Back around 1990 I lived near Wellington Circle in Medford, in a working-class Italian-American neighborhood. I felt a bit lost there, far away from my few Boston-area friends and my job at Boston University. But one benefit of living in that ‘hood was the park that snaked along one side of the Mystic River, and the running path that went through it.
There was a lot of traffic, exhaust, and noise. But something about that gritty neighborhood, green-gray river, and down-at-the-heels park spoke to me; it reinforced my determination to run regularly, to do my almost three-mile loop around the river, plod along Interstate 93 near Route 16, and return back to Wellington with a pleasant, rung-out feeling, so that I felt both tired and relaxed.
Last weekend, after an absence of 20 years, I was back. The park has been spruced up a bit, weeds cut and grass mowed, though the line of cars, and the haze of exhaust fumes from the ever-present line of traffic, has only gotten worse. There have been other changes, too, internal ones in my own body. In 1990, I was in my early 30s, and running was woven into my life, the only way I could manage the depression and anxiety I carried like a blockage in my abdomen, a physical ache. Two decades later, the depression has faded, and though vestiges of anxiety remain -- a tightening of my gut when I’m under stress –- it no longer dominates my life.
But the physical act of running is more difficult now, a reminder of time passing, that this body is on loan and could be recalled at any time. Now I jog rather than run, my pace slower and my breathing a bit jagged, uneven. My younger brother, who is past 50 himself, racks up miles and runs marathons in under four hours, showing what’s possible in middle age. But I’m not one of those runners; I’m a plodder who is not fast, was never fast but steady, simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Now I run with iPhone attached, strapped around my left bicep. Back in the day, I ran without a Walkman; it was too bulky and intrusive. I’d hum or sing to myself instead, that, and the rhythm of my breathing, my footsteps on asphalt was enough to keep me going. But today I need music, anything to distract me from the various aches –- the bone spur in my right foot, which will eventually require surgery, and the stiffness of my knees –- that remind me I am not 33, but 56.
Still, there is a freedom I have now that I didn’t feel then. Shortly before my move to Medford, my father had died of a heart attack, at 61. It was his second –- the first striking him suddenly, unexpectedly, at 44. After a series of major lifestyle changes, including therapy, stress management and regular exercise, my father gradually recovered from his first heart attack and lived a relatively normal life for 16 years. But a year after quadruple-bypass surgery, (his doctors discovered multiple blocked arteries and operated immediately), Dad began having chest pain, and other symptoms the physicians couldn’t quite identify. A short time later he was dead. In my 20s, I’d come to appreciate him, had come out to him at 29, about six months after I crept out of the closet, and now he was gone, much too soon.
I ran through my grief, sadness, and fear. Each time I ran, I thought of our physical similarities, of how I carried his genetic code. I believed that my father’s fate would be my own; my sense of fate at the time meant that good things were fleeting and that bad things –- like the death of one’s father – were permanent.
I hoped that running would keep my heart in shape, would give me more time on this earth. And so I ran even when I didn’t feel like running, and tried not to think about the ‘what ifs’ that circled through my mind. After all, my Dad had suffered his first heart attack –- the one that effectively destroyed half his heart muscle –- while playing tennis. What if this run in 1989, ’91 or ’92 were my last?
Now it has been 25 years since my father passed away. I’m a decade beyond the age when Dad was felled by that first, massive attack, and my heart is still healthy. And the grief I felt in those first years without him has dulled, faded if not forgotten.
Last weekend I jogged around the circle, across a bridge that spans the Mystic River, and past the old boathouse on the Somerville side. I didn’t go as far or as fast as I did two decades ago, when I was trying to outrun my father’s fate. Instead I ran, then walked, then ran a bit more, eventually returning to the place where I’d started.
Later I sat outside of Starbucks in the Circle, feeling the same after-run buzz I felt in my 30s, without all the angst I carried then. As I sipped an iced-tea in the late-afternoon sun, it seemed a fair tradeoff.
Postscript: Judah Leblang is writer, storyteller and NPR commentator based in Boston. The new edition of his memoir, “Finding My Place” is available at his website, www.judahleblang.com