07.03 What makes us run?

Questions and answers from a local long-distance runner

There was a time when running was considered a ‘fountain of youth’. Fueled by American victories in the Olympic and Boston marathons, the cult of the “long-distance runner” captured the nation’s imagination and the five-minute mile became legend. Breathless accounts of jogging’s many benefits drove up a boom in the sales of running shoes and jogging clothes.

As the glory faded into memory, many discovered the loneliness of long-distance running. ‘Beefy’ replaced ‘thin’; the boom saw its bust. Soon the sidewalks became less crowded as ‘joggers’ retreated to the comfort of indoors. In 2003, what is the legacy of long-distance running’s boom? A Nike-shod nation that is addicted to casual footwear and fashionable running clothes.

Yet there remains a cadre of runners who still lace up on a regular basis and ‘hit the pavement’. I wouldn’t be surprised if the humane genome project discovered a gene for running because, in my case, that need has always seemed innate and first became evident in my early teens when I ran with the Hartford Courant newspaper from door to door before sunrise each morning.

The boom in running gave America a fascination with fancy running shoes

As long distance runners, we’ve become a curiosity now; but luckily, we’re pretty ignored. Occasionally, when polite conversation lags, long-distance runners can be asked the following questions. Here follows a short diary from a dedicated long-distance runner:

Why do you run? To lose weight? How does a runner respond to such a question? Where are the hip philosophers who churned out essays and books on this theme? It would seem that many people regard runners as people with the mystique of ascetic monks.

Fortunately, upon discovery of my fondness for the crispetycrunchety goodness of fat-rich “Butterfingers” candy, most of my new acquaintances react with surprise and relief and stop asking me this question.

No doubt, freedom from diet fads and always fitting into one’s oldest clothing are privileges we shouldn’t take for granted. But running feeds more innate hungers, such as:

In 1982, running (and Jordan Marsh, now long gone) were big in Worcester.

Maybe it’s a thirst for adventure: The warm tide of adrenaline spreading through the bloodstream is exhilarating and a primeval sensation, which helps when one becomes the object of road rage while crossing any of the city’s pedestrian-hostile intersections.

Or the need to get outside and breath fresh air: Worcester runners treasure the hydrocarbon-rich haze of an August afternoon along Park Avenue: ‘so much air, so little oxygen’.

We enjoy the great outdoors? Country runners have their dewy meadows, verdant forests and wild critters. But the urban landscape is far more thought provoking. Its scenery poses life’s truly ponderous questions. Marveling at the abundance of balled-up diapers tossed upon the sidewalks, we ask: Why are so many people changing bebé en tránsito? Are SUV’s equipped with diaper depots? And what’s with all the BVD’s lying in the gutter? Why are so many guys winging underwear out their car windows?


05.03 Goin’ down the road feelin’ fine

Great mountain biking just minutes away from downtown Worcester

It was an age when skinny racing-bikes reigned supreme.

In the shadow of Marin County’s Mt Tamalpais, a few guys dusted off and modified some old paper-route bikes and discovered fat tires were the key to freedom from the highways. Their early bikes and single-track trails became legendary. Twenty years later, continual improvements in shifting, braking and shock absorption have shaken the foundation of the bicycle business and made the off-road bike dominant. Regardless of how or where they’re used, the name reflects their original objective: the mountains..

Those early years were truly freewheeling. Once bicycling left the pavement, the quest was on to find the most challenging terrain. In the process, private land was trammeled; some wilderness areas scarred and clashes with hikers and horseback dudes took place. With trails closing behind them, mountain bikers, like Peter Parker, came to realize that “with power comes responsibility”, and a set of guidelines evolved to help minimize damage and personal injury:

  • Stay on trails open to bikers.
  • Ride in small groups (five or fewer).
  • Yield to hikers; anticipate and acknowledge their presence.
  • Don’t litter — keep your cranial tissue in its brainpan and wear a helmet.

Page through most biking mags and you’ll find photos of airborne riders in exotic wilderness settings. In real life, however, gravity is a constant nuisance; the weather is rarely perfect and, when subjected to the appropriate vector forces, clavicles can snap like cheap plastic forks. All of which makes biking so compelling. How else can an adult go exploring, get muddy, scratched up and dead-exhausted in one afternoon? As a bonus, on deep-woods rides, one may even slip the surly bonds of indoor plumbing.

The Worcester area has many back quiet back roads that are great for short rides. The city melts to suburb and exurb within minutes. It continues to surprise to me how easy it is to discover places where ‘Dueling Banjos’ is the theme music. Leave the lycra at home and wear baggy shorts on these rides.

Back in the center of town, not far from the courthouse, is George Street, a 500-foot climb with grade averaging eighteen percent. It’s a thrill ride in a car and tierra sagrada in bicycling history as training ground for Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor.

Major Taylor moved here from Indianapolis in 1899 in large part to escape Jim Crow segregation. He became known as the ‘Worcester Whirlwind’, breaking records and winning races in the early 20th century, a time when champion cyclists, in spite of skin color, could became rich and famous.

See for information about the George Street Bike Challenge, a time trial race held on the hill in July. If you should give it a try, bear in mind there’s no running start and as you grind down toward your granny gear, remember Major Taylor on his one-speed.

To get closer to the mountain biking ideal, it’s best to head for some of the state forests in the region. Not all of them are open to bikes and those that do have trails range greatly in technical challenge. Maps designed specifically for the sport are available at area bike shops (try Fritz’s or Bicycle Alley). I picked up the Rubel Central Massachusetts Bicycle Trail Map and found it crammed with information regarding trails, bike shops, ice cream stands and other advice. In giving bikeways precedence over highways, these guides are a kick for anyone who has fantasized about a world in which bicycles rule.

Although any time spent on a bike is better than wasted otherwise, an intermediate or advanced rider can be feared as a WOMD on paved rail trails overrun with tricycles tykes and people out walking their wiener dogs. At the other end of the technical spectrum are trails that involve rock climbing with a bike slung over your shoulder. It’s wise to purchase your map at a shop run by people willing to listen to what type of biking you’re interested in. In highlighting the parks best suited to your needs, their advice is worth far more than the price of the merchandise and is totally unavailable in the big stores. Also, make sure to get essentials such as water bottles and a helmet the fits correctly.

As to the quality of mountain biking in the area… There are racecourses through brooks and up inclines so steep they become mud hills. Other trails empty to blueberry barrens, loon-haunted cranberry coves and industrial revolution era ruins. Some trailheads are jammed with traffic; others are so quiet I’ve looked up from a snack break to realize I’m eye-to-eye with a deer, an owl or a rearing snake. This past year, on a stony outcropping, I felt able to reach out and touch the wing tip of a vulture silently soaring a thermal. Some might prefer touring forgotten graveyards; others raise dust at gravel pits and industrial brownfields. In Central Massachusetts, it’s your choice.