To Be a Runner represents a new way to write about running by bridging the chasm between the two categories of running books: how-to and personal narrative. Spinning colorful yarns of his running and racing adventures on six continents—from competing in the infamous Raid Gauloises to coaching his son's high school cross-country team—Dugard considers what it means to truly integrate the activity into one's life. For example, how the simple act of buying a new pair of running shoes can be a source of meaning and hope. As entertaining as it is provocative, To Be a Runner is about far more than running: It is about life, and how we should live it.
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All runners announce their entry into the sport with the most basic athletic action: a step. A simple foot plant that leads to thousands upon millions more: some faster, some slower; at home and around the world; in sun, blizzard, and driving rain; on pavement, dirt, mud, gravel, sand, loam, grass, oval all-weather tracks with eight lanes that measure exactly 400 meters around, and freshly scrubbed Pamplona cobblestones. A splendid step, a quiet step, a lonely step; born of some inner dialogue, some longing to be different, to be--not the best--but at least better. The step takes less than a second. Doubts are silenced in that whisper of time. Lives are changed.
Almost every modern runner, even now, can trace his or her first step to 1967, when a Dallas physician named Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper published Aerobics. And so can I. Aerobics was running's version of Mao's little red book, a revolutionary tome that spawned a movement and made us all see the world in a different way. It was as if the sun came up navy blue instead of orange one morning, then stayed that way evermore.
Aerobics has become synonymous with nylon/Lycra and synchronized group exercise set to pulsating synthesized music. There are substrata of aerobics, like high impact and low impact and body pump and even Spinning, which is basically aerobics on a stationary bike. Thanks to aerobics, there was such a garment as the Performance Thong, sold by Nike, which may or may not have been effective workout apparel but whose name offers one of the more inspired word pairings in the English language.
But back in 1967, aerobics (the term refers to oxygen consumption) meant just one thing: running. Dr. Cooper believed that a workout stressing the heart and lungs was an effective means of staying fit and a way to prevent keeling over at forty from a massive clogging of the arteries. With this simple premise packaged into his bestselling book, running ceased to be the sole domain of Olympians, fitness zealots, and men like Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who was considered eccentric for running three miles each day.
As all this was happening, my dad was a bomber pilot with a fondness for Spanish cigars and Bombay gin. He was also in danger of being pulled off flight status due to a recently collapsed lung. In desperation, he took up aerobics. We lived at Bunker Hill, an air force base in Indiana, soon to be renamed in memory of hard-luck Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom. The base gym was sponsoring a one-hundred-mile club in order to encourage running, with members' names posted on a laminated board near the towel window. For each mile run, a staff member would add a tally mark in red grease pencil next to that member's name. A hundred red marks and you were in the club. I can't remember whether there was aT-shirt to commemorate the achievement or a next level for the truly ambitious, but at the time running one hundred miles was a very big deal. The club filled up quickly, which is to say that the board, from top to bottom, was lined with names and red marks accumulated horizontally to resemble a bar graph.
My folks both signed up. They would run two to three miles at a time, ten laps for a mile around the gym's laminated wooden basketball floor. My little brother Matt and I would play beneath the fold-out bleachers as they ran, always keeping one eye out for fallen change. Sometimes we snuck over to the board and penciled in outlaw red marks next to our mom's name. We had noticed that another woman was running several more miles per week than she was. It didn't seem right that someone else's mom would get to a hundred first.
One day, having already penciled in an auspicious amount of mileage on our mother's behalf, Matt and I came out from the shadow of the bleachers and spontaneously began running. My first step came on planks of polished hardwood, with my little brother at my side. Our goal was a mile. It seemed an impossible distance. When I think of how far a one-hundred-mile trail run feels to me today, it is very much like how a mile felt back in 1967.
I was a small, awkward child with skinny hips, a goofy smile that accentuated vampirelike canine teeth, and blond hair combed straight forward in bangs that ended an inch above my eyebrows. I looked like the very young, very towheaded love child of George Harrison and Moe, the Stooge.
Matt was even smaller, with fiery red hair and huge blue eyes. We probably looked even younger than six and five as we ran those first tentative steps in our jeans and BX sneakers. The warm gym smelled of sweat, floor wax, and leather basketballs. The distant thwack of handball games in the nearby courts drowned out our labored breathing.
Matt would go on to become a record-breaking collegiate runner. But on that day so long ago, he started walking after a few laps and then sat down. I pressed on. We had gone out too fast. I had to drastically slow my pace to keep going. After five laps I was about to quit, but the young airman working the towel counter bellowed encouragement as I chugged past. For the first time in my life, I felt the galvanizing burst of adrenaline that comes from being cheered on. I kept going.
After seven laps I was close to stepping off the track, when my parents lapped me and added their own words of praise. There was surprise in their voices and a relieved sort of pride, as if they'd been secretly worried that the athlete gene had skipped a generation. After eight laps I was fairly certain I would finish but thought I might have to walk the rest. But that would mean I had not technically run a mile, so I banished all thoughts of walking.
After nine laps, my legs were so heavy that the final circuit loomed like a mile unto itself. There was no thought about proper form or looking good. I just prayed that I would finish. Hail Marys. Our Fathers. Nonstop lobs to heaven, pleading that God would carry me. I was a year from making my First Communion. Spontaneous prayer was as automatic as giving up chocolate for Lent.
With thirty yards left, I kicked it in.
There was no cheering crowd at the finish line--only Matt, who wasn't all that impressed. But to hear my folks talk as we stepped out into the humid Indiana summer and squeezed into our wood-paneled Ford Country Squire, you would have thought I'd just made the Olympic team. When I watched Jim Ryun racing Kip Keino in Mexico City on television the next year, I hatched a lifelong dream of doing just that.
On the day I ran my first mile, I didn't understand the concept of something "coming naturally." But I learned that distance running wasn't so tough for me. In fact, I liked it very much. I've considered myself a runner ever since.
Running has taken me on adventures great and small, at home and around the world. It has provided me with hope and perseverance on days when I had none--and even, once every great while, warmed me with that fleeting ray of sunshine known as glory. Running has taught me that I can do anything, just so long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes that notion is metaphorical and sometimes not. In this way, I have been inspired to attempt things I would have never dreamed possible.
And it all started with a single step.
Table of Contents
Prologue Reason to Believe xi
First Steps 3
Base Miles 9
Excuses, Excuses 17
A Time for Stretching 23
Just Once … 29
Easing into It
Slow Going 39
New Shoes 43
Keep It Up 55
The Wild Place 71
Ice Baths 89
Thunder Thighs 95
Run Dates 101
Deep Thoughts 107
Pamplona (Part I) 115
Pamplona (Part II) 123
House of Pain (Part I) 131
House of Pain (Part II) 139
Pamplona (Part III) 143
The Good Fight 149
Weather or Not 165
Tough Guy 171
A Breather 181
Bruised and Battered 191
Time and Again 197
The Mecca 203
The Price You Pay 213
The Beer Truck 219
Epilogue: Time to Race 231