Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eye of the tiger

I have become a Parisian runner. As some of you may recall, sports aren’t really my thing—and by sports I mean competitive, sweaty, potentially violent activities; I’m not counting any namby-pamby New Age ones (those I obviously engage in, like any self-respecting Californian). The very word “sports” for me conjures up images of junior high gym class: donning a pair of ridiculous knee-length fleece shorts and being forced to engage in competitive group activities, demonstrating—regrettably—that the age-old stereotype of “girls suck at sports” is actually kind of true (I mean as it pertains to me, so save your righteous indignation). Messing up my painstakingly sculpted teenage hair by pulling that stupid gym shirt over it was enough alone to leave psychological scars, but repeatedly ending up last to be chosen for the softball team, dog-paddling my way through aquatic relay races and never managing to execute even one sorry chin-up ultimately created a profound distaste in me for “real” sports.

This is why I put off learning to run for years; I figured I’d be bad at it. I was tempted to seize the proverbial bull by his proverbial horns and release my inner Olympian when I began college—as a stress reducer if nothing else—except that at the time, I wanted something more original, more impressive (I was 18; give me a break). So I joined a Kung-Fu class in North Dallas, run by a guy who, fitfully enough, looked like a younger, greasier version of David Carradine. He made us call him “Master,” loved to spout random bits of wisdom from the Tao Te Ching and taught us animal-inspired stances so bizarre that if ever we had found ourselves actually needing to use any of them for self-defense, the attacker probably would have fallen over laughing—which would technically get the job done, so I’m not knocking it.

Don't make me use this.

In the grand tradition of B-grade martial arts movies, our “Master” firmly believed in the “no pain, no gain” approach to apprenticeship; he imposed bare knuckle push-ups on any misbehavers and took obvious pleasure in humiliating his advanced students by flat-out kicking their asses at the end of every class. I hung in there until the day he claimed to have cured his mother of cancer over the phone, at which point I realized with fortune cookie clarity that a mad teacher teaches only madness. And since I’ve never been lacking in that department, I decided to move on.

When I first arrived in France, I spent a lot of time in parks. I like parks; they’re green, peaceful, bucolic. They make for fantastic lunch spots if you can manage to snag one of the perpetually-occupied benches. While hanging out in such parks, I often noted a fair number of presumably French joggers. Nothing strange about that per se, except their clothing, which looked as though they’d initially come to the park just to relax, but were suddenly seized with an irrepressible urge to break into a jog: khaki shorts, polo shirts, canvas shoes.... Odd. Where, pray tell, was their sports gear? Now, G. has mentioned on multiple occasions that we Americans are totally hung up on sports equipment; even the average American housewife who wants to go out for a stroll around the neighborhood somehow feels she must put on a visor, headset, spandex shorts, sports bra and cross-trainers beforehand (with or without ski poles). OK, he has a point; it is a well-known fact that my fellow countrymen and I appreciate le stuff. But hey, at least we don’t go and try to exercise dressed like we just stepped out of a Lacoste casting call.

French jogger, ca. 1999.

In any case, it’s a moot point because over the past decade I have noticed a clear evolution in French sports apparel and now, when I go running (I’ll get to that in a minute), I see the same kind of Nike-clad, iPod-adorned, aspiring marathoners that I had expected to see all along.

So, after reading the hundredth women’s magazine article about how anybody can learn to run, I figured I’d Just Do It already. And in the end, it wasn’t so hard. Unsurprisingly, the first step was buying the appropriate gear, which actually played a major motivational role and clearly demonstrates the advantages of dressing like you mean it. I got through the requisite side stitches, the huffing and puffing, a brief episode of runner’s knee (also a question of proper outfitting), and today am a confirmed runner! My live-in “coach” and I run every week, come rain, snow or shine (mainly because he will not tolerate any whining what-so-ever).

Our territory of predilection is the Champs de Mars, a big green semi-park encircling the Eiffel Tower—I know, poor us. Running there is always an adventure, mainly because of the constantly changing obstacles. On any given day, we may have to outmaneuver masses of gaping tourists, unsupervised children, pétanque competitions, copulating dogs, marauding gypsy families, bridal photography sessions, homeless wanderers, rallying Copts, Segway enthusiasts, African immigrants hawking cheap Eiffel Tower replicas, and much, much more. Sometimes we’re treated to live music; other times we leave with free lettuce. Not wanting to trip over/crash into any of the afore-mentioned, we’ve learned to practice preternaturally aware running.

Today, thanks to my new-found recreation, I no longer fear sports. I’m not exactly what one could call a sports fan, mind you, but when I go in for my annual check-up and my doctor asks me whether or not I engage in any regular physical activity, I am proud to say that I can now reply with a triumphant “HELL YES!”

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