My boyfriend/sig other/better half/love-o-my-life is a smoker. Many people (especially running friends) are surprised by our relationship and the apparent contrast. How, they ask me, can someone as "healthy" as me, date a smoker?
My answer is that I don't consider my running and supporting fitness activity a healthy endeavor; rather it's a compulsion that I indulge in on a daily basis. I allow him his addictions without judgment or nagging, just as he allows me mine.
It's at this point that the conversation usually dies, sometimes with a nervous laugh if the others are fellow runners. After all, everyone knows that runners are paragons of virtue and health, right?
I disagree. It's not health, it's fitness, and there's a difference.
There's no doubt in my mind that in some ways I am less healthy now than I have been at other, more sedentary times in my life. Sure, I can run decently fast for a decent period of time and lift decently heavy stuff. My resting heart rate's in the basement, and my body fat's supposedly as low as I should let it get. So I'm fit. But with that fitness comes physical therapy bills, podiatrist bills, orthopedist bills. And the head cold I get every time I taper for a race, and the rundown feeling I associate with peak training weeks, and the bad cough I get after every hard workout.
And it's not something that we do because it's good for us; it's something that we do because it fulfills a need within us, even when it's not in our best interest. Someone who smokes will huddle outside in all matter of foul weather for a cigarette; I find it hard to criticize the smoker when I'm running track workouts in 20 degree weather or a hard cold rain. At least the smoker is out there for less time.
It's interesting to lurk on different runner blogs and fora, and read the comments. I could post something like:
"felt really sick and my left shin hurts like a bitch and there was a lightning storm outside, but I got that run done and hit my 90 miles for the week"
and my runner friends would respond:
"way to stay strong and tough it out"
"wow for running in the storm! So dedicated!"
We're hooked, and we enable each other. We meet in groups to feed our addictions, anxious at first, and then calmer and more sociable as the endorphins flow like candy.
For competitive runners, coaches aren't so much drill sergeants as substance abuse counselors. While the majority of the population may hire personal trainers or go to fitness classes to be pushed, we (generally after periods of injured-related frustration) hire coaches to talk us out of suspect training decisions, to tell us that we're running too fast. To keep us from literally working ourselves past the point of health.
I have a group of friends/teammates that I meet regularly for pool-running sessions. About a week ago, one of us didn't show. She later explained that she had decided that she needed a day off, and noted in passing that sometimes it was much harder to ease back than to push.
We all knew exactly what she meant. Didn't stop the rest of us, though.