Tag Archives: ultrarunning

Heart Beat

I remember hearing a podcast about how cities have different tempos. Some are slow and methodical (Kyoto comes to mind) while others are on the more frantic end of the spectrum. It has something to do with the molecules within a city agitating each other into a more frenetic rhythm the more busy and crowded a city becomes. I imagine that Shanghai–a city known for its population, nightlife, and neon–possesses the tempo of an ear-throbbing techno song.

A year into living there, I had settled into a modicum of comfort with the city’s pace. The push and shove of the subway’s snaking masses had become second nature. I could weave through a crowd in rhythm to the music on my headphones. Loud yells and bells and blurs of light had settled into a picture that I could make more sense of. It had taken time, but I was finally starting to wrap my mind around the city.

Jing’an Temple, Shanghai

At the beginning of that second year, I bit of more than I could chew at work. There was an ambitious initiative that needed a lot of groundwork to be laid. Free moments were spent thinking, planning, scheduling, writing. As my picture of the city started to settled down, my internal tempo began to quicken. Work, like it had done before, began to seep into the free moments of my life. But still I’d plan outings into the city that felt more like missions–trips with a deliberate purpose in mind.

A lot of time in China seemed to be spent in large malls. There were endless floors of shops with restaurants always on the upper levels. Massive ornate displays of Jeff Koons-like contemporary art seemed always on display. The malls were always sparkling clean and milling with people. Whirring cogs of commerce.

It was during one of these forays into a downtown mall that I picked up a new Garmin GPS watch. My old one had developed problems after a year, and for some reason I found myself buying another one of their unreliable watches. This time I stood at the kiosk staring down at a model of watch that shot green lasers onto the upper part of the wrist to somehow detect your heart rate. This was a feature that I had no use for. At frequent times I resented the watch that I did have, and questioned the wisdom of even tracking my miles in the first place. At the same time, I felt the anticipation of regret if I didn’t shell out the extra money for this slick feature. Besides, I was a modern man living in a modern city. I deserved something a bit more classy. In the end, I got the watch with the heart rate monitor.

That Monday at work, I caught the watch face on a doorframe leaving a room and left a little scratch that is still there. My heart sank, and I kicked myself for carelessness. This new shiny device was already tainted. But the laser feature seemed to work, and I continued to check it with interest. Work continued to surround me, and I plugged away through my routine. I’d run, work, gym, eat, work, sleep, repeat. My movements became almost machine-like and I began to assess my routine for inefficiency. Everything began to feel like clockwork. My running times got faster. I had a treadmill in my kitchen that I could hammer out a 10 mile run on in an hour and ten.

And then I began to notice something on my watch. The resting heart rate was low, under 40 beats per minute. On some days it was at 32. Just for reference, a healthy heart rate is between 60 and 100. A small pit began to spin together in the pit of my stomach. I had heard of athletes’ heart rates being lower, some even around 40, but this seemed abnormal. Of course I ignored it, and jumped back into the routine. Run, work, gym, eat, etc. etc.

But the heart rate stayed the same. And the pit in my stomach spun into something a little larger each day. I decided to see my doctor–a chilled out Californian who had pictures of himself doing yoga on the wall. His bedside manner was some of the worst I’d seen in the industry. He’d make a noise like, “hmm…” and then give a long pause, letting you really soak in the silence before he’d say “oh yes this is common.”

But he was kind and competent, and I can be fiercely loyal to even small hints of kindness, so I found myself going back to him for issues that arose. I found myself in his small office showing him my watch and asking him about my heart rate. He paused for many moments with a puzzled expression before suggesting, “well we could do an EKG?” The statement was poised in a way that could have either been whimsy or medical advice. Either way it was covered by insurance, so I found myself in another small room, electrodes being placed onto my chest. I put on my shirt, walked out into the lobby and waited. There is a vulnerability to waiting rooms. The quiet anticipation of judgment from the doctor while what feels like judicial deliberation is happening behind closed doors. As if there’s a panel of people in a huddle back there whispering, “Will we give this one good news or bad news?”

My name was called, and it was back into the small room, my racing mind bracing for the worst. This suddenly felt like a very real test that could throw some very real truth my way. The doctor looked inscrutably at the test and said the words “incomplete right bundle branch block” and then looked at me and really let them sink in. In addition to sounding like a bad grade school tongue twister, it also sounded terrible in conjunction with the heart. Something was blocked? Something was incomplete? What the hell was going on here? Maybe he detected my panic, or maybe not, but he decided with nonchalance to fill me in. “It’s common. It could be the result of an infection when you were little. A lot of people have this. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”

Probably: that word that lodges itself into your brain and then slowly starts to needle. It’s a seed of doubt that spreads slowly over time. There’s a strong chance that everything is fine, but the probably is always there, tugging at your pant’s leg. The doctor definitely sensed my inner panic this time and said with atypical assertiveness, “Maybe we should do a holter test to make sure.”

I came back the next day to get outfitted, the thirty minute ride in the DiDi (think Chinese Uber) was starting to feel common place. I went to work and then I went to the doctor’s office. The receptionists were starting to recognize me. I felt a sick comfort in my “regular” status.

Wearing a holter is like wearing the most obvious wire in the world. It’s a box with electrodes that stick to the chest. I walked around for a day like the world’s worst spy. Yet still nobody noticed the outline of wires under my shirt, or the chunky remote control in my pocket. The results came via e-mail a few days later and were concerning to my eyes. My heart rate was getting down to 29BPM. At no point did it exceed 120BPM. It stopped for 2 seconds or more over 105 times. The report included words like “sinus arrest” and “junctional escape.” And at the very end the words, “Suggest to see a cardiologist for the further assessment.”

I distinctly remember listening to Bill Callahan’s incredible tune Too Many Birds as I walked up to the specialized clinic high rise in the glowing metropolis downtown. I listened to that song on repeat a lot at that time. My headphones kept out the city’s ambiance and I could focus on the songs groove. The bass and drums low-key churn providing a backdrop to Callahan’s guttural deadpan that delivered gut-punch lyrics with a soothing unhurried tempo. The premise of the song is simple: a tree full of birds. Eventually there isn’t room for the last bird. I don’t know why he picked this image, but it’s a striking one. “One last bird and then another.” And then he builds the final line, saying it again and again, adding a new word each time: “If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat.” The line is a question and a statement and a yearning all in one. With that line ringing in my body, I walked into the clinic to see the cardiologist.

Yes, I’m aware that it’s messed up that it took a GPS watch to tell me that something was wrong. As an ultra runner, I spend lot of time checking in with my body for aches and pains, things to tune up. But these micro issues are sometimes pointing to something larger. It’s easy to get caught in the tempo of what surrounds you. The noise and rhythm can get so loud that you forget all about the drum that is causing them.

In the end, the cardiologist said that there was nothing structurally wrong with my heart. She said that I should exercise less, only 40 minutes a day (advice which I promptly ignored). My heart went from something that I was constantly monitoring, trying to sense signs of danger or abnormality, to something that I could once again leave to its own devices.

I still wear the watch–it cost a small fortune after all–but I find myself checking it less and less these days. My pulse returned to more normalcy after that chaotic year. I always had a hunch that it was stress related, the compaction of responsibility and schedule squeezing my heart beats into forced efficiency. It’s becoming easier to carve out time for the important things in life that allow space for the molecules to roam. Maybe its Jeju or maybe it’s more of an inner change. Either way, I find myself wandering in my free time a lot more, letting time unravel at its own pace. The scratch on the watch face doesn’t even bother me anymore.

Nighttime dancers at Fuxing Park

Recommended listening: Bill Callahan Too Many Birds

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Loops

Most days I run the same 10km loop in my neighborhood. There are a few little landmarks throughout the run: there is a friendly dreadlocked dog who rolls around on his back while I scratch his head, a colorful barn door, a top of a tiny mountain, a view of Mt. Halla across fields, a horse near an old well hundreds of years old. Pretty damn idyllic. They’re all little check-ins that border on ritual.

Running for me began in Asheville, North Carolina. Broke and wanting to kick a post-college smoking habit, I started running a small loop up onto a ridge near my apartment at 59 Annandale. I had no idea what the limits of my body were, and no real clue about how to run. I was making about 4.50$ an hour plus tips at a downtown cafe that tried to recapture 1950’s nostalgia by making everyone wear suspenders. The real effect was to make everyone miserable. And so, the few customers I did have didn’t tend to tip well.

That’s all to say that buying running shoes was a big deal. I saved up for a few weeks, eating left over hush puppies, pasta with cheese, and popcorn until finally I could afford the shoes that I had decided to splurge on: the majestic Asics GT’s. I can still feel the luxury of my first real running shoe. It sprang my foot off of the ground and propelled me forward. Rocks didn’t infiltrate my cushy armor. I could fly.

And with my new shoes, I carved out a loop. The ridge was a grueling initial ascent, but once you got up there you could cruise for miles. Sometimes, to add mileage, I’d add smaller laps in the park. One night I added another and another until I got to 10. I got home and peeled off my socks to discover my first bloody toe. It didn’t hurt, and I had heard that this was a thing. “I must be a real runner now,” I thought to myself.

The loops only got bigger from there. I spent a winter in Maine tracking larger runs in my hometown on the backroads. Plodding away through snow and slush. The silent tapestry of a winter dirt road in Maine dotted with the sound of wood peckers, chickadees and the creak of iced branches.

I had a vague sense of distance, but all that I had to measure my runs was a cheap wristwatch. The runs went from 30 to 60 to 90 to 120 minutes. Eventually I figured out that I needed to start running with a water bottle. I didn’t eat anything on those early runs.

I learned as I went, notching my first marathon in Louisville, Kentucky after a spring spent running the 2 mile road through Cherokee Park and a nearby reservoir. And then that brought me to Korea where I started my first Jeju loops. That’s when I first laid the groundwork for the runs that I do today.

Recently there were a few years in China, running the flat neighborhoods of Pudong on good air days. I had an 8km run that took me down the long tree lined streets overlooking brown canals. Some weekends I’d travel with other runners from my school to the mountains of China in Moganshan or Wenzhou for races, one time even making a trip for a marathon on the Great Wall.

Pudong New Area, Shanghai

From time to time I, like every runner, get the question, “Why do you run?” I can never come up with an answer. Usually I shrug it off or say something like “Why not?” But it’s certainly something deeper than that. There’s a reason to go through the ritual of lacing up a battered pair of shoes and heading out on the same piece of road or trail each day.

As I’ve run over the course of time, I’ve noticed something. Like the landmarks of a single run, there are other landmarks scattered over time throughout experience. There are moments when the current experience lines up with the past and clarity snaps into view for a brief second. Maybe it’s the endorphins, a runner’s high, or just simply the unplugging effect that running has, but it’s something that feels real.

These landmarks might not be as concrete as a barn or a weirdly shaped tree. They are more like feelings. Either way, there is something recognizable in them. During a run, a simple image such as a bird erupting from an orange grove or a shimmer of leaves can lead to a sudden overflowing memory. Triggers for golden moments planted along the course. My mind goes to a place where it can connect the new and the old. I see a snapshot that I forgot and it lights me up for an instant.

Of course, this isn’t every run. Some runs are 5 AM slogs through sopping rain that leave me shivering at my doorstep, blowing on my fingers before I tap the entry code to my apartment. On other runs, the body is spent and my eyes want to close. The landscape is ignored and I spend the 10km staring at my watch as the kilometers add up. But part of me thinks that the terrible runs need to happen in order for the clearer moments to occur.

These small loops seem to add up to something bigger. They overlap in grand patterns beyond my understanding or comprehension. Running is humbling in this way, and there’s a mysticism there that keeps me coming back. Although the runs might feel mundane sometimes, they are worth it. The loops might be the same, but each run is different–imperceptibly altering chunks of time that meld the past and present, leading to something better.

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