Every religion has its Creation story. All runners do, too. And while most very fast runners generally had their beginnings on organized track teams in school or clubs, the vast majority of citizen runners we see in weekend races come to the sport later in life. Personally, I began running because my mother was Polish.
First of all, it wasn’t like Mom had been a runner, or that the Polish people were necessarily fast in the same sense that Central Highland born Kenyans and Asela-generated Ethiopians were fast – although the Poles do have a couple great 800 meter men right now in Marcin Lewandowski and Adam Kszczot. No, it’s because without realizing it, Mom attached to my small American male body what was considered by my peers to be a girl’s name, a combination that created issues that running seemed to address quite nicely, as in fight or flight.
See, my namesake is Saint Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost items – “St. Anthony, please, tell God I lost my lunch money.” Anyway, A-N-T-H-O-N-Y is how we in the West spell that saint’s name. Thus the diminutive becomes TONY. But in Poland, they spell that saint’s name A-N-T-O-N-I. Accordingly, TONI is what I now had for a handle. And that one single letter difference is why I began running.
You don’t get much more middle American than St. Louis, Missouri. Yet, since America was a country of immigrants, St. Louis featured large populations of first and second generation Germans and Italians. We lived on St. Louis’s near south side not far from The Hill, the Italian neighborhood where Hall of Fame New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra and former major leaguer and Today Show host Joe Garagiola were from. Thus it seemed like every third guy in the vicinity was named Tony with a Y.
So when you show up on the playground as TONI with an I, are also not Italian and have yet to find your growth spurt, episodes of potential brutality could more easily be fended off by leaving the immediate vicininity at a rapid pace until the bullies found another target who wasn’t as quick. It was a lesson I learned early after first trying to explain that my name was no big deal, just a cultural thing, similar to you Italian guys, say, shaving at age 8.
Anyway, I had to learn how to run fast in order to avoid that daily ass-kicking that I knew was always a possibility because kids are so empathetic, right? So that was my way of starting a lifetime love of the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other game. But the vast majority of modern-day runners come into the sport much later in life for decidedly different, less threatening reasons.
Statistics show that the majority of today’s runners are to be found in the master’s division, meaning they come to the sport looking for a palliative against the onslaught of age-related decrepitude. Often it worked this way: You’re around 30, you’ve been out of school for a while, got a job, maybe started a family, but you’re still taking certain things for granted. You know, eat anything, drink anything, no problem. You think you still have the metabolism of a field mouse.
Then one day you’re at the mall trying in a new pair of jeans, and you look at yourself in the three-way mirror, and “Holy shit! Where did that ASS come from?! Jeezus, did I walk in here with that thing? That wasn’t there last time I looked. Why didn’t anybody tell me?!”
Well, there’s your epiphany, right there. That’s when you realize you’ve got to do some pro-active work about your appearance and health. You can’t just keep shoving McRib sandwiches down your gullet like some gassy pelican.
And notwithstanding all the other options available, running still remains the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of implementing a healthy lifestyle in quick order. So that’s probably the motivation that led a lot of people we see lining up at races to get started. Vanity is a powerful motivator, no doubt. Maybe just below trying to avoid an ass-kicking.