Thursday, August 31, 2006

Why Runners Take Drugs, And Fail Doping Tests

Some friends who've got a better pulse on the track world than I do began telling me several weeks ago, after the Floyd Landis and Justin Gatlin escapades, that more big names were going to fall. They evidently knew something. Marion Jones and LaTasha Jenkins have since failed doping tests, at least if we're to believe reports of their "A" sample results that have been widely circulated. I don't know if there are more to come. Several big names are in play, among the track gossip crowd, but who really knows?

I do know one thing, however. It would be wrong to assume that track is an unusually "dirty" sport, certainly not in the sense of betting and street drugs and broken arms and unsavory characters. The opposite is much more true. Track and road running are probably the most uplifting sports anyone can think of. Craig Masback and his friends aren't making this stuff up. It's the truth. Just consider all the youth events, and the charity fund raising, and the middle-agers fighting the $100 billion obesity epidemic, and the old farts who are absolutely astounding in their determination and achievements, and the unbelievable support for women on the playing field.

Track and field and running in general are the ultimate, mass participation, good-for-you and good-for-your-community sports.

So why do so many big-name track athletes apparently take drugs? And fail doping tests? That's simple. Because drugs work better for runners than they do for athletes in other sports. The payoff is direct and immediate.

Imagine for a moment the world's best table-tennis player. Now imagine that player on steroids. Is he any better? No way.

Or imagine Michelle Wie, the slender, long-hitting golf prodigy. Now imagine Wie on EPO. Is she any better? Not a chance. On steroids then? Would more testosterone help Wie or Tiger Woods hit the ball farther and straighter? You might be able to construct an argument for this one, but I don't think you'd gain many supporters. What Wie and Woods both have isn't something that would be improved by thicker muscle fibers or more red blood cells.

However, a sprinter with more powerful muscle fibers, courtesy of steroids, will almost certainly run faster. If you don't believe that, I give you Exhibit A: Ben Johnson, 1988. A distance runner with more red blood cells (thank you EPO), in balance with his total blood plasma, will almost certainly run faster for longer, which is what we distance runners breathe and sleep and train and eat to do.

Runners are pure physiology textbooks on legs. We don't swing bats or clubs, we don't throw or catch various spheres, and technique is essentially non-existent. Who doesn't know how to run? We learn it shortly after learning to toddle, right? (Funny aside: After Gerry Lindgren won the 1967 NCAA XC Championships in frigid Laramie, WY, I heard him explain to several reporters that his success was based on the fact that he was a left-footed runner. "I always lead with my left foot," Lindgren said. Let me tell you, the pencils were moving fast, the reporters' notebooks filling with this startling information.

Imagine a blind runner. Could he be the world record holder for 100 meters or the marathon? Physiologically, the answer is certainly yes, though certain practical issues would have to be overcome. Try to name another sport where a blind person could become the world's best. (I'm sure there are some that I'm not thinking of right now, but I bet there aren't many. Oh, sure, weight-lifting. Pure physiology. Pure steroid world.)

This isn't to make excuses for runners who take drugs. There are no acceptable excuses. But I would like people to understand that the seemingly large number of drug offenders among runners doesn't mean that running and track/field are dirty sports. They aren't; they're the exact opposite--fresh, open-to-all, extremely exciting and rewarding sports.

But they're also sports wherein, if you choose to take drugs, you'll likely improve. The payoff is more direct and more immediate than in other sports. For some, unfortunately, the temptation is therefore irresistible.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Thanksgiving Day Proposal: The Charlie Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warm Up

I’m finding it hard to let go of Charlie “Doc” Robbins, who died about 10 days ago. He keeps coming back into my thoughts. Maybe I’m just looking at my own mortality; I always thought that Doc would outlive me, and often told people this. I’m also feeling guilty that I won’t be able to attend the gathering that’s being held Monday night in Middletown for friends and family. Instead, I’ll think about Doc on my run Monday afternoon. At some point, I’m sure I’ll take off my shoes, and feel the gritty road under my feet. This will remind me that life can be tough at times, but there’s no gain in complaining. We all do better when we simply bend and get on with it. That’s what Doc did. In the 40 years that I knew him, I absolutely, positively never heard a complaining word from him.

[If you can make the Monday night gathering, here are the details: Friends and family will gather to remember Charles A. “Doc” Robbins, Jr., M.D., who passed away on August 10, 2006. We will gather to share our memories and to heed Charlie’s last wishes regarding his arrangements to,” Be cheerful!” Please, join us on Monday, August 28, from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Tommy’s Restaurant, 825 Saybrook Road, Middletown, CT 06457. Tel: 860.346.8686. ]

I was thinking of Doc on my long walk this morning, a warm, pleasant drizzle soaking through my shirt and shorts. What else can we runners do to remember him? And I came up with a good and appropriate idea; at least I think it’s a good one. More in a few paragraphs.

This afternoon I called Doc’s daughter, Barrie. She and I have met a few times, but don’t know each other well. In an email to me, she noted that she didn’t think she’d do very well at expressing her thoughts about her father. But I found her engaging and interesting, thoughtful and at times even funny. We had a great chat, and shared a few laughs.

She remembered that her father was always very straight forward in his words and dealings. He didn’t weigh his kids (Barrie and a 22-month older sister, Chris) down with a lot of life lessons, but always told them that lying and littering “just wouldn’t work out.”

“He was also about as unjudgmental as a person could be,” Barrie recalled. “He didn’t care what you looked like or wore, or what car you drove. He didn’t care if you were a child or an adult. He treated everyone the same. It was one of his nicest qualities.”

After his divorce in 1978, Doc moved into a house that I never saw but heard described many times. Usually people called it a shack. Some had less flattering terms for it. Barrie told me it could have been considered a 2-room affair, except that no one ever completed framing the perhaps 20 x 12-foot space. It had no hot water. Doc’s old road-race trophies, I have heard from others, were variously used as door stops and containers for his nails and screws.

“At the end of his life, when he was living with my family, the same two shirts and two pairs of underwear would show up in the laundry chute every week,” said Barrie. “He thought he was living in luxury to have someone wash them for him. He left just about nothing behind—a hammer, his wood-cutting maul, and a few other tools. He had divested himself of everything else, donating it here and there. Other people may claim that they live a simple life, but my dad walked the walk.”

In the end, Doc caught an infection that proved too much for him. “He wasn’t sick long,” Barrie told me. “He went fast, just the way he would have wanted.”

Barrie, like most of us, will have trouble matching Doc's 50-straight Manchester runs, but she has run the race continuously since 1978, including three years when she was pregnant with her three children. About half the time, she ran barefoot, and I’d be surprised if she doesn’t do the same this November.

We could all do the same, but that wouldn’t be realistic. I’d like to run fast-for-me this year, and I’m just not gnarly enough to do the whole distance barefoot. So here comes my idea. How about, a half hour before the Manchester start time, we all do a barefoot warm up jog up and down Main St.?

The Manchester Race Committee apparently plans to “retire” Doc’s number, #1, and that’s appropriate. But all of us who knew and loved Doc—and those who only read about him, but appreciated him from a distance—ought to do something too. We ought to toss off our shoes for a few minutes to celebrate the Doc Robbins Memorial Barefoot Warm Up on the streets of Manchester.

See you there. Don’t be late.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Time Magazine Beats Me To The Punch

I ride my stationary bicycle for 30 minutes every morning. First I get up at 6 a.m., then I surf a few favorite sports-med Web Sites, then I send several emails to the office, then I ride my bike. I pick up the morning paper, and the magazine at the top of my pile—Time or Business 2.0 or Discover, or whatever it is—and I hop on the bike. It wakes me up, and I learn something new from my reading.

This morning, I read Time magazine (the one with the Hillary Clinton cover), from the back page forward. Jeffrey Kluger has a very clever essay about Grover Cleveland, the planet Pluto, reasons why Europe shouldn’t be considered a continent, and making distinctions between a panda’s raccoon-like characteristics and its bear qualities. I adore writing like this.

Flip the page. Johnny Depp will be a singing barber in his next movie. Flip the page. Another funny essay, this time Joel Stein on cupcakes, the latest comfort food. Flip the page. Holy guacamole!

Here’s a full page article by Michael D. Lemonick on the war between Gatorade and Accelerade. In Time magazine, of all places!! I’m stunned for several reasons, not the least being that—please believe me; please—I had been thinking of writing something on his subject just moments before. Right when I clambered onto the bicycle. Honest.

Now I have proof in my hands that Time magazine has beaten me to the punch, errr, the sports drinks anyway. I’m ashamed and abashed. This is a little like Runner’s World getting an exclusive interview with George W. Bush when Time can’t. Wait a minute, that actually happened didn’t it? It happened back in 2002 when Bush spoke to RW reporter Bob Wischnia while the White House press corps drooled and scratched its collective head from just outside hearing range.

Anyway, now Time has turned the tables on us. This is a disgrace. I read the article quickly, hoping that Lemonick—I wonder if his real name is Lemonade, and that’s how he got interested in this subject?--has missed all the important nuances. It’s a subject I’ve been studying for almost 40 years, so I should know.

You’re right. Accelerade didn’t exist 40 years ago, so I’m stretching the truth a little. But not much. In the winter of 1968, I got a call from exercise physiologist David Costill, Ph.D., inviting me to his lab for three days of testing. I couldn’t say Yes quickly enough; I had always wanted to be poked and prodded in a lab, figuring it might turn up some new ways to make me faster.

In Costill’s lab, I ran 20 miles each day, once drinking nothing, once drinking water, and once drinking Gatorade, this sports beverage that was thinking about marketing itself to runners. I felt great the day I drank nothing (which was my custom), and crappy the two days that Costill foisted the fluids on me. Nonetheless, the good doc announced that my body had actually performed most efficiently when I drank the Gatorade.

Ever since then, I’ve followed the science of endurance performance and fluid consumption as closely as I can. It’s gotten more confusing in recent years, as we’ve learned that marathoners can actually drink too much, which can lead to hyponatremia, a potentially dangerous condition. Of course, this is extremely rare. It’s much more common for runners, particularly faster ones, to consume too little fluid while running. Over several hours, this can lead to dehydration, which can impair performance and raise body temperature.

Another confusion: Accelerade and some other products have produced research results showing that a sports drink with a small amount of protein, along with carbs and sodium, has its benefits. A lot of this science hasn’t been very good, frankly, but some of it is solid enough.

In the last several weeks, two new reports have added to the murky waters. That’s what Time reported on, to my surprise. But, yes, I was right: Michael Lemonade missed an important nuance in the papers. He writes that the two papers “contradict each other.” This is totally wrong. While the papers are both about sports drinks, they raise and then attempt to tackle completely different questions.

The Gatorade paper, in Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, looks at the performance effects of sports drinks consuming DURING exercise. The Accelerade paper, from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, looks at rehydration effects of sports drinks consumed AFTER exercise. Big differences.

By the way, the Gatorade paper unsurprisingly concluded that Gatorade is best for performance. The Accelerade paper unsurprisingly concluded that Accelerade is best for rehydration. It failed to note, however, that rehydration AFTER exercise is not a big deal. It’s easy to achieve; you’re facing no big time pressure; take a handful of hours if necessary. It’s hydration DURING exercise that athletes care about.

I’m running out of space here, and I have a tendency to drown in the oceanic waters of sport-drink research, so I’m going to cut to the chase. Here’s what you need to know about sports drinks and their effects on your performance and health.

BEFORE you run, it doesn’t make a big difference what you drink. You should drink some, but not too much, or you could get nauseous once you start running. (You might also have to stop and pee, which will definitely make you slower.) DURING your run, Gatorade wins. You need water, sugar, salt, and little more, and you need them fast. Those are the ingredients in Gatorade and other similar sports drinks like Powerade. Stick to the simple approach. AFTER your run, even the folks at Gatorade admit that you should try to get a little protein with your carbs. The protein will help repair any muscle microtrauma caused by your run, and the carbs will resupply your glycogen supply. (The argument that protein also assists in glycogen re-supply rests on very thin ice, from what I’ve read.)

But as I noted above, the AFTER a run scenario is a fairly relaxed one. There are lots of ways to get carbs and protein after you run, including water and yogurt, or chocolate milk, which has gotten a lot of good press in the last year. You could consider the AFTER a run situation a little like a visit to a doctor’s office for a checkup. It’s fairly routine stuff.

Whereas, your DURING a run needs are like an Emergency Room visit. You need help, and you need it now. Particularly if the run happens to be a race, and even more so if it’s a marathon. That’s why I’d pay the most attention to studies of fluid effectiveness DURING exercise.

Monday, August 21, 2006

On Turning 60, And Gen. Ferdinand Foch

I spent last weekend on Bermuda to celebrate my 60th birthday. I knew where we were going, but nothing else; my wife Cristina handled all the other details—the stuff that can make travel a burden. As a result, I got to relax totally, exactly as I wanted.

The big day was Saturday the 19th. Over breakfast on our verandah, Cristina gave me a striking silver-and-gold Eternity ring. It fits on my pinky finger, next to my mobius-strip wedding band. I don’t much like rings and other adornments. But I love the way these two rings nest together.

Saturday was also Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday. I’ve known about our shared birthday since 1993, the first year of his presidency. Being a writer, I always figured that I could one day turn this coincidence to my advantage in some amusing Op-Ed piece or an essay on the foibles of us baby boomers. Unfortunately, I could never think of anything to say.

We were born on the same day and year. Clinton strode like a colossus on the stage of human events. I ran quietly around the world’s perimeter. He had sex in the office; I didn’t. That’s about the end of it.

I know runners who mark their birthdays with prodigious feats, like running their age in miles or kilometers or whatever. And I was feeling the need for something significant. But not the energy. My fitness has slipped away since late spring when I ran a nice 1:28+ in the Runner’s World Half Marathon. In June, I had a bad Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Who wants to train in the heat-humidity of July and August?

Yes, I was in the doldrums, no doubt about it. I was foundering in a Bermuda Triangle of aging, wondering, doubting. I didn’t run on Thursday, our travel day, or Friday, our first full day in Bermuda.

On Saturday, starting to feel disgusted with myself, I forced my way through steamy Hamilton and out to the Bermuda Rail Trail. I didn’t cover 60 miles or 60-K, but I did more than 60 minutes (90, in fact), and you’ve gotta take whatever victories you can.

On the trail, I tried to figure a way out of the doldrums, and I soon saw that there was only one possible path. My son taught it to the whole family his freshman year at Harvard. Dan wanted to major in physics, the subject that seems to draw Harvard’s genius crowd. Too bad for Dan. He came from a mediocre, inner-city public school. The genius kids were preppies with dozens of AP classes to their credit. Dan was two years behind them the day he hit the ground in Cambridge.

Reading his infrequent emails, we got a bit concerned. He was barely keeping his head above water. But he refused to buckle. He even made us laugh when he introduced us to the French World War I general Ferdinand Foch. Describing his physics challenges, Dan used a famous quote supposedly attributed to Foch, who found himself in deep doo-doo at the Battle of the Marne: “Ma droite est enfoncee. Ma gauche cede. Situation excellente. J’attaque.” ( Loosely translated: “My right flank is crushed. My left is giving way. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”)

Foch won the battle and the war, and Dan eventually graduated with honors in math.

I knew I needed to follow the same approach. Yes, the body is slowing, but whose isn’t? And what’s the point in lamenting it? I must attack. It’s the only viable plan.

The goal and strategy are clear. On Thanksgiving morning, I hope to run the Manchester (CT) 5-Mile for the 44th year in a row. I won the high school division in year one, 1963. I won the open division 9 times. But I have never won an age-group division at Manchester. This year I will be 60, a new age group. It’s time to put everything on the line to see what I can do on November 23.

If my program goes well, maybe I’ll use this space to share some of the small steps with you. If it goes badly, I’ll cry into my beer alone. At 60, I have too much dignity (I hope) to whine out loud.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Charlie “Doc” Robbins: 1921-2006, RIP

I first met Charlie Robbins on a chilly, fall afternoon in September, 1964, as Jeff Galloway and I were warming up for cross-country practice. A short, lithe figure came jogging across the practice football field toward us. Although he moved efficiently, like a well-honed runner, he was dressed more strangely than any I’d ever seen: barefoot, and wearing torn cotton khaki pants over a dark blue woolen Navy CPO jacket. Beneath the jacket: green hospital scrubs. This was “Doc,” as we all called him, one of the greatest U.S. road runners I’ve ever known, and definitely the most unique.

Robbins died last Thursday in Middletown CT, where he lived with his daughter Barrie. He was 85. There will be no replacing him.

A longtime psychiatrist at Connecticut Valley Hospital, Robbins was best known for his barefoot ways, and his 50 straight finishes in the Manchester CT Thanksgiving Day Road Race. The race probably owes its survival, and its current fields of 12,000+ runners, to the fact that Robbins, a local star from Manchester High, kept returning to the race through its lean post-WW II years. He won it in 1945 and 1946, and would eventually have run 57 consecutively except for the year, 1951, when he was virtually penniless in medical school in Cinncinati, and couldn’t afford the train fare home.

In his heyday, Robbins showed his speed throughout New York and New England. He was a regular on the road-racing circuit, regularly running 10 miles, 20K, and similar distances at just over 5 minutes per mile. He won a total of 11 national championships from 20K to the marathon, though the marathon was longer than his best distance. In many attempts at the Boston Marathon, Robbins’s best finish was his third place in 1944, when he ran 2:38:31.

While his other doctor friends played golf on their Wednesday afternoons off, Robbins always showed up for a running workout at Wesleyan University, high on a hill overlooking Middletown. Everyone who ran there, from Spike Paranya to me and Jeff, to Bill Rodgers and Dan Moynihan, to the hundreds since, looked forward to our regular visit from Doc. We would scan the horizon for his unmistakeable figure—all 5’ 7” and 115 pounds of it—and welcome him to “tag along” (his words) on our workouts. Afterwards, he’d hang and chat for a few minutes, easy going, all smiles. A neurotic guy like me would have dozens of questions: Am I doing this right? How long should I taper? Do you think I did too many 400s this week? He had a stock answer. “Don’t worry. It’ll all work out fine.” And it almost always did.

Aside from the countless runs, I have one other indelible Doc Robbins image in my head. During the winter, we ran indoors on an asphyxiating 10-lap cinder track in the “cage,” where the baseball and lacrosse teams also practiced. In a corner of the cage, a long, thick climbing rope dangled down from the girders high above. It got little use, as failure was almost guaranteed. I probably tried it once or twice, and managed about two hand-over-hand tugs upward before surrendering. But Doc could scoot to the top, no problem. I still don’t get that.

As he got older, Doc slowed down like the rest of us, only not as much. It seemed that every time he entered a new age-group at Manchester, he set an age-group course record. When he turned 80, he broke the record by 7 minutes, knowing full well that his friend Bill Tribou would run even faster the next year when he turned 80. Which Tribou did.

But Tribou cheated, after a manner. He actually trained for his races. Doc didn’t do that in his later years. He just lived actively, and let the races come. For many years he lived in a shack in the woods, and spent hours chopping wood for his wood stove, breaking rock for his gravel driveway. He rarely ran more than 2 miles at a time, and when he did, he always risked getting picked up by the State Police, which actually happened on a couple of occasions. The radio report must have sounded something like this: “Could you check the records for a guy who says his name is Charlie Robbins? I just picked him up while he was running on the side of the road in torn shorts and no shirt or shoes. We got a call from someone in town who said there was a crazy man on the loose.” That was Doc, and you didn’t have to go into a Connecticut criminal database for a positive ID. You could just ask any road runner in eastern Connecticut.

Doc didn’t wear shoes, because he found them unnecessary, like so many other modern conveniences. He loved the steamy summer races when the ashphalt turned soft and cushiony. Below 50 degrees, he might don a pair of old wool socks. In desperate times, when the temperature Thanksgiving morning in Manchester dipped below freezing, he’d show up in a pair of those rubbery aquasocks. He didn’t need anything more.

I last saw Doc after the 2001 Manchester race, his 50th in a row. He looked much the same as he had on our first meeting, in 1964. At the time, I remember thinking that he would almost surely outlive me just as he had out climbed me in the Wesleyan cage. He was a legend in his own time, and a legend we all cherished and wanted to see again.

[Statistical note: Doc’s verified 50 straight Manchester finishes isn’t the record for consective-year finishes in a road race. The remarkable Dipsea Demon, Jack Kirk, completed Dipsea 68 years in a row, a record which will be tough for anyone to beat. I never met Kirk, but his life, particularly the hermit-in-the-woods part, seems to have many parallels to Robbins’s. Makes me wish someone could have gotten these two together.]

We all have our limited number of days before we shuffle off this mortal coil, and Doc had no illusions about his time or place. A few years ago, he told a New York Times reporter: “I used to think a fair amount of brains were involved in living longer. Now I think it’s 99 percent luck, and 1 percent anything else.”

So, live simply, and enjoy today. It’s as good a life lesson as any of us will ever receive.

Top photo: Courtesy Kid's Running

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Kelley/Ocean Beach Race

On Saturday morning I ran the John J. Kelley Ocean Beach 11.6-mile race in New London for the first time in many years. When I started to fill a notebook with my thoughts, the word count too fast exploded into the thousands. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish that essay, though I hope I will. At any rate, here’s the condensed version.

The Kelley race, 44 years old, is a little known national road-race classic, still no-entry-fee after all these years. What’s more, all runners get free admission (normally $16) to Ocean Beach Park with its sparkling beach on eastern Long Island Sound. And after the race, free soft drinks and clam chowder, not to mention a cooling dip in the calm Sound waters. I won the race a few times in the 1960s and 70s, when lots of good New England and New York runners came down to enjoy a day at the shore, but then moved to PA.

Before the start on Saturday morning, Kelley, who grew up in New London and still lives in nearby Mystic, made a brief but impassioned plea that his name be moved to second-billing, behind that of his wife Jess Kelley, who passed away three years ago. It seems likely to be adopted by the race committee, who loved Jess as much as any of us. After her death, I wrote a quick essay for the New London Day. For some reason, it’s at this web page.

In the old days, the Kelley race started at noon, like every other race on the New England road scene, and I remember racing it on days when the temp was literally higher than 100 degrees. Now we start earlier, and the horrid heat and humidity from the middle of last week had departed. It wasn’t a bad day for road running, and I decided to run at a comfortable 70 percent effort.

At three miles, we passed Patti Dillon and Tom Fleming manning a water stop. Patti, who now lives and runs in New London, was jumping up and down (as usual). Tom was quieter, back in the area for the first time since he won this race in 1973. Later in the day, Patti and Dan Dillon would host a backyard party at their place, where Dan talked happily about his strong 9th place raceday effort, behind a gaggle of teens and twenty-somethings, and Patti waxed on about a recent 150 mile training week, and Tom shook his head and muttered, “A hundred a fifty miles, what’s that about?” and remembered a year when he ran 2:14+ at Boston at 179 pounds. “I was just coming off an injury. I wasn’t fit at all, and I still ran 2:14.”

A mile later we passed the home where Jan Merrill grew up and often handed us water cups with the rest of her family. Anyone remember Merrill? She and the family weren’t there this year.

Then came the mile where I once looked in Norm Higgins's face—we were side by side far in front of everyone else, and running way too fast IMHO—and realized he was in a trance. His body was thrashing wildly, but his eyes were white and unfocused. I wanted none of this madness, so I backed off, and he beat me, even though I was young and fast at 24 and he was old and gray at like 35 or something. It was one of the more startling performances I’ve ever seen.

We passed the building where I had my first editorial job, where I ran to work with my clothes in a backpack, then filled a bucket of water, and poured it over my head in the woods out back. We passed the apartment where I lived after my Peace Corps days in El Salvador. One morning at 7 am, six months after my then-wife and I returned from El Salvador, the doorbell rang. It was two of the kids from Salvador, now illegal aliens in the U.S., wanting me to help them out somehow. That’s a really, really long tangent.

We passed the house near the 10-mile mark where I lived for five or six years, where my 3 year old daughter, dressed in coveralls and cute as a spring flower blossom, handed me a cup of water in midrace in 1983. It splashed everywhere. A newspaper photographer caught the moment, and it became my favorite personal running photo.

She’s waiting for me again, now 25, still with a water cup in her hand. I deliberately splash the water into the air, as a friend takes our picture. I hope it comes out and looks exactly the same, sorta, only different, from that photo of 23 years ago.

Things change, after all. But I try to keep the changes as minimal as possible. Returning to run the Kelley race seems to help.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Running In Extremes

I would love to be able to report that I am prisoner to no rules of running. This is supposed to be an activity where one runs free, after all. The run is supposed to be a time when we throw off the shackles of personal and corporate restrictions to run almost naked, to run to another drumbeat, to run with mind and body fully liberated.

I would love to be able to say these things, but I can’t. There are rules to my running. Many of them. Always race on Thanksgiving Day, for example. I’ve done this the last 43 years in a row. Always run, and swim, on January first, a tradition I’ve held to for nearly 40 years. Always run in a blizzard. Always run when the temperature drops below zero F. And, of course, always run when the temperature creeps up past 100.

I’m not sure that the thermometer readings ever got that high this week in the small PA town where I live. But they came close, and the Internet weather pages regularly reported things like “feels like 104.” So I was out the door at about 1 pm each day.

I didn’t go far or fast on any of these runs, but I at least sampled the conditions, collected a nice layer of sweat, and stood for a long time in a cold shower afterwards. And then went back to staring at the computer screen in my air-conditioned office.

At 95 F, I wouldn’t feel compelled to run. But when the mercury climbs up to 100, I figure I gotta get out the door just to luxuriate in the absurdness of it all. I enjoy absurdity. I embrace it whenever it can. In books, in movies, in other arts, in my running. Something there is that pulls me in the direction of activities far from the norm.

That might have been one of running’s earliest appeals. In the mid 1960s, when I switched over from baseball to cross-country running, we were just a hidden handful of clearly oddball characters. We traveled great distances on weekends just to be able to see each other at the various New England road races. You could post a notice for a Wednesday night interval workout on the local high-school track, if you wanted, but there wouldn’t be any sense to that strategy. No one else would read your notice. No one else would show up to run the mile repeats. You’d be timing yourself with your $8 sweep-second Timex.

I fully appreciate the popularity that running has attained these days. I enjoy the frequent, big races, and the large, social crowds drawn to them. I like the cool gear we get to run in, and especially my chronograph, with all its interval-timing functions. Still, there are times when something deep inside me calls out and says, “Go the other way. Run when and where you’re not supposed to.”

So, I scan the weather reports, hoping for blizzards and sizzling midday temps. When they arrive, I’m ready for them. And those runs, often alone, often with people pointing and laughing at me and shaking a head in dismay (just as they did in the 1960s), are usually my most memorable. I feel great afterwards. I look forward to the next.

I might not be running free. But I tend to giggle and smile and cavort a lot on these extreme runs, and I figure that’s a good thing.