Outside track

Mall walking is a sport of few rules, but I broke them all. Too lazy to cross the desert of parking lot between the Arden Fair Mall bus stop and the official mall walker’s entrance next to Sears, I snuck in through Starbucks. I skipped the recommended warm-up stretches and slipped onto the main thoroughfare behind two senior citizens with spectacles and fanny packs. I cut corners on the one-mile circuit of the upper and lower levels. And, finally, I failed to register with the Inside Track program, thereby forfeiting my right to prizes after I logged 50 laps around the mall.

What would be the point? By the time I’d passed Wet Seal twice, I knew I wasn’t mall-walking material. For one thing, I was the only person under 60 who wasn’t pushing a stroller.

Still, I wanted to understand what makes people drive to Arden Fair at 7 a.m. every day to do laps indoors before the shops open. Mall walking is big in the Midwest, where frigid temperatures make it hard to exercise outdoors in the winter, but why do it in California? I decided to crash the quarterly Inside Track breakfast and find out.

I strolled through empty corridors past the Gap, Gap Kids, Baby Gap, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, Teen, Torrid, Hot Topic, Victoria’s Secret and Victoria’s Secret Kids (OK, I’m kidding about that last one). I listened to piped-in music so passively unobjectionable that I can’t recall its genre, which actively worked against any inclination to speed-walk. I wasn’t working out; I was meandering through a catalogue.

“I wonder if those polka-dotted flats would fit me,” I thought as I sauntered past storefronts. “Oh, I want the new Harry Potter book! Is that Cinnabon I smell?”

The latter sent me upstairs in search of breakfast, which unfortunately was not catered by Cinnabon. Some 75 senior citizens and a handful of people below retirement age gathered in the food court, eating muffins, yogurt and fresh fruit. I grabbed a banana-nut muffin and watched as a mall representative in a blazer circulated through the crowd. “It’s just a nice controlled environment,” he’d say when the diners told him how they liked mall walking. He had a point: A mall walker will never be hit by a car, a panhandler or a rainstorm. Bathrooms and lattes are always available, and four times a year, the mall buys breakfast.

Having finished mine, I concentrated on the morning’s keynote speech by a local orthopedic surgeon. Alas, the buzz of a nearby Icee machine obscured most of it: “Running … shape of the foot … callous … may require surgery.”

Bored, I wandered over to a nearby fat-screening booth. If you ever want to ruin your day, have your fat screened. I let the attendant place an infrared scanner on my arm and watched her frown at the reading. She pulled out a chart and pointed to the top level—an “excellent” reading for women with 19 percent body fat. Then she dragged her finger down, past “very good,” “good,” and even “fair” to show me that my 29.5% was in the danger zone. “Your weight is perfect for your height,” she said. “It’s just that too much of it is fat.”

Confused and depressed by this information, I got back on the bus. As it drove down Exposition Boulevard, I saw a mother duck and a procession of ducklings trying to cross a busy intersection. The wake of the bus literally blew the ducklings into the gutter. I gasped and looked around, but it seemed no other passengers had seen the birds. Maybe the mall walkers are right, I thought as the bus sped toward I-80. It’s just not safe out here.

Then we crossed the river and I spotted a lone woman walking a German shepherd along the bike trail, the Delta breeze lifting her hair. It’s not safe, I realized, but it’s so much more beautiful outside, where there are no rules but your own.