67. From Smoking to Hot

67. From Smoking to Hot

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

From Smoking to Hot

Do you mind if I don’t smoke?
 ~Groucho Marx

I didn’t always run; I smoked instead. I was a smoker for a good nineteen years, if you count when I first started at age eleven, hiding by the train tracks with my friend Mary Alice. Her dad owned the blue-collar town’s funeral home. I was hooked early, both physically and mentally, and as I grew older, I loved what smoking did for me. It calmed me down; it revved me up. As a shy adolescent, it gave me something to do with my hands, an activity to fill awkward silences. When I got older, it gave true meaning to the words “cigarette break,” back in the days when that was part of the workday. Virginia Slims Menthols were my dear friends, always there, always ready to steady me and give rhythm and structure to my days.

Smokers don’t run, and runners usually don’t smoke. When I first decided seriously to quit smoking, two months before reaching my thirtieth birthday, I knew I had to replace my three-pack-a-day habit. I could never break any habit unless I replaced it with a new one, and the thought of running to replace smoking seemed a good choice. It would get me out, it would wear me out, and it would be something that I don’t associate with smoking, as suggested by several of the self-help books that I had read on the topic. I was always naturally thin, and although this is something I don’t really like to admit, I didn’t want to gain weight, a side effect of not smoking that my reading had prepared me to accept as inevitable, especially for the first year of being tobacco-free. Running might offset the weight gain, another entry in the plus column.

I was never an athlete. In high school gym I would do a few lame sit-ups before calling it quits. I didn’t, and still don’t, know the rules of any sport beyond the broad strokes. I didn’t own sneakers, or cotton socks, or the then-requisite Walkman. I am optimistic, though, and believe then as now, that I could do whatever I set my mind to. I sprang for the Reeboks, and set out on the road.

I thought running meant, well, running. My first time out, I tore down the road like a gazelle on Starbucks, extra-bold. Within minutes, my lungs burned and the sharp pain in my side slowed me down to a fast walk. I noticed then, a few hundred yards in front of me, another runner, a man who looked like he knew what he was doing. I seemed to be keeping pace with him, even at a walk. Running, I then realized, didn’t necessarily mean full-out free running, the seven-year-old kind. Running for exercise was a different kind of thing. I copied the man ahead of me, lifted my knees without increasing my pace, and realized that this is what I should have been doing all along. This felt doable, and so much kinder.

My muscles burned the next morning, but because I have an addictive personality, I kept going. I would try this for a few weeks before I allowed myself to quit, and only then would I make up my mind to continue or not.

That was twenty years ago. I still run, and after that last cigarette on August 15, 1990, I have never smoked another. I run for all the reasons I used to smoke. It relaxes me, it perks me up, and it gives me time and space to think. It keeps me on the slender side, and I believe that it keeps me young in body and mind. I have had to stop for a few weeks to a few months at a time for minor injuries, and once because of a complicated pregnancy. I always miss running, and I always come back.

I run four to six and a half miles at a time, at least four times a week, even with the demands of a challenging job, a family, a full life. I run when I want to remember things, I run to forget, I run as a form of mediation and I run to find solutions to problems, which always seem less complicated and manageable when I am moving.

With only a pair of running shoes, and an old T-shirt as gear, over the years I have conquered my demons and overcome problems that Virginia Slims may not have been up for. Just me, my brain, and my two feet. In rain, in heat, and in sub-freezing weather, I run. I have come a long way, baby.

~Erika Tremper

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