Running from Death

Mitch bit into another slice of pizza and took a guess at who would win the BBQ Pitmasters episode he was watching. When the judges awarded the grand prize to a team from Georgia, he muttered, “I knew it.” He rose from the sofa and started heading toward the kitchen for another beer, but he stopped in the middle of the living room and thought, “What difference could any of this possibly make? What a pitiful joke.” He was thirty-five years old, nearly 300 pounds with a heart condition, single, friendless, and contemptuous of everything around him. When he wasn’t working a technical writing job he considered futile and claustrophobic, he got drunk and mean in bars, watched TV at home, gorged himself at all-you-can-eat buffets, and little else.

Given all this, combined with his fear of dying a slow and painful death because of health problems, Mitch decided to kill himself as quickly as possible that very day. The trick was deciding how to do it. He didn’t own a gun, he hated sharp objects, and the house he was renting didn’t have a garage, so carbon monoxide poisoning was out of the question. Then it dawned on him. He would run himself to death. He lived at the edge of town, and his bad heart would surely fail him in the heat of the day as he lugged his overweight body as far into the countryside as his legs would carry him. In all likelihood, no one would be there to help him once he collapsed, and he would drift away into the great unknown fairly quickly after the initial shock and pain subsided.

He changed into a set of workout clothes, put on a pair of running shoes he hadn’t worn in a few years, and checked the house to make sure everything was turned off. Then he stepped outside and gazed up at the cloudless sky. The sun shone down from a menacing angle, just as he had hoped it would. The thermometer by the front door read 93°. Mitch jogged across the front yard and down the sidewalk until he reached the edge of town, where the sidewalk gave way to dirt and mowed grass that paralleled a narrow two-lane road. After running a half a mile, he grew dizzy. Alcohol sweat burned his eyes. He quickened his pace and managed an awkward sprint for another fifty yards until his heart felt like it was ready to explode. A lone tree stood on the side of the road yet another fifty yards ahead. The perfect place to die, he thought. He staggered the remaining distance and plopped down in the shade under the broadest branches, but he was nowhere close to death. He was just another exhausted jogger with blood pounding in his ears.

Mitch lumbered home in defeat and collapsed on his bed. He didn’t wake up until noon the next day. As he rose to go to the bathroom, he noticed that he felt better than he had in years. Although his entire body ached, the run had obviously done him some good. He took a shower, put on some casual clothes, to include his running shoes, and walked to a nearby diner for lunch. To test his willpower, he had a cheeseburger, milkshake, and fries. This meal was a mere snack compared to what he usually ate, and he was proud of this achievement. On his way home, everything looked different. The trees seemed more detailed and colorful, and the warm breeze made his skin tingle. He felt like he had just stepped into an alternative reality and was studying himself and everything around him from an unfamiliar vantage point. He knew the world would look less exciting soon enough, but this aside, he sensed that he could construct new routines that would allow him to redefine himself.

From this point on, getting healthy took priority in Mitch’s life. He ran every morning unless his body told him otherwise, in which case he simply substituted his run with a short or long walk, depending on how he felt. In the first few weeks of his new regimen, he worked his way up from running a block a day to a mile a day, slowly and cautiously, but with determination. Patience was the key. He monitored himself carefully, knowing that exercise was going to be a fixture in his daily routine. If anything was sore or not responding well, he pushed himself only as hard as he thought he could without sustaining injuries that might set back his workout schedule. He bought a weight set and started lifting, too. The weights were a clear measurable he could compare to his high school weightlifting days, and he charted his progress in a notebook during every workout.

Mitch had always suspected that his diet was killing him in slow degrees and should be altered, but he didn’t realize how much damage he had done to himself until he studied some Internet research and visited a few health and nutrition stores. What he learned alarmed him. He found out right away that refined sugar is addictive, full of empty calories, toxic to the liver, and damaging to the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. This went a long way in explaining why years of drinking sugary beverages had made Mitch increasingly ill. Moreover, the white flour he loved so much in his food was killing him even more quickly since its ingestion leads to gluttony, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, and pH imbalances that result in calcium depletion and various problems like cancer and coronary disease. Mitch’s obsession with dairy products wasn’t doing his body any favors either. Since most milk is treated with hormones, preservatives, and antibiotics, it causes inflammations in the body that trigger allergies and other symptoms that might lead to disease.  

Knowing he would never be able to completely remove refined sugar, white flour, and dairy products from his diet, Mitch practiced harm reduction per the advice of a fellow office worker who moonlighted as an addiction counselor. Early on, partial or incremental changes seemed sensible and necessary. Mitch stopped drinking hard liquor completely, but he allowed himself three beers a day, down from the two six packs he normally enjoyed. He transitioned from soft drinks to additive-free fruit and vegetable smoothies and juices, and he stopped eating pizza and sugary breakfast cereals altogether. To Mitch’s surprise, this didn’t turn out to be much of a problem at all. He just ate more fish, salads, fruits, and low-fat proteins, which he wound up enjoying far more than pizza and cereal. He also introduced vitamin, mineral, and herb supplements into his daily diet, to include turmeric, Spirulina, and ginger root. He stopped hanging out in bars, too, because he finally realized that he had done so up to that point mainly to get drunk, not to socialize. As a result, his expenses remained about the same, but his spending now produced useful, not damaging, outcomes.

Because of these and a few other lifestyle modifications, like intelligent skin care, Mitch’s appearance and health improved dramatically. His pale, blotchy, prematurely aging skin grew more supple and lustrous, and his circulatory and digestive systems, which had been giving him trouble for years, began functioning normally again. His hands and feet stopped feeling numb, and his joints didn’t ache so much in the morning. Within a month of making these life changes, Mitch lost 30 pounds. In the span of six months, he lost 100 pounds and was running two to four miles a day. He also bench pressed 300 pounds, better than he had ever managed in high school, and he didn’t get sick once during that time since his immune system had strengthened so much. But best of all, once every month or two when the weather was good, Mitch and his new girlfriend Cindy would pack a lunch, stroll out to the tree he had tried to die under, sit down beneath the shadiest branches, and, among other things, think about how great it was to be alive.