Running Man
26 June 2024

“I think I’m weary of my terrifying heart.” J.P Donleavy, The Ginger Man

6.5 kms into a run it starts.  My heart strikes a dud beat and then begins to race.  I am crossing the pedestrian bridge that straddles lake Shore Boulevard and the Gardener expressway. Northbound.  Cars and trucks whizz by at great speeds just a few feet below me.  My reality suddenly alters, bends to conform to a new paradigm. My senses are hyper-attuned. My whole person, a raw and open wound.

I don’t slow down.  I can’t.  I stick to the dogged 5’30’ pace I’ve been maintaining for half an hour as my brain begins to spin like a tilt-a-whirl. It is hot out.  The air is thick and humid, but my sweat feels cold on my skin.  My heart continues to pound—an irregular techno beat.  This is a panic attack,…or is it a heart attack?  Either way I know from experience, that none of the regular rules apply now.  

More than any creature on earth (horse, dog, gazelle, you name it) we humans were designed to run, and to run long distances.  We are bipedal, relatively hairless and our bodies can regulate temperature efficiently by sweating which in terms of endurance running, gives us a leg up over the rest of the animal world.  I’ve been running for seven years now.  There are times when I run a lot and there are times where I run a little, but I don’t think there has been a single week since I started where I have not gone for at least one run.

When I began to run, I was already seriously cardio fit from HIIT training for three years, but as a smoker I just assumed this would not translate to running.  It turned out I was wrong and on my first run I ran 8kms, fast and in the wrong shoes.  It wasn’t just how easy I found it that surprised me.  It was how much I enjoyed it too.

Running so far on my first go was a big mistake, as I discovered when I woke up nearly crippled the next day and learned the first of many runner’s maxims:  

Start small and start slow.

I gave this piece of advice to a friend of mine recently.  He’s interested in getting in shape and thought that running might be a good way to start.  

‘Good!’ I cried a little over zealously as a proselytizer might.  

‘Make sure you have the correct footwear, or you’ll hurt yourself,’ I told him.  And I remembered all the other good advice I solicited and was given by fellow runners when I started.  And then, the one thing I wasn’t told, the one really important thing they all failed to warn me about…

‘Make sure you’ve gone to the bathroom [read evacuate bowels], before you go for a run,’ I told my friend.  

‘I’m really serious,’ I added in case he thought I was joking.  ‘You will shit yourself.’

On the other side of the bridge.  I hang a right and head east towards the intersection at Roncesvalles and Queen.

Please don’t let the light be redIf the light is red I will have to stop and if I stop might collapse. Thank God! It’s not red…

The light is green, and I cross without incident and continue along Queen Street.  I pass store fronts in whose windows I catch sight of my red-shorted self. I pass small art galleries, boutique clothing stores, dive bars and cafes where tethered dogs wait anxiously outside. I pass smokers who give me the stink eye.  Fucking fitness people, they think.  I know they do ‘cos I was once like them.  

I try to marshal my thoughts.  

This is not a heart attackThis is a panic attackThink of something other than your heartOther than the pain in your chestYou’ve got to talk yourself downTalk yourself down Nick.  Think of Bob Dylan.  Name Bob Dylan albums.  There you go.   Picture their covers:

Slow Train Comingan illustrationA train track and a man with a pickaxe in the foreground

John Wesley Hardingblack and white photo of Bob with some native looking dudes…

Shot of Love: Shit!!!…what’s on the cover of shot of love?What’s wrong with you Nick?  Oh yeah, POP ART! It’s a pop art painting…

Street LegalBob in a waist coat.  Wearing chinos?  Whatever they are they’re flared to be sure.  He has a jacket folded over his arm and he’s standing in a doorway or at the bottom of a stairway on a street.  He’s leaning forward slightly, looking to his right…

Self-Portraita shitty self-portrait…

Highway 61 Revisited: Bob sitting. He’s wearing a cool shirt,with a Triumph motorcycles tee underneath.  His legs are crossed. He’s staring at the camera.  An icy, contemptuous stare…

The tips of my fingers tingle and then go cold. The cold travels up my arms like an intravenous anesthetic.  My chest.  My heart. My head.

Shitshitshitshitshitshit you mustn’t stop don’t give in to it…

I can picture how I’ll go down. I see it perfectly.  Myself in profile, not so much falling, more like the sidewalk rises up to meet me.  It meets my face almost gently.  My cheek on the sidewalk.  The porous texture of the sun hot cement warm on my cheek.  It is almost comforting.

No more traffic lights for a while.  Just run.  Just run…

I can see my prostrate body.  A crowd gathers around me.  Me, unconscious but somehow aware.  ID-less.  Anonymous in my red shorts and running shoes.  

Take deep breathsYou can’t take deep breaths when you have been running for 35 minutes you idiot! And you can’t stop to catch your breath because you might pass out if you do…

I can no longer hear the podcast I’m listening to.  ‘Conan O’Brien needs a Friend’.  John Cleese is being interviewed but it is just indistinct babbling and laughter.  

Conan O’Brien needs a friendI need a fucking friend right now   

My peripheral vison disappears.  

Here we go…

My line of sight is only ahead and seen through two toilet paper rolls—narrowing circles wreathed in blackness.  To look anywhere else will be to fall over.

Narrower and narrower.

You can’t let the circles close…FOCUS IDIOT…

Desire – Bob in a Panama hat with a feather in it. Hairy faced.  Smiling.

Blonde on Blonde – Bob out of focus.  That coat.  That scarf.

Time Out of Mind – Bob.  Black and white again.  Sitting on a chair.  A guitar is in his lap.

Love and Theft – Close up of Bob’s face sporting a pencil mustache.

The Free-Wheelin Bob Dylan – Bob and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo arm in arm, huddled against the cold.

Keep going Nick.  You know the drill. This has happened before…

Except it hasn’t happened before.  Not on a run.  

You can’t STOP you mustn’t STOP you can’t pass out in public please don’t STOP…

I don’t stop.  I keep running.

I was never sporty as a child.  In fact, I hated sports.  Maybe it was because I was so small for my age or perhaps I just didn’t have the inclination.  I recall having to run around the school track  in grade five. I had just gotten my first pair of converse all-stars.  They were low-cut and red.  Or were they white? I thought that somehow, they would transform me into the coolest and fastest kid on the playground.   They did neither.  I was breathless after a couple of laps.  My chest hurt and I had that cold feeling in my lungs.  Worse was the disappointment I felt in myself and in my shoes.  Had I expected them to propel me Hermes-like around the track at Whitney Public School?  To the surprise and then adulation of my classmates?  Such is the childish imagination I suppose I had.  Soon, I discovered skateboarding and then in my teens, tall ships, and climbing around in tall ship rigs. I was good at both and these things, along with binge drinking, kept me occupied for the better part of 20 years.  

So, when I was forced to begin exercising at the age of 37 for a film role, I was nervous.  And sure enough I hated it at first.  It was hard.  We were filming at Leavesden Studios outside of London and a trailer had been converted to a gym just off set.  We had a personal trainer responsible for 18 of us cast and he put us, and our varying degrees of fitness, through the paces.  I puked outside the trailer on more than one occasion.  But within a couple of weeks, I noticed a change.  My body seemed to adjust and take to the rigors being demanded of it.  It became surprisingly compliant.  My trainer was as impressed as I was.  

‘You’re made for this Nick,’ he said.  

The workouts were predominately HIIT (high intensity interval training), and bodyweight based.  My body began to change.  I’d always been lean but I became more muscled.  My coat hanger shoulders broadened.  My skin felt tight around me.  I was no longer breathless when I ran up the stairs.  I liked the feeling.  For nearly six months this was part of my job description, and I was paid handsomely to do it; to effectively develop the habit of physical exercise.  The film finished.  The money didn’t last but the habit stuck.

This last time home from the ship I ran.  I ran and ran and ran.  5-6 times a week for four weeks at 10-14kms a pop with the exception of one hungover 8km.  

Despite my reputation as an inveterate partier, I am by nature an early riser.  I woke up at 5 most mornings.  I drank two cups of strong tea to kick start my digestive system and slugged some water to boot.  I didn’t eat, as I like to run on an empty stomach.  I’d kill time until 8 or 9 when I’d light out.  

Some days I ran north, which means a moderate uphill grade, to St. Clair Avenue and then two stretches of ravine.  Beautiful dirt paths through dense veins of trees.  Chipmunks scurried at my feet.  I was shielded from the sun by the canopy of leaves high above me.  There was the rich smell of soil and foliage all around me and the satisfying squelch of mud on rainy days.  

Other days I ran south to Lake Ontario, along the busy bike path that skirts her shore.  Cyclists blasted by inches from me.  Other runners lumbered along with me. I overtook some and some overtook me.  At the 6 km mark I’d cut north across the pedestrian bridge and run back home through the city.  

Lionel Shriver, a writer of whom I’ll admit I am not very fond, said something like,

‘Nobody likes running.  They like the feeling of having run.’  

Bull shit I say.  I love it.  I love the feeling.  The freedom.  The fact that I don’t need a gym membership to do it and that there is little danger of being ‘Bro’-ed by a jacked-up guy in a muscle shirt. I love that I just need a pair of the right shoes to do it.  I love how far I can go.  I love being lean and lithe and agile.  I love listening to music when I run.  I have whole playlists devoted to it.  I listen to podcasts too, sometimes, when I want to slow my pace.  I love the sound my feet make on the pavement.  I love being in the ‘zone.’  I love the nature I see.  I love running in the sunshine.  I love raining in the rain.  I love seeing new runners, people not necessarily in the best of shape giving it a go.  

‘GO GET ‘EM’, I want to yell at them.  ‘GOOD FOR YOU.’  

Of course I don’t, but I do think it.  I love seeing the kilometers accumulate on my running app.  I am a collector of kilometers.  I love the feeling in my legs after 10kms.  A warm fuzzy feeling that starts in my thighs.  I love how resilient the human body is. How on the days when I feel low energy and sluggish, after a couple of kms the cobwebs shake loose, and my stride lengthens, and that lethargy is forgotten. 

And yes, I love the feeling of having run.  Afterwards, the day is truly mine to do with it as I please.

So, you could say I’m a pretty serious runner.  But not as serious as some.  Take my cousin Patrick.  He probably runs double what I run on a good week.  He regularly does ultra marathons of 100 + kms and once ran a whopping 230kms in one go around the circumference of Malta and Gozo to raise money for a refugee charity.  I’ve never run a marathon.  I have not even run the distance of a marathon which is 42kms.  The most I’ve run in one go was 26kms and 5 of those kms were because I got hopelessly lost.  For me, it is the solitary aspect I find so attractive.  It is a time to think or to not think at all.  To reason with myself.  To try and talk through problems.  To cogitate.  It is the closest I can come to meditation with my addled, cynical mind.  

I cringe to think of my younger days and how I would drunkenly and cockily proclaim to my friends (unfortunately I was, for many years, prone to drunken and cocky proclamations),

‘If you ever see me in a gym, shoot me.’

When I think of all the places I’ve lived in and the different countries I’ve visited on ships, I feel a real sense of loss for all the runs I could have run.  Those runs that never were.  

When I was 14 years old, we were living in Malta in a fifth floor flat that offered a near panoramic view of the Mediterranean.  It was late on a Saturday, and I was home alone flicking through what few terrestrial channels there were, hoping to glimpse a naked woman (Italian television offered quite a few such glimpses in those days). Instead, I caught the end of a horror movie that has remained with me ever since.  It might have been an English or American movie because I believe it was dubbed, and dubbed badly, into Italian.  It may also have been a period movie.  I have a vivid recollection of the final scene where an older man (in my mind it is George C. Scott) is in a stately mansion somewhere in the English (?) countryside.  He is being pursued.  Pursued is the wrong word, because his antagonists are moving slow.  There is a long line of them walking in single file, in almost funereal procession towards him.  These people are horribly disfigured in an Island of Dr. Moreau-ish/ Todd Browning’s Freaks-y kind of way.  The man is terrified, but I got the feeling (having not seen what occurred before) that he was not a good man, and these were his just desserts.

The figures harry him through the house and up flights of stairs and many floors until finally, they reach the attic, and he can retreat no more.  He is trapped. He turns to face them; terror distorts his face. Their arms are outstretched. They clamor around him.  Grasping.  Tugging.  He is screaming. Howling.  Now my memory gets foggy here, but I believe to escape this abominable retinue, he flung himself from a window and fell to his death.  

[Please if anyone recognizes this description and knows what movie it is, illuminate me.  Perhaps I’m wrong and it wasn’t dubbed and was an Italian movie after all.]  

My anxiety/anxieties are like those poor wretches.  They are misshapen grotesqueries and there are many of them and they all bear different guises and they’re just as relentless. There are times when they come at me en masse, like in the film.  Sometimes it’ll just be one.  One might deliver a haranguing monologue, telling me how awful I am, how worthless I am.  Or together they might just emote a full-bodied miasma of existential dread.  Their arrival can be triggered or sometimes it’s an impromptu visitation.  One particularly pugnacious brute brings with it the nagging feeling that I am getting away with something.  That sooner or later I will be revealed for the terrible person, the imposter, the cypher I have always suspected I might be.  

This time home I was particularly bad.  Shaky.  Like the hair trigger trip on a land mine.  A sudden loud noise or shout on the street was enough to set my mind careening and my heart palpitating.  On going upsets in my home life served to exacerbate this. So did and does the geopolitical situation and just about everything else in the Anthropocene era we inhabit.  

When I discovered exercise, especially vigorous exercise, I found that it could offset a lot of my anxiety and more depressive leanings.  It was like a magical elixir, miraculous in fact.  In running, I was able to elude my demons, to outrun them if you will.  But as I’ve gotten more and more fit, its efficacy -beyond the purely physical- has decreased significantly.  Which is why the panic attack I experienced while out on a run was so worrying.

You’ve already taken away my ability to use a revolving door.  That I can live with.  But please don’t take running from me too!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should add that at this time I had started on some ADHD medication of which anxiety in the titration period is a possible side effect.  Just reading that on the leaflet attached was enough to trigger an attack there and then.  Or the worry that the pills could trigger an attack was enough to engender one.  This is how my mind works.  It doesn’t help that I am also already dubious of meds like these in the first place. They’re seeking a normalcy with which I am not familiar so how will I know if they’re working?  But hell, if there’s a chance I don’t have to go through life feeling the way I do I’m willing to give it the old college try.

After the attack I ran every day to prove to myself that my heart was fine and that these were only phantom fluttering’s.  I was daring something to go wrong.  Also, the idea of not seeing kilometers accumulate in my running app was almost as terrifying to me as dropping dead on a city sidewalk.

‘Is it possible to be having a continuous heart attack for a week when I have run every day a minimum of 10kms?’  I messaged my long-suffering confidante and friend Karen who has been fluent in my foibles for the better part of 30 years.

‘No,’ was her response.

Part of my anxiety’s ideation has always been an excessive and abnormal concern about my health (not the same thing as hypochondria), which, while amusing to family and friends 

(Oh, what does Nick think is wrong with him now?’) 

is quite real and terrifying to me.  These perceived ailments arrive unsolicited and leave me feeling utterly helpless and hopeless, especially when I’m at sea and unable to get help or seek a sympathetic ear.

Given how much I exercise I am often harboring some kind of injury and it occurred to me that the discomfort on the left side of my chest was likely muscular, as it felt good when I palpated it. I had been boxing regularly, and as a southpaw my left arm, chest and shoulder bear the biggest brunt of the workout.  But this wasn’t enough to alleviate my concerns.

I saw my family doctor a week before I left for the ship.  Ostensibly to check my heart, but really just to hear her tell me I was OK.  Frankly, my anxiety was so bad I would not have been able to ship out without her assurance I was fine.  I explained to her what had happened to me on my run and that it had never happened before.

‘Could it be…could it have been my heart?’

She EKG’d me.  She took my blood pressure.  She listened to my chest and to my back as I breathed deep breaths.

‘I can give you a referral to a cardiologist, but it’ll take quite a few weeks’ she said.   ‘But Nick, as far as I can see, you have the heart of an elite athlete.’  

And then it all came flooding out.  All the anxiety I’d been experiencing in the past weeks. It gushed forth like a ruptured dam.  A sense of relief so powerful that for a moment I thought I might cry.  I thanked my doctor profusely.  I apologized to her – for some reason it’s always been my instinct to apologize to her after a visit.

Outside on the pavement it was hot, and the sun was in my eyes as I walked to the nearest streetcar stop.  The panic was gone, if only for a moment.  

All this time I thought I was running away, I forgot I was running towards something too.  And that that something was so good.  I allowed myself a rare moment of pride and a bashful smile creased my lips.

‘An elite athlete eh.’   I felt happy for the first time in days.  Happy for the sun in my eyes and the ground below my feet and even happy for this mind I can’t always contend with.  

I didn’t stop running.  I kept going.  

God’s mercy
on the
Running Man.