Hooked on Running
My father was a tall, lanky, talented athlete. In high school he played basketball and ran track and cross country. In part to live up to his legacy, I took up cross country. Although I had my father’s build, I was not very fast; in fact, I was the second slowest runner on our team, and the slowest turned out to have a terminal illness. Despite my glacial pace, I stayed with the sport until I graduated in 1976. Afterwards, to no one’s surprise, I hung up my running shoes.
Thirty-three years later, my weight reached 199 pounds. I had to face the fact that I had gradually become a fat man in pretty poor physical shape.
A year earlier, in the aftermath of her father’s slow deterioration and death from Alzheimer’s, my wife, Claire, began running. She certainly didn’t need to lose any weight–she sill fits easily into her wedding dress–but read that physical exercise into old age helps keep a person’s mind sharp. After watching her get out and run faithfully for a year, even in snow and rain, I was finally shamed into joining her.
On February 18, 2009, I pushed myself to “run” a mile. I changed my diet too, dropping to two meals a day, one light and the other heavy. I started losing about a pound a week and feeling more comfortable during my runs. By April 26, Claire and I felt fit enough to try to a five kilometer (3.1 mile) road race. All kinds of people ran–thin, heavy, young–and even some pushing strollers. We finished 262nd and 302nd out of 500. She ran it in 32 minutes and I came in a minute faster. I was delighted. From then on, I became hooked on running.
I signed up for other races and began meeting people. I started attending a weekly race in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which my older all-around athletic brother Michael and his friends run regularly. Those friends were very encouraging. Harry Haywood coached me in ways to get faster and avoid injury. After each race, we enjoyed a couple beers and had a lot of laughs.
Meanwhile, back in Worcester, Claire and I discovered a weekly run starting at An Cu Liath (the Greyhound), an Irish Pub in Kelley Square, a place where six streets meet without a traffic light. This three-mile race is free and ends with a pot luck at the pub. Although somewhat standoffish at first, the members of the Central Mass Striders club who sponsor the race have become as pleasant to hang out with as the folks in Holyoke. You couldn’t find friendlier people than Beth, Tracy, Sue, Karen, Dave, Mike, Tom, Eddie, J.J., and Sanjay.
Worcester, 6:30PM Mondays: An Cu Liath City Run Monday 3 miler. An Cu Liath Pub (The Grey Hound), 11 Kelley Sq (Bring your watch!! Freebie self timed race through the Canal District). This event is part of a weekly 52 part series. Contact: Scott (CMS member), USA, 01602. 1-508-951-5324 firstname.lastname@example.org
And ace runners like John Pajer, Thaddeus Bell, and Carol Hurley always share the secrets of their speed. Another standout, John Colucci, will tell you he runs to honor a son who was brutally murdered. Quite a few runners are parents or grandparents. Many, like Thaddeus, used to be quite heavy. Some, like the affable bar owners Cyndy and Paul Curley, go no faster than 10 minutes a mile. And yet, Cyndy ran the Bay State Marathon and is planning to run another in Ireland come April. Unlike my high school, where athletes were so focused on individual achievement, these runners keep things in perspective. Nobody is boastful. Folks who have run dozens of marathons wear those achievements lightly.
Nonetheless, friendly rivalries have developed between me, “Iron Man” Al Barrera, and “Flash” Jack Goolsky. We race every Monday night at 6:30. In the winter, reflective vests alert drivers that we will be darting across streets. Just before Christmas, we ran as a group in and out of the atrium of the Worcester Medical Center led by a fellow in a Santa Claus suit. We also stopped at K.J. Baarron’s Fine Wines and Spirits for a free whiskey toast.
And, to my surprise, I got faster. I now finish in the top third of most races. I even won a race for my age group. My time has dropped almost ten minutes in the 5k. In my first year, I ran 79 races and am looking forward to attempting the Worcester Half Marathon on June 13. My weight is stable at 154 pounds. My co-worker Ken says I’ve become obsessed and warns that I will pack on all the pounds again eventually. But I don’t think so because I am not just dieting and exercising. I am having terrific fun. I love the competition and the comraderie. On a week when he beat me soundly, Scott Stevens, a Central Mass Striders board member who posts online results of the pub races, razzed me with the entry “Scott Schaeffer-Duffy beatdown”. He included a photo of a traffic sign depicting a child running and the word SLOW. His caption read, “Signs erected for the safety of Scott Schaeffer-Duffy.” I laughed my head off when I saw it.
You may wonder why this article is included in The Catholic Radical. [Ed.: Or Pie and Coffee, for that matter.] It’s not only because I’m excited about the topic, but also because one of our readers recently wrote that, even though he liked our paper, it was “not merry.” His comment reminds me how important it is not only to expose injustice, but also to celebrate goodness.
In his marvelous book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall, a former war correspondent for the Associated Press who is now a long distance runner, describes a revelation he had during an ultra-marathon. When McDougall fell to the back of the pack, a world class runner relinquished his chance at victory and jogged alongside the writer to encourage him. McDougall learned from this athlete that “the reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other . . . but to be with each other.”
No matter what your income, age, skill level, or weight, runners will welcome you into their offbeat family. They have taught me joyful lessons about genuine community.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2010 issue of The Catholic Radical.