On Running: Bay to Breakers 2015

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I was bobbing and weaving between a throng of walkers bent forward, huffing and puffing up Hayes Hill, the most difficult half-mile section of the Bay to Breakers in San Francisco that starts near the bay and goes for 7.5 miles to the ocean. It’s a century old festive road-race that began in 1906 to lift the city’s spirits after the big earthquake. I left the road and ran up the pedestrian path, behind the line of spectators and revelers.

The top of the hill is a perfect place to get a full view of the costumes, ranging from Disney characters, Superwomen, naked, fat old men, Lady Gaga, and everything else imaginable. I stopped briefly to glance back to take it in, astonished as usual by the sheer number of people and the variety of their costumes.

The going was tough this year and I had to concentrate, not so much because of the hill–I now run slowly enough not to get winded by a climb—but more because I had to ramp up my distance from scratch quickly, no longer an easy trick. As I struggled, I recalled a friend recently asking why I run, what was I running from? Yes, I wondered, why indeed at age almost 76 am I pushing myself physically?

I try to run this race every year to reassure myself that I can still manage the distance. My usual twice-a-week jogs cover about 4 miles. I use the words run and jog hesitantly because what I do is slower than they suggest, more like a shuffle. My preferred track is a broad fire road in a wetlands preserve near my house. It attracts many species of birds, 196 according to the blurb, especially where the water narrows to a V shape and tall grass and cattails shoot up 6 feet. Birds build their nests in the thickets, rear their young and exchange melodic chat.

A mile from the start, all I hear is their melodies and my strides, although I sometimes have to dodge a snake basking in the sun. Further out, the fire road becomes a path that winds around forested hills rising from the water with striking short oak trees that have rust colored trunks and branches, looking as if they survived a fire. Do I want to give up this serene communion with nature?

I do think about stopping to run. It’s hard on my body. But I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s not easy to give up. My first runs were at boarding school, an annual “marathon”, but just 5 miles. I had no idea how to pace myself, ran faster than I should at the beginning and then walk-ran the rest. At college, I ran sporadically, just a mile or two, either as fitness training for tennis or as a form of discipline after I stopped playing tennis.

When I moved to San Francisco for the first time in 1970, I ran to overcome a precipitous decline in fitness during my working years in London and New York. I had difficulty making it around a baseball field in a park near my apartment. After joining Stanford in 1973, I started running short distances regularly, about 2 or 3 miles. It was during that period I quit smoking, increased the distances to control potential gain in weight, and ran in my first Bay to Breakers. Still, I did not think of myself as a runner.

It was preparing for my first New York marathon in 1978 that got me hooked. In the previous year my father had died unexpectedly and I acquired new responsibilities that steered me back into a career path I had earlier decided was not suitable. I needed to remain calm, concentrate, and develop emotional and physical stamina. Running 50-60 miles per week, including a long run of 15-18 miles, helped me dig deep within myself, gave me a sense of well-being and confidence. If I can do this, I thought, I could do anything. Somehow, extending my body’s capacity flowed into enlivening and expanding other capabilities. Finishing my first marathon was the greatest thrill of my athletic life.

The main gains from running actually came after that first marathon. I became comfortable with running long distances. After settling in to my pace in a mile or two, I would develop a rhythm and withdraw into a meditation, mostly an empty mind, but some new ideas about work or life would float by and I would finish with energy and resolve. Sometimes, I felt I had answers to the big Tolstoyan questions of how to live and what to do, but many of them were mirages.

Added to emotional tranquility were the physical benefits from running. The medical profession avers that exercise is the best medicine for good health and they are right in my case. I kept in good physical shape, and importantly, developed a good appetite that I could indulge with impunity.

I ran regularly for the six years I lived in New York and 15 years in Washington DC, completed eight marathons and many shorter races. But I was not racing against anyone, not even for a better time, just to stretch myself and maintain that capacity. My work at the World Bank took me to lots of countries. Early in the morning, when traffic was light, I pounded the pavements in Paris, Rome, London, Athens, Istanbul, San Francisco, Blantyre, Kiev, Georgetown in Gayana, Dar-es-Saalam, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Mumbai and New Delhi, along rivers, bays and oceans, by ancient and modern monuments, through parks and over bridges. These runs went by the main tourist attractions, seeing them from a different perspective.

Occasionally, I faced danger such as being chased by stray dogs foraging for food at dawn in New Delhi or chased by crowd of young kids running down a hill screeching and showering me with pebbles in Mogadishu, like a scene in the movie “Suddenly, Last Summer” based on a play by Tennessee Williams. On the lighter side, I remember a 15-mile run in the vineyards of Burgundy, a prelude to a meal at Lameloise in Chagny, my first Michelin three-star meal that blew my taste buds where they had never been before and made top restaurants in New York feel like simple diners in comparison.

Running has helped me dig deep, overcome obstacles, taught me consistency, given me composure. I was never running from anything, just towards stability and realization. When I think of quitting because of my age, I also think of Norman and Bernie and Jerry in my age group, who live nearby and are accomplished runners. I still want, indeed need to dig deep, stretch, concentrate, and learn. And there is the slogan “Use or Lose it” to consider.

A few years ago, I was recommended to read Haruki Murakami’s “What I talk about when I talk about running”. In it I found an answer to my friend’s question. “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree”. Yes, running helps me to lift the fog of life that now and then enshrouds me.

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