I’ll spare you long descriptions of the in-between parts of this journey, the physical symptoms brought on by panic attacks, which tell the mind that the panic is about some kind of real health crisis.
Or crises, more like.
There were the chest pains and shortness of breath that sent me to the ER, convinced I was having a heart attack. There were endless tests that followed, the investigation of my intestinal tract and the search for the thing that wasn’t there.
Back in the day, I’ve read since, the medical profession was less adept at diagnosing panic attacks but took the symptoms seriously enough to prescribe medicines and tests and more tests, the physicians all the while seeing a patient in real pain, but unable to finds its source. The cycle runs, and you come out the other side defeated – and still feeling as awful as you did at the start.
There has to be something wrong, right? Otherwise, you just might be a little bit crazy.
I can still remember the moment sitting on my porch, feeling doom descending rapidly from above. A very large hammer was falling, and I knew I was about to be crushed beneath it.
Then I found somewhere within me a moment of defiance. A small voice that said, weakly to be sure, but still said…no!
My mind rushed into the past, seeking the thing that – when I was growing up – spoke of some internal fortitude. That thing some select few could do and which seemed to impart to them a confidence of being. A person, I remembered, who could run a mile had something others couldn’t touch – an air of accomplishment, the ability to tell the mind and the physical barriers that stood in the way that they were untouchable.
I found a piece of me in that moment that I didn’t know was there. I took out my cigarettes and crushed – for the hundredth time – the pack into oblivion. Only this time I meant it. I went inside, put on a pair of sweatpants, tennis shoes, and a t-shirt, and I came back outside. And I started to run.
I didn’t get far. I couldn’t. But I didn’t stop until I absolutely had to. Over the coming days, I wanted to smoke, and I wanted to smoke more than anything. But when the withdrawals came, I ran. Not far, but I ran. And I managed to take the feeling of even that feeble accomplishment with me when I wanted to smoke again, telling myself if I did, I wouldn’t be able to run the next day. I wouldn’t be able to take the next baby paces.
Every day, I ran. Over time, baby paces became a mile, then two, three, and four. By body rebelled though. My knees went through hell, and some diabolical sliver of the anatomy called an iliotibial band sent searing pain down the right side of my leg. I hobbled, but still, unwisely, I ran.
Running and pain are an interesting combination. Sometimes, you can run through the pain. Sometimes, running turns the pain into an excruciating malady that can hobble you silly. Back then I was too determined to let the pain stop me. I was lucky enough that the sore knees and other pains eventually gave up, and four miles became five. Suddenly, I could run ten.
That was about 26 years ago now. I haven’t had a panic attack since I hit the four-mile distance. Not a one. No drugs needed.
A lot of people hate to run. I did. And when I ran the very long distances, pain was a constant. Suffering was my only companion.
The worst pain I’ve ever experienced was running the Chicago Marathon. The first ten miles of it was nothing but fun. The next 16.2 were hell on earth. That was the point. Running sets all the forces of your mind and body against you, trying to make you give in, give up. It is in the not giving up that the magic happens, when the curative properties of the mind come into play like some crazy drug that makes every obstacle a delight, every pain and every anguish pure joy – because you know you’re going to win in the end, and that makes everything right.
Within two years of starting to run, I had two very minor things published in Runner’s World. I had taken over the newsletter for a running club I joined, and I wrote weekly articles that some folks seemed to enjoy. I had friends and companionship that I’d never had before.
In today’s world, we lament the lack of honest dialogue, the ability to discuss and reason, particularly when we disagree. Put yourself on the trail sometime, running the long miles with your fellow runners, and you’d be amazed at the rational discussions you can have about almost anything. Disagreement becomes interesting. You listen. They listen. Thoughts and reasoning are easily shared because, in the end, you’re a runner first, and so is the person you’re talking to on the trail.
Soon, my kids became my daily running companions. In a running stroller at first, then on bikes with training wheels and then two wheels. Eventually, because the years slip by, even running at my side.
Running became ritual in my life, and I finally believed my kids might just have reason or two to be proud of their father.
I seldom ran alone in those early days. Then my kids grew up, and I moved away, so my old running club was not close enough to run with anymore. But I kept running, alone with my thoughts.
Soon enough, my solitary runs turned into the most important writing exercise I’d ever undertaken.