Monday, September 27, 2010

Do The Hip Shake, Baby

I started running decades ago, before distance running became anywhere near as popular as it is today.

It was a more primitive time, before the Nike Waffle Trainer, before The Complete Book of Running, and before any of the magazines that line the racks of major book stores, magazines like Runner's World and Running Times.

Only crazy people and Olympic athletes ran marathons.

It was a much different time in 1973, the year I entered high school, the year my stepfather said, "You have to go out for a sport."

I'd been pretty good at baseball as a kid, so-so at basketball and really did not like football.

Plus, by the time I entered high school I had developed a sort of anti-establishment attitude toward team sports. They were uncool. As were marching band, proms, clubs and organizations of any kind.

But my high school guidance counselor, who also happened to be the school's cross country coach, suggested I try out for the sport. Actually, he said, I should just show up at the track infield and be ready to run. Cross country then had no tryouts, and the coach/guidance counselor was grateful for anyone who showed up.

Cross country had kind of an outsider mystique, a lone wolf status -- just you competing against your own best time, crashing through the woods in all kinds of weather and terrain. Rebels without a play book.

Up until then, the fanciest sneakers I'd ever owned were a pair of Converse All-Stars, which served as well for basketball as they did for tennis and gym class and running and bicycling. Think of them as primitive cross-trainers. Oh, well, I did have those baseball cleats from my Little League days but that was about it.

The coach said I had to get myself a pair of running shoes, and I thought and so I went out and bought my first ever pair of specialized shoes that were not traditional cleats or gym shoes.

I'd never heard of running shoes before (track cleats, sure). And there was not a lot on the market back then. The Nike Waffle Trainer hadn't been invented yet, and the Tiger running shoe was too expensive. But I remember the track stars at the 1972 Olympics wearing these crazy, red shoes. And the salesman convinced my step-dad those were the best for the money, so those were the ones we bought.

I'll never forget those Adidas SL 72s. Red suede-and-nylon tops with three-white stripes. A weird grippy white sole unlike any other with a slightly built-up heel, a pinched middle that followed the contours of a person's arch, broadened out at the ball of the foot and tapered at the toe. The shoe was snug, stable and fit like a, um, glove.

I loved them. I wore the hell out of them, slapping their spongy soles along the hilly, paved roads of Northport, NY, during practice and on my own.

There was no widely known manual for distance running, no Jim Fixx book on the shelves (The Complete Book Of Running came out in 1977). Only my guidance counselor coach to guide me.

His instructions abut running have stuck with me to this day:

  •  Head up, shoulders back and hips tilted forward.
  •  Sway those hips from side to side slightly and push off the balls of your feet. 
  • Listen to the sound of your shoes hitting the pavement, like a snap or rim shot. 
  • Don't pump your legs straight up and down like a soldier or marching band member.
  • Don't drive down on your heels, for god's sake. 
  • Let gravity guide you. 

My cross country coach was the closest thing I had to a guru, and I've done OK by him. I've never had a shin splint, IT band injury or seriously whacked out knees, which could be physiology and good genes as much as anything.

But I also never had any serious running injuries until last year. And that more likely was the result of normal wear and tear on a 52-year-old body, stress from a non-running back injury I'd received more than a decade before, and improper training before running a grueling marathon in 95-degree heat.

As I continue my rehabilitation, I tend to focus more on form than anything else. I feel myself sagging, or my shoulders drooping and my feet shuffling, and I remember those words of my coach. I snap my head up, throw my shoulders back,  and tilt those hips forward and suddenly I can hear that crisp staccato of my waffle soles hitting the pavement. And I'm right back where I started.

Now, watch this hip-shaking clip of the Rolling Stones rehearsing for Montreaux in 1972:

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