Sunday, April 13, 2008

Hitting the Track (Gently at First)

WITH THE FLOWERING OF SPRING, in both foliage and temperature, I can resume taking walks in place of gym-bound cardiovascular exercise. This Saturday, I had a nice chunk of early-afternoon time blocked out for just such an outing. I thought about mounting the hill near my house, but my knees were giving me a little grief. I have no history of knee pain, so this was mildly alarming. Not wanting to aggravate whatever was up there, I chose a flat course nearby.

There is a school down the street from my apartment with a full athletic field, complete with a track around the gridiron. I'd spied folks jogging around it while driving by, but I'd never given it a tryout as a walking course. So under clouds reluctantly parting to admit the sun, I strolled to that side of town and surveyed the course.

The football field and track were populated only by a solo runner and a gaggle of Canadian geese cropping the turf. I was surprised to see the track was fine gravel over earth, not paved. (I recall my high school having a paved track.) Reasoning that this would be a bit more like walking on sand, from an increased muscle-effort standpoint, I picked the bleachers as a starting point, cued up an archive of the mighty Rex of WFMU's Fool's Paradise program, and got to walking.

I decided, as I rounded the first curve, to add a short jog to the circuit: for the length of the bleachers, I'd pick up the pace. I figured this wouldn't kill me (or at least if it did, I'd croak doing something positive for myself). My knees were a bit creaky as I approached this first test, but I nonetheless jogged alongside the bleachers, perhaps a 30-second stretch tops, and entered my second lap without collapsing. Other than the crap in my pockets bouncing up and down with the rest of me as I jogged, no problem the first time through.

By the third "sprint," my knees no longer hurt. I guess they just needed a decent warmup that my slower walk to the actual field didn't provide. Encouraging news. I'm not unaware of the toll obesity inflicts on knees, and my mother is down to bone-on-bone in hers. I've got to do what I need to do now, before I lose full joint utility.

Although the big hill has the advantage of working my quads most brutally, the field now revealed the blessing of being quiet. Passing traffic seemed distant, even without the earbuds feeding me schlock rock from the deepest, darkest 50s and 60s. Cars on the hill, by contrast, always sound close enough that they seem to be right on your tail.

By about the fifth lap, the sun had warmed the field enough to release waves of fresh-grass scent, which took me back to grade-school soccer practices. I recalled doing 440s then around the field and hating them. I evaded the easy trap of wishing I'd done more to be athletically inclined back then, and concentrated on improving myself now, the only place I can ever be and the sole locale where I can do myself some good. I noticed sweat beading on my brow and running down my neck, both good signs that I was doing real work. Another soccer-practice memory snapped to: The coach who complained to her kid that if she wasn't sweating, she wasn't working hard enough.

The jogs weren't killing me, but by the eighth round, I was feeling a slightly painful stretching in the tendons of my soles. I began to wonder how many total laps I'd notch. Ten seemed a nice round number, but this being my first venture into limited jogging and fast walking on a semisoft surface, I eventually topped out at nine. Rather than stopping dead, I stretched to cool down for a few minutes, feeling comfortably loose ahead of the lower-half strength workout I had planned at the gym later that afternoon. Oddly, the walk home felt like I was climbing a hill — whether this was true, or just a side effect of the unfamiliar exercise, it still took extra, and gratifying, effort to accomplish.

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