Taking the measure of a man and his stride

It all started, the way these things do, with a few idle comments. I had been jogging on a reasonably regular basis for a couple of years - often enough and long enough for running to have become pretty routine - and I began to wonder what it would be like to run, just once, a seriously long distance.

Casually I mentioned to my wife a few months ago that it might perhaps be fun to try to run a marathon, more to see if I could do it than to record any particular time. I haven't run a race since boyhood, and I run to keep my tummy in, not to win trophies.

I should have kept my mouth shut. The next thing I knew, I was unwrapping my wife's Christmas present to me: "The New Competitive Runner's Handbook" and a pedometer.

I can't say I wasn't warned. A few years ago, I spoke briefly in my wife's presence of an old hankering to learn to play the saxophone. What did she give me for Christmas? A secondhand sax and a teach-yourself booklet.

The saxophone, I am ashamed to say, lies cold in its cherry-velvet-lined box, unplayed since an early flush of enthusiasm blew itself out in a few dispiritingly unsuccessful efforts to make an acceptable noise. Heaven forbid that a similar fate should befall another spousal gift.

But right from the start, these encouraging tokens of support began giving me grief. Flicking through the index of the Runner's Handbook, I could not keep my eye from alighting on entries such as the "death grip," and "long hill runs." Nor was I exactly fired up by the discovery that my ideal weight as a marathon runner would be 140 pounds. I have not weighed 140 pounds since I was 13.

But the heaviest blow came on the first morning that I took my pedometer jogging with me, to measure my distance.

Since moving to Paris a year ago, I have run most mornings in the Jardin des Plantes, a beautiful botanical garden first laid out at the end of the 18th century. It is encircled by a broad avenue lined with chestnut and plane trees, and it is this avenue that I follow.

So do a fair number of other regular joggers (though nowhere near as many as one would come across in an American city), including a platoon of young firemen with flame-red T-shirts and sinewy thighs.

Sometimes, when I am feeling energetic, I see how long I can keep up with them. Once I fell into brief (and breathless) conversation with their leader. (I could tell he was their leader because he was the one carrying a hand-held radio, just in case a fire broke out in the district.)

He told me that the distance around the park was 1.2 km (three- quarters of a mile). I generally ran three circuits, which on top of the distance to and from my home meant that I was running a little under five kilometers (3.1 miles) a day.

Which was not bad, I reckoned. It meant that at least I was running far enough each week to start the six-month marathon-training schedule outlined in my new runner's handbook.

But since I had a new pedometer, I thought I might as well use it. So off I trotted to the park in early January with the little box clipped to my tracksuit trousers, and armed with a tape measure. Following the instructions, I ran 10 paces, measured the distance I had covered, divided it by 10 to gauge my stride, and entered 4.2 feet on my pedometer. Then I set off to run around the park.

Imagine my horror when I looked down at the end of a circuit to check the digital readout on my pedometer and found that it read not 0.75 miles, as I had been calculating, but just 0.5 miles. If it was accurate, not only was I running one-third less than I thought I was, but I was one-third slower. I was not even within shouting distance of the lowest rung of novice performances from which my new training schedule was meant to start.

MY CONFIDENCE, my enthusiasm, my morale all evaporated like the sweat from my forehead. Perhaps I should give up this idea.

But wait: Could the regularly running firemen be so wrong? I called my seven-year-old son in to help find out.

The circumference of his bicycle wheel is 153 centimeters. By sticking a piece of blue insulating tape onto its rim and running beside him, I could count how many times the wheel went around. By sticking more pieces of tape onto the back of my hand every 100 revolutions, I could avoid losing count. By multiplying 153 centimeters by 793 revolutions at the end of one circuit, I calculated that my son had cycled and I had run 121,329 centimeters, or 1.21 kilometers, or 0.75 miles.

Phew! The firemen were right. My training program could start.

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