Here comes Halloween, the night when thoughts of death and hauntings swirl around the minds of millions of people. As a Hallmark Holiday, it may not be taken all that seriously. But as a seasonal celebration with pagan and religious origins it owes its history to All Hallow’s Eve, the annual time to remember the dead.
So this I’ll do. It will be two years since my father passed away in October of 2016. It was 2005 and thirteen years ago that my mother died in November. My father-in-law passed away in December of 2012. My late wife died in March of 2013. I also lost a coach two years ago who was a major influence in my life. He died after a long and harrowing struggle with lung cancer.
But the thing I recall about that running coach, and everyone else that I’ve recalled in the paragraph above, was their ardent will to live.
None of us knows when the day of our dying will come. I’ve written about the Art of Dying because mortality is a highly instructive thing.
But as I climbed out of the pool today after a noon workout, somehow the thought popped into my head: “What if that was the last workout you ever do?”
It could happen to any of us. Accidents happen. Sudden illness or cancer or a heart attack can sneak up from behind. A fellow on our block nearly died last July 29 because one of his arteries was blocked from plaque. They barely got him into treatment on time. He shared the tale during the Gratitude Circle we conducted. We went around the circle and each person took a moment to reflect on their lives. If that seems like an unusual thing to do at a block party, that’s because we live amongst wonderfully unusual people. That’s a gift unto itself.
I also just received a health assessment report from a company that administered blood work and gave us surveys to provide feedback on how we’re doing. I’m really healthy except for one thing: my bad cholesterol is a little high. My family doctor recommended a treatment for that a year ago. Thus far I’ve ignored his advice. But my college roommate and former college running teammate told me that he’s on medication for that specific reason: his family history with heart disease is daunting. His father had heart disease and so did mine.
So that’s that. No more pissing around on my part. I’m going to follow my doctor’s orders going forward. Because this past spring, a longtime friend who is also a running coach suffered a scary heart attack out of the blue. He’s been running for fifty years. Didn’t help.
Runners and cyclists and swimmers are not immune to heart problems as we like to imagine. So it’s time for me to take responsibility for my own health and not dodge the rational response to a congenital condition and susceptibility to heart disease.
My dad had triple bypass surgery back in the early 2000s. A few years later he had a bad stroke that disabled him the last 15 years of his life. I was his caregiver all those years and saw firsthand how the effects of stroke can change your life. It’s scarier than any row of frighteningly carved pumpkins you’ve ever seen, I can tell you that.
But I still don’t choose to live my life in fear that something bad always going to happen. It just makes sense to take the precautions that you should. And then work out a healthy amount.
Last workout you’ll ever do
Which is why that moment climbing out of the pool this morning felt so immediate. I knew what I’d do if it were the last workout of my life.
There are no rules to this game, so I can make them up as I like.
First I’d go for an open water swim. Ideally the water would be cool enough to allow me to wear a wetsuit. Then I’d swim a mile, which I actually haven’t yet accomplished in my still-young triathlon career, and crawl out tired but wanting more.
Then I’d climb on my bike, perhaps with aero bars stuck on the front, and go cycling for all I’m worth, and cover about 26 miles. That’s what I consider the perfect distance for a ride, and it happens to be the distance (or thereabouts) typically covered in an Olympic-distance triathlon.
When the bike was finished, I’d strap on the lightest running shoes I could find. Then I’d go out for a nice hard run, probably for 10K or so, and hang on to my race pace for as long as I could. I’d still manage my effort to finish strong, but that would certainly be possible knowing that I might never work out again. That’s some pretty strong motivation right there.
Suffer in joy
Because I have to say, it’s been a long and fun road all these years. I have learned how to suffer in joy. That seems like a contradictory phrase, but I know that you know what I’m talking about.
To learn how to suffer in joy is a perfect allegory for life. When we learn how to suffer in joy, we know the richness of living despite all the challenges, problems and eternal questions that confront us. That is the tarsnake of existence, right there.
None of this makes triathlon into some form of religion. I’m not proposing that we’ve found a new trinity through participation in multi-sport competitions. But there is a genuine satisfaction in having tested yourself thoroughly. We can live in peace if we can can say, “That’s the last workout I’ll ever do,” and follow it with a single word: “Today.”
And if tomorrow never comes, or should All Hallow’s Eve claims us for eternity, at least we’ll know what it means to live life to the fullest.