It has been more than 15 years since I last ran. I still miss it. Spring has finally arrived, with sunshine and warmth, and I still want to don running shorts and head out. It would be a particular joy while I’m stuck at home, ordered to “shelter in place” by the governor. I doubt I will ever lose the desire.
On a beautiful Sunday in January 2005 with summer-like temperatures in the 70s, I joined two friends for two loops and 10 miles around a nearby lake. The run was glorious, but my knee suffered worrisome discomfort. Nevertheless, I finished, as I always did. The next day I headed out for my usual seven-mile course closer to home and soon experienced excruciating pain. For the first time ever I had to quit, hobbling home. After a plethora of months, doctors, and treatments, I had the problem knee replaced. And was sternly lectured by my surgeon that my running days were over.
How I hated to hear those words.
I was an unlikely convert to running. I never liked sports. In elementary school I ran a couple races without notable enthusiasm or success. My dad encouraged me to try basketball, which I hated. I much preferred picking up a book, preferably on military affairs or political history.
We established a daily routine and ran the Richmond marathon, with a glorious march down Monument Avenue.
In junior high I suffered through gym class and intramural sports. We were divided into teams of “shirts” versus “skins” to play whatever was on the coach’s list that day. I wanted to be anywhere but there.
In high school I no less detested sports. But it was a small place, so I dropped by to see the principal and convinced him to let me take Spanish instead of PE. My friends thought I was nuts, but no matter.
My community college inexplicably required four PE classes for graduation. I chose my golf partner carefully; equally awful, we shaved enough shots off our official scores to appear merely bad. Tennis was passable, but I was no better at that sport. Bowling would have been okay if I wasn’t being graded on my ineptitude. Badminton, however … I cannot think of it without cringing. I lost to every other guy in the semester-long round robin. My humiliation was complete. Luckily my compassionate coaches gave me “gentleman B’s,” the only blots on my otherwise straight-A average. I led the campaign to stage a student referendum on eliminating the requirement; a majority voted yes, but the administration paid no notice.
I went on to Florida State University. No one pressured me to play intramural sports or follow the rising football squad. At Stanford Law School I had the same disdain. My girlfriend joined me when she graduated from FSU and insisted on giving football a try. I sat in a state of bemused boredom as she applauded, shouted, waved, and danced. She spared me by not suggesting another season.
But a funny thing happened after my second year in summer 1978. I was clerking for a major Los Angeles law firm and enjoying the good life, as I was wined and dined as part of the continuing recruitment process. There were lots of free lunches and dinners, as well as a well-stocked kitchen, which included free sodas. As any economist will tell you, make something free and the demand will reach infinity, or almost, at least in my case with Coke and Dr. Pepper.
I soon found myself getting, shall we say, “full-figured.” Barely in my 20s and badly overweight, I looked at the firm’s senior partners. Some were in decent shape. Others not so much. I grimaced, thinking that if I’m heavy now, what will I look like in 30 years? It was scary.
So I switched to diet drinks. Cut what I ate. And started running.
It seemed like the best option. I certainly wasn’t going to embarrass myself with team or competitive sports. And I sure wasn’t going to look for a gym. Of course, I was incapable of running anywhere far or fast, so I had to mostly walk at first. By the end of the summer I could jog a few miles.
When I returned to Stanford to finish my third year, I continued to run. The beautiful campus and weather helped. Most important, though, I was hooked.
I continued running after I joined the Reagan presidential campaign after my graduation in 1979. It often wasn’t easy; I irritated my boss once when I disappeared to get in some miles in right after we checked into our hotel. He was unsympathetic: in his view, electing Ronald Reagan was more important than keeping off extra pounds.
By November 1980, I was spending most every waking moment working. When traveling we sped from airport to hotel to rally to hotel and then back to airport. Running wasn’t practical.
I decided not to go to the doctor. The pain wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t run. If it really was more torn cartilage I didn’t want to know.
Alas, my svelte figure disappeared along with my running. Even my friends doubted I would get back into shape after picking up an exalted title of Special Assistant to the President for Policy Development. Ah, they of little faith! I made time to run. Within a few months the added pounds came off.
After that, running became perhaps the only constant in my life. My neighbor became my running partner and we ran the Marines Corps marathon, which was a grand experience. An injury interrupted training for a repeat performance and my friend moved away, but I was soon back on the streets and trails. Intermittent injuries occasionally kept me home. But I always bounced back.
I moved and there my new next-door neighbor was a runner. We established a daily routine and ran the Richmond marathon, with a glorious march down Monument Avenue. I broke three and a half hours and — much more important — finished a minute or so ahead of my friend, who was a decade younger than me.
Running turned into a great way to explore America. I had three different routes in New York City, which I visited frequently on business. My favorite course was running down First Avenue at dawn while the city was waking up. I still remember the spot in Austin where I nearly suffered heat stroke while insanely running in 100-degree weather. And memories flooded back when I returned to and jogged again on Stanford’s campus.
Running proved to be an even better way to see the world. Only rarely did I pass up a chance to run. A few Third World cities were too crowded, busy, and unsafe. Occasionally my hosts blanched when I mentioned the possibility of galloping off. On a visit to game camps in Botswana, the camp manager said I could run on the airstrip … if they drove along and provided me with an armed escort as protection from local predators. I decided to chill instead.
But Warsaw, Paris, Caracas, Athens, Zurich, Johannesburg, Dubrovnik, Seoul, Doha, Geneva, Taipei, Kuwait City, Prague, Ankara, Bangkok, Zagreb, Nicosia/Lefkosa, Alice Springs, Vancouver, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Chiangmai, Vienna, and more all yielded a few secrets when I pounded their streets. In Belgrade I saw a speeding car hit a pedestrian, who went airborne. In Jerusalem I passed the infamous King David Hotel. In Lisbon on an early Sunday morning I witnessed drunks finishing the night and a couple having sex. In Sydney I ran through the Botanical Gardens, by the Opera House, and into the harbor district.
In Tokyo I circled the dramatic imperial palace grounds and was joined by a runner from Hong Kong. In Kaohsiung (Taiwan) I got lost for the first and only time. In Beijing I ran through Tiananmen Square at dawn as the flag was being raised. In London I dashed by Westminster, the fount of democratic government around the globe. In summer 1998 I hit the streets in Pristina (Kosovo), a city tense as ethnic Albanian insurgents wandered the surrounding countryside. In Istanbul I was bitten by a stray dog a block from my hotel.
Nowhere did I stand out more than in Pyongyang (North Korea), where busloads of curious North Koreans stared at the bizarre apparition of a bearded occidental in shorts running down their streets. Pedestrians stared straight through me, evidently curious about what they saw but unwilling to meet my gaze. My finest running moment probably was striding across Moscow’s Red Square at dawn, the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb on the right, GUM department store on the left, and St. Basil’s Cathedral ahead. A sense of history flooded over me.
But all this came to an end.
In 1994 I decided to run another marathon. It had been a truly awful year, and I needed a goal, something to accomplish. What could be better than to improve my marathon time of eight years before? Training went well, weight poured off, and I was in my best shape for years. Then, a week before the race, my right knee blew out.
I hoped (fervently, but unsuccessfully) that it was only a minor strain, something that would clear up if I did no more running during the final week. But no. I was in a grand funk and spent race day with a friend at a Civil War battlefield — normally a relaxing release for me. This time, alas, it did little to improve my black mood.
I spent nearly a year alternating time off the streets and feeling better, then running again and feeling the pain return. Finally, after my right knee complained loudly when I mowed the lawn, I went to the doctor; the diagnosis was torn cartilage.
There was no reason for an operation if I didn’t plan on being active, he said helpfully. But that wasn’t an option. I wanted to run. I had to run.
Nowhere did I stand out more than in Pyongyang (North Korea), where busloads of curious North Koreans stared at the bizarre apparition of a bearded occidental in shorts running down their streets.
The operation went well — even after the nurse, surveying my corpulent physique, observed that “you sure don’t look like a runner.” Rehabilitation was quick. Soon I was back out doing my daily mileage. Everything was fine.
Until the day a year later when I was playing racquetball. After a particularly nasty twist while trying to return a shot, I felt a sharp pain in my left knee. It subsided, but then reappeared while running. And got worse.
So back to the doctor. More torn cartilage. Another easy decision. Under the knife again.
On a run a few months later, however, I noticed a twinge of pain in the old spot in the left knee. Not too much and not always. But enough to frighten me: what if the knee was about to go again? My doctor reassured me that it was probably scar tissue. And for a few years I continued to run. The pain came and went, but it certainly was not enough to stop me.
I even ran the Richmond marathon with my neighbor. We talked about trying another race, maybe New York City. Alas, my travel schedule and my friend’s new baby complicated our planned training regimen, forcing us to abandon our grand ambitions. But I still ran every day, at least, if I wasn’t running to catch an airplane.
Then a pulled ligament kept me in for six awful months. After that came nagging pain that at least wasn’t enough to keep me off streets and trails at home and abroad. Eventually the pain in my left knee took an ominous turn, becoming stronger and more constant.
I decided not to go to the doctor. The pain wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t run. If it really was more torn cartilage, I didn’t want to know. After all, I’d already received the standard advice from friends, wannabe doctors all, and real physicians. One of the latter told me, “You know, running really isn’t good for your knees.” Duh! As if I hadn’t noticed.
Then came that terrible day in January 2005. My doctors subsequently spent months treating what they thought was a hamstring problem. In August, however, I was in Iceland and found that I could barely walk after spending the previous day touring a lava field. My doctor agreed that something serious was wrong. We had a CAT scan done, and even I understood that the test result, which spoke of “severe deterioration,” was not good. Lesser remedies did not end the pain, so in mid-December I went under the knife again, this time receiving an entirely new knee.
It’s been great. But now the other knee hurts in much the same way. Although another operation would be inconvenient, the worst damage already was done when my surgeon, a former jogger, told me simply, “You can’t run.” The problem was the pounding, which would ruin the new joint.
I haven’t run since. And it has been painful. Mentally, that is. If I pass a spot where I’ve run before, especially if one of my iconic routes, that’s all I think about. If I drive by some runners on a nice day, I fill the air with frustrated, jealous expletives. If I see an article on a race, I want to participate.
That was how I was every time I had to stop running temporarily. It didn’t matter how short the break: a couple weeks, a few months. The inability to run poisoned my day, my week, my year.
Helpful friends suggested that I take up walking. Only after gaining 90 pounds in the year following my surgery — I basically abandoned all exercise, seeing no reason to bother — did I start walking out of desperation. And I basically hated it. The only reason I was walking was that I couldn’t run. I burned with irritation every time someone passed me running. Not because they were passing me. But because they were running.
My weight and physical activity fluctuated in the ensuing years. An exercise bike works. My deteriorating right knee makes walking more difficult. The big challenge is eschewing my “comfort food” snacks. After all, what mood cannot be lifted with a proper dose of chocolate, cashews, or potato chips?
The real answer would be a run. Especially in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, when I, like everyone else, is essentially under house arrest. There are plenty of great routes. Between the FDR highway and East River in Manhattan. Along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Chicago. Barefoot on Santa Monica’s beach. Along the river in Austin. On Stanford’s campus. In the Escondido neighborhood where my parents retired. And especially in the mix of parkland and community association holdings where I pounded away the miles for 23 years, before my knee gave out.
It has been 15 years. That seems a lifetime ago. But I still want to run.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.