Bad News, Good News

October 15, 2015

It’s now mid-October. The days are cooler, no longer at or above the 100 degree mark. The mornings, early, are lovely, so cool and fresh against my skin.

I mentioned at the end of my last post that I had had a heart attack at the end of May, followed by coronary bypass surgery. In medical terms, I had a CABG times 3. (That is, I had coronary artery bypass graft, times 3.) In coffee shop lingo, it was a triple bypass—the arteries that serve blood to my heart muscle had three blockages severe enough to nearly cut off the blood flow. The bypass part means the surgeons took a couple of apparently less-vital blood vessels from elsewhere in my body (from my thigh and from the right side of my chest cavity), and used them as tubing to redirect my coronary blood flow around the blockages.

The long straight scar down the center of my chest is the only external evidence of the adventure. Lifestyle difference—I’ve cut pretty much all animal products (meat, cheese, milk, etc.) out of my diet, in order to reduce my LDL (the bad form of cholesterol), and ward off the possibility of another heart even. I also now take some pills.

But I’m back on the bike. WooHoo! I had to wait three months to let my sternum heal where it is sewn together with surgical mesh, after the surgeons sawed my chest open to get at my heart.  In the meantime, I lost most of my hard-won fitness, and I’m working to get it back. The first month after surgery, I did some light walking but not a lot more. During recovery months two and three, I attended a cardiac rehab program at the hospital, three mornings a week. There, the nurses monitored my heart patterns while I walked a treadmill or pumped hard on an exercise bike.

Finally, when my sternum was certifiably healed, I strapped on my helmet, pulled on my gloves, and headed out on my road bike. And a few days ago, I rode my first race since my heart adventure in May. 47 miles. I finished 39th in a field of 73, after having trained five weeks.  It was a good start.

People have asked me why my enthusiastic bicycling didn’t keep me from having a heart attack. What good did it do me? I can’t say I have the answer to that. I’ve heard the word “genetics” a number of times since it happened, in the hospital, and in subsequent medical appointments. Genetics–as in maybe I inherited a genetic tendency toward coronary heart disease. Maybe so. For various reasons, I don’t know much about my family’s medical history.

Also, though I’ve gone through various life periods in which I watched what I was eating, mostly I’ve eaten what I liked. Burgers, steaks, French fries, fried eggs (over easy, rye toast, with bacon–mmm!). Writing that list gets my mouth juices worked up even now, but from what I’ve been reading (and I’ve been reading a lot), those were all major contributors. But now I avoid those most-favorite foods, and others, now.

Another major contributor could have been the long years of sedentary but stressful work in my career. I don’t know.

All I can conclude is that two years of pushing hard on my bicycle pedals weren’t enough to overcome the lifetime of cumulative injuries to my blood vessels.

What I do know, though, is that getting my heart in good shape made a big difference in how much damage it sustained (very little, if any, according to my newly acquired cardiologist). He tells me my conditioning also made a big difference in how quickly I have recovered. People keep telling me I look as if nothing happened. Well, alrighty then. I’m back on the bike.

 

 

The Meaning of Life

No, I haven’t found it and I’m not going to explain it to you. I’ve been rereading some old George Sheehan pieces, and he sometimes hints at ideas about life’s meaning. Which gets me thinking about my bicycle riding experience.

If you don’t recall or weren’t paying attention, Sheehan was a cardiologist and a pioneer of the running movement, from the 70s until he died in 1993. His columns and articles appeared in publications like Runner’s World magazine, and he authored eight books, mostly about running and health. Because of the thoughtfulness of his pieces, he was known as the philosopher of running. Running for health was new in the popular culture, in the 60s and early 70s, and Sheehan’s thoughtful pieces about it gave running, for many people, a meaning beyond the mere physical. Four or five decades later, running is now well integrated into our culture. We all know someone who runs marathons or half-marathons, or even triathlons. Joggers are everywhere. Gym memberships are almost as common as debit cards (which didn’t exist in the early decades of Sheehan’s career). Working out, in whatever form, is now commonplace.

Which brings me back to the meaning of life. For both adults and children, play (or at least physical play—I’m not talking here about Grand Theft Auto or chess or Sudoku) involves moving and exertion, straining and sometimes even sweating, having all the ingredients of physical exercise. Exercising simply to get in shape, to lose weight, or to get our cholesterol down, can be a chore. But there is a secret heart to exercise that working out merely to work out can miss. Play is that secret heart. Sheehan defines play as “the priceless ingredient in exercise.” Referring to a list of physical activities like running, swimming, riding horses, and engaging in an afternoon softball game, he says, “Play is where we live.” Play is “where we come alive and open ourselves to experience.”

You can see the equation developing here. Play engages us at a level that more mundane experiences perhaps cannot reach. In play, we reach for the outside-of-us, and the outside-of-us reaches in. In play there is a sense of intrinsic meaning in what we are doing now, in how we feel now. That sense of meaning in the now-experience is fun. Just fun.

Which brings me to what I was thinking about as I started this piece: What I’m feeling as I ride. I feel lots of things. I feel my legs working to get me up a hill, my breath speeding up to match the effort, my arms and hands pulling a bit harder at the handlebars. I feel the headwind pushing back against my progress. Or I feel the easy cruise of a long downhill, the gracefully fast smoothness that feels so masterful.

Sometimes on a long ride my mind wanders in and out of my daily life, rehearing or re-rehearsing a recent argument, or pondering the solution to some problem, or thinking about what I’m supposed to get done after I finish the ride. Mostly, though, I’m just riding. I’m watching pavement rush past under the front tire. I’m looking at the landscape, or watching for sharp tire hazards, listening to my breath, smelling the air (I mostly ride in rural settings, where the air is clean). I’m watching my average speed on the bike computer, or checking my heart rate reading. I’m flying downhill, or cruising on a long level stretch, or pushing, sweating to get up a challenging uphill. I’m not doing anything but riding. I’m in it, and it is what I’m doing. For that little while, that hour or two or three, it’s all I’m doing. And, hard or easy, it’s fun.

Meaning of life? Who knows. But I’m with George Sheehan on this one. This feeling of play, of absorption in the moment, of the outside-of-me reaching in and of me reaching out, sure feels like meaning to me. Or at any rate, it sure feels fun.

POSTSCRIPT

Just as I was finishing up this post, I was surprised by a mild heart attack, followed shortly afterward by triple bypass heart surgery. Not fun, but I’m on the mend. Obviously, then, my next post or two are going to be about recovery, and how I get back on the bike and back into training. See you there!

OK, So I’m 65

As I write this, I’m 65.  As with most 65-year-olds, my skin has cracked and sagged over the years, my hair has bleached itself gay, my belly hangs out over my belt.  And so on.  You get the picture.

A couple of years ago, though, I pulled my old commuter bicycle out of storage, and started riding, with a plan to enter the El Tour de Tucson road race.  I wasn’t thinking about “getting in shape.”  More simply, and less ambitiously, it’s just that my brother, who is in shape, wanted to come to Arizona to ride the race, and suggested I give it a shot.  107 miles.  I like challenges, and if it didn’t work out, I could take him out for a nice dinner when he came for the race.

I had six months to get ready.  My first few rides were five miles long.  Emphasis on long.  My legs ached and my lungs burned. I stuck with it because (once my lungs stopped burning) I liked it.  It wasn’t at all like working out.  It was more like getting out.  Out of the house, out of the office.  Out of the routine, out of my own head, out of all the other busyness of life, work, other people.

I’m a guy (one of millions) who’s never stayed with an exercise program longer than three or four months.  I’ve always started and stopped, started and stopped.  But nearly two years after that first five mile ride, I’m still at it.  Yesterday, I completed a 72 mile race that included a climb up through a mountain pass.  My shortest race so far has been 53 miles.  I’ve done the annual El Tour de Tucson twice.  Not that I’m fast, you understand.  I have no illusions that I’ll ever win, even in my age group–some of the codgers in these races are astonishingly fast.  Fine.  I tell everyone that my goal is always to finish in front of whoever is last.  So far, so good. And so far, as well, my belly hangs a little less than it did.  I can climb stairs again, even two at a time.  I’m overweight, but no longer even close to obese.

Still, it’s not about the racing, for me.  Having an event to work toward is simply a way to focus on the riding, and the event itself feels like my reward.  It’s not about the competition, though I enjoy competition.  It’s not about “getting in shape,” or looking better, or being healthy.  All these benefits are great, but they didn’t motivate me before (or not enough to get me in gear), and they don’t motivate me now (or not enough to keep me going).  No, the riding is about something else, something that is harder to express, something deeper.

That’s why I’d like to do this blog.  To explore that something.

So, clip in, and join me.