Running on Tilt

Full Circle

Dan and his father, geometry of running

Listen | Time: 6:31 · Format: mp3

In late January, at the height of the “25 Random Things about Me” craze on Facebook, a friend named Dan recently listed what he called 25 “nuggets” about himself. The fifteenth of twenty-five nuggets was this:

I loathe exercise that has no real conclusion. Lifting weights, just to put them back down. Ending a run where it began. These are examples of such.

During our senior year in high school, Dan and I had made a deal: If he would run cross-country, I would join senior choir. Dan’s father Charlie, or “Chas,” as we called him, had been a sub-three hour marathon runner, so though Dan hadn’t run cross-country before, he had promise. So he gamely ran for three months and I sang choir for the whole year, and in the twenty years since Dan’s probably done about as much running as I have singing, which is next to none.

In expressing disgust for runs that end where they begin, Dan tickled an issue that even the most avid runner must face from time to time. He elaborated:

"I leave my house, wander around my neighborhood for about an hour, come home, shower, and go about my day. What was accomplished, really? I am now where I was."

Breaking it down spatially, three types of runs end where they begin: 1) the loop run – think of it as a circle, 2) the out-and-back run — think of it as a line, and 3) the treadmill run, which never progresses from where it begins, like a dot.

First, loop runs. Loop runs are a staple of training. Tracks are loops, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is a loop, and Central Park is a number of loops. Not only is a loop a set distance that can be timed, but it can be repeated so that runners can gauge their split-times within a run or compare times over a number of runs. Loops appeal to the addictive trait in runners, many of whom are happy to do the same loop again and again and again.

Next, the out-and-back. Though retracing one’s steps during a run may seem dispiriting, the out-and-back is actually a cure for flagging motivation. Just as, after the winter solstice, the days get longer, offering hope for spring even as temperatures continue to drop, so too after the midway point of an out-and-back a runner’s spirit uplifted knowing that with every step he or she is closer to home. In an out-and-back, the mind often wins over the body, resulting in a negative split.

Finally, the treadmill. By keeping the runner in place, the treadmill paradoxically reminds the runner that he or she is running. This hyperawareness can make the run seem endless, despite whatever distraction the televisions might offer, even though it’s the shortest run of all. Treadmill runs are sweaty runs.

Now consider the run that doesn’t end where it begins, the run that Dan does not loathe. Call it an etch-a-sketch. The etch-a-sketch is relatively high-maintenance. You can’t just put your shoes on, leave the house, come back, and call it an etch-a-sketch. But it is often more rewarding than the circle, line, or dot. When you finish in a different place from where you begin, you are by definition going somewhere.

Dan wrote: "Perhaps if I ran to work, that could be a goal, a point A to point B sort of accomplishment."

I agree. Running to work or, better yet, home from work is an accomplishment that may save money, time, the environment, take your pick.

Most races, even, surprisingly, track races, are etch-a-sketch. In a mile race on a 200- or 400-meter track, the runner will finish 8 meters from where he or she begins. The Fifth Avenue Mile is a special event, because since it is a straight line, it actually honors its distance by finishing a whole mile from where it begins. Spectators must choose where along that mile to get a glimpse of the runners.

Whatever the merits of an etch-a-sketch run, Dan admits that he can’t be bothered to do that, either. He writes, "The only exercise that I have found truly engaging, yet still strenuous, was climbing the mountains in Maine. The paths were not treacherous, nor were they simply leisurely strolls. Then, of course, there was the payoff: I was climbing small mountains. I could reach the summit. It was a goal. It was an achievable goal. It made it real and more enjoyable."

In 2002, a month after completing my first New York City marathon, I ran with Dan’s father Chas at a wedding in Negril, Jamaica. Chas was getting back into shape and was optimistic about running in general. We jogged together to the end of the beach, where lo-and-behold, women were tanning topless. One cue, Chas did a perfect faceplant, skidding on the sand, arms fully extended, like a baserunner not accustomed to stealing second.

Dan and Chas had always been close; from what I could tell, they were closer friends than most fathers and sons. They worked together in a small photo store in a sleepy Rochester plaza. The store has since folded up shop. At that wedding, they both had cameras, and both shot pictures furiously.

In 2006, at the high school that Chas graduated from in 1964, and that Dan and I graduated from in 1992, Chas, while preparing to run the neighborhood’s Fourth of July 5k, suffered a heart-attack and died.

My high school cross-country coach once said that to get perspective on a race, the best thing to do is to return to the course that evening, after all the runners and coaches and parents had left, and after the stakes and flags at the finish chute had been removed, and after all the medals rewarded. Then you see the course again, empty and silent, save for the trees intermittently rustling in the wind.