Saturday, March 14, 2009

A journey of 1,372 steps

I'm going to do it. Or, rather, I'm going to try my damndest to do it.

"It," in this case, is run a five-minute mile.

This might raise a few questions: Who am I? My name is Joel Reese, and here's the quasi-official version. But for shorthand, I'm a 41-year-old shmoe who lives in Chicago's Albany Park neighborhood. I'm doughy. My hair is little more than a memory. I have a 21-month-old daughter who looks like me but is much more interested in staying in my wife's arms than in mine. I used to be a runner, and I still lace on the shoes occasionally. But I haven't run in a race in years. I'm paunchy and lazy.

And so on.

And so why this quest? The idea came to me in 2004, after I separated from my ex. I was drunk and watching some crappy horror movie in an apartment I was subletting. It was a hot night, and I was sitting in shorts in my Chicago apartment, shirtless. And when I looked down at myself, what I saw was scarier than anything I saw on TV. I was 36. I was going to be divorced. I was useless and dreary, drunk and thick, double-chinned and blobby.

I was, I realized, a failure.

And how had I gotten this way? Didn't I, at some point in my life, have a fire? Didn't I burn with some raging passion? My whole life, I’d wanted to be someone who’d attacked life, who’d clung by bloody fingers to the craggy rocks of Experience. Instead, I was staring vacant-eyed as some half-naked woman got de-eyed with a power drill.

And I flashed back to when I had some fire, twenty years earlier. As a member of Evanston Township High School’s track team, I’d finally done something that, for years, seemed impossible to me: I’d run a mile in less than five minutes. To the non-runners of the world, that might sound impressive. To anyone who’s been on a track team, though, it’s pretty fucking sad. A five-minute mile is awe-inspiring if you’re a fat grade-schooler whose thighs chafe as you plod around the track during gym, cursing the gym teacher in the Dacron red sweatsuit who blows her whistle and singles you out for ridicule. But when you’re in high school or college, five minutes is pretty damn slow. But this was my goal, all through high school. And for four years, I could never achieve it.

Then, one day, I broke through the barrier. And within a few weeks, I hit the fairly respectable time of 4:44 -- only 18 seconds off qualifying for state. That was it -- the season ended, and I never did any better than that. But at least I'd reached that goal.

And so, that drunken night in my apartment, I set the goal. And I pursued it fairly diligently for a while, getting to the point where I was able to run five miles in around 37 minutes. Not bad, but only a good starting point. Then, just when I was ready to start getting serious, I got a new job as managing editor of a financial website. And my life had changed pretty dramatically by then: I was remarried, and we had a daughter. So the need to pursue this goal seemed a little less… urgent.

And then came one of the harshest winters in Chicago history — there was one week where the temperature never reached above zero. It was snowy, icy, windy, and sucky. So the running simply stopped.

But now spring is here. And the itch is back. (So is the doughy belly — the hair, alas, is still gone.) So I’m going to give it one last shot. I’m going to set a date: Nov. 14. What’s special about that date? Well, for starters, it’s 8 months from today. There’s more, but I’ll get to that later.

And today, it begins.

I'm starting out humble for a few weeks: I'm just going to work on building a base. I'm going to start out running for 20 minutes. No worry about distance or speed or anything like that. I'm just going to run 20 minutes. Oh, and no more fried food.

That's the start. After that, we'll see.

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