A thin sliver of hope for health

By Jayson Jacoby October 26, 2012 10:25 am

The collective corpulence of Americans has become cliché.

Which is not the same as quiche.

Although I’ll concede the two words look pretty similar.

And what with our appetite for eggs and cheese, it’s little wonder we see unwholesome dishes where none exists.

If you spend a few minutes kicking around the online data (and knock it off; if you’re going to kick anything it ought to be a soccer ball, an activity which at least burns extra calories), you can’t help but conclude that the most dire danger facing mankind isn’t melting polar ice caps, but that our united mass will shove Earth out of its orbit and send it careening into the asteroid belt.

Of course you don’t need to study the average number of holes in an American male’s belt to recognize the validity of the statistics.

We’re fatter, generally speaking, than we’ve ever been.

Yet I’m not convinced that this trend is inexorable.

A couple weeks ago, in Boise, I watched a scene that made me optimistic about the future of our arteries.

The setting, near the Boise River, was the finish line for the City of Trees marathon and half-marathon.

I was not a participant.

It’s not that I can’t run 26.2 miles.

I just can’t do it without stopping.

And by stopping I don’t mean a few brief water breaks.

I’m talking about overnight pauses — with pizza and beer — after each 5-mile stretch.

It turns out, though, that quite a lot of people can keep their legs churning for that entire daunting distance.

I don’t even like to drive that far if I can avoid it.

What impressed me isn’t that hundreds of people paid to voluntarily subject themselves to such a muscle-straining ordeal.

Running a marathon, which for most of the 20th century was relegated mainly to Olympians with aerobic capabilities more cheetah than human, migrated toward the mainstream during the jogging craze of the 1970s.

(A phenomenon which boasts considerably more stamina, by the way, than its contemporary, calorie-burning counterpart: disco. Check any major department store these days and you’ll find dozens of pairs of featherweight running shoes. But you’ll have to paw through a lot of bargain bins to unearth a Gloria Gaynor CD.)

I was heartened, rather, by the overwhelming normalcy of the competitors.

Almost none of them had the streamlined physique I associate with long-distance runners, who always look to me as if they’re stepping on springy rubber rather than asphalt. They sort of waft along for hours at a pace I couldn’t duplicate if I were sprinting. Very annoying.

The group at the finish line in Boise was fitter, on average, than the typical shopping mall crowd.

But quite of a few of these bodies that had just covered the equivalent of running from Baker City to Haines and back, followed by a round-trip on the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway, exhibited the same morphological mixture of flabby-and-toned that most people recognize who have bid a sad farewell to the hyperactive metabolism of adolescence.

They looked like regular people, is what I mean — regular people who had just accomplished something extraordinary.

We went to Boise because my wife, Lisa, who has finished two half-marathons, wanted to run six miles of the marathon route with two friends from Baker City, Autumn Swiger-Harrell and Jennifer Kelley.

Lisa ran with them many times during the summer and early fall as they trained for the full marathon.

I’m not suggesting here that my experience in Boise, which is but a minor anecdote, comes close to countering the overwhelming evidence that Americans’ appetites lean too heavily toward saturated fat instead of aerobic activity.

Yet I detected, in the jubilant atmosphere at the race’s end, a camaraderie that belies the stereotype of the American who can’t be roused from the sofa except to slide another frozen pizza into the oven or extract another 2-liter torpedo of soda from the refrigerator.

I have no idea what motivated those marathoners.

Some of them, I’m sure, fulfilled a longtime goal and have no intention of ever running another marathon.

But exercise, and the happiness it provokes, can become an addiction every bit as potent as the lure of the cheeseburger.

(Well, almost as potent.)

And I suspect that most of the runners, even those who never again enter a race more taxing than a 10K, won’t be content to toss their shoes into a closet and settle in with the remote control and a jumbo bag of Fritos.

You don’t need to run a marathon to get fit, of course.

But perhaps running one can be only the start of a healthy lifestyle rather than its triumphant conclusion.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.