Running for life – The Running Song
I knew something was wrong in mid-August when I finished the Falmouth Road Race. A few days later I told my doctor I was there to see him because I ran 7.2 miles in the humid heat and it took me 1:16. We both chuckled and he said he was jealous. But I explained that in past years I’d run the same course in just over an hour. Despite rigorous training, I was getting slower, and feeling weak. My right foot felt like it was slapping the pavement and my right hand was losing its grip, and cramping. I had lost five pounds.
Running became a central part of my life four years ago, when family members and friends convinced me to join 12,000 others in the Falmouth Road Race, which winds along the beaches and through the picturesque woods and towns of Cape Cod. The road racing boom we are enjoying today can be traced back 40 years, when a Falmouth bartender started the race to honor Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic Marathon victory. Shorter runs this race most years at a good-humored pace that allows a lot of us to brag that we raced against an Olympian and won. For me, Falmouth had become the core of my annual running plan, just long enough to be a real test of grit and training, but short enough to keep the day job, and bring the kids into the team. Each year I had been pushing closer to the 60 minute mark and thought I could do it this year, but I just couldn’t.
I kept running through September, including a short run over the Brooklyn Bridge, but I didn’t get any faster. The doctors spoke of various explanations, none of them good. I told myself that fitness has positive side effects, and as long as I was running, everything would be OK. Friends said hey, you’re 55, you’re not young anymore. I backed off to easy 2.6m and 5k runs, accepted my more leisurely pace, and took the time to enjoy my surroundings. A tune came to me one day, and I named it Running Song and put lyrics to it in subsequent outings, humming the tune to keep time. My jackrabbit son slowed his pace to join me a few times. Despite my fears, this was a beautiful period, and running helped me fully experience the miracle and joys of late summer life.
Bad news came at the beginning of October, after a battery of tests including electrophysiology and 3 MRI’s. The neurology specialist at Johns Hopkins diagnosed me as having the early stage of ALS, a degenerative disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which involves the gradual breakdown of motor neurons, and atrophy of muscles throughout the body. What was happening to my hand and foot was going to expand to my whole body, including limbs, trunk and head. There is no cure. ALS patients lose the ability to eat and breathe, and average life expectancy is 3-5 years, with a small chance of living 10 years or more. With that diagnosis, I was suddenly living a worst case scenario.
And yet, when I woke up the next morning, I was truly happy to be alive, and I got up and went for my run. This time I had a new experience that I’ve never heard a runner talk about — I choked up, and broke into uncontrollable sobs at the half mile mark, and again after about a mile. I ran right through them and finished a bit faster than my previous time, and felt at peace.
That weekend, I ran a new charity race, a 5.4K lap around the Crofton Parkway in the neighboring Maryland town, with yard sales and kids selling lemonade on the sidewalk. A bald eagle circled over the starting line while the fire department played the national anthem. I ran it in 32:55, 4 minutes faster than the previous weekend. My wife and I congratulated a 40ish 1st time racer who had quit smoking and started training 8 weeks before, and finished in 40:00, with his father in law at his side. He was clearly euphoric about how running had changed his life. I felt great, too.
I know my body very well from years of tracking running times, pulse, breathing, weight, and the myriad of small pains and sensations that tell us what’s really going on. Running also keeps me attuned to the workings of my mind. Feelings of strength and courage, resolve and optimism alternate with weakness, despair and disappointment over minor failures. Raw competitiveness (I’m going to pass this guy!) blends with true generosity and community (Looking good, keep it up!). These emotions exercise our minds and spirits just as training and racing exercises our muscles and sinews. Running is medicine. And I will keep doing it as long as I can.
Believe it or not, there are advantages to being diagnosed with a terminal disease. Every day is a gorgeous gift and I wake up passionate about doing the best I can and relishing every moment. My wife, kids, and friends have been amazingly supportive, and I realize that I am not alone, and lots of good things are going to happen in my life. The other day, when we were speaking about my plans to run Falmouth again next August, my 15 year old daughter suddenly volunteered that she will join me – despite having rebuffed invitations for years. I can be a good role model and I plan to use what leverage I have. I’m suddenly more interested in the wheel chair racers. There are many opportunities to do charity.
I have no complaints. Even though I’ve been dealt a bad hand, I’ve had a lot of really good ones to play. Runners know that there’s nothing wrong with struggle. Human nature turns challenges into opportunities, and the very effort offers a path to deeper meaning – win or lose. Life is good, and running helps make it better. I plan to enjoy both as much as possible for as long as I can. I’m training for my next race.