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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Monday, April 15, 2013

That Drug Called "Running"

From Navyrunning.com
Copyright 2013 © by Ralph Couey
Written content only
One morning last June, I awoke from my slumbers somehow imbued with a particularly striking sense of motivation bordering on compulsion.  Somehow during the nighttime hours, my brain had been rewired.  I knew it was time to start moving.

The night before had been fairly typical.  I returned home from work just after midnight, removed and hung up my motorcycle gear, and went upstairs.  After my customary bowl of fat-free sugar-free pudding (Yeah, yeah I know.  Why bother?), I went to bed.  Maybe there was something in that particular batch of pudding, or perhaps it was a culmination of the latent restlessness I had been feeling.  I had just finished six months of hard physical therapy, relieving some unbelievably sharp and relentless pain.  Coinciding with that event was a visit with my cardiologist who, after my last heart incident, had pronounced me ready to undertake physical exercise.

Whatever it was hit me like a linebacker on that warm and muggy morning.  I packed some workout clothes and went to work early, hitting the gym on my arrival.
That first few weeks was fairly simple, walking on a treadmill.  I started with one mile, then increased to two, then three.  Once there, I began to drop in periods of running, beginning with one minute, then 3, then 5, and so on until I was able to go non-stop for 20 minutes.  This was all done inside, of course, since the summer of 2012 was singularly hot.  But in September the temperatures finally broke, the humidity dropped off, and I took my show to the open road.

The town I work in, Vienna, Virginia, is a pleasant place to walk or run, provided it's not 104 degrees outside.  Using Google Maps, I planned out three routes, each one three miles long.  I found, not surprisingly, that it was so much easier to run outside than on a treadmill.  For one thing, as I ran, the world went by; the scenery changed.  Gradually, I increased the speed and distance.  By Halloween, I was running 4 miles each day.  The winter broke things up a bit, chasing me inside to that accursed treadmill far too often.  But as the weather has moderated this spring, I have pushed myself beyond the 5-mile mark. 
Since I work four days per week, I mapped a couple of additional courses around home and ran those on my off days.  Now, I'm (sorta) happy to say I'm addicted to running.

This was not my first foray into this sport.  In the '80s, I was in the Navy and undertook running as a way to satisfy the Big Blue Canoe Club's requirement for daily fitness activity.  Being a younger man back then, I ran further and faster.  Living in the flat terrain of the Los Angeles basin, I ran at least two 10k road races each month, and joined a multi-service team for the Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon.  Now I was never all that fast.  I think the fastest pace I ever logged was 8.5 minutes per mile.  Most races, it was closer to 9 or 10 minutes per mile.  But through all that running, I got hooked on the activity.  Then, as now, on days I don't run, I feel restless and out of sorts, even though those enforced days off are necessary for my aging joints. 

So, I wondered, what is it about this attraction to such a self-tortuous activity?  As everyone knows, it's those pesky things called endorphins.

"Endorphin" is a compound term combining two words, endogenous, and morphine.  They're a chemical type called neurotransmitters. Endorphins are released by the body during things like exercise, excitement, pain, and orgasm.  What happens, if I'm able to interpret the terminology correctly, is that they have a high affinity for the opioid receptors in the brain, which is also where morphine goes.  The process also stimulates the production of the brain chemical dopamine.  Dopamine is...well, the best way to describe it would be the "joy chemical."  When you're happy, in love, and feeling good, that's dopamine at work.  The combination of the two, dopamine and endorphins, have the effect of inhibiting pain while stimulating the pleasure center. 
The morphine part of the equation also explains the dependency aspect.

If you like, this is getting high from a legal drug, one produced by your own body.  Of course, the down side being that runners can push themselves beyond the limits of their bodies to tragic and sometimes fatal consequences.

I try to remember these things, but I've gotten used to that good feeling, and like any recreational abuser, I therefore seek it as often as possible. 

Now, I don't want to paint this as a bad picture, because it's not.  My cardiologist is ecstatic about the effect this activity has had on my heart.  I have five stents in various arteries around that vital organ, and even losing over 160 pounds in the last three years hasn't stopped the danger of cardiovascular disease.  As I discovered, once you develop it, you will always have it.  The only thing you can do is minimize the risk factors.  One of those ways is through exercise.

Being an older gent, I'm also aware that my joints are not what they used to be.  My knees, especially were sources of concern.  But a friend of mine, a professional trainer on his off-days, taught me some fundamental changes to my style of running.  He pointed out that for most people, there's way too much "up and down" to their running motion, putting lots of stress on ankles, knees, hips, and even backs.  The trick is to adapt a more gliding motion, taking the stress more on the thighs than the joints.  It sounds weird, but it works.  The way to know if you're doing it correctly is to be able to drink water from a cup or bottle in stride without sloshing it all over yourself.  If you can do that, you've nailed it.

One of the entertaining things I did was heed a suggestion from one of my daughters.  I downloaded an app to my smartphone called "Map My Run."  This marvelous little training tool takes GPS hits while you're running, constructing a map of where you've gone.  It also measures with high accuracy the exact distance, time, pace, and calories burned, based on body weight.  Once the run is finished, it uploads the results to the main application which is accessed through my computer.  There I can access even more interesting tools, such as elevation on the route, and what my minutes-per-mile was at any point on that route.  All the routes are saved and are there for review and comparison.  I've mapped five different routes around my workplace, and four around home, so I'm never bored  running the same road too often.

Of course, there are hills, and traffic lights, and traffic, but I've learned how to deal with those.  For the really tough hills, instead of looking ahead, I concentrate on the ground right in front of my feet, only glancing up occasionally to make sure I don't run into a parked car or step into a storm drain.  I've found that not watching the hill makes it much easier, at least mentally, to climb.  The other thing is how important it is to manage my breathing.

Breathing is automatic.  Under stress, however, it can be hard work.  The best pattern I use is to breathe in through the nose for four steps, then out through the mouth for four steps (by four steps, I mean left, right, left right).  Giving in to the desire to pant actually produces more fatigue.  I carry water and stay hydrated during the run, using a Camelbak backpack reservoir for the hotter days.  Wearing my iPod helps engage my brain and keeps it from trying to get me to quit too early. 

There are three distinct phases to each run.  The first phase, lasting about a mile and a half, is the hardest.  My muscles, despite all the stretching I do, are still trying to warm themselves up.  This can be the hardest part, mentally because getting to that warmed-up and loose stage is just plain hard work, especially for us older folk.  This is also the stretch where I really have to fight to keep going. 

Once I get to the middle part, from a mile and a half up through four miles, I'm loose, I've found my pace, my music has taken control of my brain, and I'm cruising. 

The last phase is the part from four miles until the end.  Now, I'm looking at my time and usually deciding I've been too slow, so I speed up.  My brain also realizes that The End is Near, and is anxiously awaiting that point.  I'm fighting some impatience because of that.  I also have to be careful because my legs are not picking up my feet quite as far at the end of each stride.  I've taken a couple of bad falls during this part, tripping over erupted sidewalks, curbs, and sometimes, nothing at all.  Hitting the pavement is painful, gifting bruised kneecaps, scraped hands and arms, jammed wrists, and, worst of all, the risk of damage to my electronics. 

And feeling really dumb, laying there on the ground.

At last, the finish line is in sight.  I glide across, break stride, and begin the cool-down process.  I have to be careful here, because the heart medecine I'm required to take (still) has a tendancy to suppress blood pressure and compound heartbeats, which can enhance the expected dizziness after stopping. 

Now, walking back to the office or home, I feel great; accomplished.  My endorphines are roaring and my body feels wonderful. 

Not all days will be the same.  Some days are smooth and effortless.  Other days...well, they're just really hard work.  But the victory comes in pushing through those "punch the time clock" days, when I don't feel as smooth.  And I am consumed in anticipation of the next time.

Am I addicted? Perhaps. I still take Sundays off, and circumstances will sometimes compel missing and occasional day here or there, like three days in the hospital for another heart scare, for example.  (False alarm, as it turned out.)  As to how long I can keep this up, that's anybody's guess.  But this all started with a decision made on one otherwise unremarkable June morning, and could come to an end with another decision on another morning sometime down the road.  But for now, I'll keep on going. 

What the heck, it feels good, doesn't cost anything but time, and its perfectly legal. 

Does it get anybetter than that?

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