“When you race 26 miles, you don’t give in to the pain. It hurts, but you don’t pay attention. I haven’t run a whole marathon yet, but I hope to.” Dustin Hoffman in “Marathon Man” (screenplay by William Goldman)
In his delightful 2007 memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” Japanese writer Haruki Murakami describes two sorts of jogger: those who slice “through the air like they had robbers at their heels,” and those “overweight, huffed and puffed, their eyes half closed, their shoulders slumped like this was the last thing in the world they wanted to be doing.”
Reader, I have never felt more seen.
Until three months ago, I would have said there was more chance of me running for government than getting up at 6 A.M. thrice weekly for what I will generously call a run – though anyone who has witnessed me in action might more accurately describe it as persistent stumbling.
You know those painful shots of athletes struggling to complete the last few miles of a marathon, their dignity long since shredded? That’s how I imagine I look every single step of my run, the sweat pouring off me like Boris Johnson taking a polygraph test. The only unknown is what will give out first: my heart or my sphincter.
It all began with four simple words from my sister: “You should try running.” She caught the running bug during the pandemic and is now an unpaid evangelist for the sport – Jimmy Swaggart in sweatpants.
She was suggesting a solution to a problem I shared with many others: I had gained a lot of weight during the COVID years – because what better time to become obese than when a killer virus is looking for people just like you?
So, when my sister said: “You should try running,” I knew she was really saying: “Hey porky! Put the croissant down and put the sneakers on. You’re living an unhealthy life and it’s not sustainable. Sure, the guy who invented jogging died of a heart attack at 52, but you’re not going to make it much beyond that if you don’t get fit now, while you still can.”
And so this is how, at the grand old age of 55, I decided to become a road runner. Beep and indeed beep.
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I must admit, I was highly skeptical of her advice on how to get rid of that pandemic paunch. When I think of runners, I immediately think of those annoying bumper stickers self-righteously proclaiming their drivers’ greatness by dint of running a marathon’s whole 42.4 kilometers. Dude, I’ve just binge-watched four seasons of “Ozark” – a far greater test of endurance – and you don’t see me bragging about it on the back of my car.
Do you know the only people who should be allowed to boast about their long-distance running skills on a car? Asylum seekers. Besides, if you can run for 26 miles, why the hell did you bother buying a car in the first place?
So yes, I had some baggage to shed before I could begin my first run.
“There’s an app that’s got your name on it,” my sister advised me. Having struck out on a search “Lumbering Lazy Lardass,” I had better luck with that app, Couch to 5K – or, as I call it, Couch to Ouch, to reflect all the aches and pains since I embarked on this fitness odyssey at the end of March.
This British app was developed by a new runner who wanted to help his 50-something mom start running too. It helps you off the metaphorical – or literal – couch by offering a running program that’s perfect for those taking their first steps in the sport. People like me.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I was struggling to run for 60 seconds at the start of the program, but by the end I was running for 30 minutes without recourse to oxygen, heart surgery or a crowd of well-wishers cheering me toward the finish line (invariably a distant lamppost, garbage can or, on one tempt-fating run, cemetery gates).
Have I enjoyed it? “Enjoyed” isn’t the right word to describe any form of self-inflicted torture. But then, no one ever said running was a walk in the park.
For nine weeks I had the recorded voice of Olympic gold medalist Denise Lewis in my ears, encouraging me to keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and don’t stop till the end of the run (as Michael Jackson famously never sang).
Without her motivating speeches – have I really “got this,” Denise? I’m not so sure – there’s no way I would have completed the program. In fact, I doubt I would have made it past week five or six, when the runs started becoming longer and the voice in my head was screaming that maybe this running lark wasn’t for me.
Actually, it turns out my inner voice is even lazier than my body and is always telling me to abandon this nonsense, especially at the start of every run. When your brain says it’s impossible and Bruce Springsteen says you were born to run, always believe the Boss.
I discovered early on in the program that mornings are the best time for me to run, mainly because the streets are relatively empty at 6 A.M. and the Israeli heat is bearable.
At the break of day, Tel Aviv really does belong to the street cats, and I’ve got to say they’re a pretty vicious bunch – not to each other, but to me.
They became a Greek chorus in my head as the runs increased in length, always my harshest critics: “Yo, Diabetes Dave! The hare ran past about 10 minutes ago and went thataway,” I imagined one ginger tom saying. I’d read a lot about the “runner’s high,” but these sour pusses were not what I was expecting.
I guess 30 minutes is quite a long time to be alone with your thoughts, and in addition to all the catty comments, the most random things would pop into my head and refuse to leave during an entire run. For instance, one morning was spent in the joint company of Chinese warrior Sun Tzu and Japanese “organizing consultant” Marie Kondo, with merged thoughts emerging such as “Build your opponent a golden bridge – with lots of storage for him to stow his weapons.”
These random thoughts competed with insults hurled at the disembodied voice of Denise Lewis as she asked me how the run was going or suggested that I “reward” myself with a hot bath or shower afterward – because, you know, I was thinking of heading straight to the office after running 5 kilometers in 88-percent humidity. Pictures kept forming in my mind of disappointed members of the Lewis family receiving yet another small bottle of body wash for their birthday.
The voices – and, of course, music playlists – proved essential, because I soon discovered my running nemesis: silence. Well, a kind of silence, because in that brief interlude between songs all I could hear was my heavy breathing – aka wheezy listening – and even heavier pounding of feet on asphalt. How bad was it? Well, I’d just like to apologize to any Japanese residents in my neighborhood who may have woken with a start and cried “Gojira!” as I thudded past with all the grace of Godzilla.
But the dispiriting sounds aren’t actually the worst thing. No, that honor goes to all the other runners leaving me in their wake as they zoom past. There’s one guy who regularly sprints past with his attached dog running ahead of him. The runner also has a backpack, which I assume is where he stores the parachute that’s deployed when they eventually want to stop. Niche joke alert: I’ve nicknamed him Lassie Virén.
I console myself with the thought that it’s the super-fit dog doing all the hard work and even considered bringing my pooch running with me too. But then I remember that she’s liable to drag me through a series of hedges in her relentless pursuit of cat poop – and the last thing I need is to give those street cats more ammunition.
Yet while I hate all the uber-fit runners, there is one group I love to encounter: elderly walkers, who convince me that I’m not auditioning to be an extra on “The Walking Dead.” Eat my dust, hip-replacement surgery guy!
The harsh truth, though, is that while I want to go at the pace Ted Cruz would whizz past a line of immigrants, for now I’m much closer to the speed Marjorie Taylor Greene would take passing a stand selling Nazi memorabilia.
But the key thing is that I’m running. And, more importantly, if an unfit, middle-aged TV critic can run for 30 minutes three times a week, I’m pretty sure anyone who wants to get fitter can do so via an app like Couch to 5K. (An Israeli version is also available, and while I haven’t heard that one, I assume it has “inspirational” comments like: “Imagine you’ve just woken up and find yourself in the middle of Gaza. Now run!”
I’ve lost 11 kilograms (24 pounds) since I started running at the end of March and definitely feel healthier (even if I have plenty more pounds to shift). So, why not join me on the streets? Just promise that you won’t zoom past or pay attention to what those cats are saying about me.