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Running back to happiness | Evert Akkerman

Friday, July 09, 2021 @ 11:57 AM | By Evert Akkerman

Evert Akkerman %>
Evert Akkerman
One of the lessons from the pandemic is the importance of fresh air and physical exercise for our well-being. Case in point, I recently read an article in Life magazine of Feb. 22, 1963, which featured the famous 50-mile hike that President John F. Kennedy reintroduced as a fitness challenge for the military. Life interviewed a Capt. C.D. Laaksonen, who had been an infantry company commander at age 29. Laaksonen’s rules for good health were simple: “I smoke about a pack a day, and a few cigars, and I drink an average of 15 10-ounce glasses of beer every evening except weekends, when it’s more. Also, I do a hell of a lot of marching.”

After running recreationally on and off for years, I joined the Running Room in 2012 in search of a more structured approach. This worked out quite well. Aside from being in decent shape and enjoying the “runner’s high” that various publications always have us “chasing,” the camaraderie is an important element. As my friend Nick said a few years ago, “I’ve never met a runner that wasn’t nice. Maybe it works that way, like, ‘I’m a prick, I shouldn’t be here.’ ” And when it comes to character, Nick had another wise observation — he is in sales and COVID-19 really upended the way he conducted his business, and it has amplified the pressure under which salespeople work. Nick: “You never know people’s true colours until you throw them into chaos.”

And speaking of the pandemic, just like other sports, making the body work can have a salvific impact on mental health as well — an issue that was magnified by COVID-19. I think we’ve only just seen the beginning of the pandemic’s fallout in terms of mental health, with people being cooped up and restricted in their work and social realms. Similarly, I have felt my morale (and bank balance) deteriorate since March 2020, and it’s safe to say that running has been the one thing that kept me somewhat sane. As my friend Gillian said about our Sunday morning runs: “This is our church.”

The debriefings at various coffee houses are important too — and you can participate in these even if you’re injured. Which, sooner or later, happened to every runner I ever met. In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall states that up to 80 per cent of runners are injured every year, and he relates this to running technique and footwear. “Antelope don’t get shin splints,” McDougall wrote. “Wolves don’t ice-pack their knees. I doubt that 80 percent of wild mustangs are annually troubled with impact injuries.”

In the groups I run with, it’s a good tradition that injured runners still come out and walk part of the route, and volunteer to do water drops for the marathon clinics. A couple of years ago, when I was injured, I set up a water station along a sideroad east of Aurora, Ont., and I brought running buddy Dave along. We parked roadside and set up a couple of lawn chairs while the runners were on their way. When they showed up some 15 minutes later, clinic leader Mike turned to Dave: “Are you injured too?” Dave: “No, just hung over.”

Being unable to run is hugely frustrating for injured runners. It’s probably a similar feeling as what NHLers have when they’re benched, although the difference of a couple of million dollars may have a soothing effect on the latter group. Anyway, for a runner who’s sidelined, seeing other runners floating by is a real challenge. As my friend Neville said when he had a calf issue, “I wanted to call out and say, ‘Wait, I’m a runner too!’ ”

For me, the running world is a great source of fun. In 2017, I was in Ottawa for its May marathon weekend. For this event, tens of thousands of runners take over the city, which is typically deserted on weekends. So, many retailers and the hospitality sector are happy with the clientele. The Aurora contingent consisted of 37 runners that year, and the clinic leader had made dinner reservations for the group. On our way there, fellow runner Will and I walked by a restaurant called Colonnade Pizza. The chef just happened to step outside for some fresh air. Will: “Hey, shouldn’t you be running?” Chef: “I’m running the kitchen!”

Post-marathon, the group held its debriefing at another restaurant: The Fox & Feather Pub and Grill. It had been stifling hot and one of the runners, Nathan, looked back on a tough day: “I felt pretty good at the start, and then I realized, ‘Hey, I have to run 42k.’ ” Comment from runner Lance: “Yeah, ‘I was fine until the gun went off.’ ”

And speaking of Ottawa, there was the infamous year when the race ran out of water. Of course, this is a huge issue and risk at any sports event, and especially when it’s hot — which Ottawa in late May typically is. My friend Bruce was there that year; the marathon had been his goal race as he rehabbed after a heart attack. On the home stretch, he noticed there was something wrong. “I was actually doing OK, and then I saw people convulsing in the ditch, and I was thinking, ‘What the …?’ ” Bruce was fortunate and finished without issue, drinking from garden hoses along the way.

In November 2017, I participated in the Road2Hope marathon in Hamilton. At 6 feet 4 inches, I typically stand out in corrals. About one kilometre into the run, I passed a guy who was almost as tall, and a bit wider at shoulder level. He looked over and said to his running buddy, “Great, my kind of luck — there’s the one guy in the whole marathon I can draft behind.”

Last year, with COVID restrictions coming and going without too much rhyme or reason, I was on a Starbucks patio with four others. Me: “I’m frustrated; now my neighbours are afraid of me because they have elderly parents.” Runner Steve: “They were afraid of you anyway. This is just an excuse.”

Running can be a wonderful opportunity for hype as well. In May of this year, I fell during a training run when I tripped over my own feet, landing on a knee and both hands, then rolling over and sliding, scraping my shoulder, and twisting my left Achilles. After rest and treatment, I was able to run again some five weeks later. I happened to run the same route with five others, and one of them asked where I had fallen. I said, “It’s easy to spot as there’s still blood spatter and bone splinters on the road.” One of others asked what had happened next. I said, “Well, it was quite the scene: blood was squirting from my knee, and then Beric whipped off his shirt and made a tourniquet, and I was able to continue.”

What always strikes me about running — and any other sports for that matter — is that no one has to be there, and no one has to do it. We either realize this or we don’t, and we make the effort anyway. That’s awesome. Being physically active makes us feel better about ourselves and the world around us. Regardless of how a running “career” evolves, as my friend and Boston-veteran John Bare says, “Happiness comes as the unintended side effect of something you do with passion.”

Evert Akkerman is an HR professional based out of Newmarket, Ont., and founder of XNL HR. He can be reached at

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