Starting to (Half) Marathon: Finishing San Francisco

I finished the back half of the San Francisco marathon today. I share that to encourage others, not to congratulate myself. I grew up as the classic geek, the stereotype of an Asian American nerd, much more likely to be reading a book or programming a computer than engaging in any exercise much less sport. You know, the adolescent who ends up trapped inside the locker -- builds character if not muscle. (That racial image, while not false of me, is a gross generalization: my father and his immigrant friends were avid basketball players and fans.)

A few years ago, however, I experienced that mid-life moment when I realized if I remained sedentary I wouldn't remain alive. Actually, my wife persuaded me of the point. Once I was working out regularly, I found out that I enjoyed it. I also noticed an improvement in intellectual performance, with more energy when I was up early to start sweating. Now accustomed to the cardio routine, I cannot abide how I feel if I take too long a break from the gym.

Upon moving to the Bay Area, I took up walking. We all walk if able. But it is all too easy to drive around or simply to sit. That's fatal.

My new home has the right ethos for urban hiking. A city is defined by the walking that occurs within it. People here expect to be pedestrians. The norm is to perambulate over greater distances than elsewhere.

The first time I trekked to the office, a route of not quite five miles with a big hill midway, I consulted a map in advance and thought to myself, "Wow. Who ever makes it that far?" When I arrived, I felt healthier than I had expected. I said to myself, "That wasn't bad."

Like many who are attracted to a pastime, I have become all the more enthusiastic. I quickly felt the urge to increase my exertions. I have added walking meetings. One good-natured colleague joins me on a regular basis for a 7.5 mile discussion of our work agenda. Bebe the dog (a chihuahua mix) is happy to trot along for many of these excursions.

When my cousin's husband came to town to participate in the San Francisco marathon, he said to me what I repeat: if he was capable of this feat, I should be too. He was earnest. That was sufficient.

I decided right then. I would do it. I was modest though. He did the full 26.2 miles at full speed. My choice was the 13.1 length with the goal of mere completion.

As I trained for the challenge, relying on walk-run intervals, I came to appreciate the cliche that the longest journey begins with a single step (according to Lao Tzu) and the metaphor that an endeavor is a marathon not a sprint (attributed most recently to Dr. Phil). These are not platitudes if put into practice. Everything comes easier after one overcomes inertia. Yet the discipline is to stay at the slow rate that can be maintained rather than pursue the speed that will not last.

I also am more of a realist about human behavior as a result: I wonder if we are all the people whom we teach children not to be. An idealist wishes for cooperation. An individual tries to compete. When I confessed that to motivate myself, I picked other joggers who were slightly faster, telling myself it would be an embarrassment if they beat me, a friend who has done many a marathon informed me that that is common practice.

At least my rivals, unaware of their status as such, were not selected in an inappropriate manner. I am delighted to see the diversity surrounding me: people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation and body shape; the "fit but fat" movement was represented. People are wonderful to behold in their abilities. In my first outing, I was passed by a contemporary, a father pushing a stroller, and I was not perturbed; later, I was passed by a woman behind a double stroller, and I accepted that as well -- she crossed the line only seconds before me, and my wife reported that the crowd united to cheer crazily for her achievement.

I prepared myself with a trick of conditioning. I forced myself to take off on a musical cue: the theme song, the original version, to the Hawaii Five-0 television show. With a playlist set to shuffle, I could not predict when I would be compelled to hurry. Pavlov would be proud of the technique that has instilled an idiosyncratic reflex, even if it puzzled observers who could not hear the beat of the Ventures' hit tune urging me forward. For its duration, I can clock a 6:30 pace.

For a brief moment this morning, the span of three blocks, I led my wave. Thanks to a traffic diversion that split the field, instead of being at the back I was at the front suddenly. Nobody was ahead, within my vision.

When I reflect, as happens along the course, I have to conclude that the value of running is intrinsic to the act. The contest is incidental at the end. I would rather enjoy a solitary stroll than be the perpetrator of a hoax of athleticism. I would like to emulate those who have made their walks as sociable as they would have been in a bygone era of ambling along the boulevard.

This year, I have finished three half-marathons. I have registered for two more of this most popular race. Next year, I plan to try a full marathon. Those who have done it warn me it is much more than twice the effort of a half-marathon; it's more along the lines of ten times harder. I heed their words.

I wish I had been aware of the pleasure of walking, from the time I was a college student who would rather miss class than trek to campus. But regret about the past serves no purpose other than as inspiration for the future. I hope to see everyone on the road, on our own two feet. The vigor of our lives, private and public, depends on it.