One man’s story of how running enriched his life in unexpected ways.
When people ask me what my college major was, I sometimes think to answer, the 1500 meter run. It was an all-consuming task. My roommates were runners. After classes, we reconvened at 3 pm for long, punishing runs on country roads or efforts around the track that bonded through the silent intimacy of intense, collective effort. We showered together, lingered and bantered together, and then ate together like wolves after the hunt.
On Saturday mornings, while classmates recovered from hangovers, we packed into drafty vans and set out for track or cross country meets. The rhythm of the week, hard runs, slow runs, stride outs, warm downs, peaked on Saturday afternoon. For me, the hours before the race were excruciating. I wondered why I wasn’t doing something, anything, besides waiting for that gun to go off and then face certain pain and exhaustion. At times, it felt like an existential agony. Then the race was over, with perhaps a PR or conference title. I was overcome with endorphins and euphoria, released from tension and the taunts of the little, psychic demons that drove me to the starting line.
Then, it was all over. No more cross-country runs on coastal roads and forest paths, no panting in pain after quarter mile intervals, no post race pizza at a Route 1 dive, heading north from Boston. The post-collegiate life, a vacuum rife with opportunity and pitfalls, waited at the other side of the commencement podium.
My first job was in Moscow, Russia, as an intern editor at a joint venture publishing house. I tried to keep running my first weeks in Moscow. But with broad boulevards and chaotic crosswalks, the city wasn’t made for runners. I joined a running club in Gorky Park, but its members were two or three decades older than me and spent most evenings in the club’s banya and ice cold bath. I even ran a half marathon where they provided tea and brown bread at the water stations.
Marina, who leased the bedroom of her two-room flat to me for $100 a month, was a smoker, as were many American and Russian coworkers. Taking a break at work, standing at the bus stop, chatting over evening tea, and enjoying a café drink with friends, I was surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. As my runs became less frequent, I began to indulge in a smoke or two after meals or during work breaks. At the time, it seemed casual and inconsequential. There is a truism in addiction medicine that cessation of one drug prompts substitution of another. For me, nicotine was a convenient replacement for running.
The cigarettes seemed an extension, or symbol of my Moscow life, where social boundaries widened beyond the monastic sect of running. In college, I suspected that my devotion to, and love of, sport came at the expense of a necessary social exploration. Liberated from that structure, I found common ground and even friendship with an eclectic mix of Americans, ex-pats, and Muscovites. We drank, sometimes heavily, smoked cheap cigarettes, and spent the evening in meandering conversation, recounting and then pondering the vicissitudes and happenstance of Moscow life.
Soon, though, the cigarettes weren’t casual. They became a constant companion, a way to mark the passing hours—morning coffee, work breaks, and after dinner tea. My landlord Marina warned me, stop now, before its habit, it’s not so easy to quit. I was young and foolish, immortal in that way, and so tempted the gods of vice and gluttony.
Marina was right, of course. By mid-winter, I’d had enough of cigarettes but they had just started with me. My first quit lasted about six hours. Subsequent attempts were about as successful. I was hooked. My new habit was more like a bad stain on the pants or a wart on the finger, unsightly, unwanted, intractable.
After a year in Moscow, I moved to Kazakstan, one of the Central Asian republics, for work and travel. I spent three years there, smoking with the ferocity that used to drive me up and over New England hills in autumn. In the third year, I met Jon Strickland, another ex-pat, who became a hiking buddy. Almaty, Kazakstan, is on the edge of the Tien Shen mountains, a stone’s throw away from some of the best trekking in Eurasia. A decade older than me, he had been a long distance runner for Oregon under Bill Dellinger, before a brief stint as a semi-professional runner.
We had similar hiking styles, moving quickly, quietly at even pace, through alpine meadows, across glaciers, and over passes. At peace in but not distracted by nature and its glories. One time, we trekked from Almaty to Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, usually a three to four-day hike, in 24 hours, powered by snickers bars, condensed milk, and sausage. Despite four years of tar and nicotine, the body still responded to hard effort over distance and time.
We fell into the familiar pattern of aerobic effort, recovery, and conversation, recalling distant autumn afternoons on country roads. We knew the ethic, push hard up the hills, through the burn, and then enjoy the well-earned, natural high. It was a safer, less complicated space than the chaos and contradictions of post-Soviet life in Kazakstan. Hiking with Strick re-awakened my hunger for the sport, the camaraderie, the simplicity, its essentially positive nature.
After four years abroad, I returned to the US to attend graduate school, a supposed step towards a more responsible, and lucrative, adulthood. Back in the US, the romance of cigarettes, with $7packs and the sidewalk stigma of the banished smoker, vanished. Each morning, on the way to class, as runners passed by, I felt guilt, regret, and frustration. I wanted back in the game.
On the first day of my second year of classes, the city hosted its annual labor day run, a 20k that attracted over 5,000 runners, including a handful of elites. I walked across the city green and observed the post race celebrations, commiserations and congratulations, partners and spouses in patient tow, an announcer urging runners towards the finish line. It hurt to be an outsider at an event, a sport, that had been important and valuable to me.
“Time to try again,” I thought as I made my way through the crowd. “These cigarettes have got to go.” I threw my pack in the trash can as I walked off the green and bought a pack of Nicoderm patches after classes. Somehow, that quit stuck. The slow taper of the Nicoderm combined with running and a more or less smoke-free campus environment helped to separate me from my little toxic friends.
At first, I ran a few days a week, between papers, exams, and projects. Grad school brooks serious runners poorly. After grad school, the evening run was a staple of my routine, a restorative break that helped to sort through dilemmas and challenges of the day. Jogs became light runs and then brisk tempos, leading me back to the source of it all, the agony and certain truth of the track workout.
It was a perhaps cliché, comeback story. I entered a few 5k’s, began to set goals, and then found a new distance, the marathon. Along the way, I started running with a local club of avid runners, some of whom also ran in college. Again, the banter of the long run, trash talk with friendly (or perhaps not entirely friendly) rivals before races, and post-race celebrations with a pint of cold brew. The seasons began to cycle around the anticipation, exhaustion and then recovery of the marathon effort.
I realize now that time away from running was a necessary part of both finding a life after my collegiate career and a place for running in adulthood. It’s a dilemma that most collegiate runners face after graduation. How do you replace the passion, excitement and camaraderie of the sport? For me, running delayed some of the important elements of movement to full adulthood, and then, in turn, enriched it in a different way once rediscovered.
Photo: Flickr/Bradley Gordon
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