Passing Along the Joy of Running

“I hate running.”

That’s the response I often hear whenever someone finds out that I’m a runner. And who can blame them? All too commonly, P.E. teachers and coaches use running as a punishment. Who hasn’t heard a coach threaten, “Better do those drills with focus or you’ll have to run a lap!” We’re indoctrinated at an early age to believe that running, if not exactly torture, is certainly not something to be enjoyed.

So I guess I can count myself among the lucky ones: at a young age I had a great running coach in the form of Jack Lundt.

My training with Coach Lundt did not begin particularly auspiciously. A new seventh-grader at Lesher Junior High, I had recently reached the “awkwardness pinnacle” of my awkward tween years. Though I’d participated on a local swim team for years, I was on the pudgy side and far from a natural athlete. I went out for track because my best friend Heather had decided to, and because I didn’t know how I’d spend my after-school hours if she was occupied by track practice and I was not.

After doing some basic warm-ups and stretches, our first practice consisted of a short run from our school to a nearby park: a distance that seemed, at the time, epic - but which MapQuest now reveals to have been a whopping 1.42 miles. Coach Lundt and the speedsters took off at a brisk clip, pulling ahead of most of the “pack.” Heather and I kept up with the pack for a while, but soon found ourselves gasping at the back, and walking. A lot.

All in all, though, it wasn’t so bad: We were, after all, “being active,” which made our parents happy. And under the bright Colorado sun, our tans were improving. And it didn’t take long before I realized I truly enjoyed that feeling of pleasant exhaustion that came over me later in the evening, after a good track practice.

The real turning point for me came on a rainy day in March. I ran into Coach Lundt as I headed out the school’s main entrance, right after the last class of the day ended.

“Where’re ya headed, Waddell?” Coach Lundt inquired, a puzzled look crossing his face.

“Home,” I said, gesturing to the heavy rain outside. In weather like this, track practice was surely cancelled, right?

Coach Lundt shook his head as a barely-disguised, bemused smile curved his lips at the corners.

“Go get changed,” he said, gesturing toward the locker room. “This is gonna be good.”

And he was right.

We ran in and out of creeks. We ran up and down grassy hills, slippery with rain. We splashed through puddles as we hadn’t done since age four. We slipped and slid up and down the sides of muddy banks as rivulets of muck squished into our trainers and squeezed between our toes.

 I have no photos from that day, but this pup's expression totally captures the feeling.

I have no photos from that day, but this pup's expression totally captures the feeling.

And through it all, we laughed. We laughed at how funny everyone looked, sopping hair plastered to our heads. We laughed when – inevitably – each of us fell, time after time, in the slick mud. We laughed at the steam that rose from our sweaty bodies in the cold rain, making us feel like superheroes. We laughed so hard that the laughing itself was probably aerobic exercise.

I was so muddy when my mom picked me up after practice that night that she wouldn’t even let me ride home with her in the car. And this is MY mom, remember: not some prim socialite, but a historic surveyor whose cargo routinely included mud-encrusted pin flags, dirty Marshalltown trowels, and boxes of recently-excavated historic artifacts --- not to mention a wet dog or three.

I was THAT dirty.

The best part is, that practice was only the beginning. The fun continued on other runs – and Coach Lundt kept us guessing about what he’d try next. I remember counting down the minutes of the last class of the day – algebra – eagerly anticipating that afternoon’s adventure.

My participation on the Lesher Junior High School Track Team didn’t make me into a great runner. I never won a race – in fact, I don’t remember even placing in an event, and Coach Lundt would probably be surprised to learn that I'm still a runner after all these years. But being a part of the track team gave me something much more valuable than medals or trophies: a deep appreciation of the joy of running.

As runners, this is perhaps the most powerful gift we have to offer.

Some of us coach young runners in teams, some of us help to organize community running groups, and for some of us, running represents precious "quiet time" to ourselves. But I would urge all of you runners out there to respond to that frequently-heard "I hate running" response as I do:

"Are you sure?" I'll say, "Come for a run with me sometime. I'd love to prove you wrong."