The expensive sweating of the middle classPublished 9:21am Friday, June 7, 2013
Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling
A chance encounter at the grocery store led to a chat about my columns. The reader talked about always reading the columns to the end, even when disagreeing with pretty much everything I was saying. The ones enjoyed the most were the ones I wrote about running.
Those columns made them laugh, which is good, since that’s the intent – to laugh at my pseudo-suffering. As the reader wandered into the next aisle, the chat ended with a question about when the next regular installment would be showing up … which means I’ve become far too predictable with my topics. Oh well.
A couple of things have changed for me since I last wrote about running back in 2011. The most important difference is that I now look forward to it, although only when I can run outside; I make running outside spring, summer and fall a priority and miss it when I can’t, because of work or weather. There was no epiphany, no guitars wailing as “We are the Champions” rang out. It just happened that one day I was too busy to run, and I rearranged my schedule so I could. And that’s how I knew.
Liking running is a completely new experience, because it makes me feel more like an athlete. It’s about identity. Up to this point, I have always been comfortable wearing the skin of a reader, a scholar or a writer. An athlete is not who I see in the mirror each morning. Oh, I sometimes dreamed of having a body rippling with muscles, but only until I got caught up into the next good book.
This newfound love for running does not extend to treadmills, which I still find a boring abomination. Winter — when running outside doesn’t make sense to me — means stationary bicycles and other indoor exercises, and listening to music is the only thing that makes any of it bearable. I don’t foresee my attitude toward treadmills changing. Ever.
The other thing that is different relates more to the awkward issue of economic class. Running regularly outside for exercise spring, summer and fall — and enjoying it — means that I’m less focused on how much I would like to stop running and walk and am more focused on looking around at the neighborhoods I’m running through. This means that I regularly encounter people who are outside spring, summer and fall (and sometimes in winter, too) for a very different reason: they work outside.
Those workers and I both sweat, we both push our muscles to the maximum and will be sore later because of it, but the differences between us are real and significant. The sweat on my body appears out of desire to have a fit body; they sweat while using their bodies to make a living. I have a choice and they do not, if they want a home and food on the table and the respect of friends and family. My running, cycling and other forms of exercise might mean a more pleasant, less painful old age; their manual labor might mean they live with pain and suffering, might even mean they have to retire early because their bodies are broken.
In short, my sweating and efforts are a luxury, the trappings of a life into which leisure activities — like running — can be integrated because my job doesn’t leave me physically drained. It’s not that the sweating and fatigue I experience is a vicarious badge of honor — look at me and how much I suffer! Of course I am usually suffering, especially between miles three and five, but that’s beside the point.
The delicious irony in all of this is that, because I teach at a private college, those laborers at the side of the road probably make as much or more than I do.
So now I run, still with sore muscles, still slowly (compared to the others out on the streets at the same time as I am), still feeling a bit self-conscious as I see those who work outside with their bodies all day long. But I have a different attitude. And that makes all the difference. The credo for the April Sorensen Half-Marathon puts it best: Live, Laugh, Love, Run.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.