that rolled beneath the bed. Between skirmishes in our relationship's cut-down version of the Hundred Years’ War, I crammed my face with ham sandwiches, lentil stews at the Restaurant Pour Artistes et Intellectuelles, and crates of vin ordinaire. Looking at myself in the mirror one morning in early August, when all of Paris feels dead, it came to me that even if I couldn’t do much about my marriage, I didn’t have to become a little piggy in the bargain.
I owned no running gear except my Chuck Taylors, but one of the beauties of the sport is that you don’t need much. So I walked over to the Jardin du Luxembourg in my Chucks and chugged around it a couple times. To my surprise, I kept at this until the end of the month, when we sullenly returned to the States.
That was in 1965, and now, in my 80th year, I am still on the planet’s paths. By my rough-hewn calculations, I have run well over 31,000 miles. This, to be sure, is a far greater surprise to me than was beginning to run in the first place. I’ve had my subsequent moments of gluttony, but not for punishment, and it wasn’t until I’d reached the half-century mark in my running life that I actually wondered why I’d kept at it so long. It had nothing to do with writing, something I’ve also been doing for almost a half-century. Nor had it anything to do with health, nor with any runner’s high. Instead, it seems to have been something more commonplace: the simple pleasure of noticing where you are.
Most of us spend our sliver of eternity going over the past or anticipating some future. Merrily enough, we skip the present moment. I was never much for walking—a grinding chore for me, maybe because, as a boy, I was shipped off to military school, where the cadets majored in marching. But with a breeze in my face and my arms pumping in stride, I find myself at home with my body and wherever I happen to be. I’ve run up and down the steps of deserted stadiums and around the claustrophobic lanes of indoor tracks and the cheerless mazes of airport terminals. I’ve run along vertiginous cliffs with the sea shining far below, along string-straight section roads of the American heartland with only cows and power poles for company, and up through redwood forests that topped out with so vast a view of the Pacific that you could see the earth’s faint curvature. One autumn, I regularly ran from France into Spain and back, a feat made only slightly less heroic by the fact that the total distance couldn’t have been more than ten miles. I was staying at an inn in the Pyrenees, near Saillagouse, where a sequence of dirt switchbacks led down to a bridge into Spain. On the other side was a café where I bought the Herald Tribune, coffee, and some crusty Spanish bread.
With a breeze in my face and my arms pumping in stride, I find myself at home with my body and wherever I happen to be.
An old 440-yard track star once told me it was a mistake to look back because it inevitably altered your stride. For this old distance runner, though, I find I now look back a lot, and in this steadily lengthening perspective, it seems to me as if I’ve never regretted a run other than those I didn’t take.
Back in the States, in 1965, I found that outside of organized teams, there were few recreational runners where I lived, in Rhode Island. Thus, happenstance became for me a settled habit, and though I have occasionally run with company, I have always preferred the on-scrolling solitude. This is not to say, however, that there haven’t been marvelous encounters along the way. Some years ago, running up Atalaya Peak in Santa Fe, I came upon a devastatingly fit young man striding upwards in shorts and flip-flops. As I wheezed past him, he cheered me on: “Don’t quit now, old-timer, you’re almost to the top!” I wanted to say, “Fuck you!” but all I could muster was a savage grunt. Another time, coming carefully down a precipitous rocky trail, I met a man coming up. Lean, tanned, and along in years, he carried a long wooden staff and was barefoot. “That’s what it takes to be a man!” I said as we passed. “No,” he called back, “that’s what it takes to be a boy!”
In estimating my lifetime mileage thus far, I take into account the injuries that have shelved me from time to time. These include: a broken shoulder, cracked ribs, lacerated kidney, meniscus tear, broken big toe, and an Achilles injury requiring experimental surgery. Injuries are endemic to the sport however you practice it, even on a treadmill. I once fell off one in the mini-gym at the Phoenix airport and never tried that again.
Not all of these injuries could have been avoided, but most could, because the main cause of running injuries is inattention, which includes not listening to the body that is serving you so superbly. I broke my shoulder because, nearing the end of a fine run, I was thinking of phone calls I wanted to make when I got home, at which point I found myself floating downslope toward a suddenly unavoidable boulder. The crucial phone calls had to be made much later, one-handed. The Achilles problem I earned by running every day for a month in Santander, Spain, where I was trying to finish a novel. Every day, I ran a seductive pathway that ran high above broad beaches and secluded coves, where Spanish women worked on their tans, to a lighthouse with a stunning view of the zigzagging path that marked my courageous achievement. How could a runner refuse all this, even when his Achilles kept sending up increasingly urgent alarms? I couldn’t. The result: surgery, crutches, the boot, physical therapy, a spin class, and finally an improvised rehab of hopping lamely about my home in a high shoe that weirdly reprised my Chucks of long ago.
There are, to be sure, unforeseeable injuries: rounding a blind curve where a low-hanging branch clotheslines you, or landing on what I call “rollers”—small spherical pebbles that give you the instant sensation of being on skates. Running along a Paris street one morning, I suddenly saw the door of a parked car flung open before me. That caused the lacerated kidney.
The memory of pain is oddly fugitive, however, and what I really recall of these incidents are the Spanish sun, the sea, and the cliffs; the garbage trucks braking and hoisting on a Paris morning, and the smell of coffee and fresh baguettes. These have long outlasted the pains of the moment, as spirit is meant to outlast the body.
I have had many favorite runs through the years. Around Walden Pond and through the Concord woods was one. The sea-cliffs north of Bodega Bay in California was another: sections along there are boardwalk, making you fleetingly feel you are a fellow to Glenn Cunningham and Gil Dodds and other heroes of the indoor tracks of the 1930s and ’40s. My current heartthrob is the Bois du Breuil outside the port town of Honfleur in Normandy. Symmetry is said to be nature’s primal state, what it everywhere strives to restore, and since I began to run in France, I’d like to reach my finish line there, in the Bois du Breuil, where broad paths wind through stands of birches, pines, and beeches of such majestic girth that it would take five long-armed girls to encircle one. In this expanse, everything seems softly welcoming, especially the footing that is cushy with moss and ancient leaves. Here, running seems magically effortless once again and distance completely unimportant.
But something in me wants to write “through line” here, not “finish line.” After all, having run more than once around the planet, I haven’t ever been racing anything, not even time itself. I have only been trying to learn to pay attention to wherever on the surface of this spinning blue ball in space I happen to be.
Frederick Turner is author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction. His journalism has appeared in, among others, the Nation, Smithsonian, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, American Heritage, and Men’s Journal. He lives in Santa Fe.