Will you quit running?

I’ve been running for a long time. It’s an integral part of my life, and I hate the thought that someday I may have to find an alternative form of exercise. But I am surprised to see how many of my old running buddies no longer lace up their Nikes to head out for a run. More disturbing is that some have not just abandoned running, but have become sedentary. How can that happen? Can that happen to me? Can that happen to you? Perhaps the answer lies in how we got hooked on running in the first place.

In the best book about running that I’ve ever read – “Born to Run” by Chris McDougal – suggests the author was born to run.

It’s why we survived and evolved. Of course, we have now evolved to the point that running is no longer a matter of life or death. It’s a choice, but more on that later.

For most of us, we began running as joggers seeking better health. Whether at an early age when our Little League coach made us run laps to get into shape, or later in life when we felt the need to shed a few pounds, running was the answer.

Think back to those early runs. It was a chore to get out the door. It took determination to commit to a running routine, and perhaps it was the promise to join a fellow jogger that got you on the road. Whatever it took, at some point running became part of a routine, and the benefits became apparent. Clothes fit better, you had more energy all day and your self-confidence grew.

For many runners, it was Phase 2 that grabbed a hold of them. You entered a race, perhaps it was a local 5K, and the goal was to run the whole way.Then, something magical happens when you crossed the finish line of your first race. Through the final few miles of the race, you curse yourself for entering, because it caused you so much discomfort. But when you’re on the other side of the finish line, pain was replaced by pride, and as you walk through the finish chute fellow racers surround you.

The adrenalin was running high, and the sport became addictive. At that point, it didn’t take long for a first-time racer to find another race to run.

Sure, improving health was still a concern, but now the goal was to get to the finish line with even a faster time.

A few more races, and then we began to see familiar faces become targets. The competitive juices started to flow, and beating those familiar faces became the goal. Just finishing was no longer the high it was, it was now all about setting personal records and beating your fellow runners.

No matter when you started running, the trajectory was still to go straight up. More running means faster times, and faster times means longer races. Longer races mean bigger challenges. Bigger challenges demand greater dedication. With each progression, the high gets grander. And that’s how the running addiction is born.

So, how can an avid runner experiencing so many self-esteem building experiences walk away? There are two big culprits.

The most obvious is injury. The pursuit of ever faster times and ever more challenging distances require substantial increases in training. Even with the guidance of a running coach, high-level training is risky business, and injuries are common.

Some injuries can become chronic, and being on the injured reserve list is demoralizing.

Adding to that is the compounding miles on the human odometer, and as a result structural breakdowns are a possibility.

Would you like to make sure your kids have job security? Suggest they become orthopedic specialists. There are lots of aging athletes that will need a good mechanic.

But injury isn’t the only reason why runners are exiting the scene. For many, it’s the very hook that got them in it ultimately gets them out of it. It’s a battle, frankly, that I face.

There is a natural progression that we runners will follow. When we begin running, our capabilities are modest, but over time they grow. For those that stick to it and enjoy the self-esteem building that success brings, becoming a competitive athlete enriches the quest. Therein lies the danger.

That natural progression leads to peak performance, and for many the measurement by which future performances are compared. The bad news is that for each and every one of us, the performance standards will inevitably head downward, and that can be terribly demoralizing.

Personally, I have seen my personal records become such distant memories that I have a hard time believing I ever ran those times. In fact, I’ve slowed to a pace that makes me fear that race directors will surcharge me for the time it takes me to finish. Yet, I persist.

I have come to recognize that trying to be the person that you were is impossible.

We must understand who we are, and that may lead us to who we could be.

I want to continue to be an athlete, plain and simple. Even if injury should someday make running impossible, I am committed to finding an alternative way to be an athlete.

Though my pace has slowed, I have attained the third phase of running that eludes many. I now view myself as a runner, who runs for the love of the sport.

Sure, there is still the important element of good health, and I still have that competitive spirit but now it’s about loving to run.

In man’s early history, we ran as a matter of life or death. It’s not so apparent now, but maybe it still is that way. I know for me, it has been.

I know that since December 2015, when the unbelievable happened — a heart attack — requiring sextuple bypass surgery. But I later learned that it was my running that saved my life.

So, will you quit running? Will injury take you out? Will family obligations keep you off the road? Or will sagging performance be the culprit?

I hope it’s many years before you face these questions, but when you do I hope you’ll keep in mind that becoming a runner, who runs for the love of the sport is still a glorious concept.

If it means finding an alternate way to exercise, find it. Never stop being an athlete. It just might be a matter of life or death.

— Tom Licciardello is a founding member of the Merrimack Valley Striders. Licciardello has participated in 35 Boston’s and 88 marathons. He has also completed the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Professionally, he is a Certified Financial Planner, who resides in North Andover with his wife, Lyn. He may be reached at tomlicc@verizon.net.