First, please pause for this important public service announcement: nowhere in the following article am I suggesting that anyone sick with Covid-19 run or forego professional medical treatment. To the contrary, if that’s you, please ration your immunological resources, and go see a doctor.
“You are my rock in times of trouble,” begins an old gospel song. For those who insist I’ve got to have a religion, especially nowadays, I guess running four to five miles every day is it. Personally, I’ve always thought of it more as my healthcare. And since gospel songs put me in the mood for confessions, I’ll make a few. For most of my adult life, I haven’t carried traditional health insurance, the Affordable Care Act, and its tax penalty notwithstanding. And when, at some employer’s behest, I have carried it, I haven’t used it, not even for elective procedures. I’ve preferred instead to take health matters into my own, um, shoes.
Ok, maybe preferred is misleading, making it sound as if I came into adulthood with a well-considered philosophy regarding my physical and psychological wellbeing (although as a college freshman, I did profit from the mentorship of a 65-year-old bicycle-commuting wellness instructor and longevity enthusiast). Friedrich Nietzsche once claimed that all philosophy is a form of unconscious autobiography. My own memoirs, had I thought to write any, would show that I frequently had no choice in matters of being insured; when I wasn’t a poor college student barely getting by with waiting tables, I was being left behind by corporate relocations, trudging through the slough of underemployment, or, to quote Pulp Fiction philosopher Jules Winnfield, “Walking the earth…like Caine in Kung Fu.” There were plentiful years here and there, yes, and lean years, plenty of lean years. This portrait of the runner as a young man, if we are being honest, could be the new American Gothic. Rather than preferring to provide my own healthcare, I simply had to, such was the extent of my precarity (yes, that’s a word, one that has, unfortunately, come into more regular use of late). Somewhere in my forties, I began to think that my apparent disadvantage might actually have been, and might continue to be, an advantage. Today, I’m quite certain it was and is.
By all accounts, my brand of healthcare has served me rather well. In my mid-fifties, I enjoy the physical health of someone in his thirties, neither reliant on nor even passingly familiar with the pharmaceuticals, screenings, and procedures that are synonymous with the American healthcare system. Of course, all forms of prosperity owe a lot to good fortune, and I’d be remiss not to mention the role luck has played in my bid to keep the doctor away. Also, with regard to my psychological wellbeing, it’s no secret I’ve relied on running as an anti-depressant for the past twenty years. Maybe my Covid-19 quarantine streak is just me adjusting my meds.
Rather than use the remaining paragraphs to rail against an already embattled American healthcare system, which I leave to work out its own problems (hoping it will), I’ll share a few thoughts about my own road (less traveled but laid down in well-worn ruts by more self-reliant generations), with an emphasis on the present stretch through the hot zone. Mind you, I’m not recommending my free-wheeling healthcare plan to any in particular, but for those who feel themselves outside the system either without choice or by philosophical inclination, I’m here to say that we can take our marginalization standing up (and leaning slightly forward in keeping with the tenets of good running form). This is no different than Thoreau’s attitude concerning his prescriptions on do-it-yourself living in Walden: “I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.” Ok, for mercy’s sake, please don’t try to run in a coat; winter is over.
In the new world order being dictated by the Covid-19 pandemic, running has never looked better, even if I’m told it may temporarily elevate one’s body temperature to as high as 103 degrees (the good kind of fever). Not only is it quarantine-friendly, it may be the only thing keeping me friendly in quarantine. One of the best things about running is that one can’t run out of it. Because it issues from a self-renewing local source, it relies on no supply chain to see it to market. If one must ration running at all, it is only in deference to how much of a good thing one can take all at once.
Since my healthcare has never been tied to my employment, I needn’t lose sleep for fear of losing both in one fell swoop. If anything, I should hope, in the event of being furloughed, to see even more from my benefits package. Though I see my “physician” and “psychotherapist” daily as it is, I wouldn’t balk at lengthier visits, at least not on the grounds of a heightened transmission risk. Since neither practitioner has ever hung out their shingle in a locale so well-trafficked as a healthcare plaza, I needn’t approach them with any new set of guidelines in view. When visiting them in the past, I had, it now occurs to me, always practiced social distancing, though I never had a name for it. From their waiting rooms (trailheads and doorsteps) I was always called straight away and never had to busy myself with the Readers Digest. My insurance card was my road ID (when I remembered to bring it), though none ever asked to see it. If ever I developed a sore patellar or Achilles’ tendon, I had only to see the doctor a bit less (instead of being referred to a physical therapist) to make it go away. There are times when, “just what the doctor ordered,” might be a bit less of what the doctor ordered. As to costs, only occasionally would my healthcare practitioners send a bill through the snail mail that is the gradual accumulation of aches signaling the end of a running shoe’s life.
As for actual MDs, I was once asked, twenty years ago, to consult my doctor before beginning an exercise program, the one I’m still on today. This vexed me a little until I remembered that grandmaster runner and bestselling fitness author George Sheehan was also a cardiologist. From that point on, Dr. Sheehan was my doctor, though there was nothing the matter with my heart. And there’s still nothing wrong with my heart; excellent work for a doctor who passed in 1993.
We can easily imagine runners putting cardiologists out of work. But epidemiologists?
If a five-hundred-headed, mouth-breathing mob squeezing into the funnel of a finishing chute, or crammed, post-race, cheek by jowl, ogling pages of printed results doesn’t give them nightmares, I can’t think of what will. It’s time they woke up to reality, virtual reality, that is. Races are now virtual events, bringing back the honor system and the practice of “showing up” in whatever the heck you feel like wearing or not wearing (wait, that’s the same as it always was). Not that racing and running have to be the same thing. Like religion, running can be as social or as solitary a practice as one wants it to be; the same cannot be said of a hospital visit. Alone or with company, being outdoors in the sun and the pine-infused air is the Eucharist of my running experience. If the treadmill is your bliss, good for you. Shelter-in-place and run-in-place is just too much in-place for me. Among the very best recommendations for running is that it has, as has been said of Buddhism especially, portable sanctity. Apropos of this brave new world of ours, portable is good. The runner does not shudder at shuttered establishments. No gym? No clubhouse fitness room? No sweat. There is no hastily-drawn statement taped to the inside of a glass door to thwart an hour meeting with the road or the trail.
To the usual hecklers of my running, I now have some answers. You’re right, I don’t have a social life (CDC guidelines are my excuse). Yes, I am running from something: the house. I’m not saying I wouldn’t love some company, though. But if I see you out there, know this: I’m not trying to goad you into running faster. I’m just trying to stay six feet ahead of you.