Confessions of a Running Junkie

[UPDATE, April 2022: this post is more about my running fixation than my health, but just recently I had a CT scan of my heart and learned I have signs of atherosclerosis (calcium plaque in my arteries) and unless I take steps I could have a heart attack. I thought my diet was good, but maybe not. Although both my parents lived long lives, it could also be heredity. Anyway, regular exercise and low cholesterol levels are not necessarily a guarantor of a healthy heart. I urge everyone when they get older to have a heart CT scan. They only cost about $100 and could make a big difference.]

Last week I donated blood.  The Blood Center folks always check vital signs before inserting the needle.  For the third visit in a row after taking my vital signs, the nurse had to phone the doctor to “clear me.”

Although my blood pressure was slightly high (blame coffee, age, and Washington D.C.), that wasn’t the issue.  It was my pulse: only 44 beats per minute.  Halfway to dead.  A minimum pulse of 50 is required to donate.

Before phoning the phantom doctor, the nurse tried to get it up.  “Think of something exciting,” she instructed me.  So of course I concentrated on hardcore sex.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after taking my pulse a second time.  “It actually went down.”

Fortunately, my visit to the bloodsuckers wasn’t wasted, because Dr. Mysterioso “cleared me” after hearing that I was a daily runner.  Evidently runners and other athletes have lower heart rates.

This latest longitudes yammer isn’t to puff myself up.  No athlete am I.  Like my man Lou Reed, I’m just an Average Guy.  But running is a big part of my life, as you’ll soon see.

Back in high school, inspired by running icons like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, I ran cross-country for one season.  Then in college I got sidetracked with my studies: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  (The sex part was a distant third.)  Then I continued my studies while living the single life in Florida, but also began jogging along the beach.  I needed to work off the cheap beer from the previous weekend. 

I didn’t commence a regular jogging routine until 1992 at age 34.  I’d been laboring several years at a strenuous outdoors job, then suddenly found myself behind a desk doing sedentary work.  This abrupt venue change triggered some long-suppressed anxieties.  Then the anxieties triggered depression. 

Running helped lessen my mental struggles.  I found that—once I dragged myself out of the recliner and stepped outside—the sustained cardiovascular activity provided by running helped me escape the inside of my head.  And during the in-between times, the bleak moments weren’t quite so bleak.

Therapy and benzodiazepines also played a role, but there’s no doubt running helped pull me out of my deepening funk.

In 1993 I got hired by a company that co-sponsored a popular local road race: the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon.  I’d been jogging regularly now for a while, so I registered.  This race was the turning point.  It was like a giant party without the booze.  And instead of a hangover afterwards, I experienced the oft-cited “runner’s high.”  I had so much fun running those 9.3 miles downtown, I began doing smaller 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles).  Then 10K races.  Then marathons (26.2 miles).

At this stage—before age began chipping away at my testosterone level and male ego—speed was paramount.  Pushing myself to set PRs became a minor hobby.  Sometimes, the night before a race, I dreamt of being pulled by a giant conveyor belt strapped around my waist.  (And sometimes I was sprawled on the edge of the freeway and clawing gravel with my hands.)

My speed peak arrived in 1998 at age 40 when I qualified for the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of road races.  In Boston the following year I set a personal best time of 3:11 (three hours, eleven minutes). 

After Newport (RI) Marathon, October 2013 (photo by Mom)

My times soon slowed, but the marathons continued.   Altogether I’ve run 32 marathons in 22 different states.  (It would have been more, but I had two multi-year marathon layoffs due to back trouble…probably running-related.)

These days I average about 18 miles a week.  This includes an eight-mile run every Saturday morning on the nearby Little Miami River Scenic Trail, where I’ve co-adopted a four-mile segment.  I supplement my volunteer hours by scooping up litter that the fair-weather slobs have discarded.

My weeknight runs are two miles through my neighborhood.  This is also social time.  My wife asked me recently, “How did you get to know this person?”  I told her to join me on a run and I’d show her how.  (She declined.)

Running is my TM and yoga combined; it strengthens both my body and brain.  I can’t imagine what my BP reading would be without it.  Also, as with mountain backpacking, I like the outdoors solitude.  I get a lot of writing ideas while running alone.  The first few paragraphs of this essay came while running along Little Miami.

There have been occasions when I couldn’t run, such as after breaking my ankle in 1995, or after surgery in 2019.  The sudden indolence actually brought on physical withdrawal.

So that’s where the “running junkie” in the title comes from.  It’s an addiction.  I realize running isn’t for everyone.  Some people can’t run due to bad knees or back or other health constraint.  Others, like my brother, claim running is “boring.”  Some have exercise alternatives like walking, bicycling, swimming, or weightlifting…all good. 

Still others enjoy massaging their gluteus maximus with a recliner cushion.  Hey, I figure if you remain undistracted, that’s good too.  In these digital-compulsive days, doing absolutely nothing is vastly underrated.  As we say on the Appalachian Trail, Hike Your Own Hike.  As we said in the Sixties, Do Your Own Thing

My thing is running.  See you on the sidewalk.

Crossing the Finish Line: Nick Greco, 1940-2014

Nick Greco photo

Once in a while you cross paths with someone who makes you wish you’d known them better. This happened to me with Nick Greco.

I met Nick last June while doing some yard work for a friend. I was poking around in a bed of ornamentals, and I suddenly felt somebody near me. Looking up, I saw a tanned, wiry man looking down at me. He had a bright smile.

“Hi, I’m Nick,” he said.

“Hello. I’m Pete.”

“I live over there,” he said, pointing to the house next door. “Do you do small landscape jobs?”

I followed him to his house, a tidy-looking ranch with a very nice landscape. He introduced me to his attractive wife, Judie. He then showed me a cluster of overgrown knockout roses that had evidently suffered from severe winter kill. I told him I’d be happy to clean them up a little, and we made arrangements for me to stop by the following week.

Later on, I learned a little bit about Nick from my friend. She said that, like me, Nick was an avid runner (and being in his ‘70s, he certainly had the lean look of a distance runner). She also said he’d had a bout with prostate cancer. His marathon running and struggle with cancer had caught the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who offered him the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch through Cincinnati, Ohio. Which he did, in 2001.

Then I recalled the license plate on his sports car. It said “Torch 1.”

Although Nick had beaten the prostate cancer, his fight wasn’t over yet. He was now battling another foe: lung cancer. His doctors claimed the two were unrelated. Talk about lousy luck.

Well, I spent about two hours pruning Nick’s roses. Later, he told me he liked my work, and asked if I could trim up the rest of his shrubs. I agreed, and stopped by a few days later. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A few wispy clouds floated in the sky, and some mallards were skimming across the pond in his backyard. Then I caught a familiar odor. A local “lawn doctor” was treating the public spaces in Nick’s neighborhood, and the smell of 2, 4-D weed killer filled the air. The unnatural, clinical odor was a dark cloud that ruined an otherwise beautiful day. I hopped in my truck, rolled up the windows, and left.

But I returned later, and Nick and I got to know each other. I told him I liked the Mediterranean ring of his name, and that my son was also named Nick. He said he was originally from the East Coast and his running had taken him as far as the granddaddy of all races, the Boston Marathon, which he ran an impressive five times. He’d also run the New York Marathon twice. This was after he’d made a decision to change his lifestyle. Before his first New York race, he’d quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and lost over 50 pounds.

rosesNick also invited me into his home (something that doesn’t often happen to dirty, clammy-skinned landscapers). He showed me some running photos, as well as his marathon finisher’s medals. I also noticed a boxed set of Rolling Stones CDs in the den.

“Nick, looks like you and I have a few things in common!” I gushed. He flashed a smile.

Over the next few weeks I made several visits to Nick’s home to putter around his yard. He always came out to meet and talk with me, and a couple times he opened up about his sickness. He showed me the medicine patch on his chest, which he said helped reduce the pain. Occasionally, the pain in his back was so bad that it forced him back inside his house.

We also talked about running. When I drove to Duluth, Minnesota in June to run Grandma’s Marathon, he promised to follow my running progress on the race website. I thought this was really nice of him, and I occasionally thought about this while I was up in Duluth. It was nice to know that someone from back home was keeping tabs on me. When I returned home, I gave him my souvenir race t-shirt in appreciation of his support… though I’m sure yet another marathon shirt was the last thing he needed.

In August, my friend told me that Nick wasn’t doing so well. The cancer had spread throughout his body. I saw Nick one more time after that. He was leaning against the side of the garage. He was waiting for Judie to help him into the car to take him to the hospital. I walked over and put my hand on his frail shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, other than the lame “Hang in there.” His own voice was but a whisper. All I could make out was “Pete, I’m in a bad way.”

He died just a few weeks later. His family was at his side. At his funeral, his friends wore running shoes in tribute to him.

***

Yes, Nick and I shared a few of the same interests. But even if we hadn’t, he impressed me with his charm and friendliness. He’s another one of those people who, though I didn’t know very long, I wish I’d have known better. His passing was another dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day.

I’m not real religious. But I’m sure one day we’ll see each other at some marathon finish line somewhere. We’ll talk about our latest race. Maybe we can listen to one of those Rolling Stones CDs from that boxed set in the den. That’ll be cool.

running shoes

90-Year-Old Marathon Man

Last weekend I ran the Marshall University Marathon in Huntington, West Virginia.  Competing in marathons is a fun hobby that I’ve been doing for years.  Running distances makes me feel good about myself, mentally and physically, and I also enjoy traveling and meeting interesting people.

In Huntington I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Mike Fremont of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Believe it or not, Mike is 90 years old and is still running marathons! (to put this into perspective for those who may not know, a full running “marathon” is 26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers).  Mike started running to deal with stress and depression after being widowed with three kids when he was 35.  Then when he was 69 he contracted colon and rectal cancer.  Facing a death sentence, he switched to an all-plant diet.  His cancer eventually disappeared and hasn’t returned.  And he hasn’t had a cold in 10 years (he takes no vitamin or mineral supplements).  Though long-retired, Mike does a lot of volunteering, including starting a foundation to clean Ohio’s rivers.

Last August Mike set a world record in the half-marathon.  At Huntington, he finished the full marathon in approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes, setting an American record (really, how many other 90-year-old marathoners are there?!).  Congratulations Mike!

Mike attributes his longevity and athleticism to his vegan diet.  There’s nothing wrong with golf or fishing or bridge.  But Mike defies the idea that retirement means low or no-aerobic activities.  He’s fit, mentally sharp, and happy.  He’s a pretty inspiring guy.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get to vegan stage.  But after meeting Mike Fremont, I’ll be eating even more bean soup and leaf spinach!