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How to Run

My father's legacy



I grew up in the home of a marathon runner: My father was always training for a race — or recovering from one. My mother, too, cultivated a steady habit of running. As a result, our family vacations coincided with grueling races. I would hang out at the finish line and watch the runners approach with their glazed eyes, slack mouths and shuffling steps. Sometimes their shoes would be bloody. Sometimes they would cross the finish line and then collapse in a heap. For years, I thought "running" meant exercising until you threw up. I therefore concluded that running was not the sport for me.

It wasn't until my father had truly given up running that I decided to give it a try. He had taken to his bed, and all the cancer treatments had failed. I would sit beside him and ask questions about how to become a runner. I wanted something to talk to him about — something that would make him want to sit up, to tell stories and to give advice. For this, I was willing to lace on a pair of running shoes. I told myself that I was doing this for my father. Little did I know that running would save me as I trudged through the coming months of grief and loss. Over the years, and in spite of injuries, I have found myself returning to the pleasures of running. The advice my father gave me in his last months has endured.

If you are looking for a way to get into running, or coming back to it after a long absence, I can pass on my father's advice. Even though he once ran the Boston Marathon, he knew I was never likely to attempt the same. So rest assured: These tips are meant for beginners.

Don't worry too much about equipment.

My dad ran for years in flat-footed Converse before all the new-fangled improvements. Unless you are working with a foot injury, just get a pair of comfortable running shoes and get started.

Do not spend too much money on running clothes.

Humans were running long before stretch pants were invented. Do you want to cost compare wick-away fabrics on Amazon or do you want to run? If you are like me, you'd rather cost compare fabrics. But that won't get you running. Just put on some gear and get out the door.

When you are getting ready for a run, tell yourself that you don't have to run — you can just walk if you want.

This was an odd piece of fatherly advice that really worked. Once I gave myself permission to walk, I stopped making excuses and stepped out the door. Once outside the door, I figured I might as well run.

When first beginning to run, just attempt the distance between two telephone poles.

Then alternate walking and jogging the distance between poles. Too many people overdo it the first time out and never return. This is an endurance sport: If you start slow, you are far more likely to continue.

When actually running, try to focus on the upswing of your knees, rather than the motion of stepping down.

My father said that most people slap the pavement too hard with their feet. Use the muscles in your legs to lift your feet up not just propel them forward and down. Good form will help prevent injury.

If you get tired, for God's sake, don't stop — just run slowly.

Slow running still counts as running.

When I told my dad I was only running for 40 minutes, he was perplexed. I explained what I thought was the obvious reason: I was quitting after 40 minutes because everything hurt. But my dad countered that the first 40 minutes of running is always a hard experience. Even for guys like him who routinely ran 11 miles a day, it took at least 40 minutes for the endorphins to set in and spark that runner's high. And so, through the long months of my father's illness, I pushed myself beyond the 40-minute mark — searching for that quiet place where jagged steps become smooth and all sound dims to the rushing of the breath. When my endurance finally increased enough to take me there, my father had passed away. Running somehow made it possible to breathe through my grief. It made it possible to believe what he had promised me: that each step I took would become easier with time.

My father taught me that running is a simple and elegant sport. There are no rackets, helmets, machinery or gears. If you are considering taking up running, remember this: We are born with just about everything we need. It doesn't matter if you are adding a few running steps to your daily walk or training for a marathon. All that is necessary is that we show up, open the door and step out into the world.


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