I’d just passed the two mile mark and, since my heart rate monitor told me I was still within acceptable limits, decided to run another lap or two around the park. “The minute something aches,” I told myself, “I’ll stop.” From what I’ve read, the key to running is to start slow and not go too hard to early. I couldn’t agree more. “Progress not perfection” is my mantra. 

As I jogged at my admittedly slow pace, however, I wondered when I’d feel that “runners high” I’ve heard so much about. “I’ve never felt a runner’s high,” a runner once told me. “Not once. And I’ve been doing this for years.” But another high mileage woman I consulted claimed she often found herself transported to beatific realms of endorphin bliss. I guess everybody’s different. 

Making my way down the path, I focused on breathing deep from my abdomen through my nose and exhaling out my mouth, careful to make sure I alternated inhales between left and right foot strikes. Helps with balance or something like that. Noticing I was starting to slouch, I pulled my shoulders back and lilted my head, focusing twenty feet in front of me. Now climbing up a hill, I saw a young woman jogging towards me and, being conscious that we were the only ones in the park, gave her a wide berth. No need to give her the willies. 

“Thanks,” she said, breezing past me like a gazelle while I heroically resisted the urge to cast a glance backward. “Custody of the eyes,” I muttered, repeating another mantra I was taught in seminary. “Custody of the eyes.” But, if you’ve read this blog over the years, you know that’s a custom I honor more in the breach than in the observance. Then, after completing two more circuits, I slowed to a gentle walk. Two and a half miles straight, a new personal best. When I get to three, I’ll have accomplished my first goal – to run just as far as my cardiologist can. Of course, he’s pushing seventy while I’m only fifty-six, but hey, you have to start somewhere. 

A few weeks ago, my daughter, overwhelmed with an extracurricular school project she’d taken on, came to me crying and saying she wanting to quit. “I get it,” I told her. “Doing new things can be very scary.”  

“But if I don’t do it, my friend will be upset,” Natalie tearfully, said. 

“Listen,” I said. “The best way to deal with a new project that’s overwhelming is to break it down into little pieces.” 

“Uh huh.”  

“Back when I was writing my books, I was also scared, wondering if I could do it or not. And I was afraid of disappointing people too. (That and having to give the advance back) So, I set a goal for myself every day. I’d write three or four pages and then stop – no matter if it took me an hour or eight. Then, after a while, those three or four pages turned into two or three hundred and, voila, I was done.” 

“We’re you happy?” 

“Baby,” I said. ‘There’s no greater thrill than holding a book you’ve written in your hand for the first time.” 

“So, you were happy when it was over?” 

“You better believe it. When you finally finish your project, you’ll feel happy too, because hard work really does really pay off. “ 

When I started running in November, I could barely do a quarter mile. I was also nervous that my fifty-six year old heart would crap out on me, something I’ve unfortunately seen happen to middle aged guys before. “I’ve only been running on the treadmill at the gym,” I told a friend early on. “I like that it’s air-conditioned, a bathroom’s nearby, staff around, and a defibrillator.” 

“Yeah,” my friend said. “But do the staff know how to use it?” One can only hope. 

Taking it bit by bit, I got my indoor mileage up and then began venturing outside, finding not having a whirring belt propelling me made my runs much harder. While I knew my body had to adapt, something about mitochondrial proteins creating chemicals to better utilize oxygen, I was very disappointed I couldn’t even complete a mile. But I kept it up, alternating between running and walking every other day until a mile was easy, then two, and now three is within sight. My next goal is to take it up to five, then picking up the pace until I can do a 5K under 30 minutes. Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. 

After a recovery walk, I started jogging again, trying to get that last half mile under my belt. But as I fell into a tired mediative rhythm, a truth I’d been hiding from suddenly broached the surface. You’re running from something. My dad’s passing hit me hard, and, like most middle aged adults, his death has made me think of how much time I have left. What if my cancer comes back? Will my heart gives out one day? Would I suffer a stroke, get diabetes, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s? Am I pushing myself so hard to prove there’s life in this old dog yet? One thing’s for sure, I’m gonna be pissed if my HDL levels don’t go up. 

Finishing up my three miles, I consulted the monitor on my wrist and was gratified to see my heart rate wasn’t stratospheric. A couple of months ago it would’ve been higher. Maybe those mitochondria are doing their job. After cooling down, I did some stretches and felt my warmed muscles respond with gratitude. Feeling quite good, I wondered if the best part of running was when it was over. Then, suffused with endorphin and oxygen, another thought hit me. You might be running towards something too. Life can also be overwhelming and perhaps my father, from whatever beatific realm he inhabits, is giving me a gentle push, bit by bit. One can only hope. 

Heading back to my car, the young gazelle ran past me again, waving a comradely wave. I’d like to say I maintained custody of the eyes – but that would be a lie. 

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