I don’t mean I have the flu. I don’t mean I ate something that disagreed with me. I mean that I, with a fair degree of certainty, know what will kill me, and how I will die.
I will run out of air.
The frailty of the human existence, the whole of human suffering, can be boiled down to its essence when your ability to inhale, to exhale, has been compromised. To sit there, gasping for oxygen the way a celeb-utante seeks attention, the way the impoverished lay defeated after scouring their surroundings for nourishment. Without oxygen, there is no life. And with very little oxygen, a life can amount to very little.
This past month, I walked into my lung doctor’s office at Austin Diagnostic Clinic, blew into a spirometer, and sighed — my lungs are performing at 57% of normal: the capacity of a 79 year-old man. And they are, slowly and steadily, getting worse. 30 years of chronic severe asthma caused by a very specific immunodeficiency that manifests itself as allergic reactions, chronic stuffy nose and so on, have taken its toll. And I’m sick.
When I was younger, I would plug myself into the wall every morning and every evening to suck down medicine dispensed through a nebulizer and air compressor machine, so I would have the lung capacity to go outside and play without seeing stars and laying out flat. I’d avoid basements and dogs and pollen and wear a giant fire-engine red cable-knit scarf to prevent the cold from constricting my airways. I’d sit out long runs in soccer practice. I’d play only every third down of pickup football with the neighborhood kids. I’d collapse running the state-mandated mile run. I’d start coughing and wheezing after laughing too hard.
I was sick. So I began to run.
Running is the most satisfying thing I do. It’s more satisfying than writing. More satisfying than playing music. More satisfying than my job or my friends or a glass of prosecco — and oh, how I love prosecco.
Some people love to run because of the zen-like calm they get over the course of sorting out their day-to-day struggles. Some people love to run because it keeps their cardiovascular system in shape. Some people love to run as a way of bonding with other people who love to run. Those are all good reasons. Those are not my reasons.
You’ll see Instagrams of fit folks who seem to glide and smile with each passing smile. You’ll catch little motivational captions like “Start strong. Finish fast.” Or some nonsense in handwritten script jacked from a Pintrest board. This is not me. This has never been me. I do not glide. I do not smile. I hobble. I cough. I spit. I sweat.
I run because I am afraid of dying.
In the exactly half of my life since I started running, it has been my way of forgetting for a brief moment how frail and perilous my youth and health are — and also my way of remembering. It’s been my way of fooling myself into thinking I was “just like the other kids,” of fitting in with normal people who can do these types of things with ease and do them much better than I can.
I signed up for the track team at 16, and cross-country at 17. I finished dead last (or close to it) in every meet, at every distance — save for a stray bronze medal in the Long Jump and a out-of-nowhere silver in the 200m where our best runners sat out so I could medal against the private school kids.
One time, as a joke, they let me anchor a 4x400m relay for my team and go head-to-head against our fastest 400m runner on the other team, and the first three cats on my relay squad were so good ahead of me that I was spotted a 100m headstart. When I got the baton, I ran as fast as humanly possible, to the delight and awe of everyone on the team. I remember the cheers as I came down the home stretch, the long-legged gazelle-like athletic freak behind me gaining on me with every step. I kept telling myself I would not be beaten. I could not be beaten. And I sure as shit don’t quit. I ain’t weak. As he passed me with just a couple short steps remaining, I could feel my rage boiling. THIS IS NOT FAIR. I AM TRYING HARDER THAN YOU. So I gave him a nudge and dove for the finish, arm outstretched, holding the baton. I had won, if you consider running a quarter-mile in 90 seconds to beat another chap who ran it at a 5-minute mile pace, and oh by the way disqualifying yourself because you reached into the other lane with your elbow, a victory. I did. I broke the tape, and in life, breaking the tape is all that matters. My lungs would fail, but my mind and legs would not.
I’ve finished in the bottom 10% in my age group in every race I’d ever run. From my first 15K in 1999 to my most recent 10K earlier this month. In the past year, I’ve run three half-marathons, two 10Ks, and a 5K. In each successive race, I’ve gotten faster. I can now run exactly a 12-minute mile.
When I told this to my lung doctor, he said, “I can’t believe you can do this.” And maybe I should feel honored. Maybe I should feel lucky and accomplished that I’ve even been able to do this at all. To a certain degree I do. But enough of a degree where I don’t wake up every day wishing, just once, I could do it better.
And so I made myself a pact: I took a big gulp of lump in my throat, gritted my teeth, choked out $600, and registered for something called the “Dopey Challenge” at Walt Disney World, January 5–8, 2017.
What is the Dopey Challenge? It is the successful completion of a 5K, a 10K, a half-marathon and a full marathon — each in less than 15 minutes per mile — on four consecutive days. It is, while not the ultimate test of endurance, a fairly substantial taxation on the body despite all the magic and Mickey Mouse surrounding you. And I am going to do it.
I am not in shape. My resting pulse rate is about 90. I’m 192 pounds (most of it fat). And you already know about my lungs. I can run a half marathon like this (and I have!). I cannot satisfy the requirements of the challenge like this. Hell, I’ve never even run a full marathon before.
This is my quest for the next 256 days: To get myself into the best shape of my life, complete my first marathon, and get my sorry ass over the damned finish line at EPCOT Center sometime in the late morning or early afternoon. To do this will require a total and complete transformation of lifestyle, a dedicated training plan, a heaping pile of unprocessed food, and a cacophony of self-aggrandizing blog posts.
I’m going to chronicle the journey here, because this is the side of running you don’t read. This is the side of running that doesn’t look good on Instagram. The side of running that isn’t about Cliff Bars and proper form and cryo-therapy and relaxing seven-mile trail runs through the Colorado wilderness.
This is the ugly side of running. This is about one man going to war with his body in order to come to peace with it. This is about when “burns so good” is actually just burning. This is about outrunning possibility. This is about running because your life depends on it. This is about the back of the pack rising to … well … just the pack. This is about running not to see the dreaded EMS truck in your rear view.
This is about finding a new identity — not as an unhealthy interloper who runs races to test himself, but as a race-runner who gets healthy to *actually* test himself.
This is about running because I’m sick. Sick of not being able to run as fast or as far as I want to. Sick of looking at myself in the mirror and wishing I looked differently. Sick of blowing into a spirometer and wishing the numbers were higher. Sick of the burning, the wheezing, the coughing, the walking, the spare tire and the doctors worrying if I’m going to make it.
I’m doing this because I’m not dead yet — and for as long as this planet lets me rent the air here, I’m going to breathe in as much of it as possible.
Air’s free, after all. And so am I.