Monday, July 1, 2002

Why We Run and Other Life Mysteries

Running has played a big role in my life for almost twenty years. Two decades ago I had no way of knowing the path along which it would lead me. In my early years, softball was my first love. This, apparently, was something I inherited from my paternal grandmother, along with my enviable bowling talent and ability to play strange musical instruments. I would have liked to inherit her artistic ability, but that was not meant to be. And that’s a story for another column, perhaps another publication.

I played softball in middle school and junior high, I played it in summer leagues, I played it with friends and family. However, I did know, even then, that I liked to run. Throughout my softball days, there were parents and coaches who told me I was the only one who ‘knew’ how to run to first base. I thought they just meant I was gutsy enough to run out any meager hit – I had to with my hitting skills. But I later realized that I was a bit unique in my running skills – for one, I just looked different (better?) when I ran. That, and my ability to catch any ball hit straight at my face, may have made me a decent softball player. But when I started high school, at a very small school, they didn’t offer softball as a sport. Only track & field in the spring.

The main reason I gave track a shot was because my brother, who was one year ahead of me in school, ran track. As a freshman he came home from every meet with one appendage or another scraped, bruised or bleeding. You guessed it – he was a hurdler who fell often. But he still really enjoyed the sport. So the next year, I gave it a try. And we both became sprinters. Track (and running in general) ultimately ended up being my sport of choice. But every time I talk about those early days I hear Bruce Springsteen singing – ‘Glory Days…’ so I don’t need to go there too often.

The rest, as they say, is history. I never looked back after my very first track meet in high school. Some of my best high school friendships came as a result of track. I chose my college partly based on track and I’m writing this column today because back in 1983, I decided to become a runner. In fact much of my life today revolves around running, and while my race distances have increased at about the same rate my speed has decreased throughout the years, I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had due to my interest in and love of running.

I recently interviewed Kara (Parker) Peterson about this year’s Grand Old Day On the Go race. Many of you may remember Kara as an outstanding young runner – she’s still on top of the Minnesota all-time 5K list for women under 20. In 1986, the summer before her junior year of high school, she ran Hennepin-Lake Classic in 17:15, putting her in the record books for 16 years and counting. She was just 16 years old at the time.

But now, while she still runs often and even competes once in awhile, Kara’s new ‘love’ is inline skating. And, while she says she’s a bit behind her competitors because she took it up so late in life, she’s been at or near the top of many races in her four short years of competing. She won the Grand Old Day On the Go 8K in June – for the third consecutive year. All because she bought her first pair of inline skates during college and really enjoyed the experience of inline skating. She credits her running background with giving her the physical strength she now needs for inline skate races.

I also know someone who swears he probably would not have gone to college if it hadn’t been for his running skills. He went on to become a nine-time All-American and is now successful in the insurance industry. It’s funny where life takes you.

Obviously, it’s not just the decision to run or not to run that changes your life. As I look back on my life so far, there are many, many decisions I’ve made that, if I had gone the other way, could have easily changed where and who I am today. But looking back should just be to reflect on experiences, not to analyze and second-guess every decision made. Everything that happens in life makes us the people we are today.

There was a long period in my life where I wanted nothing more than to be a sportscaster. Looking back I wonder if I couldn’t have given today’s ‘stars’ – Michelle Tafoya, Hannah Storm or Carol Lewis – a run for their money? But it just doesn’t matter – I’m happy with the route I chose. And choices are what life is – or should be – all about.

I was running with a friend past a girls’ softball game the other day and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of nostalgia – not regret – just fond memories of the fun days spent on softball fields in what feels like another life. Watching them play got me thinking. And running gives you plenty of time to think – about your past, present or future.