I never enjoyed running. Walking was a pleasure. Running was a chore. I hadn’t learned to pace myself. I only knew how to run as fast as I could until soon I was out of breath and hurting. When my cardiologist said that I needed to engage in aerobic exercise for 45 minutes almost every day, I took his judgment as a painful life sentence.
If he hadn’t presented it as a choice between life and death, I wouldn’t have taken the challenge seriously. If the heart pain, palpitations, and the other symptoms had not convinced me that I was dying, I would not have undertaken the agony of learning how to run. As it was, running was painful, forcing me to depend on nitroglycerin for relief and face my mortality every time I exercised. The first steps were to alternate running and walking for short distances, learn how to run slower and walk faster, breathe more deeply and concentrate more on exhaling then inhaling, keep moving even when I felt I must stop, and fight for consciousness when I was blacking out. Of course the weather did not allow running every day. Fortunately aerobic exercise tapes and videos had become popular and provided a workout equally as miserable. As the months passed my endurance grew with the distance that I covered. I always exceeded the target heart rate. At times I was so dizzy that I could barely stay upright. Especially during the heat of summer, Dr. John reminded me that electrolytes go out of balance with profuse sweating, and that helped to explain the nausea and vomiting that I frequently experienced.
I continued to run and exercise, enjoying an occasional day off. Nonetheless the benefits of running were accumulating, with growing endurance, breath control, pain control, and the pleasure of getting the workout done. I did not know the meaning of a “runner’s high,” but I did know the feeling of accomplishment. As the emotional stresses of everyday work also continued, the physical exercise provided the outlet that I had lacked, and the daily break that often put events and relationships in perspective. Running was as good as prayer. Running was prayer, since I had to pray as I ran, using phrases like “run and not grow weary, walk and not faint,” just to keep running, even when I did grow weary and faint.
Thirty-two years later, with many difficult events in between, I am still running. My heart is still beating, not so well sometimes but usually without long episodes of uncertainty. My angina is stable most of the time. Aspirin and nitroglycerin are still the best medicines ever discovered. And I do not enjoy running. I run in order to live.