It’s 11:30 a.m. in June, and for the sixth year in a row, I am 100% convinced I am dying of lung cancer. Or emphysema, or the black lung, or parvo. That’s a thing, right?
I am currently mostly naked, running contraflow on a busy street, dodging traffic on a sidewalk-less road in Baton Rouge, La.
I say for the sixth year in a row, but it could be the 18th, the actual number of years I’ve been running. Or really any number in between. Every summer, my thought process recycles itself back to the same mantra: “this is the year I force myself to overcome the heat and humidity.” Three runs later, I’m checking my health insurance deductibles and copay situation, convinced I’m dying.
This is running in the South.
Really, running in the south is many things, but it is first defined by the weather.
For starters, it’s an unbelievably unfair tragedy that science has yet to discover the benefit of “running in humidity.” It should be much more beneficial than “running at altitude.”
Down here, summer begins in April, and 90 degree days with 100% humidity run well into October most years. Your day starts like this—take a wet sock, microwave it, then stuff it in your mouth before you walk out the door. Repeat, continually, for months and seasons, even while the rest of the nation is enjoying things like “sweater weather.”
Of course, the weather is only one facet. Like everything in the South, it’s complicated.
For eight years I was a traveling salesman in the running industry. It took me from Boston to Lafayette, from Blowing Rock to Jonesboro. You know, the hotbeds of running. I’ve experienced runs in all of these places, and in many international locales as well.
There’s nothing like running in the deep south. While it’s always one foot after the other, running here is like jogging in an REM album cover (a band from Athens, Ga., who know a thing about the South)—Spanish moss and oak trees, raised cemeteries, and heat that hangs on all of the above.
Despite this fever dream of a running life, the South continues to yield a never-ending list of characters.
Dink, Strand, Carter, The Mexican Yeti, JP, Rachel, Juba, and Chorizo. A motley crew that ranges from yoggers to Olympic trials competitors, proving that yes, you can run fast here. It’s just harder.
Then there’s the culture.
I’ve run in almost every Southern state and one thing remains pretty constant. When you run up on someone you say good morning. Me being a 99% early morning guy, I say good morning all day and evening long. The salutations matter, not the accuracy.
If you put on a race in south Louisiana and there’s not 1800 calories worth of jambalaya and almost all the beer you can drink, that race won’t be around long. The music choices at a routine New Orleans 5k can put a Rock ‘n’ Roll race lineup to shame.
Almost all of my best memories of running are Southern.
Once, while running the Blue Ridge Relays in North Carolina, I was flying down a six-mile, mostly downhill, leg. It was in hillbilly country, where the accents are thicker than the riverbed mud of the Chattahoochee. It was midnight, so all I could see was my headlamp and mist and—HEAYAHYAYAYYAHHH!!!!—some 10-year-old little redneck jumped out behind a bush nearly forcing poop directly into my shorts. As I plummeted down the hill, my heart rate trying to catch up to my legs, I heard the little shit yell, “DIDDDY, I GOT ANOTHER ONE!!!”
That’s good form kid, good form.
I will say this—while the South boasts a great running subculture, there is also an adversarial relationship between runners and the public at large. While you may get a little flack in any city from a non-runner, the South has the most obese and out of shape population in the world. This is just a fact. Combine that with a lot of poverty and oh—did I mention no one goes outside from June through September—and runners are in a word, “misunderstood.” Or in two words, “assumed idiots.”
No one in the South understands running against traffic. The cars hold their line. The runners hold their lines. Elbows hit mirrors, fingers are thrown and people yell at you like you’re the asshole. Running paths are a luxury most of the south doesn’t know about, sidewalks are scarce, so the roads your best bet. God forbid you suggest they build any sort of running/multi-use trail system as you’d think we were giving every runner enough food stamps for filet mignon and lobster tail for life.
Quirks, heat, humidity, and cultural resistance aside, I wouldn’t have it any other way. At the end of the day, we don’t like you northerners telling us how much better it is running there.
We just take you on a run and watch your face melt. But then we’ll eat well and drink all the beer we can.
We’ll just sweat it all out tomorrow anyway.