We here at Ministry of Imagery have been on a bit of an exercise kick recently. This was brought about, as most things are for us, by something that we read. In this case it was an issue of Runners World that Simon found on the plane back from Oklahoma. After reading the books Once a Runner and Born to Run over the winter (which is the perfect time to read books about physical exertion) he was pretty into the idea of barefoot running, ultramarathons, and the theory that he could rely on only his legs to get from place to place. But other than skateboarding, riding his bike, and catching the subway, movement has been pretty much confined to the essentials for the male member of MOI. For yours truly, exercise is the only way for me to prevent sounding like I’m at a coke party. My general nervous demeanor, coupled with the clarity of mind that comes with sobriety, leads me to be enthusiastic in even passing conversations, cramming more words in a single sentence than are contained in a Gideon’s Bible. Blowing off some steam in sneakers and sweatpants is a natural way for me to reign in my energy level and keep from vibrating. I have enough trouble sitting still.
That said, I don’t run. After competing at State level as a sprinter in high-school, running is the only activity I won’t indulge in, similar to golf. But living with someone who just got bitten by the running bug, it’s hard not to get twitchy. There are the conversations about pronating, the debate about whether or not to buy running shoes, the endless stream of running documentaries and shows like Eddie Izzard’s Marathon Man, not to mention the glow and endorphin high that I get to witness every evening when he gets back to the apartment. It’s hard not to be jealous. And, as is the case with the two of us on most things, competitive. So I put on my sneakers and got to work.
Part of the draw of participating in an activity that only requires legs is the fact that it can be done anywhere and for cheap. The fitness manufacturing industry in this country nets $3 billion a year, with the top five companies in the field accounting for over 50% of the revenue. This means that whoever sold your gym the rowing machine you’re sweating on is rolling in enough money to make a river of solid gold. And just in case you don’t have a gym membership, look down. The US athletic shoe market alone is a $13 billion-per-year monolith, selling more than 350 million pairs of kicks annually. Those are some well-heeled numbers, considering that the first rubber sole sneaker to be produced hit the market as recently as 1917. Those shoes were canvas-topped, rubber-bottomed, foot-friendly pioneers known as Keds. Yes, those Keds. You can thank the U.S. Rubber Company for dreaming up the stealthily-named sneaks back in 1892. Twenty-five years after the first brainstorm, they entered the market, now, nearly a hundred years later, they are what I pair my khaki shorts with, for a sexy summer look that screams "preppy lesbian hooker."
Before Keds there were plimsolls. Rubber-soled, but crude as hell, these puppies had no right foot or left foot. Considering the way that fashion is going, I expect American Apparel to begin marketing plimsolls – along with bustles and bonnets – by next spring. Seriously. I mean, bloomers are back.
Running is also cool because it’s one of the few things man has always done. Though it probably began for a reason other than wanting to look hot in skinny jeans. Like to escape being eaten. Or to catch something like a wild beast made out of tempeh. Pheidippides, otherwise known as That Greek Dude Who Started the Marathon, ran 150 miles in two days in order to request help from Sparta after the Persians descended upon Marathon. (The place in Greece, not the town in Florida or the race.) Then he ran 25 more miles from the battlefield to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. When he got there he shouted a single Greek word, Νενικήκαμεν, which translates into "We won!" and then he died from exhaustion. Inspiring.
While the idea of a marathon sickens me (I get exhausted watching the news coverage of the races,) I think that there’s something to be said for partaking in an activity that wasn’t invented in some laboratory/gymnasium in order to sell sweat-wicking shorts or special shoes. Pharaohs and other rich men in ancient Egypt used to have runners who’d sprint out ahead of their brigade to announce how important their masters were, and ancient Greeks took self-congratulations to the extreme, allowing the winner of a race to erect a statue of himself in the middle of his city. He’d write his name, the event or events that he’d won, and a short quote at the base of it, probably something like, "Eat my dust." In Sparta, both men and women were commanded to run in order to maintain their strength and agility.
All of this trivia aside, running has a few physiological and psychological benefits that tiny copywriters looking for work could use. Running increases muscle mass, which will make our bedroom tussles that much more interesting. It also improves cardiovascular health, which might quell the dizzy spells I suffer from when on conference calls with clients. Consistent running regiments have been associated with an increase of HDL levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease. (Yet another nasty health issue that runs in my family, along with enough cancer to fill out the horoscope in every women’s interest magazine since the dawn of print.) Probably the most exciting physical boon of running is that it can slow or reverse the effects of aging. I’m starting to see some crows feet creep below the corner of my eyes. I’m hoping that if I log a few more miles they’ll disappear like I’m starring in an Oil of Olay commercial. Of course running also can lead to weight loss, which isn’t exactly something that two people living on a tight budget need. But, hey, if we wind up looking like mid-90s Calvin Klein models, at least we won’t take up much room on the subway. And I suppose we could always just buy two fixed gears and declare ourselves hipster royalty.
Psychologically, running has been used as a method to combat depression and addiction. As an alcoholic, I can say that the "runner’s high" that people report feeling does exist and it is pretty awesome. Granted, for me it happens after I finish, when I realize that I can finally stop running.
Professional runners generally don’t make a very good living, but they often get their gear for free. Distance runners make as little as freelance copywriters, and what’s worse, unlike building a portfolio, once they reach a certain level of professional success, their earnings are completely contingent upon whether or not they can stay that good. One of the highest salaries for distance runners that I could find a record of was for Dathan Ritzenhein, who is a twenty-seven year old, Nike-sponsored long distance badass who makes roughly $250,000 a year. Other than that, if you’re looking to break into the world of professional running, you need a good agent, a good story, and tremendously good competition times. Even those don’t guarantee you a salary. I read about one young man named Todd Reeser, who apparently was doing very well around 2000 and 2001. Even though he was well beyond college age, he was living at home with his mother just to get by. His manager, John Luther, said that Todd had lived off of 5K (money, not distance) a year for several years just to try to dedicate all of his time, energy, and focus into being a professional long distance runner. Luther said, "He’s lived the life of a pauper, like most distance runners, and has been at or below the poverty line for several years. His mother’s helped him out tremendously, and we have a couple of corporate sponsors for him. Hopefully after his performances this fall, he’ll get a nice shoe contract." That was in November, 2000. I couldn’t find a scrap of documentation about Todd – no race times, injury information, nothing – dated beyond early 2001. I wonder where he is now and what he’s up to, though it kind of frightens me to think too hard about it.
Of course, Simon and I don’t want to be professional runners. We want to be the kind who might just go for a mile and a half jaunt during a downpour after eating way too much Ethiopian food and vegan ice cream. (No joke. This actually occurred last Thursday.) And although I can’t say whether or not we’ll stick with this current workout plan, it is fun to read about running and to see what our bodies can do. We also bicker a lot less when we’re physically exhausted. Perhaps this will all end in an Hamilton-Burr-esque deul, only with the two of us sprinting to the death. Unlike that fateful stand-off, I just hope that if it does take place, it doesn’t go down in Jersey.
To follow our suffering, you can check out our profiles on RunKeeper or Daily Mile. Both contain the same pathetic information about how pitifully we’re clomping along. If you’re a runner with an iPhone, RunKeeper is a nifty application that allows you to log and track your workouts. It also lets you see your stats without having to fiddle with the iPhone controls. I like the Daily Mile website better, mainly because it looks like another bubbly, cheerful social networking outlet, only one that broadcasts how much pain my calves are in.
Also, probably the best running-related blog on the ‘net is Feet Meet Street. Even if you’re a three-toed, couch-dwelling sloth, Nitmos’ writing will make you crack up. And probably inspire you to never leave a supine position again.
Simon would also like for me to state that he tried to read Murakami’s book on running, "but it’s terrible and I hope his body of work gets dropped in a volcano."