Monday, October 14, 2013

Hearts: a race report

On Saturday morning I pinned on a race number for the first time in three or four years. Maybe it's been  even longer, given that people in the running club kept coming up and introducing themselves as if they'd never met me before.

I almost didn't run. I'd tweaked one of my knees a couple of days before and on Friday I woke up hobbling. It was an old injury and I knew that if I just rested it a couple of days, it would get better on its own and I could go on as if nothing had ever happened at all. But I didn't have a couple of days, as the race was the next day. If I went ahead, I ran the risk of sidelining my return to fitness for more than just a couple of days, and the event on Saturday was not really one I was planning to "race" anyway. Racing--actually running hard to beat a clock or an opponent or some kind of inner demon--is hard on the body. It takes time to build the strength of your muscles to support all those inelastic bits and pieces that hold us together. No, I didn't plan to try racing for another few months or more. This was just supposed to be a fun, festive day of running--just another day in the training calendar.

In the long view, the event on Saturday hardly mattered at all. It is the race I'm planning to run much farther down the road that counts. This is not about this weekend, or the next, or even next year. This is about getting fit and healthy and staying that way for as long as my luck and grit hold out. It is about the race I plan to run when I'm in my eighties, the one that will keep me out of the wheelchair, out of the nursing home, in the garden, on the bike. That race has priority over all the others. That is the race I am training for.

So I made a plan to see how the knee felt when I woke up on Saturday. If it was even a little bit tweaky, I'd skip the run and look forward to the next one.

And it was fine. I rose, ate my breakfast, dithered over what to wear: Would shorts be warm enough, or did I need tights? I settled on shorts, and pulled a pair of old track pants over them as a back up. And then I pinned on my number. As soon as I did, I started to get the old butterflies.

I ran varsity track and cross country in college, and though it has been many years since then, I still get nervous watching track meets on television. I used to get nervous, too, before the local club races, though the pressure to succeed was not at all the same. In college, I feared letting my teammates and coach down. As a Masters runner, I only had to fear letting myself down.

Plus, I am a hypochondriac. Runners--all athletes, really--are hyper-tuned to their bodies. And when your performance depends on how that body is working, every little tick and tremble becomes amplified. And, in the manner of all committed hypochondriacs, I can take the smallest thing and swiftly take the shortest possible conjectural distance to the worst possible scenario: Is that twinge behind the knee something serious? Will running on it make it worse? Will I need surgery? What if something happens during surgery (as happened to someone I knew)? What if I die?

There you have it. Twinge behind the knee (which I happen to know is a torn meniscus) to death in five steps. It sounds funny, but I don't really mean it to be so. Fear and worry are not really funny matters. In fact, if I had the power to change only one thing about myself, it would be to make myself less fearful.

Driving to the race course, I kept having to talk myself out of turning around. In fact, I even started to turn off on a side street, but swerved back into the main lane, talking out loud to myself the whole time. My heart was pounding. Silly, I know.

And then, naturally, my imagination went from pounding heart straight to heart attack on the race course. That's just two steps. Count them.

It has always been a particular fear of mine, heart attacks. I don't know why. I've never had any reason to think I'll drop dead exercising. I don't smoke, I exercise more or less regularly, I've had stress tests and echocardiograms, and etc., etc. But even when I was young and running track, I had this phobia. I think I'd read one too many well-meaning-but-ultimately-not-helpful tales about runners dropping dead suddenly and inexplicably, and given my hypochondriacal tendencies, they stuck like burs in my mind.

I started thinking, though, about this TED talk by Kelly McGonigal, about the body's reaction to stress. McGonigal says that the reaction--pounding heart, sweat breaking out, rapid breathing--are actually good things, and should be viewed as the body enabling you to meet the challenge ahead. Moreover, if we recognize them as such, embrace them, if you will, that we will come to see the reactions as positive and (here is the big kicker) they actually make us healthier.

I thought about this all the way to the park, and was still thinking about it as I walked from my car to the place where the race would start. In fact, I was embracing my stress reaction so hard that at one point I thought that the leftover chicken quesadilla I had for breakfast might make a comeback. Gradually, though, all that subsided. I saw a friend and we chatted. Then I saw some more friends and I chatted with them, too. I found a place to stash my track pants and jacket, and then stood around rubbing my arms against the cold. By and by, the race announcer called for us to toe the line, and then, the gun.

I started the race by walking at the very back of the pack. As I said, I had planned for it to be just another training run. I know myself pretty well, after all these years of toeing up at the line, and I anticipated that my adrenaline would be high and the urge to race difficult to fight. By walking and letting everyone get well ahead, I hoped to run within myself--calm and steady, without regard to where I was in the pack. And it worked out that way, mostly. I walked with a friend to the edge of the parking lot, said I'd catch him later, and then began a slow jog.

The morning was cold, as the best mornings for racing always are. The air was clear and still. There were hills on the course, but they were familiar, since they are part of my regular bike route. I knew the relative steepness of this one, a curve, followed by a false top and another curve, then a slight dip, then the sharp, short climb of my favorite hill in all of Lubbock because I can feel it in my glutes. Beyond that, a drop, and then a slow climb that doesn't look like a hill but you feel it in your thighs, so you know something is there. And so on.

My breathing was steady, my legs were loose and strong. And my heart, well, it was pumping along calmly and smoothly, just below the surface, hardly noticeable even on cresting the hills--not pounding any more, but quiet and sure, like the rustling of leaves on an autumn morning, because this is what hearts are made for.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Reprise: Joy is a kind of courage

I cleaned up my office door today--you know, took down some old posters, photographs, and bits of things I had taped to it. One of those bits was a quotation I mention in this old post of mine. Since I was feeling a little discouraged tonight, I thought I'd pull it up and look at it again. It's worth a revisit once in a while, I think.

Joy is a Kind of Courage

And so it came to pass that I was driving to the nursery to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio, when a song came on the radio. It was “Mercy Mercy Me,” originally written and sung by Marvin Gaye, only Marvin wasn’t singing it this time. Instead, it was an artist I’d never heard before, Eleanor McEvoy (not surprising, since I am probably the only person on the planet who doesn’t really “get” music. But that’s a story for another time).

Maybe it was because it was being sung by someone else, maybe it was because it was this particular someone else, maybe it was some combination of the two—whatever the reason, though I'd grown up with the song, I heard the words, really heard them, for the first time and I was filled with a powerful sorrow from it.

If you need a memory nudge, here are the lyrics. I’m not going to reprint them, owing to copyright issues, but the gist of the song is that things aren’t what they used to be because we’ve gone and poisoned the Earth.

McEvoy’s rendition is slow and haunting, and utterly without hope. And it struck me as I listened to it that this is exactly how I feel, deep down inside, close to that place where the spirit resides. I feel that the situation is truly hopeless. That this song has been around for nearly forty years and it is still relevant made me even sadder. Nothing has really changed. We have made no progress in our understanding. We are always fighting the same old fights.

I feel that way most of the time about all of it—not just the environment, but wars, and health care for people who can’t afford it, and folks being unable to get along with one another without all the meanness and anger.

And yet.

We are complex organisms, are we humans not? Because in that moment, at the same time I knew that I was utterly without hope, I felt…hopeful. That two opposing conditions can exist simultaneously in our hearts is not news to any one of you, I’m sure, for isn’t this the very thing that makes us who we are?

As I said, I was going to pick up some more flagstone for the wine patio when I heard “Mercy Mercy Me.” The patio is in the front yard, which is slowly being converted from boring, unsustainable, water-sucking lawn to a garden that pays homage to its home landscape. It’s going to be beautiful, and it is my desire that it will inspire others to convert their lawns, too. It’s a small thing in a bigger, very troubling picture, but it’s something I can do about the situation. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Thinking about my small thing, in fact, filled me with a quiet joy, and for an instant, I felt a little guilty about that. Wasn’t I realizing the direness of the situation, just a scant moment before ? Should we feel this way when all about us darkness is falling? Shouldn’t we be feeling, well, joyless?

Then I remembered this quotation from Andre Gide that I have taped to my office door:
"Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation."

A moral obligation. It is what you do in spite of the situation, not as a luxury, but as an imperfect duty. Joy, then, is a kind of courage. Joy is the squaring of our shoulders in the face of hopelessness.

So get on out there and be joyful today. Maybe a lot of small joys can add up to make a difference.

And if you haven’t heard Eleanor McEvoy’s rendition of “Mercy Mercy Me,” wander on over to iTunes and download it. It’s worth the 99 cents. But think about joy when you listen to it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ten Thousand Days

There is a book by Jane Brox--Five Thousand Days like This One--that has languished unread on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I originally bought it on the recommendation of a good friend--it promises all the elements of stuff that interests me, like farming, family, landscape, etc.--but whenever I start to read it, I don't make it very far before I put the book down and go bake a pie, or dig up a flower bed, or build a bike from scratch. This is not the book's fault that I can tell. I think it just has come along in my life when I'm feeling a bit burned out on memoir in general, and when I sit down to read one, I soon start thinking of all the action adventure I am missing. I keep the book around (as opposed to sending it to the Friends of the Library Box during my now-annual stuff purges), because I expect that one day I will come back to it and, much as anyone does when an appetite returns, enjoy it in its fullest flavor.

Even so, though I've never read the book, I think about it a lot. Actually, to be precise, I think about the title, with which I am rather taken. I understand it comes from a toast her grandfather made at a family reunion--as in, "May you have five thousand days like this one."

Some eleven years ago, at the end of July, Walt and I were in a car accident that nearly killed both of us. He broke his back and was in a body cast for three months. I was better off, but even so, I wandered around for nearly a year in something of a daze as a brain injury healed. It took a long time for us to get better.

I bring the accident up in this context because it was a kind of gift. All that following autumn, you see, as I healed I would notice moments of beauty that I might have otherwise missed. Leaves skittering across pavement in the wind. A tree that had reached a peak of fall color. The sound of children at a nearby playground. These moments of beauty were intense--so much so, I would often literally be stopped in my tracks by them.

It was as if someone opened a curtain, let me peer through to the other side, and said to me, "This."


Maybe it was just an effect of the brain injury. Maybe it was because at some cellular level my body knew how close it had come to dying and thus something chemical happened to make me hyper-aware of my surroundings. Whatever the reason, it was as if I was looking through the curtain and seeing what life was really supposed to be about.

This autumn breeze. This blue sky. This smell of piƱon woodsmoke. This day.

It lasted for several months, and then the curtain closed.

I have never forgotten, though sometimes I get busy and distracted, and then I stop paying attention. It would be difficult, anyway, to live always in such a heightened state of awareness. Maybe it is even unwise.

But autumn rolls around each year, and on certain days, when the breeze is just so, or the sound of leaves rustling stirs a memory, or...something, I can hear a whisper: This.

So when I first heard Jane Brox's title, I was reminded of that window. Five thousand days like this one. Remember this day. Pay attention to this day. Do not let this day pass without notice.

There are never enough of these days in a lifetime. Five thousand is not enough.

I've been thinking about the title again, in part because it is autumn, but also for another reason. I've been working really hard for the past couple of months, trying to get back into shape and clean up my diet. For too long, I've been skating along on junk food and couch sitting, and it was starting to catch up with me in a serious way. After looking at the results of some tests, my doctor told me I needed to lose weight, start eating right, and begin exercising again. This is not a question of vanity, but of health. As in, do this, or I am going to get Type 2 Diabetes. Soon. Like maybe next week.

Diabetes runs in my family, so I was inclined to believe her. I started making lifestyle adjustments that very day.

To help me track my eating and exercise habits, I've been using a computer application she recommended called "My Fitness Pal." Probably the whole world knows about "My Fitness Pal," but in case you don't, here is a short synopsis: You put in some data (current weight, age, gender), set a weight loss goal (e.g., one pound a week), and it calculates a daily calorie limit for you. Once you've done this, you track everything you eat in a day, then you put in how much you've exercised, and it calculates how well you've met that daily limit.

Here is an important point: It is really, really hard to meet that daily limit.

I've used programs like this before without a lot of success. Because it is hard to meet that limit, I find myself getting discouraged and giving up on the food tracking pretty quickly. After a while I quit paying attention not just to how much I'm putting in, but I quit caring about the quality of what I'm putting in as well. I guess that subconsciously I figure I screwed up yesterday, so what difference does it make if I do the same today? I'm clearly already failing at this anyway.

This program has a little feature, however, that has made all the difference in the world for me. At the bottom of the page is a button that you push at the end of the day. It says, "Complete this entry."

Then--and this is the part that makes a difference--it says, "If every day were just like today, in five weeks you would weigh XXX"

And you know what? Even when I go a little over my limit, if every day were just like that day, I would still lose weight. In other words, even when I don't hit my goal, I am not losing ground. Maybe I'm not advancing as fast as I'd like, but I am still making headway. I have to trust the process.

The amount of headway I make in my nutrition is often determined--no, mostly determined--by small choices I make all day long. I can eat a Snickers bar, or an orange. I can use mustard or mayonnaise. I can eat a sweet potato, or a white one. The small choices add up. What I have found is that physically I feel better when I make better choices. For example, I no longer have the swings in blood sugar I used to have. I still get hungry, but I don't crash mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

So, armed with this encouragement, I'm making progress. Good progress. I'm not going to use numbers because it isn't about numbers, it's about health. I'm exercising, I'm eating healthy stuff, and slowly the dangerous fat I carry around my middle is beginning to diminish. I have every reason to believe that when my next checkup rolls around, I'm going find out I've turned things around.

But we all know that that is only half the story. The other half is staying healthy, with decent nutrition and exercise--not for just this year, but for a lifetime. I have a tendency to get hyper-focused about something, and then, just like that, it's over and I've moved onto to something else. I'm worried that I'll reach my goal, and then lose my initiative. And a few smothered baked potatoes and peach pies later...

I thought about setting some goals, but I reach the goal, and then what? I have to pick another goal. Pretty soon, I've run out of goals that interest me. I've been athletic most of my life, so fitness-wise, there isn't much I have to prove to myself, at least where short distances are concerned. Sure, I've never run a marathon, or biked a century, or participated in an Ironman, but frankly, I think I'd rather poke a stick in my eye than do all that training. Besides, goals are short-lived. I need a strategy that keeps it fun and is about the long term.

Then one day last week I hit the button on My Fitness Pal, and that phrase popped up: "If every day were like today..."

It reminded me suddenly of the Jane Brox title, and it struck me that this was the mindset I needed to pursue in order to keep this up for a lifetime. It isn't about today, or five weeks from today. It isn't even about next year, or the year after that.  Leaving it in that perspective--to say something vague, like "I want to do this for a lifetime"--makes the road I have to travel to health seem too long and too aimless. No, it is about five thousand days like this one. Or rather, since that is only about 16-17 years, and I plan to live much longer than that, it is about ten thousand days like this one. They can be ten thousand days of good choices, or ten thousand days of bad ones. The journey is about the balance of individual days.

So now, when I've had a pretty good day of making choices, I hit that button and say a prayer of sorts: Ten thousand days like this one.

And when I slip up a little, I remind myself that it is the balance of ten thousand days that counts. It is the balance that matters in the end.

I was talking to my friend Nancy about this the other day, and she likened it to practice. Nancy has a background in music, so it makes sense that she immediately picked up on this. Then, since we've both dealt with elderly parents--and seen the effects of lifetimes of good and bad practices--it was natural for her to make that connection, too.

"In the end, you become what you practice," she said.

You become what you practice. I mulled that over a while. Trust the process.

This could be true of all the choices you make in your life--whether you are choosing to eat French fries or choosing to stop and listen to leaves blowing across the pavement in autumn. It is this day to which you must attend, this day with all of its big and small choices. You become what you practice.

So now, finally, we have arrived at the real question and the point of all this meandering: If I could have ten thousand days like this one, what choices would I make?

You become what you practice. Make good choices. Smell the woodsmoke. Listen to the leaves. Look up at the sky. Enjoy a bike ride. Trust the process.

Ten thousand days.