The runner in midlife: working up a sweat before the smog-rise

Several times a week, I run along the blind curves on the leafy side of town till I reach the contented exhaustion that comes from heavy exercise, the kind that makes you feel like someone poured hot coffee in your bones.

"Embrace the burn," trainers always say.


So I do.

I am sure of so few things in life. I don't know if boxing is dead or the real color of Scarlett Johansson's hair. I hold serious doubts about the future of democracy, religion, space travel, cable TV, charity and compassion.

Yet I am absolutely 100% certain that the human body craves a good salty sweat several times a week, the kind that soaks through your socks and T-shirt.

An odd thing, exercise: In order to stay alive, we need to hurt a little. Otherwise we rot from the inside out.

I do what the Greeks did, run from village to village in search of heavy truths. No sense rushing. I walk a lot before I jog, always careful to take the shady streets. Just for kicks, I wave to people I don't know. Nothing messes with an Angeleno's smug contentedness like random public kindness.

Along the way, I stop to help old ladies cross busy intersections. I flirt with Peggy the shopkeeper, well into her 50s and still the prettiest kid in town.

On weekdays, I cuss loudly at late-to-school moms who nearly flatten me as they blow through red lights — tiny women in too-big cars, vats of Starbucks in their laps, phones dangling from their ears like jewelry.

Look, I get it. If there were ever a reason for running down a stranger, it's in the name of getting little Caitlin to second grade before the last bell. Please note this at my memorial service.

Near-death moments aside, running is still a pretty good way to start a spring day.

The best exercise advice ever is to establish a routine that you'll keep doing over and over.

In short, don't punish yourself. That's what marriage is for. And dogs and kids. So, no, don't punish yourself. If you need punishment, just have more children.

With running, it's best to go early, before the air is full of the heavy resins of car exhaust and garden crud. Each day, L.A. is attacked by thousands of gardeners with leaf blowers, who stir up mushroom clouds of pesticides and rat poison and tire grit. Yum. If you could only bottle that stuff. You could pour it on the geraniums to keep deer away.

What a ritual: In the name of perfectly clean driveways, giant clouds of grime are kicked up over our homes each morning. Should you forget to close your bedroom windows, this urban coal dust ends up on your white cotton pillow. At night, you swallow it with your eyes.

As with life, I suppose you just have to plow through, each day a journey, not a race. Slow and steady ... the mantra of a long-distance dad.


Speaking of races, I don't do many. Race sign-ups are always months out, and I never know my schedule well enough to commit. I'd like to do more, though. Generally, I like the kind of people who run, though more and more they have their ear buds in, which defeats the purpose of running with 1,000 others. When you run a road race, you should relish the clip-clop of other feet. The sights. The calves.

Oh, yes, the human calf. Let us pray.

Pumped-up calves are one of the major payoffs of regular exercise. As muscles, they are surpassed only by the schnitzel, the mystery muscle that runs from the back of the throat, grapevines around your heart, then belts your torso before winding down your leg. Not sure what doctors call it; to me, it's the schnitzel.

The schnitzel is life itself. And the most-glorious section of the schnitzel is a spoony, well-toned calf muscle. Like a marbled Rodin you want to run your hands all over.

The calf is one of the body's best barometers. If your calves are taut, imagine how hearty is the heart, or the lungs, or the mind, another muscle that benefits from all this footwork.

In such movement, there is midlife longevity. Better yet, quality of life.

A friend of ours, active and beautiful beyond her years, tells of hiking in Italy recently and being blown away by rugged 85-year-olds going up steep climbs near Tuscany.

Not fast, she says, just one foot forward followed by the other foot — ever higher on the wings of their ancient and glorious calves.

Twitter: @erskinetimes