Immediately upon the first few strides on the Tartan track, impulses come flooding in, the dominant signals emanating from the right knee joint. There’s a deep pain, but the damage inflicted today will be likely be minimal. Ironically, as the pace increases, the strike angle at the knee joint shifts to a less-worn area, causing little discomfort. It’s the repetitive 8-minute mile that really does a number on my old knees, but there’s still plenty of cartilage that allows faster running.
The first 100 meters is always a test. I think of it as driving on a tire with low air pressure. As I pick up the pace and maintain it for the first lap, I hardly notice my knees; At this point, I’m more concerned about getting air. Arriving at the final stretch, I’m in an entirely different state, both physically and mentally. Not slowing until I’m fully past the finish line (a leftover from more competitive days), I feel the familiar rush that’s always been there for me. The thrill is partially dampened, however, by a quick glance at the stopwatch on my wrist.
I now slow to a jog for a half-mile. Interval training was a staple of the track and field experience for me in high school and college. Intense and pure, these alternating sections of race vs. pace are the true test of conditioning. Although today’s trial is very much watered down, I am now deep in oxygen debt, slowing to a jog for two laps. Heart and breathing rates begin to catch up as O2 levels regain acceptable levels. Plodding along, I now feel more alive than ever. Preparing for the next fast lap, the thought of life being a constant battle for survival crosses my mind, as always. No matter how rich or powerful, influential or spiritual, our bodies wear out until we give up the ghost, or as my dad used to say, we “croak”. And from what I’ve seen, the process of croaking is a difficult one.
In a not so small way I now correlate running with my father’s death, which had a lasting effect on me. His final battle showed me just how much tenacity the body has to keep its spirit intact. It seemed like every cell fought to hold onto life with everything it had. Being there during this struggle knocked me out of balance for quite some time. Although I recovered as a stronger and more empathetic person, I was never the same.
I was in my forties when he “assumed room temperature”, to use one of his clichés for this unpleasant final process. It’s ironic that his last coherent sentence was, “Someone call Kevorkian!” You’d have to know him to grasp this impossible mix of desperation and humor in his final plea. He was both funny and irreverent as far back as I can remember.
He also loved to win. We used to race the length of our city block on a regular basis, but as I got older and faster, he obviously saw the writing on the wall. Although I didn’t know at the time, years of heavy smoking and drinking had already begun to take their toll. In our final match I began to pull away. Grabbing me by the shoulder and pulling me back, he claimed his final victory, refusing to ever race me again. For the rest of his life he bragged about how I was never able to beat him, both an annoying and amusing honorary feat and history we both understood.
My last few years at home were hardly pleasant as my parents’ marriage disintegrated. Any hopes of help for college were gone, but years of hard work paid off with scholarship offers after track season my senior year. I moved onto campus and seldom saw him as he began a new life without my mother. But he was usually there at my home track meets, and it was always nice to look up from the field and spot him smoking a cigarette by himself near the top of the stadium.
His difficult passing from emphysema had a lasting impact on me emotionally. I held him hour after hour as he slowly deteriorated those last couple of days. The smell of nicotine in his sweat as he worked so intensely for each breath was a constant reminder of how he got to this place. There was no erasing this event from my memory. Having similar tendencies towards substance abuse and self-destruction, I’ve often felt that his plight served to steer me into a more positive direction.
Dad often marveled at the human body’s ability to heal itself. I looked for the last time at the deformed kneecap from his football days that exempted him from military service in the 1940’s. Under the thinning skin of his lower leg I could see the crooked and calcified tibia, the result of a spiral fracture he had suffered ten years prior. Having no health insurance and refusing the surgery to add screws and a metal plate, he insisted they cast it and let it heal on its own. The result wasn’t pretty, but in direct contradiction of his surgeon’s prediction, my father was up and walking again within months. He was definitely no stranger to pain.
During a short reprieve in the death process, a nurse had pointed out the broken blood vessels above his diaphragm, resulting from the incredible exertion in trying to breathe. I picked up on her interest, as if this were some gruesome science experiment. I wasn’t angry; she had shown some discretion in pointing it out, unlike some other clueless healthcare workers who often become callous by seeing this type of thing every day. I’m now glad she shared this, an indicator of how hard he actually struggled. He had truly put up a fight.
One of his favorite lines in his old age was, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” An interesting rear view analysis, but I never believed it at all. Self-care was not in his DNA. His body was remarkably intact, taking into account the serious abuse and trauma it had endured over a lifetime. And he had walked into the hospital under his own power just a week before.
When it was all over, I gathered his clothes from a hook in the hospital room, complete with a pack of Marlboro Reds in his shirt pocket.
This event left me with thoughts and emotions that I would eventually have to process. In the beginning, that vacuum was back-filled with anger and resentment. It’s not like I didn’t have conflicts over how I felt about him in the first place, but still, I probably loved him more than anyone. His presence and actions were the biggest influences in the formation of my own identity.
He was a very private person, and when he died, I think I realized for the first time that I knew him better than anyone. I was glad to be there for him, partially to ensure he was treated with respect by clueless relatives and hospital staff. I also was the right person to physically prop him up for extended periods. Leaning over a table with his head on my shoulder, it was a physically exhausting task to hold him upright hour after hour. Slumping as his oxygen starvation impulses began to fade, the death process advanced. Still, the body was fighting like hell to stay connected to it’s spirit. Even as he was laid into his final resting position, he continued fighting.
After his passing, I flew back home and resumed the morning running routine with my dog Oreo. There was something so simple and gratifying to be able to fill my lungs with fresh, clean air, a huge contrast to the situation I had just left experienced. I was 42 years-old with a young family and a stressful job. My running buddy Oreo and I were past our primes as runners, but we resumed our routine of getting out there each morning to run in the cold Colorado air.
Shortly after Oreo and I would leave the house, unwelcome recollections of my father’s last few hours would begin creeping in. I felt a lot of anger and resentment as my own breathing brought me back into the hospital room to recall to my father’s labored respiration. I often felt an intense urge to give into despair and just stop when this happened. But instead, I’d push through it, picking up pace. I began to feel that each run was becoming a race against death, against myself and the haunting visions. But I intuitively felt that these intense mornings would also be key to staying on course emotionally.
I’d get back home and shower and be at my desk by 6:30 AM most mornings. Often still red-faced and with a slightly elevated heart rate, I would recover completely before anyone else arrived. I had attained some peace, able to relax and be at ease for most of the day. I had reached a situation in which I felt that work was a welcome distraction and that keeping busy was essential. Sleeping little, my early morning run was a cleansing ritual for me, washing away evil thoughts and allowing me to relax and concentrate on my job.
I had always understood the benefits of running as a therapeutic activity, but at this point it had became central in maintaining my own emotional balance. There is something rewarding in the act of covering ground under my own power. There is always a a focus on the mechanics, efficiency, rhythm and flow. Typically, most pain and reluctance are put aside after the first mile or so. Most longer runs eventually turned into a mantra of “Thank-you” to the entity that might be listening, like a little metronome ticking away, prodding me to keep the pace. Thoughts of my father’s death still come and go, but on the track they are usually fleeting.
Today I was rewarded with another chance to visit this place that is never taken for granted. Having trashed my right knee once again in 2012, I faced the abrupt end of my running life, which was depressing and difficult. I replaced running as much as possible with a regular mountain biking routine. Very much favoring the bad knee in the beginning, it was good physical therapy and helped keep up my spirits. It wasn’t running, but it would have to do.
Twice in my life I’ve resigned myself to being a former runner. But strangely enough, in my 60’s I’m finding my knees have recovered enough from the ridiculous amount of miles to be here once again. I definitely don’t have 50,000 miles left on them, but could I possibly have a 500? That’s more 12K’s than I could possibly run the rest of my life.
I always feel a mix of calm satisfaction and exhilaration on the track as my loyal heart and lungs go into overdrive, doing their best to supply the oxygen that I now so inefficiently burn through. It felt good not seeing any other 63 year-olds out there as the winter sun was setting. In fact, the track was all mine. Each trip to the track is like a trip to church, providing peace and a reminder of where I’m actually at in life.
Today I ran the first 400M as close to “all out” as I felt was prudent. Besides being the initial test, that first lap really gets my heart racing, possibly above the recommended rate at my age. Eventually slowing during the next half-mile jog, I mentally prepare for the next faster-paced lap. Today I continued the alternations until I reached three miles, one-third of it at the fastest pace I can muster.
At this point, long distance training would be counterproductive. But by May, I will have ridden the bike hard enough to maintain some level of conditioning, at least to participate in my favorite 12K. Being able to do this is a privilege I’ve earned from 40 solid years of running. And just like last year, I’ll be hobbling around for a week afterwards.
I’ll try to manage my remaining miles wisely. And believe me, I appreciate every one of them. There’s some irony in the fact that running at this pace could cause a knee or hip blowout at any time, yet pushing myself on the track or the mountain bike may be what has kept this from happening in the first place. It’s a bit of a mystery to me, as is the question of whether or not I should ever set foot on the track again.
A couple of days later, I have no soreness anywhere, but my knees ache more than usual as I walk the dogs. Trips down the hill provide unwelcome reminders that these old joints are getting worn out. But somehow, they seem to make a comeback when I give them a little time. It’s weird.
I have no doubt that Dad would tell me I’m crazy, but I would disagree. Over the years I think running is what has kept me grounded. It’s a reminder to me that I’m still here, and very much alive. In contrast to Dad’s immortal reign as block champion, I’ve always known he was never really a great runner and I wouldn’t expect him to understand anyway. I know I’m getting old. I’m just not ready to let it go.