Here is another one of those end-of-an-era stories that crops up from time to time: The Bill Rodgers Running Center in Boston went out of business a few weeks ago. “Boston Billy” Rodgers, a guy who is to running what John Travolta is to disco dancing, opened the store in 1977 to cater to those attracted to the emergent sport of running. His was a retailing innovation, a clubhouse for runners, and over the years, I walked through the place a time or two. If you had a runner on your Christmas gift list, a T-shirt with Rodger’s logo was sure to please.
Although the store is now shuttered, Rodgers, 65, is still running 40-plus miles a week. He has run 60 marathons—60 more than I. So, I was a little surprised by my wistful response to The New York Times’ report that the Bill Rodgers Running Center was no more—sufficiently surprised to spend time trying to pinpoint the reason. I concluded that the closing door of Rodgers’ store had the effect of closing off a part of my life. What that means, on one level, is that I must admit to myself that no matter how much I believe I could still run a brisk two miles, the reality is I can’t. Or won’t. Taking a broader view, I have to face up to the fact that the past is irretrievable no matter how much I want it to be otherwise. And therein lies the source of the wistfulness.
Although I have never been in a race, many hours of my middle years were given over to running. In fact, I spent more time on a track than I did in a church, though I was never religious about running. I confess to being more jogger than runner, and I jogged for such practical reasons as losing weight. I took no joy from it. The “runner’s high” eluded me: I never managed to transcend the pain to reach an endorphin-fueled euphoria.
I was introduced to running in high school in the 1960s. One of President John F. Kennedy’s initiatives targeted young Baby Boomers. “Easy living is sapping the strength and vitality of our children,” announced the Kennedy administration. “One-third of them can’t pass minimum physical achievement tests.” In short order, a Presidential Physical Fitness Award program was deployed throughout the country. It arrived in Highland High School’s gym classes without prior notice and without a preparation phase. We did no exercises and ran no laps to tone neglected muscles. We were summarily tested. Besides grunting through sit-ups and push-ups, we had to run a half-mile. My performance didn’t earn presidential recognition, but the memory of it is still vivid and painful. That unforgettable day was in the pre-Nike age. No one jogged then. “Fun run” would have been considered oxymoronic. A 10-kilometer race? Unthinkable! There were more chess players at Highland in those days than there were runners. Moreover, the cross-country team got no respect in an athletic program that valorized football and basketball. Debaters at Highland were better known than thinclads.
I remember well the first time I ran without being chased. The ink wasn’t dry on my college diploma when I was dragooned into the Army by the Vietnam-era draft. With the rigors of basic training in the offing, I decided some running would prepare me for what promised to be a torturous experience. One night, I laced up my Chuck Taylors and set off at a dogtrot through the neighborhood. My lungs faltered before my legs, just as they had done in the fitness test at Highland years before. To hell with it, I gasped. I calculated that drill sergeants—unlike my thick high school gym teacher—would take a crawl-walk-run approach to physical training (PT). And while they did to some extent, they also conducted brutal “remedial PT” sessions for those who couldn’t keep the pace. In my first year as a soldier, “walking privileges” were suspended for a couple of months. We ran everywhere. Always shod in leather combat boots. Always in platoon formation. Often in sand and lugging an M-14 rifle. After leaving the Army, I spent a decade’s worth of lunch breaks panting around a quarter-mile track. Finally, my knees would have no more of it, and I walked away, never to return.
Writing this column put me in a reflective frame of mind on election night to listen to Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly hold forth on Mitt Romney’s stunning defeat. “It’s a changing country; the demographics are changing,” O’Reilly opined. “It’s not a traditional America anymore.” Ordinarily, I would have been put off by the ethnocentrism I detected in the phrase “traditional America.” But coming off a bout of wistfulness, I saw O’Reilly as an aging white guy like me trying to navigate the present even as millions in our cohort were running in place in the past. I am not sure what he meant exactly by “traditional America,” but I am sure the good old days are beyond reach.
I don’t run laps anymore, and Rodgers gave up marathons. The draft ended in 1973, enabling most Americans to forgo military service. Lots of people run because they like to. Nike made $24 billion in 2011 chiefly from manufacturing operations in Asia. In 2011, 50.4 percent of all the babies born in the United States were nonwhite. As O’Reilly pointed out, “The white establishment is now the minority.” I would only add that we white guys have had a pretty good run. It is time to let others set the pace.
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