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opinion | jennifer graham

Fast, slow, or zombie-like — just run

Mario Lopez stood with young runners at the start of the Run & Ride at CambridgeSide.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/file

Mario Lopez stood with young runners at the start of the Run & Ride at CambridgeSide.

Bad news from the American Heart Association: If our children get any slower, they’ll all be running at the pace of Chad Stafko. Which is to say, they won’t be running at all.

Stafko emerged as the new hero of the proudly sedentary in a recent Wall Street Journal essay that mocked runners as narcissists in motion. Instead of a 26.2 or 13.1 sticker on his car, indicating the length in miles of a marathon or half marathon, he’ll have the one that says 0.0. The problem is, so will much of the country. The philosophical divide in America is not just between conservative and liberal, but between fit and fat. On one side, the ridiculously buff, and those aspiring to be, through punishing workouts in public; on the other, those who find the quest (and the Lycra) colossally silly.

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It could remain the stuff of comedy but for the sobering news that, even as the nation was panting from not one but two running booms, our children were getting slower every year. According to research presented to the heart association at its annual meeting in November, the endurance of American youth declined 6 percent each decade between 1970 and 2000.

Moreover, children now take 90 seconds longer to run a mile than their parents did, a significant decline. A minute-and-a-half loss in a midpack runner’s 5K pace will send him racing to the leg press at the gym.

So what to do about the children, other than assure them the tortoise eventually beats the hare? Weight alone, the study’s authors concede, does not explain the regression. Nor do video games, helicopter parents, engineered wheat, or athletes endorsing pizza. But they combine into a gelatinous buildup of influence, not easily dislodged by Michelle Obama’s admonition, “Let’s Move!” It’s far too easy to order a pepperoni pie and merrily rejoin, “Let’s don’t!”

Here’s the truth: The reason American kids run a mile slowly is because so many adults can’t run one at all. The 15.5 million runners who competed in road races last year cast an oversized shadow that hides the 300 million who didn’t. Proportionally, few adults run; by comparison, our sluggish kids are speed demons.

But there’s hope. At my son’s middle school, training for a 5K is one of the P.E. offerings, and the kids are required to run at least one 3.1-mile race for credit. Therein lies genius. By participating in such an event, many of the children will emerge runners for life. The culture of racing, with its camaraderie, goodie bags, music, T-shirts, and general joie de vivre, is intoxicating.

As the late Dr. George Sheehan said, the difference between a jogger and a runner is an entry blank. “Exercise” is boring. “Race in which zombies chase me, and then I get free stuff at the finish line” is not. Sign us up. Capitalism is good, not only for commerce, but for America’s resting pulse rate, it seems. Bring on the specialty races, the Zombie runs, Ugly Sweater runs, and the Tour de Donut, and in short time, we’ll all be Tough Mudders. To extend ourselves, Americans only need the enticing carrot of fun.

Meanwhile, let it be noted that the world record for the fastest mile belongs to Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who clocked in at 3:43.13, faster than some of us can find clean socks and lace our shoes.

The fastest American miler, meanwhile, remains Alan Webb, at 3:46.91. Even at the level of elites, Americans just don’t run as fast as the rest of the world. That’s okay. As the meme says, “No matter how slow you go, you’re lapping everyone on the couch.”

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. She is the author of “Honey, Do You Need a Ride? Confessions of a Fat Runner.”
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