While I was slogging around Spring Lake, the pond at Fisher Meadows, on Wednesday, I heard a runner coming up behind me. I pulled my three dogs closer to the side of the trail so he could pass. A man about the same age as me and a white standard poodle breezed by. “Running keeps your hands warm,” he called to me. I laughed. Princess immediately pulled at her leash. She likes competition. “This is not a race,” I chided her, but we briefly pick up the pace. My plan had been an easy four miles at a steady pace on a snowy trail. I have almost no experience running in snow and wanted to get a feel for the terrain. Since the roads were icy, I figured a trail run would be safer. Another day off from running would have been even safer, especially because I needed to be at the library at ten. Yet there I was—running. The other runner slowed to a walk until he realized I was coming up behind him. He sprinted toward the parking lot. I wanted to keep up with him but just couldn’t push myself. I found myself climbing into the truck, dissatisfied with my run time even though it had been a rather decent nine minute pace over four miles.
Lately I have had a problem maintaining my running routine. Part of the problem has been motivation. Part of the problem has been other obligations. I have been doing more trail runs since I moved to Connecticut. Uneven surfaces slow me down, make me more cautious. My run times have been slower. I can run one mile at 8 minutes if I run on pavement. The next ones will be slower—nine minutes. After three miles, I often slow down to a ten minute mile pace. I tell myself that since I am now in the last part of my fifth decade, I don’t need speed work, just endurance. Do I really need to run at all?
After my run on Wednesday, I read the aptly titled “One Running Shoe in the Grave” in the Wall Street Journal. A recent study suggests distance running may be detrimental to our health. Wait! Isn’t running supposed to keep us out of the grave? Journalist Kevin Helliker reports: “’Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life,’ concludes an editorial to be published next month in the British journal Heart.” Isn’t aerobic exercise—cardio exercise—supposed to keep the heart fit? Stave off old age and disease? Until now my biggest worry was that the osteoarthritis in my feet would eventually end my running days. I have to worry about my heart?
Of course, those of us who are baby boomer runners know that running can help only so much. Buried in my garage is a copy of Jim Fixx’s runner’s bible: The Complete Book of Running that I set aside after the author’s untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 52 in 1984. But I kept lacing up those running shoes, especially after my own father had a heart attack the next year. After all, running helped Mr. Fixx live longer than his father did. Perhaps today’s cholesterol drugs would have also helped Mr. Fixx. The death this March of ultra-runner (and baby boomer) Micah True, (aka Caballo Blanco in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run) seemed reminiscent of Mr. Fixx’s death. According to news sources, Mr. True died of cardiomyopathy while on a run, an easy breezy run for someone like him. According to the WSJ article, this is the type of death some cardiologists are now noticing. Speed and distance may eliminate the longevity benefits. Too much endurance work, especially at high speeds, may damage the heart.
To run or not to run? Ah, that is the question. I have never been a marathoner. I am not a competitive runner. Most years an early three mile run was all I could manage. Five miles was a perfect morning. Eight miles on a nice summer day was enjoyable. Anything more was painful. I think sometimes I could do a half marathon or a 10K but I hate crowds. One of my favorite titles ever is “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner.” Alone with my thoughts, I clock the miles, writing poems, thinking of plot lines, reworking this blog. Plus I’ve never been lightning fast. I run because I like running. But the article made me evaluate my reasons: Health? Addiction? Five years ago I was in the ER with heart palpitations. That morning I ran five miles. Afterwards when I was taking out the trash, I felt my pulse race; I became dizzy and had to sit down. But I went to work and prepared to give a standardized test to my students. Yet I found I couldn’t concentrate. I felt faint. I know my family history. I went to urgent care to get checked out. The doctor made me take an ambulance to the ER, less than a mile away. My thyroid was the culprit.
Still sometimes I wonder if I can trust my heart. I have the low blood pressure and resting pulse rate of an elite athlete but that may be genetics because I certainly don’t train like an elite athlete. My mother who is not at all athletic has always had low blood pressure. I have low cholesterol. I also have a small heart defect. Do these things add up to health and longevity? Or is my heart secretly planning a sneak attack? The article does not say whether family history is a factor in elite runners’ deaths. How many first hit the pavement because a family member died of a heart attack? My own running routine really doesn’t fall into the “chronic exercise” category. Or does it? In his WSJ article, Kevin Helliker includes an interview with Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a Dallas cardiologist, who suggests that over 15 miles a week is excessive. So far this week I ran eighteen, none faster than 9 minutes. I would have cycled but the icy roads made me hesitate. So I am an addict. I worry that the snow is going to keep me inside at the gym. I hate treadmills. I want to be outside.
Yesterday morning, the twenty-seventh anniversary of my dad’s first heart attack, I laced up my trail runners and ran six miles. Dad is now 82. If I keep running, will I reach the same age? Or will I have a heart attack on a lonely trail?
For me, this may be mental health versus physical health. Running clears my mind and relieves stress. I feel alert and content after a run. To run or not to run? There is no question. To achieve the nobler mind and suffer the slings and arrows of daily and common misfortunes, I need to run.