Running up that Hill

This is a repost from a National Post column of last year about running, simply because it’s that time of the year. Also, there’s probably not a better running song, for obvious reasons: the stressed programming (and playing) of the floor tom; the yeah-yeah-yo breathing; the flush keyboard bloodflow; and the classic desperation of the singing, barely pouring out enough before it empties. And finally, the epic “C’mon, darling” chorus, something that runners tell themselves as they press on, using only slightly more dramatic language. The last two minutes of song– the guitar lands predatorily in the middle– and the multi-tracked vocal is to challenge only Marvin Gaye or Michael Jackson for its complexity and depth of sound.

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A few years ago, I started jogging, or “running,” an alternate term that suggests I travel faster than I do. To porchsitters and sidewalk waterers who watch me in the just-late hours of the evening (I only run at night), I probably seem as a desperate man chasing a younger version of himself, my eyes pleading for mercy, my arms flailing helplessly about. Sometimes, in an effort to combat the basic crushing boredom and ennui that is jogging (“running”), I imagine myself rambling to a burning building in an effort to save people trapped inside or pretend I’m Tony Fernandez stretching a double into a triple or Emile Zapotek loping across the ochre of a stadium track. Sometimes, I place myself inside a winged superhero whose flight mechanics have been grounded by an evil supervillian or imagine I’m Neil Young racing around Rockerfeller Centre, which is what he did hours before performing “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World,” on Saturday Night Live. Beyond the mind’s eye, I probably look more like Old Shakey than I care to dream: paunch shaking with each stride; manboobs bouncing lightly; face and mouth twisted on the verge of near death, which is also what running feels like.

I run at night so that no one I know will see me, partly because no one looks good running– okay, maybe LeBron James does, and so does Eugenie Bouchard, but that’s it– and partly because, last summer, I chanced a daylight jog during the NXNE music festival, only to be slowly followed in a van by a young band wanting to say something nice about my music, but who, no doubt, ended up discussing on the susbequent leg of their tour how they would never end up like that: a person once so lithe and creative, but now just a soft-bodied schlub trying to gather in all they’d let fade away, in the shameless view of their friends, neighbours and admirers, no less. Worse, at that point in my jogging timeline, I thought I may have appeared tough and determined and defiant while striding across the asphalt, a man who refused to let time ravage and corrupt his form. I know now that this, for me, is a largely unwinnable battle no matter how much I run, and that, ultimately, I default to a certain weight, shape and comportment. Still, these block circles and avenue zigzags move about the blood and busy the ventricles, and if I’m doing nothing more than running so I can order the occasional donut or destroy a Ferrero-Rocher fourpack, it’s better than not running. At least that’s what I tell myself while pulling on my stupid Blue Jays running hat, my clunky and uncool oblong SportChek runners, my ridiculous shorts, and, for a short time, my daughter’s IPOD, which I once fastened to my waist band, but was always falling out, forcing me to carry a transistor radio in my hand, which I wave around like Jim Brown holding a grenade in the climactic scene of “The Dirty Dozen” (I also imagine I am Jim Brown in “The Dirty Dozen”).

Sometimes, I run to CBC’s “Ideas” (9 pm is a good running time for me) and, with my arms pumping the radio through the air, my chopping, unsmooth pace is countered by the generally calm and lilting nature of the show. Once, I ran to a program that examined the concept of humour in the work of Northrup Frye, and, while scholars discussed comedy and Frye talked about its importance in art and life (I’ve long wanted to stage the Northrup Frye Comedy Festival; maybe one day), I imagined people sitting in alleyway backyards or decks or livingrooms catching small parcels of the show’s arguments set to bizzare panting and the heavy pedalling of shoes on concrete. Again, what people were probably thinking was: “There goes that sad running man with his sad old radio.” But I don’t care. I get to stay in (relative) shape while honing up on my Canadian scholars.

There’s a family two streets away from where I live– a mother and son, I believe; the son is an adult male– and if I’d rather not anyone see me run through the neighbourhood (part of this is due to the admitedly fine dreamstate that jogging forces you into), I have no problem encountering them on my path. The son– a very chatty fellow; friendly; and, I sense, too socially locquacious to be what most of us would consider “quite right”– made my running produce a greater sense of triumph than I could conjure myself, for whenever I would pass his house, he would shout “You’re doing great!” and “I can already see that you’re losing weight!” and “Good for you!” It became a nightly reward for me, and, returning home soaked in sweat, I’d report these exhortations to my wife until, eventually, I saw that she doubted the existence of my champion. To her, I was making up his cries of encouragement, and a kind of jogging dementia had set in, which is something I wouldn’t count out as a condition of doing something that feels as resolutely terrible as running does.

No matter how frequent or infrequent my routine, one of the small victories while running is coming across other people not running. It’s amazing the sense of self-satisfaction you can draw after seeing people leaning against their cars smoking and not running (no matter how gratifying their smoking and not running might appear) or people digging into a Doritto bag while sitting on a porch step reading a magazine (no matter how delicious their snack and relaxed and unsuffering their behaviour may seem). Still, you are running and they are not, and so you are, obviously, a better person. They will die Doritto’ed and oversmoked while you will be scaling mountains in your jogging shoes, no matter how clunky or square-toed. While they are being gurneyed into an operating room to clean arteries clogged by neglect and indolence, they will remember the determined figure who whirled about their street in silly shorts. They will cry for you! They will ask for your guidance! Sometimes, these imaginings fuel my (approximately) Olympian routine until I decide– feeling far too self-satisfied for my own good– that, heck, I can take a few days off; wander down to the cake shop; have that extra beer; those extra chips; why not? And then, gazing from my own porch step later in the week, a runner in a better shape running faster than me and for a longer distance will zoom past my house. The next day, I’ll drag myself back to it: more boredom, more hurt, more deathly grimaces. At least, tonight, they’re talking about GMOs and the conspiracy of produce. Leaving the house, I pull on my stupid hat and click on the show. I come down the stairs, and kick myself forward.

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