The frigid days of Minnesota winter sparkled at first, then turned to bitter, wind-blasted domes of difficult chill. I once again found myself carrying a stick cloaked in a scarf, tucking my chin into a red neck warmer, an ear-warming headband covered by a bright blue hat as I battled the elements each day. For a week at a time, we would suffer through this hockey-ready prairie, then celebrate a reprieve of a day or two within an icy spitball of liquid water.
And every one of these, I ran, 4 miles at a time, sometimes doubled up on those evening when the homework was done early or I couldn't sit another moment watching friends play computer games.
That year, 1999, when spring finally broke and the birds returned, I once again upped my game. Each day, a few more steps: I lengthened my daily routine until it was a little shy of 5 miles and included a hefty dose of post-run gym time. And I also delighted in sports -- volleyball, lacrosse, soccer -- and generally "got better", earning the speed and endurance that carried me like spores on the wind.
Graduation week that year found me on my longest run ever, an 8-mile loop. By today's standards (I mean, literally, today's), that's not a particularly long run, but at the time it felt like forever. I remember the sensation of tingling pain at the effort, and it seems likely about $20 worth of food went into my gullet after the fact. But graduation came, went, and disappeared from memory, and I returned to Port Angeles to bask in the Northwestern cloudshine.
Summer passed the same way it had the previous year: working at the restaurant, running after work, riding in between. I don’t remember anything else, so I can unconfidently -- and with no evidence to the contrary -- say nothing else happened.
That autumn marked the start of my third year of undergrad. I had already developed what would be considered a “base” in that I could run pretty hard for 30 minutes without a second thought (with a lacrosse stick), and I could put in an hour as needed. I had also been relatively injury-free since the ball-to-the-eye incident.
When the school held a race that autumn, I signed up because it seemed like some sort of entertainment. The course wound through town and back up to campus, taking us through parts of town that I knew only barely. It was probably a 5k, or at least listed as a 5k, and I took that shortness as permission to go for a run that morning and take on the course in the afternoon.
This was my first ever race.
I had no idea how I would fare in a competitive forum. I knew I was fast -- because, let’s face it, I’m just damn good at pretty much everything -- but I had never “trained” like the cross country team did. And surely there would be others there who were playing other sports who would be able to beat me.
That having been said, I heard murmurs of projected times and was pretty sure I was going to beat almost everyone. Bolstering this, having played intramural soccer the previous year (and as was my experience with soccer players in high school -- several of whom ended up on the lacrosse team), even the people who should have been my primary competition at that distance were no match for my endurance. Sure, they could outrun me on single downfield sprints in the first half of a game, but I could do back-to-back runs that they wouldn’t hope to manage, and by the end of a match I was running all over them, wearing them down even more. (I would later take advantage of this during indoor soccer to the same effect. I would later later tear my ACL attempting to take advantage of this during indoor soccer, which we shall surely get to.)
What was that a digression from? Oh yes. The morning of the race, I went for a run. That afternoon, I lined up with about 40 other people, and, carrying my stick as always just because I couldn’t think of running without it, started my first official 5k-ish. But that distance isn't important right now.
What is important is that the run went off. In front were eight or so members of the cross country team. And then me. The whole race, that’s how it went: always just behind the lead group, I worked my way around the course, finishing 9th and well ahead of 10th. At least that’s how I remember it. And the beauty of writing about events that happened 15 years ago that happened in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is that records are limited, so this is now The Definitive Source of that information. It’s a fact!
It was my worst race result until after knee surgery.
But it was still top 25%. And more importantly, I knew I was good.
After the race, the cross country coach attempted his second recruitment pitch. Unfortunately, cross country season overlaps with the initial lacrosse practice season. I had to refuse, but I was now flattered with the attention.
It’s hard to say what that crazy event did to me. But it’s easy to say what it didn’t do to me: it didn’t turn me into a runner. I was either already that, or far from that. I’m still having trouble deciding which. But, even more than is the case with facts, the beauty of looking back on feelings with a 15-year buffer is that I have the opportunity to consider the question.
I went through winter the way I usually do, this time doing more midnight runs. I was now a pretty typical college drinker -- occasional bingeing, frequent casual use -- but I wasn’t 21 yet, so going to the bar was right out. It wasn’t exactly a training plan, though: once a month or so, I went for a longer run late at night when nobody was paying attention.
The year's end was swiftly approaching, perhaps as swift as my pace.
I’d like to take a moment to back this whole discussion up. Pretty much every runner training manual will tell you that you need to do “core work” to keep in shape properly.
Since I’m not one to go against convention, please accept this advice if you want to start running: work on your core strength. Having dispensed such oregano wisdom, I may now take up personal training.
Here are some workouts you might do, noting of course that I am not a doctor, nor am I yet a personal trainer:
0. Sit-ups. These actually don’t do much, but they’re better than nothing. And they give you muscle definition that makes you feel pretty much like an Odinic reincarnation. What I like is that they’re easy to start and easy to increase to a plateau. What sucks is how destructive they get above that plateau. And how much they can screw up your back. And that's why these get the number "0".
1. Planks. Having destroyed your back with sit-ups, now try planks! They appropriately strengthen your back and abs. And we all know that some people can plank for quite a while, which is pretty cool. If you aren’t trained for them, it’s easy to think you can too; believe me, you can’t -- it takes months upon months of regular planking to do this safely, because there are so many stabilizing muscles involved. Of course, unlike sit-ups, you kind of look like an ass while doing planks, so use them wisely (and probably privately).
2. Lunges. Most people think of these as a leg workout, but they’re amazing for strengthening your central axis. Unless you fall over, in which case they’re a compression test on half your body. Side note: if you mix lunges and running, you’re exposed to the threat of pure quad pain. Just, you know, so you're aware.
3. Leg-ups. Dangle from a bar and do leg lifts, either by moving your whole legs from vertical to horizontal, or by lifting your knees. You can do the knee lifts straight ahead or to the sides, as desired. This is often done by dangling from an apparatus that has arm cradles, so it’s more of a gym kind of thing. Or a big house kind of thing. If you’re just starting out, a gym membership is a pretty expensive investment, and a big house is (in most places) even more costly, so perhaps invest in bank robbery kit beforehand. (Bonus: If you're caught, you probably will get to the gym elsewhere, but in a more, um, structured environment.)
Next up: The Village Bicycle!
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.