I saw a few weeks ago where the Ironman Triathlon was held once again somewhere in Hawaii. I don’t remember the details, but I think they swim hundreds of miles, then bicycle thousands of miles, and then I remember hearing one breathless television commentator once say, “now, all that’s left is the Marathon.”
The first Marathon was run by Philippides in 490 B.C. (or B.C.E. if you are into the new numbering system). He left the battlefield of Marathon where Athenian soldiers defeated an invading Persian army and he raced back the twenty-six miles to Athens to tell them of the victory and promptly collapsed and died from his effort.
So I’ve never been challenged personally to repeat his feat, although I know thousands, and now perhaps millions, of my countrymen consider the Marathon the ultimate challenge of conditioning and resolve. There are now, as I understand it, Ultra Marathoners who run races of hundreds of miles, but I put them into same category as Navy SEALS, Marine Rangers, the Delta Force and other guys who jump out of helicopters and airplanes at night into shark and/or terrorist infested waters, taking out bad guys with their bare hands if necessary.
I don’t relate well to them, although when I was younger and in the Navy, we transported UDT teams, the predecessors to the SEALS, and I always felt very safe on shore leave, whether in Venice or San Juan, with a frogman companion or two as we explored the museums and cathedrals of the ports to get abreast of local culture.
All of which brings me to walking, a perfectly safe pastime which is, as near as I can figure, the perfect exercise for man. And I’ll dispense with politically correct jargon. By man I generally mean men, women, and children.
Actually, I have to admit—I was a runner before I became a walker. I started running back in graduate school in New Orleans in the early 1970s. I discovered Nike running shoes which felt like I was running on air (really!), and there was hardly anyone running in Audubon Park across St. Charles Ave. from Tulane.
I became a somewhat serious runner here in Tuscaloosa. I ran 10Ks a lot, and I enjoyed the endorphins or whatever kicks in to make you feel good after a long run. To be honest, I needed the exercise, I enjoyed running, and it was a win-win situation.
Until, and you could see this coming, my feet and knees and other joints started to give way from too many runs as I got older.
So I started taking occasional long walks with my wife Louise ten or fifteen years ago, although I persisted in running. It is hard to admit how the aging process slows you down as entropy takes its toll.
By the turn of the century, I was a fulltime walker and now I hit the trail three or four times a week, usually with Louise, but sometimes alone, or with our Jack Russell terrier “Flea” pulling mightily to catch squirrels and other critters. We live about two miles from the UA campus, on the east side, and so it is a near perfect distance, four miles roundtrip, passing Denny Chimes, the Quad, the Stadium, DCH Regional, and sometimes we go all the way to Queen City Avenue before turning, a 4 ½ or 5 miler.
I have seen squirrels on numerous occasions saved by their quickness from being run over by cars or trucks, deliberately aiming to crush them as they scamper across the road. This makes me wonder what is going through the driver’s head, to want to kill squirrels.
As I ponder the darker side of mankind I sometimes hear the chop chop of a Medevac helicopter descending slowly, carefully, but in a cacophony of sound, kicking up dust and leaves, to the pad at DCH Regional. That restores my faith in the good side of man.
One has to be aware of more than the great philosophical questions of man of course. Cracked and uneven sidewalks, potholes crossing streets, drivers who cannot tell the difference between a green or red light (we have a lot of colorblind people in Tuscaloosa), bicyclists, especially on campus, who feel they have a right to the whole sidewalk, or simply can’t ride in a straight line, and other human bric a brac to keep you on your toes.
We see the “walking lady” occasionally, a very slender, older black woman, always carrying her Bible and mumbling, perhaps Scripture, who walks from somewhere on the West Side of town to past Cottondale’s Five Corners, and back, every day of the week as near as I can tell.
She is batty to be sure, will not talk to you, even when you smile widely and greet her in passing, but is the most faithful walker I’ve ever seen. While she is probably certifiable, she is surely in the best shape of anyone her age in the entire city. I have no idea what her age is and certainly won’t ask because, one, she doesn’t respond to anyone, and two, if she did hear me, she’d probably whack me on the side of the head for asking her age.
Louise and I walk (light) rain or shine, dark or light, preferring the light to help void pitching into the void of potholes and other impediments.
I’ve read that walking is the perfect exercise. You can Google it and find all the benefits, from weight control to lower blood pressure. It also helps relieve mental stress by talking it out. “It” being just about anything troubling you.
By the time you are on the last ten to fifteen minutes of your walk, all the stress is gone, the problems of the world solved, great theological dilemmas and issues put to bed, and survival is foremost on our minds.
You are, for a short while that day, very much in touch with your senses. You once again connect your heart, and mind, and spirit with the body, each demanding a bit of your time, happy to be crossing the finish line of your walk once again in front of your home, spiritually and physically spent but happy. But it just may be the endorphins.
Published in my column, The Port Rail, in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Dec. 1, 2013 as Walking, a Perfect Excrcise for Mind, Body