Running Like Sixty

Running Like Sixty

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body!

Running Like Sixty

Not long before my sixtieth birthday, I took stock. I’d been working for the Ministry of Education in the idyllic Republic of Seychelles for two years. On sunny weekends I’d flop on a lounge chair at the Coral Strand Hotel on Beau Vallon beach and read Jane Austen. On rainy weekends I’d slump on the aquamarine sofa in my miniscule condo in the hilltop community of Saint Louis, and read Charles Dickens.

Unfortunately, reading doesn’t burn up many calories. I’d convinced myself that a twenty-minute stroll down the hill to the beach, and a slightly more arduous climb back, constituted a solid exercise regime. Sadly, those ambles, even coupled with occasional splashes in the warm Indian Ocean, hadn’t countered my frequent splurges in takeaway fish curries, savory samosas, and ginger bananas.

Now my hibiscus-patterned one-piece Catalina bathing suit threatened to burst at the seams. When I hopped on the scales at the Youth Health Centre, I didn’t remain there long enough to convert from kilometers to pounds. Horrified, I realized I’d segued from comfortably padded to uncomfortably overstuffed.

If I truly sought to be trim and fit, I’d heard of one possible resource. For months I had read announcements in the Seychelles Nation about the activities of the Hash House Harriers. The Harriers, which advertised itself as a drinking club with a running problem, originated with Brits in l938 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to promote physical fitness and conviviality. I’d heard that the Harriers boasted hundreds of chapters in dozens of countries.

My British friend, Heather, twenty years my junior, who worked at the National Archives, had told me that the Hash was the one place in Seychelles where locals, ex-pats, social butter-flies, the occasional tourist, and even bona fide athletes, could mingle for some inexpensive fun on this outrageously pricey island. But running? Me?

Heather’s boyfriend, Nigel, who managed the BBC Relay Station, ran regularly with the group. She went along to help set up refreshments for the “On In,” the party at the end of the trail. Though she hadn’t participated yet, she intended to join the pack soon, and encouraged me to accompany her.

She provided more details. The trails, eight to ten kilometers long, were laid out in advance by those familiar with the Seychelles granitic terrain. No two were ever alike. They started at different points on Mahé Island, and often included false detours through the jungle, shortcuts through tea plantations, dead ends, and splits.

“All those stops and starts help keep the pack together,” Heather said. “Nigel says that even the fast front-runners have to slow down to find the real trail.”

I pictured myself wilting through the bush in the tropical heat and humidity, forced to forage for fallen star fruit for subsistence. That lounge chair at the Coral Strand seemed much more inviting. I could be there on Saturdays instead, rereading Sense and Sensibility.

“I’d probably lag so far behind everybody else that I’d be lost forever.”

“That won’t happen,” Heather said. “We can’t use that as an excuse not to try. They always have a designated sweeper, a person who remains with the last group of runners and walkers so even the slowest gets safely back.”

I relented. Heather and I became Harriettes. At first some more experienced Harriers teased us about belonging to “The Knitting Circle,” a mildly derogatory term for those who spent more time walking and talking than actually running. For the first several weeks Heather and I usually limped in near the back of the pack, lurching thirstily towards the tubs of iced soda and SeyBrew, the local beer.

Then Heather hit upon a strategy to toughen us up so we could actually run part of the trail, or at least the downhill parts.

“There’s a new exercise group meeting at the football stadium. They have some bending and stretching exercises first, and then everybody runs around the track. We can start building up some stamina.”

“Heather, I’m fifty-nine years old,” I cried. “I’m never going to be able to run around the stadium.”

“Well, I’m not nineteen and I don’t want to do it by myself. Please?”

I just couldn’t turn her down. Heather and Nigel had been generous in inviting me to a Christmas feast of prawn curry cooked in coconut milk at their home at the top of La Misere pass, with its flame-tree shaded patio view of the sparkling turquoise sea. How could I say “no” after that?

Reluctantly, I agreed. Twice a week Heather stopped by the Ministry of Education to meet me, and together we ambled to the stadium. We both relished the stretching exercises, and on one memorable afternoon, I ended up the highest scorer for flexibility. I could still bend over, knees straight, and square my palms flat on the floor in front of my toes.

At first Heather and I cantered together about halfway around the track. Soon Heather sailed ahead, with me falling behind where I could admire the bounce of her blond pony-tail. If she lapped me, she would encourage me with the Hash refrain of “on on.” I’d smile grimly, wipe the moisture from my face, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Finally, one Saturday afternoon, the two of us broke away from “The Knitting Circle” in a tandem trot, to whistles of admiration from the day’s sweeper, a rather odiferous gentleman known as Sweaty Teddy. We shot each other conspiratorial smiles, and smugly strode to the next incline, where we slowed once more to a walk.

An hour later we hit what appeared to be the final stretch before our destination at Bel Ombre. We sped up, and scampered into the On In, welcomed by our fellow Harriers, who invited us to join them for a traditional “Down Down,” where Harriers were expected to chugalug.

Unlike more serious Hash clubs though, this was a gracious group who didn’t force British or aging American ladies to swill their refreshments. Heather and I were allowed to simply raise our bottles to cries of “cheers,” and sip as we mopped our foreheads.

In the spring, Nigel and Heather returned to their home in Southampton. But I remained with the Hash until my departure later that year. By summer I learned that the group planned to stage its first Moonlight Hash on the evening of my sixtieth birthday.

I wish I could brag that I gamboled effortlessly through the Seychelles brush that night, but the truth is I merely plodded and stumbled, waving my flashlight to seek a secure footing. But for the last kilometer, over flatter trail as we neared the On In, to the huzzahs of my companions, I ran like the dickens, ran like greased lightning, ran like the wind.

Yes, indeed. Thanks to Heather and a little perseverance, I ran like sixty!

~ Terri Elders ~

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