Tuesday, July 23, 2013

EXERCISE OR SOCIALIZE?

Last time I ran with a group—or, at least, that was the idea—I was in Ottawa a few years ago. As that Frontrunners experience turned out to be perplexingly negative, I had low expectations for the Santa Monica run with L.A. Frontrunners.

But I also had some hope. I’d run with the group for my last few months in L.A. before moving to Vancouver. They were a bit nerdy and not so good about reciprocal conversation, but nice enough. I even made friends with one of them though we lost touch after he wanted more than friendship and I just wasn’t feeling it. People say, “Okay, sure. Let’s just be friends”, but it rarely works.

Decent memories from L.A. Frontrunners nonetheless. Hadn’t been for a run with the group in nineteen years, but it was comforting to know they still met on the same weeknight at 6:30 in the same spot in the park along Ocean Avenue with the same ocean view.

Still, I wasn’t sure anyone else show up. The website had references to 2011 so maybe the whole group had gone kaput. Maybe everyone had switched to yoga. Or bootcamp in one of the canyons. Or—I’m not making this up--Prancercise. (Sadly, it has nothing to do with everyone putting on reindeer antlers.) Maybe I’d appear at another Frontrunners session just to be jogging solo again.

There are a lot worse places to jog.

As I approached the meeting site—the Millennial Plaque which, okay, wasn’t there back in ’94—I noticed three men standing around in jogging gear. One immediately stepped up and introduced himself. Something in my walk, my clothing or my look apparently screamed “GAY!”

Thank goodness. (After eight years of rural life, you never know!)

Immediately, they were friendlier than the Ottawa folks. Having had his say, Greeter Guy stood back, intently doing calf stretches, but the other two brought me into their chitchat and one shared a lovely story about a guy’s vomit mutating into some sort of being. From a novel, I think. Although it did remind me of that urban myth about that rescued dog at sea that turns out to be an oversized rat. Surprisingly, I let my mind drift off, gazing at the sea, the succulent flora adorning the park and the homeless man passed out ten feet away from us on the grass. (I noticed signs of breathing, thank goodness.)

When my mind drifted back to Frontrunners, the group had doubled and a few more approached. By the time we were ready to run, there 15-20. The leader gathered us in a circle, asked for announcements and had us each say our name—the same routine from all those years ago. The name share is always rapid fire. I must have heard about five names, remembering three. Would they have run with those stickie nametags had I bought a pack? But then, you can’t read what is under “Hello my name is” if everyone leaves you in the wake.

Having broken my foot back in February, the recovery has been maddeningly slow. I finally had my first successful (albeit abbreviated) run just two weeks ago and managed another short run doing laps around the Silver Lake Reservoir on my second night in L.A. So this was Run No. 3. Would I be able to keep up? Would the left foot give out? What if I reinjured it? (I failed to purchase traveler’s medical insurance before leaving Canada.)

We started and people immediately paired up, with me running on my own.

Impose yourself into a pairing, my inner voice said. Oh, how I hate that voice. It always sounds like my mother, always harkening me back to adolescence when I’d waste away hundred-degree summer days watching “The Price Is Right” inside, my Showcase Showdown bidding plan interrupted by my mother urging me to go knock on the neighbor’s door,...the high school quarterback’s house. Yeah, right. My thoughts of winning a boat, a trip to Cancun and a lifetime supply of Rice-A-Roni were far more grounded in reality.

As always, I ignored that inner voice.

And so I jogged bravely onward. Solo, just like back home, only a little more relaxed without having to watch for bears or cougars. Or highly scratchy blackberry bushes.

But then a friendly voice over my shoulder asked, “How long are you visiting?” A friendly man, the oldest in the group, in good shape for sixty-five. We jogged together as others passed. Eventually another man joined us. It was pleasant conversation that petered out as sweat started to stream down our faces and, now on the winding beach path, we had to focus on dodging cyclists, roller bladers and the ever-oblivious walkers who stretched across the entire width of the path, cameras capturing every moment.

In the obstacle course, I got a little ahead of my jogging mates and I could hear them carry on their conversation. It had been nice to be included, but I wasn’t essential. The pace had been too slow and felt unnatural for me. Like driving with the emergency brake on. I took the moment to pick up the pace and jog on my own, eyeing a couple members of the group ahead in the distance.

I passed them and spotted another pair up further.

Reached and passed.

Yes, I can get a little competitive when I run. I like to pass. It breaks the monotony of a run when there are moving targets ahead.

My left foot felt great, the pace seemed right. How exhilarating to really jog again! For months, I wondered if I’d ever run again.

I stopped the passing when I reached Greeter Guy. His pace was decent and, as we were approaching the final incline back to Ocean Avenue, I had no desire to pass him and then be passed again with me huffing and puffing, a wolf who finally meets his brick house.

Sensing that Greeter wasn’t a gifted conversationalist, I took the lead and asked a series of questions about himself. No reciprocity, but no ill intent either. Just like old times. 

A potluck followed the run and, not knowing this, I’d brought nothing. The guy with the vomit tale had said I was more than welcome to attend, but as a quirky vegetarian with eating issues, I’m not a potluck fan.

For a moment, I faced a dilemma. I could wait around and socialize with what I sensed was a friendly group. Isn’t that why I came to L.A.? To connect with people? But the run had only been four miles. My standard run has always been 6-7 miles. I still felt energized. This was my first chance since the fainting episode to reach my standard.

I politely said goodbye to the few runners that were waiting around and then continued on, jogging up my favorite road in Santa Monica, San Vicente Boulevard, with the gorgeous tree-lined island splitting east and westbound traffic. It was part of my old jogging route and on my bucket list of things to do again while in L.A.

Pretty sure I exceeded my regular running distance and due to the old tree roots jutting out along the path, I was beginning to feel discomfort in my foot (and both knees) as I returned to Ocean Avenue. Still, nothing could pierce my joy bubble. I did it. Sure, exercising trumped socializing, but I was elated.

So elated in fact that I walked back to the picnic tables where the potluck was underway. I politely declined gnawing on a roasted chicken carcass, forgot about my shyness and casually chatted for the next hour with a group of genuinely nice people. I tossed aside my need to be critical, smiling politely as more than one guy said, “Oh, you’re from Canada! I love Canada. I was in Toronto last year.” Yep, Vancouver, Toronto,...same thing. (The critic tends to resurface when I write and the endorphins settle down.)

Smile on.

As it got dark—an hour earlier than in Vancouver—I remembered my little dog waiting back in our little bungalow with no lights on and I excused myself again.

“You coming back next week?” I was asked several times.

Absolutely.

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