My Grandfather Ben, Dad’s dad, survived the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the endless heat and mini-malls of Phoenix, Arizona. When his time finally came, the thing that took him out of this world was his heart, beating slower and slower and then finally not at all. I’m told this is called heart disease, that it’s genetic, and the best thing you can do about it is lower your cholesterol.
My dad is on a cholesterol-lowering drug and will be for the rest of his hopefully long life. And I expect that, sooner or later, I will be, too.
One of my new year’s resolutions this year was to give blood. So on January 4, I visited Blood Centers of the Pacific and rolled up a sleeve. It felt good. (Well, it felt like a poke in the arm, and then it mostly it felt boring staring at the ceiling for 20 minutes, but when it was over and they were feeding me orange juice and telling me my donation could help save several lives, it felt pretty good.)
The blood bank tests all donations six ways from Sunday, of course. One of the tests is on your cholesterol level. You can log in to their website a week after and see the results. Cholesterol result numbers fall into one of four brackets: optimal, borderline high, high, and very high. I giggled. “Very high” reminded me of college. I looked for which box my numbers matched and was stunned.
For the first time in my life, I was “very high” and I was not giggling.
So the next week I got another test. This one was supposed to be able to tell the good cholesterol from the bad. A few days later, I got the news. My good cholesterol was, well, good. Exactly where it should be. My bad cholesterol was bad. Very bad. My bad cholesterol would kick a kitten in the face and laugh, that’s how bad it is.
I’m a geek. 36. I move pixels on a screen for a living. And when I’m not doing that, I’m often on a couch, staring at another screen, where the pixels move themselves. Calling my lifestyle “sedentary” might be an understatement. My desk probably considers us colleagues. My couch thinks I’m a person-sized cushion.
And it’s not like I’m stuck in a terrible place or anything. I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, at the top of a hill, beside a park. I can walk to the top of that park and see both bridges (the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge). I love this city and I love walking around in it. So it felt stupid to buy a treadmill for the purpose of running in my house. Just not as stupid as dying of heart disease because you spent a lifetime on your ass.
I bought the treadmill online in the middle of the night, furtively. It felt shameful, like I was betraying myself somehow. I’ve bought condoms at the corner store when I was 15. I’ve bought acid from a lunatic on Haight Street when I was 17. Buying this treadmill was more embarrassing.
When the box arrived, I stood over it and paced for a good half hour. It wasn’t too late. I could still send it back. No. I ripped the box apart like a crazy person. If I’d waited any longer, I might have lost my nerve.
And after a flurry of cardboard and Styrofoam and plastic wrap, the thing was set up. I probably burned more calories setting it up than I’d burned all week. See? It’s working already.
I can’t explain exactly why getting a treadmill felt so terrible. Maybe it was the flashbacks to high school gym class, where I mostly just hid from the football players. Maybe it was that buying it was a kind of admission that I’m getting older and it’s time to start worrying about things like cholesterol and my young and invincible years were far behind me. Maybe I just don’t like the smell of sweat.
So with an avalanche of self-loathing coming down around me, I turned the thing on and ran. And I’ve been doing that every day for the last two weeks. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.
- When you run for a while and then stop, this wave of dizziness hits you. Nobody ever told me about this. It’s like getting off a boat. It passes quickly, but it’s still weird.
- You need a fan. It’s amazing how fast you can heat up.
- The nice thing about running on a treadmill in your own house is that no one can see you. I hadn’t realized what a great perk this is. You can take off your shirt, whine, cry, scream, cuss, flail your arms like a lunatic … whatever it takes to get through it. Sometimes, when I’m doubled over, breathing hard, and murmuring expletives in between gasps, my only solace is knowing that here, in my most desperate, pathetic moment, no one can see me except for two dogs and a cat, and try as they might, they still can’t speak English.
- Podcasts help. Anything to keep your mind off what your feet are doing.
The treadmill I bought isn’t particularly fancy, but it was well-reviewed on Amazon and not too gargantuan. It has several incline and speed settings. I’m still experimenting with what works for me.
The readout on the treadmill has a timer, a distance measure, a heart rate monitor, and an estimate of how many calories you’ve burned. Each of these numbers has a corresponding icon. The timer icon is a clock, the distance icon is a road, the heart rate icon is a heart, and the calorie count icon is a … hamburger.
A hamburger. Seriously. And as you run, and you burn more calories, your hamburger number goes up. Like, the more I run, the more hamburgers I get. Every time I run, I try to collect more hamburgers than the time before. I treat it like a score in an incredibly boring video game. I try not to think about how eating all those hamburgers helped put me on this treadmill in the first place.
I’ve found it helps to externalize the game a bit, too. So every time I ran, when I was done, I tweeted my score. “According to the machine, I scored 200 hamburgers.” Even when nobody knew what I was talking about, it still felt good to put the accomplishment out into the world. (So if you follow me on Twitter and were wondering what those posts meant, there you go. Sorry for being cryptic.)
The first week of running was nothing short of miserable. I couldn’t look at the device without pain. A few minutes in, my muscles would cramp in strange places. I’d panic that I couldn’t do it and fall over. But each time I’d get back on the horse. The goal was always to end with more hamburgers than the day before. And, amazingly, so far, I have.
I started to feel bitter that I wasn’t feeling the “Runner’s High” I’d heard about from my sporty friends. I didn’t feel energized after a run – I felt grumpy, sore, and hungry.
But sometime in the second week I went into a run feeling kinda blue. I know that particular shade of blue. It’s the color of depression approaching. But I ran anyway. And when I was done, I felt … better. Competent. Ready to get some shit done. Is this the Runner’s High? Had I finally found it? Perhaps.
I’m going to continue my daily hamburger collecting game for the next few weeks and then get another cholesterol test. Hopefully the bad cholesterol numbers will go down. Either way, my doc will likely prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug for me, and I’ll likely have to take it for the rest of my days.
Having pills you have to take every day for the rest of your life is a sure-fire way to finally get the hint that your young and invincible days are behind you.
But the truth is, I’ve got a pretty damn good thing going here at the moment. I have a lovely wife, some amazing friends, a nice house, and a good job doing work I love. I’m lucky. I’d like to stick around to enjoy it for as long as I can.
So I’m gonna run. I’m gonna chase hamburgers. And maybe, eventually, I won’t feel like a big fat phony on the treadmill, sweating and cussing and trying not to visualize the generations of Powazek men all clutching their hearts, saying, You, boy. Soon it will be your turn. Join us.
Someday, Grandpa Ben. Just not today.