All runners announce their entry into the sport with the most basic of athletic actions: A step. A simple foot plant that leads to millions more; some faster, some slower; at home and around the world; in sun, blizzard and driving rain; on pavement, dirt, mud, gravel, sand, grass and oval all-weather tracks with eight lanes that measure exactly 400 meters around. A splendid step, a quiet step, a lonely step; born of some inner dialogue, some longing to be different, to be -- not the best -- but at least better.
The step takes less than a second. Doubts are silenced in that whisper of time. Lives are changed.
Almost every runner, even now, can trace their first step to 1967, when a Dallas physician named Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper published Aerobics. And so can I. Aerobics was running's version of Mao's red book, a revolutionary tome that spawned a movement and made us all see the world in a different way. It was as if the sun came up navy blue instead of orange one morning, then stayed that way evermore.
Aerobics has become synonymous with nylon/Lycra and synchronized group exercise set to pulsating synthesized music. There are substrata of aerobics like high impact and low impact and body pump and even spinning, which is basically aerobics on a stationary bike.
Back in 1967, aerobics (the term refers to oxygen consumption) meant just one thing: running. Dr. Cooper believed that a workout stressing the heart and lungs was a means of staying fit, a way to prevent keeling over at 40 from a massive clogging of the arteries. Thus, with one simple premise and a bestselling book, running ceased to be the sole domain of Olympians, fitness zealots and men like Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who was considered eccentric for running three miles each day.
All that changed with Aerobics. Running was soon practiced by the masses.
Beginning to run
My Dad, as all this was going on, was a bomber pilot with a fondness for Spanish cigars and Bombay gin. He was also in danger of being pulled off flight status due to a bloated waistline and recently collapsed lung. In desperation, he took up aerobics.
We lived at Bunker Hill, an Air Force Base in Indiana soon to be renamed for hard-luck Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom. The base gym was sponsoring a hundred-mile club in order to encourage running. Members' names were posted on a laminated board near the towel window. For each mile run, a mark was added next to that person's name in red grease pencil. A hundred red marks and you were in the club.
I can't remember whether there was a T-shirt to celebrate the achievement or a next level for the truly ambitious, but at that time running a hundred miles was a very big deal. The club filled up quickly -- which is to say that the board, from top to bottom, was lined with names and red lines of varying lengths, like a horizontal bar graph.
My folks both signed up. They would run two to three miles at a time -- 10 laps around the gym's laminated, wooden basketball floor per mile. My little brother Matt and I would play beneath the fold out bleachers as they ran, always keeping one eye out for fallen change.
Sometimes we snuck over to the hundred-mile board and penciled phantom red marks next to my mom's name. We had noticed that another woman was running several miles more per week. It didn't seem right that she would get to a hundred first.
One day, having already penciled an auspicious amount of mileage on our mother's behalf, Matt and I came out from the shadow of the bleachers and spontaneously began running. My first step came with my little brother at my side, on planks of polished hardwood. Our goal was a mile. It seemed an impossible distance. When I think of how far a 50-mile trail run feels to me today, it was very much like how a mile felt back in 1967.
I was a small, awkward child, with skinny hips, a goofy smile that accentuated vampire-like canine teeth, and blond hair combed straight forward in bangs that ended an inch above my eyebrows. I looked like a very young, very towheaded version of George Harrison; or Moe, the stooge.
Matt was even smaller, with fiery red hair and huge blue eyes. We probably looked even younger than six and five as we ran those first tentative steps in our jeans and BX sneakers.
The gym was warm. It smelled of sweat, floor wax and leather basketballs. The basketball courts were busy with three-on-three games. The echo of dribbles on hardwood and the distant thwack of handball games in the nearby courts drowned out the sound of our own labored breathing.
Matt would go on to become a record-breaking collegiate runner. But on that day so long ago, he started walking after a few laps and then sat down. I pressed on. We had gone out too fast. I had to drastically cut back my pace to keep going.
After five laps I was about to quit, but the young airman working the towel counter yelled encouragement as I chugged past. I felt, for the first time in my life, the galvanizing burst of adrenaline that comes from being cheered. I kept going.
After seven laps I was close to stepping off the track when my parents lapped me and added their own words of praise. There was surprise in their voices and a relieved sort of pride, as if they'd been secretly worried that the athlete gene had skipped a generation. After eight laps I was fairly certain I would finish, but thought I might have to walk. But that would mean I had not technically run a mile. I put thoughts of walking out of my head.
After nine laps my legs were so heavy that the final circuit loomed like a mile unto itself. There was no thought about proper form or looking good. I just prayed that I would finish. Hail Marys. Our Fathers. Nonstop lobs to Heaven, pleading that God would carry me. I was a year from making my First Communion. Spontaneous prayer was as automatic as giving up chocolate for Lent.
With 30 yards left I kicked it in.
There was no cheering crowd at the finish line, only Matt, who wasn't all that impressed. But hearing my folks talk as we stepped out into the humid Indiana summer and squeezed into our Ford Country Squire, you would have thought I'd just made the Olympic team. When I watched Jim Ryun on television the next year, racing Kip Keino in Mexico City, I began to dream of doing just that.
On the day I ran my first mile I didn't understand the concept of something "coming naturally." But I had learned that distance running wasn't so tough. In fact, I liked it very much.
I've considered myself a runner ever since. It is a time that encompasses, literally, the entire modern running movement.
Built to run
We are born to run, all of us. The human body is designed specifically for loping miles at a time. We are blessed with splendid and pronounced buttocks (necessary for, of all things, balance), narrow hips, a small and well-balanced head, short toes and a spectacular jack-of-all-trades ligament running from the base of the skull clear down to the thoracic vertebrae. This not only forms a natural shock absorber for the brain, but also helps the arms and shoulders counterbalance the head while running.
These characteristics have nothing to do with walking. The bones, tendons and muscles necessary for long distance running are quite different than those required for a casual saunter.
Most of all, we have the Achilles tendon to thank for our running ability. The human Achilles is a marvel, a taut cable stretching from the back of the heel clear up the lower leg until it almost reaches the back of the knee. Apes, by comparison (who walk on their knuckles, lack a rear end of any dimension and balance ponderous skulls atop thickly muscled shoulders) have a nub of an Achilles. This prevents them from storing and releasing the mechanical energy necessary to run.
So we are truly all runners, genetically programmed to handle roughly 15 miles each and every day. Even during long (or, in the case of some, lifetime) hiatuses, the primal tug to run whispers in our ear. In that way, being a lapsed runner is like being a lapsed Catholic: Whether out the front door of your house or into the front door of the church, you're always just one step away from being right back in.
Martin Dugard is an Active Expert and the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Lance (Little, Brown, 2005). Contact him at www.martindugard.com.
By Martin Dugard