I am truly, truly happy again for the first time in years. Back where I should be, where everything about my body feels right. Running, running, and running some more.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this, and in the United States (as well as worldwide), we are experiencing another running boom. The first was in the 1970s, when people took to the roads in large numbers for the first time, and they are running in much larger numbers today. In 2008, 425,000 people finished a marathon, and marathons have become big business—travel destinations, boons for the economies of the cities and towns that host them. Participation is up from 25,000 people who finished a marathon in 1976:

Year Estimated U.S. Marathon Finisher Total

1976 25,000
1980 143,000
1990 224,000
1995 293,000
2000 353,000
2004 386,000
2005 395,000
2006 410,000
2007 412,000
2008 425,000 (record total) http://www.runningusa.org/node/16414

And that’s just the marathon—half marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks attract hundreds of thousands of others. So why a running boom, why now? I’ve got some ideas about this I’ll explore in future posts, along with the debate about how slow is too slow for a marathon time and whether the marathon should be primarily a competitive or participatory event. For a recent article exploring this issue, see the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/sports/23marathon.html. This debate is part of a long history of such debates in the United States, whose sport governing bodies and sport educators have been divided on the question since the early twentieth century. Gender, and a claimed divide between male and female athletes, has been a major part of this debate—men are associated with the competitive model of sport, women with the participatory. This divide persists to some extent to this day, and I will be exploring the implications of this, along with the question of why certain sports are popular at certain times, and how this influences our body ideals. I’ll talk a bit about my own training, too, and its relation to my own ideas and feeling about bodies and gender.

My background: when I was younger, I was fast. I held the Arizona high school state record in the 1600 meters for 17 years http://az.milesplit.us/pages/Arizona_Track_and_Field_All_Time. I went to the University of Arizona on a track and cross-country scholarship, where I was competitive my freshman year, but so overtrained, injured, and burned out by my sophomore year I was ordered by my doctor to stop. I stopped competing, kept running on my own, but more slowly, and took up weight training, progressing over the years to competitive power lifting and specializing in the bench press, where I was ranked 11th in the U.S. in my weight class for a lift of 235. My body, as you might imagine, was completely transformed, from a skinny, slightly muscular 120 pounds to a dense, extremely muscular 150 pounds.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but what I haven’t written was how unnatural it felt to be like that, what a Frankenstein’s monster I experienced that body to be. At one point I was so stiff I couldn’t turn my head to the side, and it hurt so much to run and I had to do it so slowly that I stopped altogether. When I discovered that the closest I could come to touching my toes was to barely touch the tops of my knees, I knew I had to do something about this and took up ashtanga yoga—an intense, demanding form of practice that follows the same forms each time and takes anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours to complete: http://www.kpjayi.org/ Ashtanga changed my morphology again, and after six years I was down to 135 and the creaking cement that had been my chest and shoulders was finally starting to crack.

Then came the mid-life crisis moment, for me the occasion of my 45th birthday last September. In July I decided that I was tired of worrying about aging and the wrinkles on my face, and I was going to do something about it. In the (il)logic of my world, this meant dropping back down to my college weight and body fat percentage (120 pounds and 12 percent), and I bought one of those diet and exercise journals where you record each calorie you ingest and each you burn, along with the relative percentage of carbohydrates to proteins and fats. That did it, and by my birthday I was down to 123 and 11.7 percent. So I’m giving myself a break on that last three pounds.

What I didn’t expect was that at this lighter weight, running felt good again. I started back slowly at first, running only once a week, a six miler on Sundays. By August I’d added some track work, and by November was up to a ten miler on Mondays, a six miler on Fridays, and at least four miles on each of two other days, meanwhile maintaining my ashtanga practice. By December, I’d gotten a Polar heart rate monitor, and was completely, utterly hooked, back in the that running world I’d lived in from 1979-1983, except with a lot more technology attached. With a HRM you can measure not only your heart rate, distance and calories, but your speed, cadence, altitude changes, and pretty much anything else you might like to know. By January, I’d signed up for a marathon in June, another in October that is 26.2 miles straight up hill the entire way and climbs 6,000 feet, and had started to look forward to my runs the way you look forward to whatever activity it is that you love the most, at home in my body in a way I’d never been.  Insane by most standards of sanity, clearly.

What are the implications of this changing body, changing activity slate, changing mind? For me, for you? How is the way we experience our bodies in physical activity a function of gender? What are your current physical training regimes, your backgrounds? I will explore these issues in future posts, and welcome your comments on any of these issues.