I was a runner when they thought it was weird

JILL COLEMAN

March 18, 1992|By Jill Coleman

TWENTY-FIVE years have passed since I first ran up and down Roland Avenue, at its northern end from St. George's Road down the hill to what used to be the Visitation Academy, and then back up the hill.

Jogging hadn't been invented a quarter-century ago. So that was not the explanation I gave the young policeman whose squad car followed me. It was a cold March Sunday. My breath was a white fog. The street was quiet except for me on the sidewalk and the police car in the bus lane.

"Are you all right?" was the policeman's urgent question as he pulled alongside. Ill at ease, I said, "Yes, of course." "Please, then, tell me why you are running." More ill at ease, I giggled, shrugged like an adolescent and said, "Oh, no reason. I'm just . . . out, sort of . . . well . . . running."

By this time he was leaning insistently toward the passenger side of his car. "Are you sure you aren't running away from somebody?"

"Oh, nobody. I'm sure." He pushed his cap back. He was convinced, but he mixed sarcasm with consternation as he said, Well, it's not every day we get middle-aged women running up and down Roland Avenue."

I know that this event occurred 25 years ago because my daughter is 25 years old. She was then a baby, and I was running up and down Roland Avenue under doctor's orders. It was unheard of. I was radical. I apologized to the neighbors that I ran only because the doctor told me to.

How primeval was my "running" outfit! Any old warm slacks, a sweater and a windbreaker would do. (I had not yet bought my first warm-up suit. When I did, it was from the men's department. I had a choice of blue or red with white stripes down the sides.) My shoes were sneakers. Keds and Converse were about the only choices, at $3.95 a pair.

How did I run? I ran until I was so out of breath I had to quit. The vocabulary of warm-up, stretching, 10-minute miles, picking up the pace and cooling down didn't exist. I simply ran for a time each day.

The only real runners I knew were men on track teams. Cross-country runners staggered into the stadium to cheers of admiration after they ran about three miles. People who might walk a mile for a Camel were more real than Boston marathoners.

Jogging came to the campus of Gilman School in 1967. It quickly attracted a devoted crowd under the leadership of the late Harry Kaufman. I can still hear him telling us that our bodies were our temples. At first he opened his group only to men. (Today this seems quaint, probably unconstitutional.) But about 75 women were interested, and so the Gilman Lady Joggers were born the same year. I learned that jogging is nothing more than running at a measured pace so that you tire out your heart, lungs and legs at the same time. By June, some of us jogged 2 1/2 miles three times a week and thought nothing of it.

Fitness was to become the thing. Every new housing development had a pool and exercise room. The Calvert Street train station became an athletic club. You carried your jogging clothes to work in an athletic bag so you could jog during your lunch hour.

But wait! My daughter reads this and tells me that jogging is now passe. No matter your pace, even if it is as slow as walking, you must say you are "running." You run in races. You join a "fun run." You run all the way up Mt. Washington in New England: 10 miles at a 10 percent grade. Thousands of people run in marathons (26 miles) these days, but they have to qualify, because thousands more people also want to run and the streets are too crowded. Today men and women run in marathons and then go out dancing the same evening!

Jogging (running) has irreversibly changed our lives, far beyond the physical act. One way is in medical science. Newly discovered chemicals called endorphins course through our brains when we run. Endorphins (which don't appear in my 1975 Stedman's medical dictionary) are the source of the natural "high" experienced by some of us exercising even before 1967.

Experts have created a mathematical formula for aerobic health. If you push your pulse up to 75 percent of 200 minus your age for at least 20 minutes three times a week, it is said to help with high blood pressure, clogged arteries, clinical depression, obesity, high cholesterol, insomnia, indigestion and constipation. It may even clear up the skin, reduce the pain of childbirth and relieve PMS. Exercise is part of your doctor's advice at every visit. It is the snake oil of the 1990s!

None of these good effects, however, comes without cost. People become addicted to the endorphin high. They injure their backs, their knees, their feet. As a result, we now have "sports medicine." The lifeguard at the pool where I swim laps will soon get his degree in sports medicine. He wasn't born when I first ran up and down Roland Avenue. He has no memory of life before fitness.

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