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Desert Companion

Foot work

Until fairly recently, I was an enthusiastic runner. Not fast or graceful, mind you (my style was sorta this methodical, low-impact creep like a ninja dad in sweatpants), but certainly enthusiastic. Then my knees began gently reminding me — okay, not so gently reminding me — that the last scant nubs of my cartilage had cashed out way back in my skateboarding salad days of the ’80s (O sweet era of slappy grinds and “Skateboarding Is Not a Crime” stickers!), so I’d best, you know, cut this running nonsense out. Scaling back was a tough adjustment, and not just because I had become somewhat hooked on that dubious wheezing joy known as “runner’s high.” There’s something elemental and pure, something vital and basic about running. And being chased by the occasional stray Doberman only adds a frisson of primal terror that puts me in spiritual communion with my caveman ancestors. So, yeah, at least until my cybernetic knee implants arrive, I’ve had to pull back and experiment with that form of exercise known as walking. (It, too, can feel primal, but only if you also forage for nuts and berries.)

This new perch of mandatory moderation has kicked loose a few observations as I’ve watched this new wave of punishing, high-intensity fitness grow in popularity. Even the names suggest pastimes for robot viking soldiers: P90X! Ragnar! Insanity! Tough Mudder! Spartan Race! There’s this thing we do when it comes to health and fitness, and “overdoing it” doesn’t quite capture what I suspect is a distinctly vivid American mania: the feverish embrace of an exercise craze that entails less a positive lifestyle change than an obsession-driven personality transplant. Even more modest phrases like “couch to 5k” hint at this — the hard shift into fifth gear that turns friends and loved ones, seemingly overnight, into FitBit-leashed Ragnarokers.

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On balance, this is great. I’d rather my friends and loved ones be marathon-running paleo warriors than couch potatoes. But, hey, what’s wrong with a casually vigorous volksmarch on a neighborhood trail? Our disconnected lives and fragmented suburbo-scapes have turned us into creatures of compartmentalization — this is exercise, and this is life, this is nature, and this is life. In our feature “Wild in the City” on p. 64, we propose an integration. Breaking news: There’s a bit of nature in your neighborhood and, hey, it wants you to walk all over its face. These seven trails span the valley and feature everything from walks along washes burgeoning with local flora to secret freeways that can zip cyclists around the city to meandering paths amid reeds and murmuring streams. (If you want to go all Tough Mudder, try catching and eating one of the ducks at The Wetlands Park — best workout I’ve had in a while!). My point is that the world is your home gym.

Of course, this isn’t to downplay the importance of extreme dedication in service of excellence — and that’s where our feature “Champions on the Rise” (p. 53) comes in. For the second year in a row, we profile five talents to watch in local sports. Better yet, these athletes don’t just excel on the field; they’ve also got qualities — focus, determination, discipline, self-respect — that suggest true character. No extremes required.

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