Saturday Diary / Still running after all these years

I may pay the price down the road but I’ll feel a lot better for the journey that got me there


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Every once in a while, someone will say something that will stop you in your tracks.

That happened to me the other day when I went to my doctor’s office for a checkup.

I recently turned 59 and hadn’t seen him for a while, so it seemed like a good idea.

He went over the results of a blood test that showed my cholesterol levels were a bit high, but nothing to get alarmed about. And like many men my age, I carry more weight around than I should. In my case, 10 to 15 pounds.

I try to stay active and get out for a run when I can for exercise, but my schedule doesn’t always allow me to do that, so I’m often limited to running on weekends and the occasional morning before work.

And then there’s this: My daughter, Jessie, died last November, a few days shy of her 24th birthday. Grief has been a constant companion for the last eight months, and, quite frankly, it’s draining. It wears on you mentally, physically and emotionally. So I haven’t had the urge to run much of late, but when I do, it helps.

A few years ago, I started to put on some weight, and my wife, who runs almost every day, encouraged me to get out running more often.

So I did. And I cut back on things like cookies and ice cream. In a matter of about two months, I shed nearly 20 pounds, and I felt a lot better. It also lowered my blood pressure and cholesterol.

I figured I would just do that again. My doctor figured differently.

“You’re running days are over,” he said.

He didn’t say I should cut back. Or slow down. Or combine running with swimming.

Just that I should quit running because of my age.

It left me numb. It was like he was taking away the keys to the car.

Stop running. Forever.

He pointed out that running puts a lot of stress on your knees that could eventually lead to arthritis and joint replacements and who-knows-what else. Moreover, there’s this thing called your maximum heart rate and, as a person gets older, it gets harder and harder to get your heart to beat faster so that you’ll derive any aerobic benefit. Or something.

He suggested that I instead go to a gym and work out with weights, get a bicycle or just take power walks.

When I told my wife what the doctor said, she was incredulous. She knows how much I enjoy running.

She found several articles online that touted the benefits of running for, ahem, older people like me. But she also pointed out the thing I like about running.

“You always feel better when you get out for a run.”

She’s right. Experts say it has something to do with endorphins, those chemicals in the brain that trigger that “runner’s high.”

When I go for a run, I bring along my trusty iPod loaded with a compilation of tunes that I created just for running: the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, the Beatles, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead.

The first mile of a run is always the toughest, at least for me, which is why I play my favorite songs first (“The Wheel” by Jerry Garcia, followed by The Rolling Stones doing “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”)

It takes a while for the breathing to settle down and for the muscles to loosen up. After the first mile, though, I just relax, listen to the music, enjoy the scenery and keep an eye out for cars that don’t keep an eye out for me.

I have a few regular routes that I take around Mt. Lebanon and I know them so well that I know my pace as I hit various landmarks. Of course, the seven-and-a-half-minute miles of my younger years have devolved into nine or 10 minutes, but I’m OK with that.

When the mood strikes, I sometimes turn off the music and use the time to clear my head of the noise from the outside world, and find some inner peace.

I know my doctor means well and is looking out for my well-being. But this is one time that I’m going to have to refuse his directive. Yes, I may pay the price down the road with achy knees and sore muscles. But I’ll feel a lot better for the journey that got me there.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta run.

Matt Smith is a local news editor for the Post-Gazette (msmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1738).


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