By David Klein
Not long ago, turning toward home for the second half of a six miler, I’d picture myself guzzling a can of Montauk India Pale as my reward for finishing. The frigid wind that blows across Ponquogue Beach in January? Conquered. Ankle busting acorns on the trail at Red Creek Park? Ditto. My own indulgent nature: “You’re lazy!” my father used to bark, pretty much on an hourly basis. I owned it now.
More recently, the carrot I chase home is a mug of warm cinnamon milk. And, occasionally, a bag of Oreos.
At twenty-seven, I carried the contents of my apartment on my back, in successive runs from my apartment in Greenwich Village to my new place way up on the Upper East Side, four and a half miles away. Record albums, books, clothing, all of it got strapped to my back, and I ran. I have no idea how I managed my stereo and speakers. When you’re twenty-seven such madness is both logical and possible. Now, at sixty, I’m preparing for a winter run as I usually do these days, by contemplating the beauty of fresh snow from my sofa, a sheepskin caftan over my legs, and a heating pad behind my back. I turn to stare at the running sneakers, mittens, and balaclava that wait admonishingly at the front door, and ask myself, “Why?”
The question why often comes up, too, during the first minutes of a run, when the cold cuts through the wool hiking socks I wear for mittens, and incites my joints to all-out mutiny. I used to know to a dead certainty. At first I ran to outdo my father, who woke every morning at three for an epic run through New York City’s seedier neighborhoods, to prove that I could take more punishment than him.
A little later, I hit the road to counter the effect of the Ben & Jerry’s I mainlined by the pint. In the early days of People and Us, before their braying exposes of celebrities’ dad bods, cellulite, and bad face work, a movie star photographed in the wild rocked a wrinkled tee, morning hair, and fifteen-hundred-dollar sunglasses like no one. And they were all, to a man, slim and athletic. Clearly the key that opened the gates to a Hollywood life wasn’t otherworldly talent or mastering a craft—it was being super slim. So I needed that daily six miler, twelve on weekends, to balance my obsession with Chubby Hubby.
Then I got older. Work, kids, mortgage, taxes—they can beat the hell out of a guy. Running became a way to live as long as one of those Old Testament padrones, and have more fun. But how to make sense of the eighty-year-olds who swear by bacon fat, a pack of Camels, and the old Barcalounger, while others drop dead at forty in the middle of Cross Fit?
In the end, I tell myself as I bend to tie my laces, pounding out another 10K guarantees nothing except my wife will complain about the wet-dog smell of my sneakers and the base layer hanging from our bedroom doorknob. So there’s that nagging question again. Why? After all, you can only chase the ghost of your father for so long. And a simple glance around at couples sharing a laugh in an outdoor café or strolling hand in hand offers plenty of evidence that you don’t have to be Bradley Cooper to win over the love of your life. An easy smile and a willingness to listen will always trump a bicep like a Girl Scout’s or a tendency to trip over your own feet. So again, I ask myself, adjusting my balaclava and giving my front door a tentative nudge to test the cold—why?
When I look back at a lifetime of nearly uninterrupted running, what stands out isn’t the forty years of personal bests or the races won or lost. It’s the family of deer that leapt across the trail at the Quogue Refuge just as I turned a bend. It’s that 4 a.m. run up Fifth Avenue when I suddenly discovered that I had every Christmas window entirely to myself. It’s the once-in-a-lifetime drenching rain shower that sent everyone scurrying for doorways while I sprinted arms-out, whooping and hollering. Or the miracle of a lone seal curled up near the dunes on an otherwise uninhabited beach one bleak February afternoon. Or, more recently, those times I say “what the hell” and stop in the middle of a run to take it all in: the summer sky, a winter’s light on bare branches, a blue-glass ocean. To just stand there and take it in with wonder and gratitude.
And then start running again.