INTRODUCTION: RUNNING IS FOR CRAZY PEOPLE
“Running is for crazy people.” I stubbed out my cigarette and continued ranting to myself. “There’s no reason to run unless someone is chasing you. Those people are like a cult. They’re brainwashed into being completely absorbed by this lifestyle. They even get tattoos after doing a race to declare they were initiated into that stupid cult! It’s ridiculous.”
Never mind that those people were my friends. Sure, I loved them, but let’s be clear—I loved them despite the fact that they were always exercising and doing triathlons and eating weird foods. I just didn’t get it, any of it. And though I knew they weren’t trying to talk with an air of superiority, when they shared how they’d just gotten back from a 2-hour bike ride or a 10-mile run, I still somehow felt judged, the outsider who preferred happy hour to spin class.
Ten miles? At 23 years old, tired, stressed, and overweight, I couldn’t fathom walking one mile, much less running 10.
I knew my unhealthy habits were wrong, but I found ways to justify them.
Smoking caused lung cancer, yes, but it alleviated my stress. That made it all right in my book.
Alcohol? My rational mind knew I wasn’t going to find answers to life’s problems at the bottom of a bottle, yet at the end of every stressful workday, I poured myself a drink to unwind. And another one to help me forget the day. Then another to help me sleep.
As for exercise, I certainly didn’t have time for that. As a first-year college professor with a demanding boss, I had too much work to do.
And although I frequented fast-food chains (who had time to cook?), at least I usually chose a salad (with extra ranch dressing). Sure, a Big Gulp of Diet Dr. Pepper was my constant companion, but that was because I needed the caffeine to keep me going and the carbonation to quell the nausea from last night’s tequila.
I had gained 40 pounds in the span of a year. My marriage of four months was beginning to unravel at the seams, as was I. I questioned whether the decision to move from Wisconsin to Arizona to take my first teaching job had been the right one. It was too much change, too much pressure, and I felt unprepared to handle it.
One day, I was smoking outside my office when my boss came up to me and pointed at the cigarette in my hand. “Mind if I have a drag?” he queried.
I was shocked. Aside from a curt “Welcome” on my first day on campus, Dr. Nunez had never spoken directly to me. I was perfectly fine with that. I found everything about him intimidating, from the way he leaned back in his chair to stare at people while they were talking to his daily disappearances at lunchtime to swim laps in the campus pool. As an engineering professor, he had a bias toward technical and analytical brains that he did not try to hide. When he had been assigned to oversee some majors within the social sciences, which included mine, his irritation had been unmistakable: “Why?” he’d lamented. “It’s not even a real science.” Physically, he was a regimented, imposing figure with long limbs and muscled arms, which he liked to cross over his chest. I was convinced that he had been placed on this earth to intimidate the hell out of me. I did everything I could to avoid crossing his path.
Yet there he was, sitting in a cloud of my Marlboro Light smoke with outstretched fingers.
“Well?” Dr. Nunez smiled. Dr. Nunez knew how to smile? Shocked, I handed him my cigarette and watched as he took it between his fingers and stared expectantly at the wisp of smoke curling up from around his knees. He lifted the cigarette, smiled at me once more, and stubbed it out in the nearby ashtray.
“You don’t need that shit.” He stood up and extended his hand. “Come on, let’s go get some coffee.”
I was infuriated. That was my last smoke! I wanted to yell. Instead, I sat dumbfounded in the shade cast by Dr. Nunez’s broad shoulders, too stunned by his bold gesture to say anything.
“I said,” Dr. Nunez sighed with obvious irritation, “let’s go get some coffee.”
I quickly scrambled to my feet. “Umm . . . okay?”
Over Americanos, Dr. Nunez asked a lot of questions—Why do you smoke? If smoking makes you less stressed, what’s making you so stressed in the first place? He listened to my answers intently, interjecting an occasional nod and a “Hmm.” His demeanor was disarming, and I felt it drawing me in. Despite knowing better, I found myself committing the incredibly unprofessional crime of unloading all my personal problems on my boss. During a pause in the conversation, I felt a sudden wave of regret—what was I thinking, spilling all this, and to Dr. Nunez of all people? But to my surprise, he didn’t lecture me. Instead, he tipped his head thoughtfully, pursed his lips, and said matter-of-factly: “You should come swimming with me during lunch tomorrow.”
I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. “Listen, sir,” I said once I’d composed myself, “that’s very nice, but I’m not one of those people.”
“Crazy people. Health nuts,” I blurted out before realizing I had most likely offended the man who signed my paycheck.
“C’mon!” he scoffed. “Swimming is fun! But don’t take my word for it. You should try it for yourself.” When I hesitated, he added, “If nothing else, you’ll get a good suntan out of it.”
Did I mention that sunbathing was one of my vices, too?
The next day, as planned, Dr. Nunez showed up at my office door at 11:45 on the dot. Slung over his shoulder was a bag of kickboards and swim paddles.
I nodded meekly, hoping I was feigning enthusiasm convincingly. He smiled and nodded toward the exit.
I went swimming that day. And the next. And the next. At first it was out of fear of offending my boss, but soon I found myself starting to look forward to it. I wasn’t fast, but I was capable, and I liked spending an hour each day in the Arizona sunshine.
In between laps, Dr. Nunez became Carlos, and Carlos became my friend. It didn’t make sense—an athletic, accomplished guy like him had no reason to take an interest in a slow, chubby kid who made poor choices. Still, I decided not to question it.
Over the span of our 10-year friendship, my unhealthy vices disappeared one by one. Cigarettes were eventually replaced with running. Stress was hammered out on the pedals of a bike. And Big Gulps of Diet Dr. Pepper and tequila were replaced with post-ride Americanos with my new mentor.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that Marlboro Light break outside my office building essentially upended my life, changing it forever.
I could easily tell you, in boring detail and with tedious data sets, all about how I became one of those people I had long derided. I could tell you what workouts I did to set a personal best time in the marathon or finish my first Ironman. I could suggest what you should eat or drink or wear. But that’s not the real story. Running and triathlon didn’t transform me. My friendship with Carlos Nunez—cemented in 100-degree trail runs and Sunday-morning bike rides—did.
Amusing and poignant, Life’s Too Short To Go So F*cking Slow is about running and triathlon, growth and heartbreak, and an epic friendship that went the distance.