During my mid-twenties, I worked a cruddy job in a call center. The company was great and the people with whom I worked couldn’t have been nicer, but the job itself was cruddy. All call center jobs are cruddy. Nobody ever dials an 800 number just to tell the person on the other end that everything is okay. “Couldn’t be happier with my product or service. Just wanted to let you know.” No, people call with problems that you, the call center rep, either personally caused or are obstructing solutions to.
My disdain for the work probably wasn’t helped by the insistence that I “put a smile in my voice,” or by the corporate dress code. Why in the world does a person who answers calls all day need to wear a tie, khakis, and loafers? The only person who could see me was my cubicle buddy, who was too busy making jerk-off hand gestures while apologizing to the 50th caller straight about hold time to care whether I was wearing stylish footwear.
Nor was my mood improved by the strict regulation of “ready” status. It didn’t matter whether I needed to pee, cough, or had a spider in my pants, the expectation was that my ass was in that chair and ready to take calls all day every day. Well, almost. The exceptions were two fifteen minute breaks each shift and a one hour lunch break. During that time, I was welcome to sit in a break room and talk to other people in ties and khakis who were stressed out over the onslaught of verbal abuse hurled their way by otherwise rational people. Some employees found comfort in these bitch sessions, but I found them even more stressful. After talking to grouchy people all morning, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to grouchy people during my free time.
And so I began to walk. The call center stood in the middle of what previously was a large field overgrown with wild mustard but was now a large industrial park that sat like a castle in the middle of an asphalt moat. I took to the pavement, walking the huge parking lot’s perimeter whenever I was let off my headset leash.
Now this worked for me. Cell phones were not yet ubiquitous, and portable CD players remained out of my financial reach. Call center employees are not exactly paid handsomely, after all. Out there where the pavement brushed against the wild mustard, the only sound was my inner monologue, or the silent counting of my footsteps. Occasionally a jack rabbit would run through the brush, but aside from that I was on my own planet for as close to fifteen minutes or one hour as I could get and still get back to my dreary desk in time to log in.
One morning it happened. I don’t know why, maybe boredom. Regardless, one morning walking gave way to running. That first run probably wasn’t very long. I was wearing penny loafers, after all, and khakis, and a tie. It felt good. I added a few more strides the next day, and then the next. Before I knew it, I was at my local running store getting fitted for my first pair of Sauconys. A Discman may have been frivolous, but a good pair of running shoes seemed like a good investment.
Those work-related walks evolved into evening runs that wound through midtown Sacramento–around Fort Sutter and down to McKinley Park, back over to the fort, wherever I felt like going. I was up to an easy three miles in no time, which isn’t saying much. Any able-bodied person in his or her mid-twenties can get up to an easy three pretty quickly.
And then disaster struck. I shattered my hip socket in a freak accident. A week in the hospital, three months in bed, a year on crutches, another year or so on a cane. Just as I had fallen in love with running, my routine was broken into bony little shards.
The road back isn’t particularly interesting, so we’ll fast forward a little bit. Within a few years of that accident I was back on the road and headed for my first half marathon. I hit the wall at mile 12, but I finished anyway. Over the next decade, I ran dozens of races–never to win, just to run. There was nobody out on the course but me as far as I was concerned. Everybody else was just jack rabbits in the mustard.
I loved running. Each Sunday was dedicated to a long run–never shorter than two hours, but sometimes as much as four. I’m not sure whether it was running that I loved or the pain I inflicted. Pushing my broken body felt bad, which felt good. Maybe I’m a closet masochist.
I kept running long after I left the cruddy call center job. I layered in cycling, too, 30 miles per day minimum, and then weightlifting and martial arts. During that period I was working out around six hours per day, training for nothing other than being a human.
Mid-twenties turned into forty. I had three marathons under my newly earned black belt and a couple of triple centuries (300 mile bike rides) on my CV. I didn’t consider myself an athlete, which seemed like a competitive thing, but rather a guy who lived a certain way that worked for him. Someone with whom I was close disagreed. What I thought was healthy was, in fact, demonstrative of my mental illness, this person assured me. You can’t do anything like a normal person. You have to overdo it. It’s either all or nothing.
I believed that person. I always believe that person, whomever he or she is, if the message is that I’m a fuck up. What the hell do I know about me? What the hell do I know about anything? I was never a runner anyway, never an athlete. I was just a guy in loafers trying to outrun the crabby bastards on the telephone.
And so I stopped running. I stopped riding and lifting, too, and I stowed my karate gear in the closet. Nothing was more important to me than proving to that individual that I was mentally healthy, that my obsession with fitness wasn’t an “obsession” at all, that I could take it or leave it.
Years passed. That person didn’t give a shit. All I had done was swapped a lifestyle that was working for me for a flabby gut and a long overdue realization that I shouldn’t always believe that person, whomever he or she is. What the hell do I know about me? I know that I’m not happy sitting around waiting to die.
Walks filled in the space that running once occupied. I meandered through my neighborhood, picking up trash and talking to stray cats. Unlike my mid-twenties, I had portable music now to keep me company, which was nice. We all have portable music now all of the time. It’s like living with a soundtrack.
While on one of these walks one month ago, I wondered how far my flabby, broken body could run, and so I ran. The answer was this: not far. Three hundred and eighty steps, roughly two-tenths of a mile. I walked the next day, and then I ran again. My only goal was to beat 380 steps.
That person’s voice still echoed in my head: You can’t do anything like a normal person, you have to overdo it. Each evening I left the house with the tiniest goal in my mind: “Just beat last time by a few steps. You’re not a runner, you’re just an old man.” I refused to even change out of my jeans and polo shirts for fear that I would then be overdoing it, whatever that meant. My daughter caught wind that I’d been running short distances through the neighborhood while wearing street clothes. “So you look like you’re running from something then,” she said. “Yeah, that’s not creepy.”
When I finally hit a half mile–roughly 1,000 steps–I broke out the running shorts. At 3/4 of a mile I added a distance and pace calculator. Each run’s goal remained the same: Improve on the last one, just a little bit.
Yesterday I decided to repeat my “just how far can I run” experiment. With only one month of very light, cautious training, those 380 steps grew into 6.2 miles. I think I had another mile at least in my tank, but these days it’s all about cautious progress.
I don’t know what I’ll do with those miles. That’s exactly a 10k distance, so maybe I’ll go back to entering weekend races where I ignore the other rabbits running through the mustard. Then again, maybe not. There’s no sense in getting too frisky regarding future plans. Mostly it’s just nice to be running again.
I don’t know whether there’s any point or moral to this little story. It might be that small gains lead to big improvements. That sounds nice and tidy. Or perhaps the point is that we have to live the lives that work for us, and to hell with what anybody thinks about them (provided nobody is getting hurt and blah blah blah). “It’s never too late to take that first step out the door and start running” has a ring to it, as does “don’t try to live your life for somebody else, because inevitably they don’t give a damn anyway.” They really don’t, by the way. Fix that “broken” thing about yourself and they’ll just find some other fatal flaw.
I think the moral is probably that all call center jobs are cruddy but the people who work in those places are pretty nice, so don’t be a jerk when you call that 800 number. It’s not the poor chump who answered the phone’s fault that your salad shooter broke or your account is out of balance. Then again, if you scream like a hyena you just might motivate him or her to take a run at break time, so there’s always that.