Jim Heffernan column: Confessions of a non-marathon runner
The Army was no place for a lazy kid from Duluth, but what choice did you have?
This is being written a few days ago, when we here in Duluth were still basking in the warm afterglow of the return of Grandma’s Marathon. Welcome back, Grandma, although I didn’t participate in any way this year, even as a spectator.
I have in the past, though, and several times greeted our son at the finish line, exhausted but exhilarated. I am always amazed at the thousands of men and women who run the full or half-marathon. It is beyond my comprehension that anyone would put themselves through that.
It’s always been my deeply held conviction that it is beyond human endurance to run 26 point whatever miles. Don’t forget that history tells us the first person to run that distance, in ancient Greece, dropped dead at the end. Doesn’t surprise me one bit.
Before I’m judged as a marathon heretic, I should point out that such skepticism is rooted in my generation. Coming of age in the 1950s, our culture back then was motor-driven. Almost nobody ran distances, and not many people were that keen on walking at length, either.
Oh, there were a few kids in high school who participated in cross-country foot racing, sprinting at track meets, relay racing and the like. These boys were called “Thinclads” when their races were covered by the newspaper, which wasn’t often. I don’t recall girls in school participating in that sort of thing at all. They were busy practicing archery, clad in their demure, blue, one-piece gym outfits.
Personally, I tried not to run at all, if I could get away with it. Innate laziness had something to do with it. When I was a kid, a neighbor remarked to my mother that I sat around too much. As a teenager, I can recall taking the family car to the corner grocery store half a block away from our house. Not every time we needed bread and milk, but a few times. I liked to drive.
It was the ‘50s, so long ago now.
So in the ‘70s when we started to hear about marathons around here (of course Boston had had one for almost 100 years), I was nonplussed. I recalled my active-duty Army days in boot camp when sadistic sergeants would order what was called “double time” on forced marches to nowhere. Double time is sort of a trot, half way between walking and out-and-out running. It resembles the pace of most marathon runners.
“Hup, two, three double-time” they’d shout intermittently as we marched along well-trod back roads of Fort Lost-In-The-Woods, Mo. (AKA Fort Leonard Wood), sometimes our M-1 rifles (yup, it was that long ago) slung on our shoulders, sometimes with full packs, including bedding.
This was no place for a lazy kid from Duluth, but what choice did you have? Boys were still subject to the draft in those days. One time as we double-timed along, gasping for breath, one of the recruits near me fell out to the side of the road and collapsed in the ditch. The sergeants thought he was faking it, but when an ambulance was summoned, it was taken quite seriously.
The next time I saw him was back in the barracks, all decked out in civilian clothes the Army had bought him at the PX. Turns out the Army docs had diagnosed a heart condition he didn’t know he had, and they sent him home, his military obligation over. I was jealous.
Another thing about that era that might surprise younger people is that a high percentage of the population smoked cigarettes. I was no exception, especially in the Army where cadre would reserve 10 minutes of every hour, saying “light ‘em up.” Nearly everyone did.
Cigarette smoking and endurance running do not go hand-in-hand, I need hardly point out. But nobody cared about endurance running, anyway. Once a year, the Army insisted that everyone run one mile, apparently to prove the troops were in top condition. One mile, I repeat.
On the day I was caught up in that nonsense, we were trucked to a quarter-mile oval course on the base and ordered to run around it four times. They didn’t seem to care how long it took, just so we ran a mile.
A few of us — four or five friends — took off together trotting in our combat boots as the sergeants at the starting line watched us. When we were across the course from where the sergeants were standing, we slowed to a walk and lit ‘em up, puffed a bit and tossed the butts, after which we trotted past our leaders. I don’t recall my exact time for running the Army mile, but I think it was around 11-12 minutes with a couple of Pall Mall cigarettes along the way.
Oops, looks like I’m running out of space here in the paper. Did I say “running?” Well, you can’t avoid it entirely. For the record, I quit smoking cigarettes about five years before the first Grandma’s 45 years ago.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.