9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. 11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.--Ecclesiastes 9:9-11
The race is not always to the swift, but to he who keeps running. --Motivational poster from the 1970s
Prior to 1984, this would never have been me.
As a child, I was a couch potato. There wasn't much to watch on TV in those days--just three or four channels, depending on where we lived, all of them black and white on our 19-inch screen--but it still drew me in. Even in high school, I was hurrying home to catch Loony Toons, subjecting myself to Speed Racer, because that's what there was.
I had other activities--art, writing, building models, practicing the piano and trumpet and, of course, homework, not to mention working on Scout merit badges and my first regular paying job, typing bulletins and newsletters for my father's church--but none of them was a truly active activity. Once I'd completed my two-year PE requirement, my only regular exercise was walking to and from school. I was fine with that all through college and graduate school.
Then, at 23, fresh out of grad school, I went to my doctor for a checkup, and was told I was going to die.
That's not exactly how he put it. What he said was that my blood pressure was remaining stubbornly high for someone of my youth, that this did not bode well for me surviving to middle age, and that losing thirty pounds could make a big difference. He recommended walking.
I didn't have much to do that summer other than look for a teaching job, so I decided to give it a try. I started small, exploring the countryside around Monroe, Oregon, where I was staying with my family. When I went on job-seeking trips, I explored the towns where I had interviews, trying to imagine myself living in them.
On one trip to eastern Oregon I stopped at Multnomah Falls and, on a whim, climbed to the top of the falls. I had to stop at every switchback on the trail, gasping for breath, but once I got to the top, I felt like a champion.
By the end of the summer I was walking for 2-3 hours a day. I knew I couldn't keep that up as a full-time teacher, so soon after I moved to La Grande to begin that first (and last, for far too long) job, I began mixing short intervals of running into my walks. I hit on the run-walk method all by myself, gradually lengthening the running intervals and shrinking the walking intervals, pushing myself more and more, until I was up to thirty minutes of uninterrupted running. It was still hard work, and I was still flabby--on one run, I was taunted by teenagers singing the Jello jingle at me ("Watch it wiggle, see it jiggle...")--but I was doing something I never would have thought myself capable of just months earlier, and I felt great. The running stopped with the first snowfall and, soon after that, the loss of that job, but I resumed walking, knowing I needed to maintain my fitness as best I could.
A few months later, now relocated to Salem, I started running again in Bush Pasture Park, and something new kicked in: I was no longer just running to stay alive. I was now running to live. Pushing myself up the one hill in the park, gasping all the way to the place where I could descend back toward my apartment, smelling the damp wood chips of the trail, watching the meadow slowly shift from grass to wildflowers as spring set in, I realized I was feeling more alive on these runs than at any other time of the day.
It's been thirty years since that epiphany. In that time, I've accomplished more things with my body than my teenage self would've thought possible for such a sofa tuber as me. Two years after those runs in Bush Park, I ran in my first race, a 5K. A few months later, I was in a 10K. A year after that, I completed my first of seven marathons. As a hiker, I've been to the top of every major trail in the Columbia River Gorge, most of which make the Multnomah Falls climb look like a warmup.
I'm not writing these things to boast about my fitness accomplishments. I've done some very stupid things, too: sunburns that took days to heal, dehydration, falls that left me bloodied and bruised and miles from home, repeated ankle sprains, heel spurs, injuries that I made worse by pushing myself to keep running, wrong turns that got me so lost in the wilderness that, not having told anyone where I was going, I could easily have died of exposure had I not finally stumbled on the right trail.
But here's the part I have to proclaim: somewhere on that quest to longer life, I found real life. I learned that it's not just about finishing; in fact, it's not about finishing at all. It's about the race itself. The goal is not to get there, but to be on the road. I remember my teenage self seeing the poster of the runner at the top of the hill, with the long road ahead of him, and thinking, "Ugh. That guy's so far from home. Why does he do that?" The incredible thing to me now is that I ever had thoughts like that, because now, I can't look at that image without feeling envy.
I want to be that runner, to have just crested that hill, to see the road stretching ahead of me, to know I'm going to cover all that territory, love every inch of it, and feel just a little disappointed when it's over, because I want to keep running. Because I know that when I'm out there, running, hiking, climbing, racing, I'm as fully alive as I can be. I breathe more deeply, smell and see and hear more clearly, think more creatively, feel more profoundly, than I can sitting on any piece of furniture.
I began this lifestyle to buy myself some more decades, to give myself a future with a partner, children, grandchildren, perhaps even great-grandchildren, and with more time to enjoy the finer things of life. And then I discovered that one of the finest things in life is to be outside sweating, exerting myself, logging miles of road and trail.
And when I'm not? When I'm home, at school, in the grocery store, at the theater, at a keyboard, in bed: I am still more fully alive, more completely present for my wife, my children, my students, my friends, than I could ever hope to be in my youth.
So I will keep running, as long as my body permits; and when I can no longer run, I will walk; and when even that fails me, when I am become too frail to move myself through the paradise just outside my front door, I will sit by my open window, still more alive in my dotage then I ever was as a teenager, because at 23, I made the choice to get up off the couch and live.