I don’t remember what grade I was in, but I do remember it was elementary school. My dad, then a runner, signed the two of us up for my hometown’s annual YMCA Fourth of July 2-miler. The racecourse started right next to city hall and meandered past the public library, the city swimming pool and the high school football stadium, then cut through a residential neighborhood and finished with a grinding uphill leg that I’d eventually call "King Killah the Hillah."
It’s not that it was all that steep. It’s just that it came at the very end of the race. Who would be so cruel as to design a racecourse that way? My prepubescent lungs almost popped—almost, but not quite. In fact, after I finally recovered, which would have been about Labor Day, I found that I kind of sort of maybe actually liked running.
In seventh grade, I joined the middle school cross-country team. Like so many other things I did in seventh grade, including dating Patty Burick and jamming to Deee-Lite, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. I didn’t realize, for example, that come race day, I’d have to wear shorts that came down to just below my butt crack and a tank top that fully exposed my noodle arms. (I worked so hard to keep those wrapped in layers of sleeves. When school started at the end of August and it was still 90 degrees outside, I’d be in three or four sweaters just so my arms looked like arms and not like a couple of shoelaces tied to my neck.)
The other thing with cross-country that I didn’t fully grasp from the get-go is that you run on grass, sometimes through the woods and sometimes on trails. And sometimes the trails were slimed with mud. In one race, just after the starting gun went off, I found myself shoulder to shoulder with the competition, heading up a slippery, muddy slope. Suddenly, I felt another kid’s shoe come down on my Achilles tendon. Pop! My Achilles tendon was fine, but my shoe had been wrenched off.
In middle school, kids have one thing in common: They’re brilliant at pretending mortifying freak accidents are absolutely not a problem. Voice crack in the midst of an oral report? Carrots wedged in the braces? Poorly timed erection? Duh. Cool. Obvi. So I finished the race in one shoe and one filthy tattered sock like it was supposed to be that way. When I went to retrieve my shoe, I found it on its side, trampled halfway into the ground like a squished dead animal.
That was all for me and cross-country, and that was all for me and running in general for a real long time.
When I became an adult and my metabolism started to put on the brakes, I accepted the fact that I’d have to eat right and exercise. The only exercise I was even remotely familiar with? Running. I came back to it—slowly at first, until I realized it helped to have something to prepare for, some reason to run. That way I wasn’t just a goon tearing up and down the sidewalks.
I started signing up for races and this time not just for the T-shirts. I ran hard, tried to beat my previous times and eventually found that runner’s high I’d heard so much about. The pinnacle for me so far is that last September I ran a Tough Mudder: 11.5 miles, sometimes under barbed wire and calf-deep mud, and there was even one obstacle where you leap into a pool filled with ice water called something like "the turd freezer."
My next challenge is the Scenic City Half Marathon, coming up Feb. 28. I will confess that I’m not prepared. Yes, I will even use the word "lazy" to describe my running habits as of late. But I’m still doing it. In the end, the appeal of running has something to do with freedom, as cornball as that might sound, and you can always find the freedom in a good run, whether you’re in shape or not: just me, the open road, and the steady rock and rhythm of my Mizunos slapping the sidewalk. And even though I can barely carry a box across my living room without wheezing myself into a sucking chest wound, I’m looking forward to it. I have heard there is a hill at the finish line. That’s fine, I suppose. I remember King Killah, and I beat him once.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose fiction, nonfiction, book reviews and even poetry have appeared in a number of places over the years. He studied writing at Miami University (the one in Ohio), the University of Chicago (the one in Chicago) and Seattle Pacific University (the one somewhere). When he isn't writing, you might find him directing an emergency shelter for families facing homelessness. You might also find him asleep on the floor with a half-read book on his chest. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.