I just came back from walking around Manhattan’s Central Park reservoir, a gorgeous natural setting framed by tall trees, grassy slopes and, far in the distance, a soaring skyline. I and legions of others flock to this 1.5 mile body of water to replenish spirits dampened by bustling crowds, traffic-clogged roads and long hours of work in concrete, steel and glass towers.
After walking for a while, I was tempted to pick up the speed and feel the wind in my hair. I began jogging, spurred on by articles we’ve done here about the benefits of running and by a group of friendly folks I bump into and chat with each Saturday in the Seinfeld-esque coffee shop we all frequent. These are serious and fit boomer runners — most do marathons — who get together to schmooze after the morning run in the park that each does on his or her own.
They’re fascinating, funny and vibrant. But what impresses me even more is their tenacity. They’re out there on the trails no matter what the weather. One of the regulars was injured in a severe bike accident last year and had to have knee surgery. He was laid up for months and put on weight during the rehab period, but he recommitted to his running routine as soon as he was able and has been gradually building up to participate in races, which he enters all over the world.
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Well, you know how it is once you get going … . After my premier jog, I moseyed over to Dick’s Sporting Goods in pursuit of some appropriate gear. But I found so much more — namely, a series of inspirational Web videos about runners and why they run. I soon zeroed in on one about Julia Chase-Brand, the first woman to compete in the 4.75-mile Manchester Road Race, Connecticut’s most popular, which is held each year on Thanksgiving Day. The race celebrated its 75th anniversary last November.
“I always had a dream and I guess other people have this dream too,” Chase-Brand says at the beginning of the video. “That you leap and you don’t come down; you’re weightless, as if you can just bound.” Apparently, that was always the sense she had of herself.
Chase-Brand, now 70, came of age in an era when there were many things that women were not allowed to do, among them run in cross-country races or play soccer. But she loved to run. And so in 1961, at 19, she decided to engage in a deliberate act of disobedience and directly challenge the Amateur Athletic Union ban on women competing in distance events by participating in the Manchester Road Race. She was stopped in her tracks by burly officials of the AAU, but crossed the finish line anyhow then struck a deal with them, promising not to embarrass them again if they would stage a cross-country run for women. It was held just two months later.
In resisting the status quo, she was able to break down the barriers for every woman and keep the exuberant spring in her step. “If I had backed down then, I might very well have backed down on other things in the rest of my life,” she says. “But instead it gave me a backbone.” She attended graduate school at Indiana University, studied bats in Trinidad and then went off to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx to become a psychiatrist. In 1996, at age 53, she became the university's oldest medical degree recipient.
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Her story kind of makes you want to leap out of your chair and trot around the block, doesn’t it?
Chase-Brand is no longer running for speed. She’s aiming for a kind of inner peace and other intangible finish lines: “Inside there’s the antelope, the mustang that just wants to gallop in the wind,” she says. “I escape gravity. I escape age. I run for the sheer joy of it.”
What are you doing these days “for the sheer joy of it?”
I hope a lot.