The merchandisers are giving you a run for your money.

Six a.m. and the sun’s not up. I’m not exactly up myself but still I’m struggling into my running gear: T-shirt from Goyne’s Canoe Livery in San Marcos; shorts with an orange sunburst silkscreened on the butt; blue warm-up suit, now faded and frayed, a gift from my mother after she found out that I was running in swim trunks held together with gaffer’s tape (“No son of mine is going to run looking like a hobo”); cotton socks, sans “odor controller,” and running shoes, the one piece of real equipment that I own. Blue and white and made in Poland. By today’s standards not really top of the line. No triple-reinforced heels, two-tone suede uppers, or special Oregon Waffle soles, “Ideal for gravel, grass, or pavement.” But they do the job. Almost 2000 miles and not a single bone spur or pulled tendon.

Man is a running animal, the anthropologists tell us. Running is part of our collective unconscious. So what did our ancestors do without Adidas? The great appeal of running used to be that it was simple and cheap. Tennis players needed courts and racquets, swimmers needed pools, golfers a course and an open bar. All runners needed was a little will power. Go do it! The Greeks ran naked, with just a splash of Oil of Olay for effect. The Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico still run hundreds of miles in their bare feet, as do the Australian aborigines, hunting kangaroos no less.

When archaeologists start poking through our remains thousands of years from now, what will they find? Fossilized footprints of rugged, natural man? Hardly. Puma prints, Nike prints, Brooks Villanova prints, prints made by Gazelles, Antelopes, Cadets, Dragons, Dragon Ladies, Stockholms, Viennas, Montreal 76’s. All pretty much alike except for the price tags, $15 to $50, more if you want extra-strength laces, special supports. and snazzy reflective stripes for night running. The world is full of people who’d love to run if only they could find the right shoes. These days chicness comes before fitness. Designer warm-up suits in all the latest colors, preferably one for each season. Couples doing laps in matching shorts and windbreakers, bobbing along like mobile bookends. Will science be able to sort all of this out, or will nuance be lost, as with hieroglyphs and cave paintings? Who’ll be able to explain double knit, triple knit, acrylic, polyester, Kortel? How to make sense of “wicking,” “cookie supports,” “Shoo Goo,” digital pedometers, and body watches for keeping pace with your age group? These shards of contemporary leisure culture require an index. But which one? The Complete Runner? The Complete Book of Running? The Joy of Running? Jog, Run, Race? Inside Running? Running Inside?

One of the pleasures of running at 6 a.m. (Knopf, $8.75; Field Edition $10.95) is that my Labrador and I have the park all to ourselves. The dog molesters, with their Mace and weighted walking sticks, are still in bed, and the only car is a police cruiser making the rounds of the neighborhood. A few years ago the cops would follow you just to be sure you didn’t have somebody’s silverware tucked into your running suit. Now they smile and drive on by. There are just too many of us. We’re no longer amusing eccentrics to be nudged into the shrubbery at every opportunity. We’re the New Wave. We have power. We buy! Over $150 billion last year for recreation, $ 1 billion on athletic shoes alone. (Never say “sneakers.” Very declasse, like “dungarees.”)

The first five minutes are spent limbering up. A dozen hip rotations for the lower back, then some deep-knee bends, jumping jacks, and a few toe-touching exercises. Left, right, left, right. Stretch those hamstrings. Make those tendons twang. Finally a couple of wind sprints and you’re ready to go. Each lap of the park is 6/10 of a mile. Twelve laps for a good workout. Start slowly, the experts advise. Relax. Remember, even if the rest of the day goes to hell, you’ve run.

Head erect, shoulders even. Keep the wrists below waist level. Move those hands, bend those elbows. Land on your heels and roll onto your feet. Some books suggest that you think of yourself as an animal, running on all fours but upright. Tricky, especially if the police are around. Don’t lean forward. Keep your balance. Find that body rhythm. Tune into those alpha waves. Hands open and free. No clenched fists – very bad for the circulation. A complicated subject, running and circulation, running and blood-pressure. My resting pulse is now about 60, down from 75 two years ago. Target is 50. Drop a beat and add six months to your life? Was Methuselah a jogger?

Difficult questions, which I usually save for my buddy Larry, a cardiologist, who shows up every morning about 6:30. “Who can say,” he’ll answer with professional insouciance. “Lots of factors involved. Heredity, diet, lifestyle.” Larry keeps me posted on the latest discoveries in running medicine, especially problems like runner’s nipples, runner’s kidney, body fat. “Frank Shorter’s body fat is down around 2 percent. Yours and mine is probably 13 or 14 percent.” I nod. I have no curiosity whatsoever about tiny fatty deposits. Never even had a cholesterol count. Larry laughs and tells me that cholesterol is old hat now anyway. Triglycerides are where it’s at. I can get my cholesterol and my triglycerides checked for about $40, sort of a two-for-one sale. Perhaps I should be more enthusiastic about all the specialists nowadays. We no longer have to depend on sedentary G.P.’s or run-of-the-mill trainers. Guys like Vinnie at my old high school.

“My knee is killing me, Vinnie. I must have pulled something on the last turn.”

“Walk it off for a while, then go sit in the whirlpool.”

“It’s still stiff, Vinnie. Like a board.”

“Rub some Ben-Gay on it, dummy, and wrap it in an Ace bandage.”

Vinnie was crazy about Ben-Gay and Ace bandages. It was as though they were family businesses. How did we ever survive the likes of him? Now when the aches start I can hobble over to the foot shrink.

For the first mile or so my head buzzes and I can feel a slow churning sensation in my stomach. Revenge of the triglyc-erides! I want to stop, but 1 know that it’s weakness talking. Have to run through the pain. And diet. No more fettucine and Chateauneuf du Pape. From now on it’s brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, orange juice, raw cauliflower. Death to polyun-saturates! (For details see The Runner’s Diet, World, $2.95.)

Dieting is a depressing thought, especially on an empty stomach, so for a while I run along silently, listening only to a soothing inner voice. Puma, Nike, Brooks, Adidas, Puma, Nike, Brooks, Adidas. A nice mantra. It’s said that the difference between the jogger and the runner is that the jogger cares mainly about weight loss and muscle tone whereas the runner is concerned about distance and aesthetics and locating some inner spiritual center (see Anita Bryant, Running the Good Race. Revell, $5.95). By these criteria, I’m primarily a jogger. Increased lung capacity and lowered blood pressure I’ve got; Nirvana, so far, has eluded me. Once, in Maine, I thought I was approaching it only to step in a hole and turn an ankle. Dillon the Overreach-er! Since then I”ve been content with secular pleasures. Plop, plop, plop. Puma. Nike, Brooks, Adidas. Puma, Nike, Brooks, Adidas.

By seven other runners have usually arrived. A tall, lean fellow in a red sweatshirt and white sun hat. He looks a bit like Frank Shorter, runs like him too except for the headset. Must get his mantra from KVIL. He sets a fast pace so we don’t run together. Competition is counter-productive, the books say, especially when you lose. I wait for Bob instead. He dresses even worse than I do and doesn’t know a thing about triglycerides. Insurance is his game – annuities, equities, tax shelters, retirement plans. He can talk about it for miles. Very aerobic, Bob. At his suggestion I set up an IRA account. “You’re a writer, man. You might not have a whole lot to fall back on later.” So at 59orwhatever I’m going to have a nice little nest egg, all thanks to running. Everyone is writing about esoteric topics these days, like “Running and Psychotherapy” or “Running and Metabolism.” Why doesn’t somebody write a really practical book? Running Your Way to Financial Security, for example.

Or Running and Creativity. Two filmmaker friends insist that running stimulates the visual imagination, heightens color perceptions. When we run we talk continually about films, those we’ve seen, those we’d like to make. You’re not truly aerobic until you can say Lina Wertmul-ler and Dino de Laurentiis without gasping. On bad days we talk a lot about John Ford or Howard Hawks. Plop, plop, plop, footage, footage, footage. Perhaps Michelangelo did a few turns around the Colosseum before heading for the Sistine Chapel.

Mile seven. Only two more laps to go. Now’s the time to let it all hang out. A seven-minute mile, maybe even a sixfifty. My labrador’s competitive instincts come alive. She knows she’s faster and stronger than I am and likes to tease me by running just a few strides ahead, grinning smugly. I don’t mind. I’m not in this for glory. Plop, plop, plop, feet hitting the pavement like pancakes. Heels first, roll onto your feet. Push with your arms. Find that rhythm. Stretch.

Three hundred yards to go. My legs are turning into jello and my silk-screened shorts are starting to bleed through. “Though we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we can make him run.” No wonder the Greeks disliked distance runners. We make terrible statues. Push, push, show those shirkers in the apartment houses what they’re missing. Make ’em gag on their English muffins. Reach back for that little something extra. Boston’s not impossible. A guy who can run ten miles can run twenty-six, right? Joanne Woodward did it. Push. Get that second wind. Let the muscles take over. Don’t even think about the pain. Man is a running animal. He glides, he glides.

Somewhere in mid-stride you hear a horn and a hostile voice. “Outta the road, you jackass.” You smile, raise your middle finger defiantly into the air, and push harder. (See Running Scared. Morrow, $7.50. )


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