It’s hard now to imagine a time when running was something people did only when they had to. When a jog was a deviation in a straight line. When only children wore running shoes. When Boston, the world’s most famous marathon, attracted hundreds, not thousands, of participants (21,554 of whom finished in 2012). In 1977, when Jim Fixx wrote The Complete Book of Running, extolling its many physical and psychological benefits, the boom was still in its infancy. Runner’s World magazine, which publishes fifteen international editions today,had only recently begun offering instruction on, among other things, choosing the right footwear. By the time Fixx died in 1984—felled at fifty-two by a heart attack after a run—the design and manufacture of those shoes had become big business for companies such as Adidas, Nike, and NewBalance, as tens of millions of enthusiasts took to the streets.
I was a foot soldier in this revolution. In the ’70s, out of shape and still recovering from a cigarette addiction, I joined the YMCA and began running. I wasn’t an elite runner like Reid Coolsaet, the Canadian Olympian Alex Hutchinson writes about in this issue (“The Race against Time”); I never aspired to run a marathon. But doing three to five miles five or six days a week became a defining part of my life. It allowed me to indulge my weakness for food and drink without putting on weight. It kept my blood pressure and cholesterol in check. It helped me manage stress (the most vexing problems always seemed less so after a run). I learned that I preferred to run alone, and not only because I cherished the solitude; I noticed that when I ran by myself, I often found answers to difficult questions among the random thoughts that entered my consciousness unbidden—an unintended but welcome consequence.
At a certain age, children run everywhere, not because they have to but because they want to. It just feels good. And so it was for me. Except in extreme weather, I ran in the streets, inventing my routes as I went along. Running, I discovered, is something you can do on your own terms, whenever and wherever you want. I once made a list of the cities other than Toronto I had explored, as it were, on the run. It included, to name just a few, Moscow, Bangkok, London, Paris, and New York. I vividly remember Tiananmen Square on an early morning in the ’80s, the iconic painting of Mao and the Great Hall of the People shrouded in mist, the square empty but for me, a Canadian tourist out for a jog, and brigades of young Red Army soldiers performing marching drills. But of all the places I ran, my favourite was the seawall around Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the blue-green of the Pacific on one side, the forest green of Douglas firs and red cedars on the other, seagulls, ships’ horns, and departing float planes providing the soundtrack.
If sixty is indeed the new fifty, running—and the fitness industry it helped spawn—is one of the reasons. Gyms are now as common as houses of worship in most Canadian cities, and arguably as instrumental as advances in health care in prolonging and improving life. When Jim Fixx died, cynics scoffed that his miles were all for naught, although we later learned that he was genetically predisposed to die young (a heart attack killed his father at forty-three). None of us knows what our genes have ordained, but it seems obvious to me that Fixx would have died much younger had he not become a runner. And I can say with even more certainty that I’m healthier and already, perhaps, longer lived because I followed his example.
Twenty years ago, I read a copy of a letter the cardiologist and author George Sheehan wrote to a friend, describing his anguish at having to give up running. At the time, I couldn’t envision that day ever coming for me, and when it did, when my knees finally succumbed to the punishment of running thousands of miles on pavement (in thirty years, I logged about 20,000 miles), I was devastated. Yes, I can still ski. And I’ve taken up cycling; on a recent trip to Vancouver, I even rode around Stanley Park. But it’s not the same. To ski, you need a hill. To cycle, you need a bike. To run, you need only to want to, and I miss that spontaneity.
In the spring, when the snow melts and the runners reappear with the robins and the crocuses, I still experience a day or so of melancholy, and a compulsion to stop every runner I see and say, “Enjoy this moment while you can, because, like most good things, it will come to an end.”
This appeared in the July/August 2012 issue.
John Macfarlane is the editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.
Leeay Aikawa has done artwork for the New York Times and The Atlantic, as well as The Walrus.