Summer Pleasures: The happiness of the long-distance runner

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Running was never my thing. I didn't run track or cross-country in high school or college. In fact, once free from high school phys. ed. class, 10 years elapsed before I ever ran close to a mile. That all changed when I started running in neighborhood 5K races.

For the uninitiated, a five-kilometer race equals 3.1 miles. Why races (like bottles of pop) still go by metrics when everything else follows the old English measurements is beyond me. I suppose it sounds more impressive to say you ran five kilometers than three miles.

On any given weekend from April to September, some charity or community in Western Pennsylvania hosts a 5K as a fundraiser. I ran my first event in my late 20s and never looked back, except to see who was about to pass me next.

Unlike most folk, how I became interested in running these races had nothing to do with being health-conscious. At 28, I didn't have weight to lose or cholesterol to lower. I wasn't training to run the marathon before I turned 30, and I wasn't doing it to meet people. Honestly, I just wanted one of those "commemorative" T-shirts.

You see, I collected T-shirts the way kids today collect Silly Bandz. I had sports T-shirts, rock concert T-shirts, T-shirts with political sayings and T-shirts stating that I was with someone stupid. But I did not have a T-shirt boasting that I had run 3.1 miles while you were still sleeping off Friday's hangover.

And for awhile the need for more T-shirts sustained my interest. But years later, a funny thing happened on the way to the 2-mile water stop. I started to appreciate the benefit and joy running had become for me.

As a 28-year-old SWM turned 42, married and father of three, I realized what all those miles of exercise had done. Although I was one of the oldest dads helping his 5-year-old at T-ball, I wasn't watching from the bench, fanning myself with the concession-stand napkins but had the energy to be in the field helping the coach and running the bases with my boy. The lower-back pain that crept in during my inactive winter months melted away by May.

And for someone formerly cognizant only of his community, visiting different neighborhoods has shown me diverse, scenic parts of Allegheny and surrounding counties that I otherwise would have missed. From the St. Barnabas 5K in Wexford to the Brookline Breeze, Turtle Creek's Turtle Trot to Canonsburg's Whiskey Rebellion, the Earth Day 5K on Neville Island to Brentwood's Firecracker 5K list just some of the places I been to while making my annual summer running tour.

I've noticed the smart communities show off their neighborhood throughout the race course. Both the Edgewood and Crafton races take you through quiet streets lined with trees and big, old beautiful houses. Certainly, those house-hunting in Western Pennsylvania could do worse than taking a quiet walk as a way of checking out a future place to live.

But while all 5Ks offer good exercise at a fair price with a chance to win the occasional raffle (I average a win every two years), not all 5Ks are created equal.

Some are no-frills. (Race. Awards for Top 3 Finishers. And don't let the parking ticket hit you on the way out.) Others seem like they've been helmed by the South Side Revelers with music blaring from the time you pull in. Many are known for their after-race edibles: the Greenfield Glide grills hot dogs and hamburgers for everyone; St. Barnabas lays out wings, pizzas, doughnuts and fresh fruit.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the community of runners who participate in these events.

Although I try to visit one new race each year, there are about six that I've attended annually for about 14 years now. And many of the same friendly faces are seen -- runners and walkers with friends, spouses and children. Runners there to win their age division and runners there content just to finish. Some runners participate only to have a good time, and others just to congregate with other walkers and runners.

And that young guy over there, looking at his new 5K shirt, smiling as he walks back to his car, yeah, he'll be back. There are more shirts and plenty more miles out there to be had.

Mario Oliverio, a high school English teacher, lives in Bellevue ( ). Through "Summer Pleasures" essays, readers can describe their favorite hot-weather experiences, Pittsburgh places and vacation travels. Send your writing to ; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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