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Body work

To run for life, maintain your most important piece of equipment: yourself.

When I was young, my mom had this odd habit of buying something nice (like a watch or jewelry or shoes), wrapping it in a towel, and putting it in the attic. Then she'd buy the same thing (but not nearly as nice) and use it instead of the "good" stuff, which she reserved for "special occasions." The thinking was that if you didn't use something, it would last forever.

I took the same approach with my body for most of my life. I figured that if I didn't use my body, it would last forever. Considering that on the day of my very first run I owned nine motorcycles, two cars, a VW camper, a lawn tractor, and a gas-powered weed wacker, I was in no danger of overworking myself.

As a former motorcycle mechanic, though, I understood that for bikes to perform their best, they had to be maintained. I would spend hours and days adjusting and lubricating and polishing. I'd change the air filters on the vehicles so the engines would get clean air, all the while smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, polluting my own lungs. I was a fanatic about the kind of gas and oil that I used in the bikes, but I'd put any kind of junk inside myself.

But what I discovered, beginning with my very first run, was that unlike a piece of mechanical equipment, which wears out the more you use it, I actually got stronger the more I worked out. I was barely able to run (really, it was more of a waddle) for a quarter of a mile that first day, but within just a few weeks, I could cover an entire mile. It took me nearly 30 minutes, but I was able to do it.

Our bodies do share one similarity with mechanical equipment. If you don't understand their limits, you can break them. When running and walking for 30 minutes three days a week felt good, I decided that running and walking 60 minutes six days a week would be twice as good. It didn't take long for an injury to slow me down. And that was when I learned the most important lesson of all: patience.

It turns out that my body will do almost anything I ask of it as long as I give it time to adjust to new demands. I've been able to complete 45 marathons by gently coaxing my legs to go just a little farther every week. I was able to run faster by pushing myself just a little harder every now and then.

The simple truth is that when it comes to our bodies, we really do have to use them or lose them. If we let them go to waste, we'll wake up one day and realize that even if we want to run, we can't. By not pushing ourselves, we concede to an inevitable decline, a loss of mobility a future where we become prisoners in our own bodies.

I've learned that the way to make your body last is to use it. The way to make sure all the internal parts are working is by moving all the external parts. And most important whether your goal is to run one mile, to complete your first 5-K, or to qualify for the Boston Marathon understand that your body is a marvelous machine and you are your own mechanic.

Waddle on, friends.

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