I’ve been fortunate so far in my life to have lived this long and I’m still quite healthy.

Potato Running

Running for fun and fitness is a relatively recent American pastime.

Sure, both knees have been replaced, which means I don’t do much running anymore. I should say I don’t do any running. On occasion, I’ll start to break into a trot, and it doesn’t feel quite right, so I downshift to a walk. I suspect that if I really had to— say when pursued by a predator interested in feasting on my ample flesh or stealing my less-than-ample wallet— I could run, even sprint. Probably not. I’ll keep you posted.

I dream about running a lot. What tremendous exhilaration and indescribable freedom, and I don’t even breathe hard! I’m not sure if I literally break into a running motion while I sleep, but I wake up and it takes a few minutes for me to realize the sobering truth. That’s right, someone has kicked my wife to the floor beside the bed. Nevertheless, such dreams encourage me to believe that I could probably run again, knowing full well that I probably won’t.

Even dogs dream about running. You’ve seen them, fast asleep on their sides, their legs pumping along. Sometimes it is sad, as it was with my late dog, Jake, when his back legs were paralyzed. He’d be asleep with his little front legs moving in rhythm. In his dream I knew he was loping across some green field happy and young again. He might even have been retrieving a ball or running down a Frisbee, his useless legs carrying him along. He would know the sad truth soon enough, upon awakening.

When do you think humans decided to run in the first place? I’m sure it started as an escape mechanism. Wild animals probably forced us into running— first to get away from them and then to catch them. In the latter case, primitive man had to fashion weapons for slaying and devouring his erstwhile pursuers— a practice that continued long after grocery stores.

When we invented war— and we always had reasons for them— running was invaluable whether on the attack or in cowardly flight. Modern soldiers had transport like Jeeps, tanks and armored utility vehicles which allowed them to keep running at a minimum.

Being the competitive creatures we are, it wasn’t long before we raced against each other to establish superiority. The ancient Greeks get a lot of credit for this kind of tomfoolery, and they did it barefooted and naked as a pitted olive, with several well-positioned fig leaves so as not to offend onlookers. I understand— and this is just hearsay— that the first ancient Olympics had to be called off due to a fig leaf shortage when someone came up with the idea of substituting nettles. It was a rash decision.

Aside from sports, war and game hunting, there was a span of hundreds of years when people saw no productive reason to run. Everybody tended to be busy tilling soil, chopping down trees and otherwise actively avoiding starvation, so just running for exercise didn’t make sense. People who went out and ran just to run were verbally abused. Other people would try to run over them with their horses and, after the industrial revolution, motor vehicles. They would taunt you as they galloped or drove by screaming things like, “Faster! Faster!” and “You’re an idiot!”

I started running for exercise while still in the Army, recently married and living in a residential neighborhood in Arlington, VA, just outside of D.C. This was in 1969-70 and I was clearing my lungs after several years of smoking. There weren’t many other runners out there. It was just me and the cars swerving toward me, their passengers taunting me and tossing debris out of their open windows.  Well, the latter happened just once, but still…

Then, not long after that, something strange happened. Not only did other people start running, but there were whole bunches of them. People were writing books about the benefits of running. “Running and Being” became a bestseller. Nike developed a line of shoes just for running — the Waffle Trainer. Sneakers and tennis shoes were quickly forgotten as the all-purpose sports shoe. And, yes, fewer runners had to dodge swerving vehicles.

I suppose my interest in running was influenced by choosing track over baseball as my spring sport in high school. I don’t know why I opted for running a distance event. Perhaps it was because I was too slow to make the team as a sprinter and my legs too short to clear hurdles and jump either high or broad. That’s right, there was a broad jump then before it became inappropriate because some guys called women broads. Look it up. My main event was something they used to call a mile, a shorter word for 5,280 feet, before the metric era. Still people questioned the sanity of anyone who expressed a desire to run that far as fast as they could.

I suppose the other influence was from growing up in Camptown, PA, where in 1965 town fathers, including my own father, came up with the wacky idea of inviting people of all ages— men and women— to compete just for fun, mind you, in a five-mile run that, when belatedly measured, was closer to seven miles. That first race was in June shortly after I graduated from high school. I chose not to participate, reasoning that if my lungs exploded at the finish line after running a mile on a level surface, what would happen if I ran more than five times that distance up and down hills, stumbling on stones and evading gnats and bees?

The so-called running boom is credited with starting in the seventies, so what my hometown did was quite innovative at the time, trading humans for horses as recounted in the Stephen Foster tune, “Camptown Races.”

Running for adults, as it evolved in the 1970’s, was mostly a personal fitness choice, usually done alone or with a companion or two, but it didn’t take long before there were so many of us that races like that in Camptown were springing up all over the place as 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons. There were competitive aspects, of course, but modern runners were just happy to finish the race, checking their watches nonetheless, with onlookers cheering them on as they huffed and sweated toward the finish line in their own versions of the kick or final sprint. Aside from the overall winners, there were trophies awarded in age and gender categories to entice competitors, including the oldest male and female runners, the youngest, the skimpiest costumed runner and the runner with the shortest legs. Well, maybe not the last two.

Anyway, there are hill runners who prefer up to down and level, trail runners who prefer to stay off the beaten path, and ultra-runners who disdain marathons as a cake walk.

There are races for just about anyone of any demographic who can walk, roll, run or sprint. In February, around Valentine’s Day and in homage to Cupid and frostbite, an estimated three dozen towns and cities host “undie runs” for entrants donned in red-dyed tighty whities, a.k.a. men’s briefs and women’s panties. This visual feast of flesh may be distracting, but a typical fundraising cause is to combat children’s cancer. Perhaps diapers would be more fitting and resolve any bladder emergencies en route. The best part is you don’t have to be top condition, other than looking good in minimal underwear, because the course is just a mile long.

There are even races celebrating great carbohydrate unloaders like the Great American Bacon Race in Florida, which includes a 10K, a fun run and a 1K Bacon Dash for kiddies vying for the Golden Pig trophy. There is a run to honor Krispy-Kremes, in Raleigh, NC, where you must run 2.5 miles, eat a dozen glazed doughnuts, and run 2.5 miles back.

I could go on and on, but I already have.