It all starts in the tunnel

As the story went, in the 1980’s my cousin Mike, after years of laboring in the So. Cal job market and recently graduating from SDSU put together a resume where he listed his Job Objective: “To obtain the type of position where I don’t have to take a shower when I get home.”

A good writer will make a bold move like that to get the attention of the reader.

As a young technical worker at Boeing Commercial Airplane Company in the early 1980’s, I had landed one of those jobs and felt lucky to have it.  Sit at a desk all day long and do paperwork.  It was about the most boring thing you could possibly imagine, tracing airplane wire bundle drawings against the system level drawings for accuracy.

One other young colleague of mine joked about the sedentary nature of the job “Yeah, watch out for the Boeing spread.”  If I put 2 and 2 together, it meant sitting in a chair for 40 years is likely to yield a hefty backside, so be mindful of that.

A couple of years of chair sitting wasn’t working very well for me.  I felt like I needed to get moving.  Somehow, someway.   One of the guys in my group, Don Cobane, was a 20 year Boeing veteran who was very physically fit and a runner, so I was talking to him about the options.

Come to find out, about 5 years prior, he weighed in about 100 pounds heavier and had this moment where he slid his chair around his desk and got his stomach caught on the pull out drawer.  He was so mad and embarrassed at the time that he slammed the drawer back in the desk and said “That’s it.  I’m going to do something about this.”  I’ve since wondered if I’d ever have my “Don Cobane” moment where you just get sick of not taking care of your physical self well enough.

At the time, about 20,000 people worked at the Boeing plant in Everett, Wa.  The building, all 4 assembly lines connected, holds the Guinness World Record as the largest building in the world with a volume of 472,000,000 cubic feet (13.3 million cubic meters).


There were no gym facilities anywhere to be found at the site in the factory or its adjacent office buildings.  In talking with Cobane I found out about this underground tunnel that people run in when the weather is bad, so I figured it might be worth a look.

Turns out there are 2.33 miles of underground pedestrian tunnels running below the assembly lines pictured above.

So sometime in about 1982 I started a lunch-time exercise routine that began with “running in the tunnel.’   There’s nothing sexy about running in the tunnel.  Dark, dingy, not very well-lit.  Poorly ventilated. The smell of crusty pipes. This particular tunnel had columns in the middle so that it was set up kind of like a swim lane.  The tunnel was 1/3 of a mile long, so if you wanted to run 2 miles, that’s 6 lengths, or up and back 3 times.  I actually found a picture of the real deal on the inter-webs.  It’s exactly how I remembered it.


Most groups at Boeing, even the engineering groups had fairly strict rules with respect to the amount of time you could take for your lunch hour.  Officially it was 40 minutes.  Heading out to the tunnel, dressing down in a very crowded seriously smelly locker room a couple of stories above the tunnel, doing the actual run, shower and get back to work took the full 40 minutes and then some.

People say that running around the track is boring.  Try a tunnel.  But I managed to get myself down there a few times a week and get a routine started, and I felt better and stronger almost right away.

When the weather warms up, it’s really hard to justify heading down to the tunnel, but the problem was, there weren’t that many good routes to run outside the plant.  But there were a few and as human nature dictates, if you’re stuck in a crummy situation, you start  to look for something better.

A few months in my times were getting a little bit faster and I’d met some guys who were determined to do the outdoor routes when the sun came out.  If we really hustled, we could get 3 miles in and get back to work without being too tardy.  This was much more enjoyable.

A few years later I got transferred to a building that wasn’t inside the main complex, but about 1/2 mile from the main plant.  And it had its own little locker room.  This is where my running started to take off a bit.  The next thing I knew I was doing 4 miles at lunch.  And then 6.   I was getting hooked.  Almost every day I’d head out with a group of guys and taking 4-6 miles at lunch with a ‘long’ one on the weekends of closer to 10.

Summer came around and I was with the family on a 4 day weekend at Seaside, Oregon.  I was 30 at the time.  The house we stayed in was a small 2 bedroom house but we used to pack 10 or more people in there on any given weekend.  What this mostly meant was that the bathroom (singular) was backed up most of the morning so I might as well go for a good long run.

The day before, in town I ran across a pamphlet for the Portland Marathon.  I grabbed it with the idea I’d learn about it later.  On my Saturday run, all I could think about was the Portland Marathon and how I was in the best position to give it a go right now, and if I don’t do it this year, I probably never will.  That particular day I ran up to Gearhart and back and put in about 11 miles.

By the time I got home I made the decision to go for it.  I read that pamphlet 100 times by my bedside.  The marathon date was at the end of September and it was about the end of June now.  I had 3 months to get my miles up from the 30 mile range to 50, with long runs of 20+ in there somewhere.  I put together a very detailed plan.  At that point I was almost obsessed with the idea.  I knew what time I wanted to average, what time I wanted to achieve and constantly strategized on how to best train for this event.

Along the way I ran my first 10k and in early September I entered a half marathon.  Enjoyed both of those but the idea of doing a full still seemed pretty daunting.

The big day arrived and I was excited and ready.  The weather was perfect for the 7am start.  I ripped off the first 10 miles at about 8 min/mile pace and felt really good.  I think I started slowing down a bit around 15 miles, but pressed on.  At 23 I was pretty dehydrated and decided to actually stop at the water table and get some water, but walk fast while drinking it.  After about 100 yards I decided to get back in running form again and everything stiffened up.  That was a scary moment but I got past it.  I’m guessing my last 3 miles were at closer to 10 min/mile pace.  Pretty slow but I was so happy because at that point there was no doubt I was going to make it.  And I did.  3:43 and change. Pretty much exactly the time I was striving for.  Anything under 3:45 was going to be considered a win for me.

What brings me down memory lane this evening is the thought patterns I have as I hop on the treadmill in the morning at age 58.  I’m way overdue for some exercise.  Way overdue.  To be completely honest, I think I’m on the verge of a Don Cobane moment.

I can’t even come close to the times I used to put in.  Even on the treadmill now I’ve got more of a walk/run routine going, so it’s not really even running yet.  But what keeps me going some days (like this morning), is just the thought that “It all starts in the tunnel.”

The tunnel was only 2 miles and at a slow pace at first.  But the point is I started somewhere and didn’t just sit in that chair resigning myself to the Boeing spread.

I believe most people have instincts that drive us to compete against ourselves.  If I did 2 miles yesterday, maybe I’ll do 2.25 next week because 2 miles is getting boring.  And while I’m at it, I might try to improve my time by 10 seconds too.  It’s just human nature.  But in order for human nature to have a chance to succeed, you gotta get down to that tunnel and get going on something.

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