A Personal Best

This month I am going to ask for a point of personal privilege. For those of you who don’t have a copy of Roberts’ Rules of Personal Order handy, a point of personal privilege is when, in the middle of a formal debate, someone feels the need to speak passionately about a topic not on the floor.

So everyone moans and lets that person wax lyrical on a subject that’s only important to him or her.

This is my 48th column to appear in Runner's World. It is the end of my fourth year in this space. It feels very much like graduation day. It’s also a personal best. For better or worse my life has been divided into four-year segments. There were the four years I spent at University.

That was followed by a five-year stint in the army (because I couldn’t get out in four). Then came four years as a freelance musician, four years on the faculty at the University of Illinois, four years at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and finally four years as chair of the music department at another American university.

So it’s easy for me to feel as though this is the end of something. Forty-eight months seems about my limit. Or maybe it’s the limit of those who have employed me. In either case, whenever I’ve reached this point before, I’ve packed my bags. Not this time. This column, which started as a journal of my journey, has turned into the aggregate story of all of us who are using running to change our lives. More and more I feel as though I am telling your story, not mine. In fact, many of you who started running in the last few years don’t know my story.

You don’t know that I only started running when I was 43 years old. You don’t know that I was a smoker for 25 years, a drinker for even longer and a confirmed overeater for most of my life. Food was comfort, food was celebration, food was joy. Activity was punishment. On my first day as a runner I owned nine motorcycles, two cars, a caravan and a garden tractor. My favourite hobby was sitting – sometimes in (or on) petrol-powered vehicles, sometimes not – I was an expert at it. My most vivid memory of myself in those days is sitting in bed watching television, drinking vodka on the rocks, eating an ice cream and smoking a cigarette. All at the same time.

I recently found my first ever e-mail exchange with Runner's World. The proposal sounded simple. Write a monthly column. Nothing too technical, just the observations of a former couch potato. I’m sure that the rest of the staff were ready to have the editor committed for offering this to an untrained writer whose only running credential was that he was slow – but used to be slower.

But here we are, 48 months later, at what has been for me a mystical barrier. I don’t quite know what happens in month 49. Like those who have trained for longer distances events, each time we reach some new mileage, we’ve reached the edge of the unknown. I am at that edge. As with so much in my life, I’ll turn to running for inspiration and, more than ever, I’ll be looking to you. Next year I’ll be on tour again. I’ll be travelling around Europe and the United States in search of runs and runners to nourish me, to guide me through new experiences and to new understandings. I invite you to join me. We’ll run as fast as we can, or as slow as we need to. We’ll run alone in the streets of your hometown, or with 20,000 others at a major marathon. One step at a time we’ll discover each other – and ourselves.

Waddle on, friends.