Rest in peace?
How is it supposed to end?
Posted Thursday, 6 July, 2006
I’ve been thinking a lot about death today. Nothing morbid or suicidal. - just coincidentally contemplating the end point.
A delayed flight from Boston robbed me of my sleep and any chance of a morning work out, (I draw the line at 4 hours of sleep). The Atlanta commute this morning was light with holiday traffic. I was scanning the rental car radio stations for something interesting to perk me up on my way to Starbucks (mandatory). The team of perky talking heads was riffing on the recent Peachtree Road Race. This monster of a local event briefly captures the press once a year around here by cramming 50 odd thousand lucky runners through the streets of Atlanta.
They were interviewing a man who died at the race. Which I found interesting as much as they found it absurdly funny and fodder for their morning yucks. They seemed to revel in the irony that one of these crazy runners would succumb to exercise. It was like some sort of revenge for them, the non-athletes getting to say “I told you so”. Like a NASCAR racer crashing his wife’s SUV or a marriage counselor filing for divorce. Comedy of the absurd, that what the listeners want, it’s their bread and circus.
I guess the weather was Africa-hot for the race, as it often is in Atlanta in July. As you all can relate to, I’m sure, to put it clinically, running in soupy-hot weather sucks. It puts a bunch of stress on your body. It is especially so if your body, like mine, was designed for digging ditches in peat bogs outside County Clare, where the sun seldom shines and is never hot.
There were two men who dropped from cardiac arrest during the race. The second one, the one they interviewed, died. And, even though death is always a noteworthy occurrence, his was quite dramatic. He evidently ran a strong race, careened across the finish and dropped. You may have already guessed that the race officials and emergency personnel felt compelled to intervene in this drama and brought him back from the long tunnel, the bright light, etc. I know this, because they also interviewed the ladies who kept his brain oxygenated with CPR until the EMTs arrived and performed their Lazarus tricks.
Death on the radio is not an uncommon theme, especially if you listen to NPR, but this struck close to home for a number of reasons. The first one being that this is not my first brush with this scenario. The second is that I’ve been feeling pretty old lately. The third is that I’ve always marveled at the hubris of athletes, and runners in particular who think that they can absolve all their genetic and lifestyle flaws with a good workout.
It’s actually not uncommon for folks to have their hearts give out at a road race. (Also in the news this week, coincidently, was Ken Lay’s cheating the jailers’ grasp by having his heart fail at his resort home in Vale. Evaporating 65 billion dollars in net worth is, it would seem, about as stressful as a 10k in the hot sun.) If you read the fine print on your next entry form you’ll discover that you understand long distance running is a stressful activity that can result in injury or death. Race directors tend to downplay the significance of it, but it happens. Remember Jim Fixx?
I’m not suggesting that everyone give up racing. I think if that bullet has your name on it you probably can’t hide from it by staying on the couch. The irony is that this gentleman who kicked the bucket briefly in Atlanta was probably in excellent shape. He was in his 60’s and had been a life-long runner. He did not have any symptoms or history of heart trouble. He did however have heart disease and a family history of heart disease. It begs the question – would he have dropped walking to the car in his 50’s if he wasn’t a runner?
I think, from what I’ve read that running in general lowers your risk of heart disease. At the same time running raises your probability of having it hit you while you’re in the middle of a race. I’ve also read that when it does hit runners in a race it typically puts them down for the count. It seems we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t! Incidentally, he told the interviewers that he intended to keep running. That a boy! My kind of runner! Cheat death and then give it the finger in the exit interview! There’s a special circle of Dante’s hereafter for us!
My personal experience with death in a race was on the other end of the weather spectrum. We had just finished running a popular, hilly 16 miler on an arctic 3 degree morning. I guess the cold weather and hills of N.H. in February rival the hot hilly south in July for heart stress. We were chatting in the chute when that runner hit the ground in front of us. He looked to be in decent shape. He was in his mid-30’s. There was a cardiac surgeon with us who immediately started CPR. We got on the cell phone and had the ambulance there within 5 minutes, but he didn’t make it. You hear about death a lot, but in our modern America you rarely see it up close.
I was thinking back on that day this morning with the talk of mortality on the radio. I’ve felt really crappy the last two weeks in my weekly Thursday night 3.4 miler in Westford. I’ve been trying to figure out why. I actually had to stop and walk one night. The hot weather? The cycling I’ve been trying to cram in? The weird head cold I’ve been fighting? The lack of a compelling goal or race? The low mileage this year and lack of committed training? Or am I just old? Is this how it goes? You just don’t feel good anymore? Maybe I have Lyme disease?
As usual I figured it was just me trying to short my training so I picked it up a little. Running some hill charges in Atlanta, working in some speed work in the baking sun down the Cape over the 4th and stumbling through a 2+ hour long run over the weekend. Somehow in my pre-human sub-brain this is the best solution. I always assumed that I’d just keep running into my 80’s like a slow version of Johnny Kelly.
After more contemplation and the introspection of this morning I’m going to take some time out of my busy schedule to find a qualified doctor and get the 50,000 mile check up. You know the one I’m talking about. The one where they check all the fluids and grease all the fittings (yikes!). I recently had a physical for life insurance and my resting pulse before coffee was 35. I might already qualify for clinically dead. Like it or not I don’t think I’m a competent specialist in this regard and I should probably take the time now instead of staring at the bright light at the end of the long tunnel where my grandparents wait for me.
This brings us to the final point. What is it about runners that they think a hard work out erases all effects of other lifestyle egresses? Why do we think a hard interval workout completely ameliorates the effects of a dozen hot wings with curly fries? Or that a 3 hour long run perfectly balances the ill-acquired 12 pack on Friday night?
From the editorials this morning, one thing is quite clear; heart disease is genetic and lifestyle based. Runners are a bit more protected from it then others because they exercise that pumping muscle but they are not immunized to grease and predestination. Bottom line – exercise does not buy immortality. We are like medieval flagellants whipping away our sins to become pure again through suffering. It’s funny if you think about it.
I told my daughter, half jokingly, before embarking on a marathon last fall, “If I die, call your Mom and tell her I went doing what I love.” There’s some truth to that. Maybe it’s not as heroic a death as we would write in our perfect script, but I’d much rather croak in front of the cameras on Hereford Street than in the toilet. As the early American author intoned, “A fig to thee O’ death!” from his bed after a life well lived.
If you see me stumble and fall clutching my chest and foaming at the mouth, by all means, do your best to keep me on this side of the curtain. And let’s make a pact, you and I that we’ll go see the man (or woman) and have our chassis checked out for soundness before the summer is over. Because, as slow as I am, I love the sport and there are things I have yet to do. Besides, who’d run with Buddy the Wonder Dog if I was to pack it in?
I certainly hope to see you out there!