I'm running hard. I hear my breath chafing, wheezing, begging me to slow down, feel my legs already beginning to grow heavy, but I glance at the scenery, glance at my watch and pick up the pace. Not in order to beat the rain. Not because my wife's breathing down my neck. Not to win some trophy.
No. Today I'm racing the president, and with each step my respect for him increases. Not because I agree with him about much. It's because now I realize he's a good runner, and I know what it takes to be a good runner at a relatively advanced age.
At 56, George W. Bush has become famous in running circles. He could even outrun my wife, Jeanne, or my brother, Tim. He's that good. Good enough even to make the cover of Runner's World magazine.
Yesterday, I heard a commentator mention in passing that Bush runs a seven-minute mile. I didn't know whether to be impressed or not. So I decided to try it. At exactly 11 a.m. I set out on my usual three-mile run. I decided I'd try the first mile in seven minutes. At the half-mile mark on my hilly, backwoods course, I was in trouble. I hadn't set a fast-enough pace, and even though I turned it up a notch at the end, it had been eight minutes. Gosh-darn it, I said--or something to that effect. Dang-nab it! That's tough. I walked the next quarter-mile. Then jogged about a mile and half and ran on in, doubtful about beating George W.'s time.
I'm not a great runner. I'm not even a good runner. I took it up three years ago for my self-respect. It was tough. At 46, I hadn't run a mile without stopping in 20 years. I took it up mostly because my wife, Jeanne, had done so and could run up and down the road with the greatest of ease. I couldn't keep up with her and that made her happy. So I said dadgummit--my kids make fun of me, call me Mayberry and such, but I digress. I said dadgummit, this is embarrassing. So I took out chasing her. She was patient, running these long loops up and down the road--literally running circles around me now and again--allowing me to keep up.
I thought I'd die running that first mile, but it wasn't long before I was jogging a couple miles without stopping, and I had to keep at it. Runners will tell you it's addictive. It gets your endorphins flowing, puts you at peace with the world. After a while it actually starts to energize you, picks up your day, strengthens your heartbeat, lowers your appetite, brightens the terrain like some low-level psychedelic drug. A few days after 9-11, I ran all the way to Sevierville--about five miles from my house--and part of the way back. I remember sort of floating into the community center. Never had the place been so bright, the colors so surreal, the expressions on all the faces so revealing of inner landscapes.
Running offers all kinds of other benefits. Sometimes I write a column in my head while running. My favorite mental activity these days, while running, is to recall everything I did the previous day from the moment I woke up. Jeanne once told me she uses her daily run as a chance to meditate and pray for all her relations. Sometimes I do that.
Running also helps general composure, gives you one more thing to feel good about. And when traveling, it's a fast way to see the sights. My brother Tim and I ran through Central Park in New York, once. We saw musicians, statuary, actors, photographers and models. At Mardi Gras in New Orleans, two years ago, someone had left something in the car. I remember thinking how easy it was to run back and fetch it.
Today I'm running for none of those reasons. I'm making one more attempt to beat the president. At the three-quarter-mile mark, I realize it's feasible, so I pick up the pace--remembering how I finally finished ahead of Jeanne once in a road race by stepping on it at the last minute.
I run hard to the one-mile mark and check my watch. I've done it! Seven minutes. Man am I pumped. I jog another quarter-mile, then turn around and trot on home. That last mile is slow. But hey, only because the first mile was fast. I ran as fast as the president!
One question I'd dared not ask before running today was whether Bush's seven-minute mile represented a one-mile dash around a track or his average time over a three-mile course. So I get on the Internet to investigate.
Several sites reveal that as recently as June, at the President's Fitness Challenge at Fort McNair, Dubya ran the three-mile course in, get this, twenty minutes, 29 seconds.
That's an average of UNDER seven minutes per mile in a three-mile run. The president's average time over three miles is better than my best shot so far at a single mile, and he's seven years older than I am!
Bush placed 26th out of 400 in that race. His time was fast enough to put him in the top 3 percent of all the people of any age who will finish three-mile races in the U.S. this year. He runs faster, no doubt, than any other president in history and faster than 99.9 percent of the general population. Not bad for a 56-year-old. To maintain that pace, Bush runs hard three miles a day, six days a week over a rough course.
My work's cut out for me.