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.

Where Are All the Tropical Fish Stores?

I recently joined my wife in retirement (accompanied by a giant pent-up sigh of relief). Yesterday, as we felt our aging bones calcify by the minute, we discussed possible light employment options for household pin money.  She suggested part-time work for herself at a local arts and crafts shop.

“Great idea!” I said.  “I’ve thought about a used bookstore.  Or maybe a tropical fish store.”

Then I thought, “Wait a second…do those even exist anymore?”

I can’t recall seeing a store that specializes in tropical fish since, oh, “Afternoon Delight” was a hit song.  What in tarnation happened to them?

When I was a teenager I had a 10-gallon tropical fish tank in my bedroom.  It had an overhead hood light, a thick layer of pink and blue pebbles, artificial coral, assorted plastic plants, and a couple small ceramic structures, such as a sunken galleon or treasure chest.  I had the usual assortment of small, freshwater tropical fish, like black mollies, neon tetras, zebra danios, redtail sharks, guppies, angel fish, a coolie loach to scavenge for debris, and my pride and joy: a beautiful ruby-red male Siamese fighting fish (also known as a “betta”).

At one time I tried mating my fighter with a creamy pinkish female betta that I’d named “Rosy.”  My man got about halfway through blowing bubbles for the bubble nest—to hold the eggs that he would eventually squeeze out of her—then abruptly stopped.  I never figured out why.  I’m guessing he either found Rosy less sexy than I did, or maybe he was a latent homosexual.

I used to relish lying in bed at night near the glow of the tank, sleepily gazing at my fish as they swished through the water, the soft burbling sound of the water filter lulling me to sleep.

As much as I loved doling out affection to my fishies, I also enjoyed purchasing them.  Once, I found a store that had rare glass catfish, a translucent fish whose bones are visible.  One of the great mysteries of my youth was returning from vacation and finding that all of my glass cats had disappeared.  I’m assuming the other fish consumed them, slender bones and all, out of hunger, but spontaneous combustion is also a possibility.

My first job, not counting newspaper delivery (click here), was a summer job as afternoon clerk in a local tropical fish store.  I & J Tropical Fish was in a rundown building just north of Mansfield, Ohio on Ashland Road.  It was the perfect job for a lazy 17-year-old, because only a few customers ever visited.  And it was always the same people.

My main duties consisted of shaking flaky fish food into the tanks, occasionally cleaning them (a real chore), and guarding the cash register.  To alleviate the boredom, I smoked cigarettes that I stole from the pack that the morning clerk—a pregnant, married woman—stored under the register.  Since I was at the experimental age and it was only a few cigarettes here and there, I thankfully never developed a habit.

Being your typical confused and horny teenage boy, I also got my jollies in other ways.  Once when things were especially slow, I slipped into the dirty storage room in back and sat on the yellowed toilet with a Penthouse Magazine for reading material.  (I’m pretty sure it was the August 1976 issue.)  Right when I was approaching the climax of the story I was reading, I heard the entry door jingle.

“Hello?  Is anyone here?” I heard a woman inquire.

It took me several minutes to wrap up my business, make myself presentable, and scurry out front.  I’ll never know if she detected my cotton mouth or the beads of sweat on my forehead.  She probably did.

The owner of the store was a guy named Bob.  He was a family man, a bony guy with black hair, about 35 years old.  I think the “I” and the “J” were his kids’ initials.  I remember that he always had a concerned look.  Just before he hired me he gave me a pop quiz.

“What is another name for a Siamese fighting fish?” (Betta.)

“What happens if you put two male Siamese fighters together?” (They fight…duh.) 

Although I was usually alone, once in a while Bob drove into the gravel lot in his plush, customized, stereo-equipped van to check on me.  The first time he did this, about a week after I was hired, I actually had a customer.  Bob stood behind me while I handed the man his change.  With Bob over my right shoulder, silently observing the transaction, I was as nervous as he looked concerned. 

“Here you go,” the man said, as he surprised me by returning a five dollar bill. “You gave me too much change.”

After the man left, Bob waited about 30 seconds, allowing my head to fill with warm blood.  Then he spoke in a low, deliberate voice.  “You need to be very careful when you give customers their change.”  Uh, thanks, Bob. 

One time about a month after I started, my dad dropped in after work.  He was happy that I actually had employment, since it helped cover the repair expenses for the station wagon I’d recently wrecked.  Bob just happened to be there. 

“How’s the boy doing?” Dad asked Bob with unconcealed pride.

Bob stammered.  “Well, uh…he’s uh…he’s getting better and better!”

I’ve thought about why there are no tropical fish stores anymore.  Of course, it’s the same reason why there are no hamburger joints like Burger Chef, and why small farms are disappearing.  We live in a world of giant, generic conglomerates, and the “little guy” just can’t compete.  Maybe it started with McDonalds.  Later it was Wal-Mart.  Tyson.  Barnes and Noble.  Target.  Jiffy Lube.  PetSmart.  Petco.  Pet Supplies Plus.

They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot—Joni Mitchell

I’ve often wondered, too, when exactly did I & J Tropical Fish go out of business?  I think the lot is occupied by a dive bar now.  The dilapidated building looked like it might have fronted a methamphetamine lab, and I do know that abuse of crystal meth later exploded in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Maybe the building caved in, or the health inspectors discovered the yellow toilet in back.  Or maybe Bob cashed in his meager chips and hauled his wife and kids and their purple super-van to Florida.

I didn’t care for Bob all that much.  Let’s just say, I can’t imagine him and me laughing over beers at Rocky’s Pub.  But he did after all give me my first real job.  So for that I say, “Thanks, Bob.”