I have a friend, Dimitriy, who married recently.
He married a lovely young woman, Clara, and they're on a beautiful honeymoon in Rome right now. I met Dimitriy at Buffalo Grove High School, during my first season with the cross country team. We made a bet after I'd finished my first three months of summer training: Whoever ran a slower mile in August bought movie theater snacks that weekend in 2010. Well, I won, and Dimitriy bought me a fat box of some candy that escapes my memory. What I do remember, and what he'll never let me forget to this day, is what he said after: "You'll always be fat and slow."
Sure, he meant it in a sarcastic (I'd beaten him) and endearing (he genuinely wanted my success) way. In the five years that followed, I'd gone from JV athlete to high school record holder to an NCAA Division One athlete to SEC all-conference runner. And every time I returned to Chicago and saw Dimitriy, he never let me forget that to him, I'd always be fat and slow.
Ironically enough, this self-fulfilling prophecy has come true. I've gained weight, and become slower, since forgoing my final season of NCAA eligibility to pursue a career in journalism. In serious running circles, people who take running half-seriously are called "hobby joggers." I'm now a hobby jogger, and I'm not sure how to feel about it.
Last week, my boss at Men's Health forwarded me an email from a PR rep with Michelob Ultra (the beer company of calorie-obsessed 45-year-olds and any remaining Lance Armstrong supporters). He'd been invited to the Manhattanhenge Mile, a road race based on the annual alignment of Manhattan's East-West streets with the earth's rotation about the sun, and he'd shoed me in to run it for him. I accepted (free beer), and thus my hobby jogging career began.
I walked up to the roped-off area on Union Square West at 7:30 PM, the specified time, and checked in with Michelob Ultra's media relations. With a couple Men's Health name-drops, I'd been swarmed with PR reps hoping to get the Michelob name in our magazine. Two problems: It's Michelob, which sucks, and we're a monthly magazine who (because of our print schedule) cannot feasibly write about such an event (if we'd wanted to) for three to four months. But again, free beer.
Thrillist, The Gothamist, and a bunch of fashion/active bloggers showed up with similar press passes.
"What happens if I win?" I asked the Michelob folks.
"Nothing," they said. "We encourage you to go slow and take pictures."
I pinned a bib to my chest, brought running shoes, and made a passing effort to limber up, but I'm not supposed to exert any serious effort. In a race. This is definitely strange.
A Brooklyn-based Instagram fitness trainer lead us through arm circles.
"I actually have no idea what these do, but I remember doing them in gym class, so let's just do that!" she droned, with slavish enthusiasm, into a mike pinned to her shirt. "One last thing: Don't pass the lead motorbikes."
The "lead motorbikes" turned out to be a 70-something guy on a bicycle with a high-visibility vest who made no attempt to stop traffic during the race. But nonetheless, we set off at 8:00 PM sharp, in time for the Manhattanhenge sunset.
"So, where are you all from?" I asked, jogging down 14th street in the lead pack with the fellow press bibs.
"Playgirl," a burly guy with a man bun replied.
"I think I saw your spread in the March issue," I said.
"That was a great month for me," he said.
The rest of the press answered more seriously, although I wasn't taking notes and can't actually remember where they were all from. But as we rounded the halfway point, we'd dropped the fashion and fitness bloggers who wore the most expensive (Lululemon, Adidas Boost, Nike Free, etc.) running gear of all. I got the impression that at least 80 percent of the participants were doing it for the 'Gram.
The race enjoyed about 100 entrants, with a 50/50 split of media and paid public entrants, and two from the latter group were leading the race at about 1,400 meters. At that point, we'd been stopped at a light in Greenwich Village, and our geriatric race leader wasn't about to halt traffic on his 10-speed. So we caught up, and by the time the light turned green, there were about 20 of us in contention for the meaningless race win.
"How funny would it be if we sprinted to the front and leaned these try-hards at the line?" I asked the so-called Playgirl aficionado.
"Pretty fuckin' great," he said.
And with that, we broke into a full sprint—impromptu finish line in sight over a cobble-stone street in the height of the Manhattanhenge glow. Five-runners abroad with 50 feet to go, I channeled my NCAA career and powered to the line, winning by a lean.
It was the least triumphant, least rewarding victory of my running career. But instead of too-serious coach's debriefings and team meetings, there was free beer, free hors d'oeuvres, and free colloquialisms afterwards. With the sun setting over the meatpacking-district rooftop bar and a gorgeous view of the Hudson, nobody remembered who won.
Perhaps there's something to be said for taking running a bit less seriously. The hobby-jogging life isn't for the fit and skinny, it's for the fat and slow. Thankfully, that's what I've been all along.