The last few months has been a weird time. Here in New England, we’re having our worst drought in 30 years. In presidential politics, the great orange snapping turtle is closing in on the Oval Office by tapping into perfectly legitimate feelings of total insanity in some of the less affluent and more brain-dead parts of the country.
Strangest of all, I have finally taken up jogging.
Yes, jogging. The very word calls up images of pain and suffering and the sort of “purposeful living” and “taking care of yourself” that have frankly never been part of my playbook. During grad school, my diet basically consisted of everything I would have eaten when I was nine if I’d had a credit card and no legal guardian. Weekends were spent on the couch disappearing whole tins of day-glo orange cheese balls, and downing large amounts of low quality beer. But the key thing was: I was watching sports on TV. Dammit, I was watching people exercise.
It’s not that I’m averse to exercise. It’s just that I’ve always turned up my nose at jogging. If I’m going to be leaning hard on the important ventricles, I’m going to need better scenery than the shoulder of Route 302 between the gas station and Applebees. I want to be kayaking a river, or hiking a mountain, or kayaking down a mountain after downing large amounts of low quality beer. Why jog when there are far more sublime ways to make sure your pants fit?
I love sports, but running isn’t a sport; it’s a necessary evil. I loved lacrosse. It’s fun to score goals, to make passes, or to punch guys in the crotch when the ref isn’t looking. But if you can’t run for four minutes without staggering around like Ryan Lochte trying to find a gas station wall to urinate on, you probably won’t score any goals, or make any passes, or outrun any guys whose groins you just violated. To keep us in shape, my lacrosse coach had us run “San Diegos” — sprints that were so long, you felt like you were running to San Diego. (In California, they call them “Lakeville, Connecticuts.”) Sometimes, slumped on the ground in a semi-conscious state after running San Diegos, we’d happen to notice the varsity baseball team down the hill. Their practices definitely did not consist of running. They mainly involved chewing gum, adjusting their crotches, and making sure their pants were fully tucked into their socks at all times. We’d look down at them having a grand old time and definitely not doing San Diegos, and you know what we’d think? We’d think, “Boy, their uniforms look stupid.”
So why did I start jogging? Because marriage is a compromise. My wife is one of those people who actually enjoys jogging. She likes jogging so much that doing it for 26 miles — a marathon — was not enough jogging for her. She once ran a 50K. That’s 50 kilometers — which translated into miles equals “you don’t want to know.” It’s one of those races that when you finish, they give you free water, free food, and mandatory psychiatric testing. Let’s just say I’ve become fatigued while driving shorter distances.
Here are a few random quotes my wife and others have said to me over the last few weeks that we’ve been jogging, with some commentary afterward.
1. “Come on, it’ll be fun!”
Never a good sign. My wife says this to me before we go jogging. Think about it: have you ever gotten home from something truly amazing and said to yourself, “Gee, there’s no way I ever would’ve agreed to go fly out to the Super Bowl with my buddies on a private jet and throw things at Jerry Jones from our luxury box — if I hadn’t been told ‘It’ll be fun.'” No. That’s something your mom tells you to get you excited about running errands, or about going to Aunt Judith’s house for Passover.
2. “You’re doing great. I’m really impressed.”
I start my runs at a torrid pace. World-class pace. A tremendous pace. From the first thirty seconds, I’m Mo Farah. It has to do with my superb conditioning, mental toughness, and the fact that the first quarter-mile is downhill. After we hit flat ground, my wife is usually a speck on the horizon, yelling comments like the one above back at me. At that point, I settle into a more realistic pace: definitely not a run, but not quite a walk either. Dignified. Or like a guy who once voted for Harry Truman shuffling off to his bingo game in Del Boca Vista between hits from the respirator.
3. “So . . . how was your day? Mine was great. Um, are you still breathing?”
I look at going jogging the way a sled dog driver looks at going out when it’s -50: I’m just happy to make it home. My wife on the other hand looks at it as a perfect time for us to catch up and talk about how our days were. “So you can’t believe what happened today on my commute,” she’ll begin as we’re starting up a steep hill, and then proceed to continue talking non-stop for several minutes without gasping for air. Then she’ll turn to me and say, “You haven’t said anything in awhile.” I’ll respond with what sounds in my head like, “Not trying to be rude, just focused on keeping oxygen flowing into my lungs,” but which actually comes out as, “Umuhuhuh . . . Ughhhhh.”
4. “There’s no way you could do that.”
On the morning after our first jogging trip, I woke up to find that I was hurting in places I was not aware I had feeling, such as inside my capillaries. I looked like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his last season, when he was 87. Dick Cheney was more mobile that morning than I was. I swore I’d never jog again.
That evening we happened to run into a friend at the Coop who’d just run his second ever 5K. I asked him his time. On the way home, my wife seemed impressed. “That’s not that fast,” I said. She gave me an incredibly skeptical look that said either “You could never do that,” or “Did you really just wear sweatpants to the Coop?” That did it! That’s like questioning Donald Trump’s wealth. Records were going to be shattered!
That night, I went to work. I mapped out a 5K route for my wife and me that was perfect in every respect, except that I’d be jogging it. The next day we started the stopwatch. After my usual blistering first thirty seconds, I fell completely behind the pace, only making up for it by taking the last mile or two at a dead sprint and collapsing on the front lawn, fully expecting to wake up weeks later hooked up to machines. But I had beaten the time! I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d been able to actually stand up during the next few days.
5. “Yeah, that’s . . . not bad, I guess.”
Don’t make the mistake I did. Don’t go into school the next day beaming with pride and tell one of your students, who happens to be captain of the state championship-winning cross country team, about your pathetic old-man exploits. Because a small smile will cross his face. Not a wide one — he’s not that crass. And frankly, you’re not even worth it. But a small smile. Then he’ll be as diplomatic as possible. “”Yeah, that’s . . . not bad, I guess.”
“Say, how fast do you usually run it in?” you’ll ask foolishly.
Now it’s not important how much faster he is than I am. It’s not important that on his slowest days, when he has just consumed a box of donuts and is wearing snowboots he would have time to finish the race, shower, and do his AP Physics homework before I’d cross the line. What is important is that I beat his time now.
So if you need me, I’ll be in my altitude tent.