I run because I couldn’t. As a child I went undiagnosed with allergy and exercise-induced asthma – and running was, quite literally, a crippling experience, leaving me wheezing and gasping for breath as if I was a 60-year old smoker with half a lung. Playground games and physical education in school were torture. I was the slowest runner, so I was the last to be picked for team games, the easiest to pick off in games of catch and tag. Even after diagnosis at the age of 14, physical activity required prepping with an inhaler.
The one saving grace was that I cycled to school on a bike with no gears. It was good conditioning, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Eventually, I grew out of the acute symptoms and, to make up for lost growth, hit the gym to build the strength I lacked. But running was always the nightmare activity. At the age of 40, I decided I had to incorporate more regular aerobic activity into my general fitness regime, so I ran two to three miles on the treadmill at the gym. It became less and less unpleasant, my pace increased – but it was fairly boring.
On vacation in the foothills of the Maritime Alps in Italy, I was encouraged to go running. I managed to go downhill quite easily, but it took the entire vacation to manage to run from the bottom of the hill to the top – a 300 meter elevation over 3km – without stopping. But when I did, the result was euphoria. I thought of all the kids that had outrun me as a child, mocking my inadequacy – how many of them were fit enough to take on such a challenge today?
When I returned to the U.S., running on a treadmill felt silly – and so I took a local park, with an undulating course as my new challenge. It was here that I had the second and third breakthroughs, to run without being aware of breathing, and to be defeated not by my lungs but by the effect of distance on my legs. This to me was even less conceivable than scaling the hill. I can only explain it in terms of getting contact lenses after relying on glasses for 30 years – utter liberation. And that is why running for me has been revealed not just as a physical race, but as a mental journey in which you can beat history.
*As I was writing my book I asked my running friends: Why do you run? Their answers varied wildly. Put together they provide a pretty good answer to the ultimate question that is at the heart of my book. In the end I was unable to include these thoughtful, honest answers in De rennende Hollander. During the coming weeks I will publish them here, one a day, with minimal editing. As I get ready for the Amsterdam Marathon, re-reading these words provides me with new inspiration every time.