Long, lazy days filled with hope and promise unencumbered by adult organization. Whatever fun we were going to have would have to come from our own imaginations.
There were no alarm clocks on those long summer days. The day started when some friend stood outside your house and called your name. The closest you came to planning was looking to see if he had a baseball mitt hung over the handle bars of his bike. If he did, it was a baseball day. If he didnt then there was no telling what the day would bring. If you woke up early, and you were the one standing outside and yelling, then the days activity would be your choice.
Some kind of game involving a bat and ball was a given. The only mitigating factor was how many of us we could get together. The dreaded family vacation season meant adjusting. If there were enough guys for two teams, we had a game. Too few for a game and wed play bounce or fly. If there were only a couple of us around then it was running bases or catch. And on that rare day when you found yourself alone, you could spend hours bouncing a rubber ball off the front steps.
This all probably seems quaint to generations X, Y and Whatever. It must seem positively colonial to not have a summer planned with sports camps and academic camps and vacations where the adults are thrilled and the children protected. But, for the baby-boomers, for those of us who remember laying on our backs on the package shelf looking out the rear window of a four-door sedan watching the sky zoom past, summer was a time of exploration, discovery, and even a little danger.
We were, after all, the last generation that was allowed to have some risk in our lives as children. We rode steel bikes with balloon tires and coaster brakes and never even thought about wearing a helmet. We played baseball in the street and put pennies on railroad tracks. Without even knowing it, we were a generation of daredevils.
We were a generation of kids with scrapes and scars. We had black eyes and jammed fingers and bruises on our legs. We knew that blood was red because we saw ours or someone elses almost every day. You didnt go running home with a cut because you knew the cure mercurochrome and a band-aid that would pull off skin when it was removed would be worse than the injury
So it shouldnt come as a big surprise, as those of us in this generation reach something that used to be called middle age, that wed be looking for things to do that would bring back that spirit of adventure. It should come as no surprise at all that we want to break free from the passive restraints and protective packaging and total security and do something that scares us just a little. Its what we grew up on. And its what makes us feel alive.
I dont know what its like at the front of the pack but back where I am, its an adrenaline party. We are scared to death. Scared of the distance -- whether thats a 5K or marathon -- scared of being the last to finish, scared of looking stupid. Were scared of blisters, were scared of chafing. Heck, were scared of getting one of those life-threatening wedgies where your running shorts disappear between your thighs. And if youre laughing right now, you know what I mean.
But the truth of it is, thats why were there. Sure, running is a heart healthy activity. I know its great for weight management and all that. I dont care. Standing at the starting line of a race, or heading outside when its too hot or too cold or too wet, is about the scariest thing I get to do these days. My life, all of our lives, are so regulated that the simple act of running has become an act of defiance.
How else do you explain seemingly normal men and women of all ages and sizes lining up shoulder to shoulder for the sheer joy of running and walking as far and as fast as they can without a thought about overall winners or even age group awards? What else, other than the visceral need to feel awake and alive in their own bodies, would provoke the unbridled enthusiasm that you see and hear in todays mega running events and local 5Ks? What else?
Nothing else. Nothing at all. It is in our blood, in our spirits, and in our past. Through running, we are rediscovering what we knew as children, that being safe all the time doesnt make for a very interesting hour or day. And it makes for a very uninteresting life.
There are no air bags in our running shorts. We are vulnerable. We are subject to the whim of fate, to the blindness of serendipity. But we are not held hostage by our fear or by our imagination. We boldly go where we know we belong.
The fun is at the edge of the unknown. It may be hard for some to understand that the edge of the abyss can come at any pace. But it can. I know because Ive been there. Ive peaked over that edge. Ive scared the living daylights out of myself for no other reason than that if felt really, really good.
And tomorrow when I tie up my running shoes, Im going to do it again.
Waddle on, friends.
John "The Penguin" Bingham has become one of the running community's most popular and recognized personalities. Through his books and columns Bingham has inspired a generation of new runners to find joy in walking, running and racing. Once an overweight couch potato, he looked mid-life in the face -- and got moving. Since then, he's participated in over 25 marathons and hundreds of 5K and 10K races.