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The joy of running in old age

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I'll be running the half marathon on Sunday, my 13th, and yes, they'll be timing me with a calendar, not a stopwatch.

I have to stop saying that I'm 'only' running the half. I really don't need to apologize for running 21.1 kilometers, and in fact only one person has ever dumped on me for switching to the half after running my 18th full marathon in 2001. That was a former boss, who told me that running the half made me a chicken (excrement). I haven't run more than 21.1K since running my third Around the Bay 30K in Hamilton in 2003.

No, no, hang on, I'm going to tie this into education, just wait.

I don't do that much road running anymore, it's been years since I ran outdoors in the winter. I get most of my cardio from refereeing soccer, and tonight I get my final 80 minutes of pre-race running, a 16-year-old boys' game at SJR, pretty constant running, and my fourth straight evening of 80 to 90 minutes. I don't know if it'll be enough, but that's my training, so a tad late to do anything else.

I'll do the carbo-loading routine with pasta tonight and Saturday, avoid caffeine and adult beverages until the run, and once again rejoice when (if) I reach Jubilee and see the full marathoners split off, and mark that they have 19 miles to go and I have seven.

I'n turning 63 soon, the age at which my once-athletic father dropped dead of a heart attack, 11 years older than my late mother was when she suffered a massive stroke.

Earlier this week, a young adult raised with me the issue of the Manitoba health and physical education curriculum, dismissing it contemptuously as the 'wussification' of high school gym class, and a move away from having kids play team sports.

It's nothing of the sort, and I've made it pretty clear in the past few years that I'm an enthusiastic supporter of what the department of education and our physical education teachers are doing, especially with the mandatory grades 11 and 12 phys ed credits.

Yes, I know, there are severe timetable issues, and staffing issues, and a shortage of gym space, and there are flaws within that part of the credits that has students log a wide, wide range of activities outside of school hours and grounds.

But I applaud the idea behind the curriculum, which is to expose often-sedentary students, the ones who face a lifetime of obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses, to fitness and physical activities that they can perform and enjoy for a lifetime.

That wasn't around in my day, and as I've written before, I don't have a single athletic gene in my body. But here I am, about to turn 63, and I can run with teenagers -- for all my failings as a soccer referee, no one has ever said I call the match by standing at centre and turning in circles. I play volleyball, I work out regularly at Reh-Fit, I kayak for hours, we hike in the Whiteshell. That's the kind of healthy lifestyle that our phys ed teachers are trying to encourage in our teenagers.

I'm going to lay a summer rerun on you, assuming any of you are still reading this far.

This is something I wrote in 1996 as part of our marathon coverage. I hasten to emphasize that the central figure in it, Gerry, bears not even the remotest resemblance to any phys ed teacher I've met or interviewed in Manitoba.

Couple of things after this was published back in 1996.

I get a call from a guy, he recognized the high school and the gym teacher in the story immediately, and we had been classmates, he had been living in Winnipeg for years, and we got together and reminisced over high school yearbooks, and our families have been friends for the past 15 years. And he told me that the 1996 story had gone up on the bulletin board at our old high school, where the phys ed teachers were working every day to eliminate the version of so-called physical education that people like Gerry had imposed on us.

When I wrote this 15 years ago, I was about to turn 48. I had no idea my kids would become high school and university varsity athletes, but most importantly, they've now established that they're going to be lifelong physically active, through volleyball and soccer and cycling and running and ultimate frisbee. And I'm still around.

So here's the rerun from 1996, long before anyone dreamed of blogs, and please, if you're watching the Manitoba Marathon Sunday morning, applaud everyone no matter how far he or she runs or walks, and then seriously consider getting out there and joining us next year:

 

"I've been meaning to apologize, Gerry -- I'm not dead yet.

I should have died of a heart attack by now, Gerry, and I know a guy like you doesn't take my failure lightly.

Gerry was my high school phys-ed teacher in a Toronto suburb in the early '60s. Though he was theoretically a physical educator and math teacher, Gerry's life mission was to coach varsity athletes to the level of deities we were to watch and worship.

Gerry and his wife would strut the halls, jaws thrust out like pit bulls, white T-shirts and black pants enhancing bulging muscles, whistles about their necks. Gerry was the one with the brush cut.

In phys-ed class, he'd take four varsity basketball players and stand us five at a time for two-minute chunks of full-contact pain and frustration, dominating and humiliating unskilled and unco-ordinated boys. Gerry worked tirelessly to eliminate our self-esteem, and drum into us that the only acceptable connection with recreation for the 90 or 95 per cent of us unfit to be varsity elite was as adulating spectators.

And I did exactly what you taught me, Gerry. I watched.

Oh, I fell off the wagon occasionally. I tried to play company slopitch softball, and recreational basketball and volleyball, but every time I waddled out, the aging but still elite and fiercely competitive athletes would end up chasing me back to the bleachers.

By the time I was 33, almost 15 years ago now, I was 210 pounds, ran short of breath walking from my car to the doughnut shop, and was closing in on the heart and stroke plague that killed my father and robbed my mother of her health.

But I screwed up, coach. I started to run.

A kilometre or two at first, then three or four, and finally one day I ran for an hour.

I expected someone with a whistle and a brushcut to tell me I'd been cut, to bark that only elite athletes are allowed to run in the park, to order me back onto the couch where I belonged.

But when I ran my first organized 10K, the most amazing thing happened, Gerry. I finished it in about 47 minutes, a slow time you'd conclude makes me a loser -- but the people who can run 10 kilometres in 31 minutes came back up the course to cheer us on.

Runners are strange people, Gerry. Nary a runner has denigrated me for missing varsity standards.

Maybe if you'd inculcated this joy in me when I was 16, I'd be talking about three hours to finish the Manitoba Marathon today, not four, but you weren't a physical educator, were you, coach?

It's not about winning and losing and varsity letters, but the sheer joy of physical activity, of mental and physical health, of the wonderful high of running for hours. It's about hearts and lungs and cardiovascular systems that work.

My kids are eight and four, Gerry, and they've picked up that their dad does things with them that many other dads can't or dare not do.

They know what my running 15 to 21 kilometres two or three times a week means to me, and to them. They know that when I run my 12th marathon today, I don't have a hope of finishing first, but I've won the prize of incalculably improving my chances of watching my kids grow up.

When I run with my kids, kick around a soccer ball, hike with them in the Spirit Sands at Spruce Woods, or play road hockey in the back lane, I don't get winded. And my heart doesn't stop.

Sorry, Gerry. Sorry I failed you."

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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