Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Stressing And Love Running

Granted, it's an odd title.  I paraphrased the title of a 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie satirizing the cold war.  Actually, the real Dr. Strangelove (yes, there was one) does relate to my story indirectly, a tale of which I will share at the end.  This blog, however, is about how I overcame my dislike of jogging and running.

Poster from the movie.
When you hear or see the word "running", an image is probably conjured up in your mind.  If you already run and enjoy it, then the image is a pleasant one.  If you hate running and don't even want to think about it, then perhaps you will identify with my story.  For I, too, was once like you.

Why Some People Hate Running

"Hate" is a strong word.  Probably appropriate, though.  If you are an anti-jogite (thanks, Kramer), then let me look into your past and tell you why you may feel that way.  Odds are we shared the same P.E. teacher.  You know the one.  Tall or short, overweight, sweaty, loud, and unengaged with his/her job.  It doesn't matter what his/her name was (I can't remember my teacher's name either), but this teacher managed to take something as beautiful as running freely through the cool autumn air and turn it into a death march or a Darwinian survival of the fittest lesson (take your pick).

I attended a small Catholic high school in Eugene, Oregon during my freshman and sophomore years.  Yes, Eugene. The running capital of the world!  You would think it would be a great place to learn the joy of running.  Well, maybe it is today, but my experiences with running were far from joyful back then.  My memories of running involved the many, many hours spent pounding the pavement in P.E. during those two years.  There was no coaching involved.  The teacher had us for one hour every day, so we would get dressed in our P.E. uniforms, go outside where he would point to the road behind the school and command us to run a loop around the neighborhood.  That's it. He didn't tell us to stretch, to set a pace, or instruct us about properly managing our run.  We ran about a 3 mile loop, so it would take me almost the whole class period to complete it.  It was HELL!  Why was I so slow, and why was running so hard to do?

In hindsight, I now know why.  Without instruction, I had no idea about how to pace myself and would be winded before the first mile was completed.  Also, I was living in a house of heavy smokers.  My father smoked 3 packs of Chesterfield Kings every day, and my mother smoked two packs.  I did not smoke, but I still got a heavy dose of West Virginia's finest.  Thanks to my parents, in effect I smoked 5 packs a day via second hand smoke.  No wonder it took me 40 minutes to run 3 miles. I had the lung capacity of a chain-smoking lab monkey.

So, my experience with running was initially bad and I learned to dislike it at an early age.  My guess is that if you hate running now, then you may have had a similar experience to mine.

Running Is Not For Everyone

No, indeed it isn't.  So, how did I learn to change my attitude about running?  I don't know if "love" is the word, but I learned to find some joy it it by my late 20's.  I ran some 5 k's and then a 10 k race.  After a knee injury at age 29, however, I never really got back to running seriously.  That is, until recently.  Now I find that I thoroughly enjoy it for the first time in my life.

Why did it take so long?  Perhaps it is maturity that has improved my appreciation for it.  Also, I understand how to do it better, and more importantly, I now see its benefits (described here).  I get fresh air (sorry, no treadmill for me) and see the world from a different perspective than from a passing car or on a speeding bicycle.  Also, running gives me a genuine feeling of accomplishment.

The accomplishment I feel comes from making measurable progress.  When I started running in January of 2011, I couldn't run a half mile.  I was overweight and out of shape.  By March I could run all the way down to the park and back, which was a mile and a half round trip.  By November I could run 6 miles without stopping.  The improvement was evident.  It was exciting to see myself getting better at something athletic, particularly at my age.  That never happened with golf!

Running doesn't come without costs, usually in the form of injuries.  I have hurt my knees several times.  I also developed plantar fasciitis too, although orthotics now keep it under control.  No matter what the problem has been, however, I have tried to just keep moving forward.  In my younger days I gave up after my knee was injured, but I don't give up so easily any more.  Running, then, has become a source of emotional growth for me as well.

Regardless of what you choose to do for exercise, I can assure you that accomplishing something like this is an uplifting experience.  I have learned to really like (love?) doing something difficult and succeeding at it.  I urge everyone to find something healthy to do and really strive to make it fun and rewarding.

Dr. Strangelove and Me

The late Dr. Edward Teller,
aka, Dr. Strangelove
You've read this far and I promised to tie this all in with a story about the real Dr. Strangelove.  So, here it is.

When I was an undergraduate physics student in the mid 1970's, one of my "visiting professors" was the famed physicist Dr. Edward Teller, the so-called "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb".  Dr. Teller was an intimidating man with a thick german accent, "power eyebrows", and a close friend to powerful people, like then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.  He was also commonly referred to (though not to his face) as the real Dr. Strangelove, because of his association with the H-bomb.  A biographical book by that title was later written about him.

After a few lectures and Q&A sessions, I found that I disliked him personally, despite my admiration for his knowledge and accomplishments.  I found him to be "gruff", for lack of a better word.  Some of our interactions bordered on arguing.  So I eventually just kept my trap shut and let him pontificate about his very conservative ideological views.

Oddly enough, in the Fall of 1992 our paths crossed again when he came to the high school where I was teaching physics.  At the invitation of the school's founder, Dr. Leon Lederman (Nobel laureate in physics), Dr. Teller volunteered to work with our students.  He spent a month as an unpaid mentor to aspiring science and mathematics students.  It was very nice of him to do that.

Despite this kind gesture, I never spoke to him during the whole time he was there - not even once.  I would often pass him in the hallway, but I never made eye contact.  He wouldn't have remembered me, anyway.

Why was I so rude?  I now realize that I had avoided him for the same reasons I avoided running for so long - I associated him with an unpleasant memory based on a single set of experiences that would frame my viewpoint for the rest of my life.  Immature, I know.

I like to think I have grown since then.  If he were around today, I would hope we could become re-acquainted.  Like I did with running, I would give him a second chance. Well, maybe... he was kind of intimidating, you know!

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