Runners love to say, with equal measure of pride and defiance and self-motivating courage, “there may come a day when I can’t do this any more, but today is not that day.” Truth is, as much as we like to think of it as far off in some hidden future, none of us really know when that day will come, until suddenly, without warning, it’s here. Almost. Maybe.
Two Sundays ago, at the Surf City marathon weekend in Huntington Beach, California, I ran the best age-graded half marathon of the 27 I’ve done since I moved up to the distance in 2010. Last Sunday I was hooked up to half the medical machinery known to humanity in the emergency room at Lake Forest Hospital, beginning a sequence that led to my heart being shocked back into submission on Tuesday.
This Sunday, today, after my soft reboot, before I attempt to put on my running shoes later this week and set out again, I’m sitting here re-assessing hopes and goals and mission and meaning not only for this race season, but all the way to an end that has become all too visible over the horizon.
What got me here was not overreaching at my race, or poor nutrition choices over the decades, or some undiagnosed congenital heart condition, or even the unexploded ordnance of all the bad things I did to my body during my extended youth. I was waylaid by the common seasonal flu, a relatively mild case because like a responsible adult and citizen, I had gotten my flu shot this year as I do every year. This year, though, either the virus or the coughing sent my heart spiraling into an atrial flutter, where the lower chambers keep the proper rhythm, but an upper chamber does whatever the hell kind of freeform dance it wants to do whenever it wants to, kind of like Left Shark on crystal meth.
At first I had thought I was suffering from a simple case of dehydration, because my canary in the coal mine, my lower back, was radiating with burning pain. But even after re-hydrating and ingesting an armful of gels, sports beans, and salty snacks, I could feel something was still wrong—my heart seemed to be going too fast, confirmed by pulling on my heart rate monitor which indicated I was in zone 4, a threshold run, even though I was laying quietly on the couch.
My doctor’s service recommended I not worry too much about it and sleep on it and see what it was like in the morning. While Mary was driving me to the hospital my expectation was that they would hook me up with an IV, slap my bottom and send me on my way. After a few tests and an EKG, no no no said the ER doctor, you’re staying the night.
And doctor by doctor, nurse by nurse, tech by tech, test by test, it played out from there. Even if you don’t let yourself be afraid, you can see it in the faces of the people around you. They can hide the fear but not the concern. Common enough condition, and a safe standard procedure, they all said. We see it all the time. You’ll be fine. Easy to say when it’s not happening to you, when as the hours pass you’re starting to understand how and why people enter the hospital and never leave, or if they do leave, they give up entirely to somebody else’s care, they sit on the couch and don’t get up again.
Through it all, and to everyone who would listen, I asked, or more simply let it be known: please, however this turns out, please let me be able to run again.
Everything was fine, in the end. Solid echocardiogram (no heart disease), clean transesophageal (no blood clots), and a successful cardioversion (where they shoot electrical currents to your heart to bring it back in line) worked on the first try. The feeling of being broken is passing relatively quickly. I’m gradually getting used to the adjustment in blood pressure medication that came with the introduction of channel blockers to lessen the likelihood of this happening again, along with a couple of other minor issues that will disappear in a week or two. The good news for the days to come is, solid heart, clear lungs, no unexploded ordnance after all. So as usual, what remains is all in my head. And here’s what my head is saying:
Twenty-one Septembers. Twelve racing seasons. Two marathons. These are all finite numbers, and because they are, time now takes on a much different meaning for me than chip time or personal records or race pace. Ten thousand kisses. A hundred more times to visit with one of your children. A few dozen sunrises over one ocean, a few dozen sunsets over another. More finite numbers.
More important than when do we cross the finish line, or how fast do we go, the real questions are, how do we get to the start line, and what and who do we bring with us. Resurrection and redemption are powerful concepts and I don’t mean to overdramatize, but they are very much on my mind—what can you make of yet another chance, can you embrace the changes that, in the immortal words of Warren Zevon, will allow you to “enjoy every sandwich.”
Or, more directly, who do you love most, who do you need most, and are you willing to take their hand every day—every single day—and let the love radiate from that connection, not as some effusive but ephemeral force dissolving into the universe, but as a focused intentional sharing with everyone around you.
So yeah, I may still have a time goal or two, but those are secondary goals now, far down the list. Love for the sport, love for the people who share the road with me, love for every day and every gift that brings my heart rate up—I’ve known in recent years on some level that this is the way, and now I know for sure how important it is not to allow a single moment of it to pass without saying it out loud.
Run free. Breathe deep. Finish strong. That mantra will never leave me, one reason why it’s tattooed on my arm. My next tattoo? An imperfect but strong and grateful heart, shocked back into life, finding and spreading love, counting down until the end. I’m cleared to go. Can’t wait to see you all back out there.