Running Away from Death: The Boomer and the Last Mile
Paul VanDevedler explains how running was his escape from the cauldron of despair, and then became the main theme of the third act of his life
Throughout the sizzle-reel highlights of my decades as a baby-boomer, 'the last mile' is the one I refused think about. Literally or figuratively, there was no contingency factored into boomer mythology for a last mile. We grew up knowing death was optional. Until E.T. called home or we had a ‘close encounter’ with extraterrestrials, our birth certificates were a hall pass around the requisite meet-and-greet with the Reaper.
Delusional grandiosity notwithstanding, an unbidden glimpse of ‘the last mile’ made cameo appearances in my prefrontal cortex as I dodged headlights on the Champs-Elysees or leaped over rattlesnakes in the Carson National Forest. Nothing gives you a more instantaneous connection to your bones than a gray-green sprig of sage that rattles. Mostly, each time I glimpsed the ‘last mile’ I’d give it a kick over the horizon and mutter, ‘Manana.’ Which, as any bona fide chili-loving citizen of my home state of New Mexico knows, doesn’t mean tomorrow. It means not today.
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After logging 30,000 plus miles in loco-motion on urban byways and third world cart paths on four continents, and having endured the insults of torn Achilles tendons, inflamed hamstrings, bloody knees and brain bending sprains, my denial guilt about the last mile is shameless. I 'just do it.' Conceits like that one work right up to the minute they don't, falling away finally like dead skin to reveal the immutable inscrutable: this footrace with denial is a race I’ll never win. It abides.
My running life was born in a cauldron of black despair. Most humans get acquainted with what Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog’ of depression at one time or another. Mine came after returning from covering civil wars in Central America. The emotional traffic cops in my brain went on strike, walked off the job. For days I lay curled in the fetal position, paralyzed as I waited for Thorazine to release me from the psychotropic reptile curled around my amygdala. This was anti-life, my own existential event-horizon. It gave me an a priori understanding of despair-before-suicide.
My personal Big Bang came about when one dendrite in my brain shorted out on another. Pzzzzzzt! The resulting spark lit up my universe. In order to release me from psychological paralysis, my body demanded motion. The mind-body connection was the answer. Okay, that’s cool, I reasoned, I’ve been an athlete all my life, I can do this. But wait! How do I climb off this bed and tie my shoes?
Once I'd accomplished that miracle, I literally ran back to a life worth living. In the years that followed - as each step paradoxically carried me closer to the last mile - I acquired a new moniker among friends, lovers and other strangers; The Runner.
A typical conversation with strangers would begin in the check-out line at Trader Joe’s or between tables at a cafe:
"I know you, you're that guy who ran five miles to the hospital for hernia surgery."
"Word gets around."
"I'm an RN in short-stay. Everybody was talking about it. I wish I could run."
"You probably can, you just don't know it."
"I tried, I never liked it."
"Ah, that's different than not being a runner. When I started, I hated it."
"You're gonna live to a hundred."
"I hope not."
Living to a hundred was never aspirational. My objective was to carry the physical vigor and mental acuity of my 40s as deep into the later innings of life as possible. The place I chose to do that (mostly) was on wild, unpaved landscapes of the American West. I deferred, whenever possible, to dry riverbeds, dirt roads and mountain trails. The first three thousand miles were a bitch. Pain became the medium of exchange between myself and loco-motion. My earth suit wanted to go live in Whoopi Goldberg. Perversely, I persevered.
Resilience, stamina, and the distribution and absorption of oxygen, comprised the denominations in this new currency of exchange between me and my body. Active muscles under physical stress are constantly being torn down by lactic acid and rebuilt by proteins, just as skyscapes on the high mesa are constantly changing.
PET scans of the brain show that increased oxygen loads open new pathways in myriad dark corners of human consciousness and build new dendrites just as the spirit dilates in spectral light to engage wilder horizons. My head had never felt more lucid, more on point, so keeping the house lights on seemed worth the physical pain.
Then one day at about mile three I noticed something new; physical pain was gone. What took its place was sublime physiologic euphoria. Not running ceased to be an option. I put all my race medals and ribbons into a drawer and settled in for a solitary ultra-marathon against the specter of the last mile rather than the keening tick of a stop watch.
But I know the last mile is out there. It abides. In the literal sense it’s most likely somewhere on a mountain trail in northern New Mexico. In the metaphorical sense, it’s lurking out there for all of us. Whether it's a last byline, the last roundup or campfire, a final lecture or concert performance, or one final scene with cameras rolling, it abides.
Somewhere between my ever-shrinking here and the ever-looming there I came to see it as a graceful end to things that sustained and grew my identity into Act Three. As a bonus, I got to engage with enchanting landscapes all over the world, external and internal. Today, the last mile is a coda within a life made possible by the scenes and bylines and touchdowns and lectures and campfires and performances that created a rich, unpredictable, sometimes treacherous, always challenging and uniquely rewarding life between the first and last.
They say we’re all whores for irony. Guilty. Chasing the last mile emancipated me from a pitiless black hole of ‘anti-life’. The reward was a deep relationship with the physical and mental buoyancy to write challenging books, to sail across oceans, to climb mountains and make documentary films, to run rivers and raise kids and - as the poet Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer's Liberation Manifesto dares us - to practice resurrection. Everyday. It seems this was the fine print veritas of boomer mythology all along; to plant ponderosa saplings and call that immortality.
My last mile isn’t a distant shore, now. Maybe it’ll be marked by a fish monger on a street corner in Buenos Aires, or by a friend calling my name from a cafe on the Taos Plaza, or by a fence post on a country lane winding across the mesa. Perhaps the only witness to the moment will be a lone buffalo, or a few goats, or a raven perched on a latilla gate, those black eyes witnessing the moment I pass and finally slow to a walk. And stop. And look back.
I like the idea of the raven. In an era of clattering dissonance and discord, ravens are among the most enlightened souls in the hood. They soar on the mysticism of ordinary experience. Just ask native peoples. They’ll tell you that ravens know things. Until then, most mornings will find me lacing up my quick starts and whispering, 'Manana.' One. More. Time.
Journalist and author, Paul VanDevelder, has been a regular contributor to Forbes, the Smithsonian, Esquire, and Audubon magazines for thirty years. His work has been honored for achievements in law, investigative journalism and environmental sciences by the American Bar Association, the Native American Journalists Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Academy of Literary Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. A four-time Pulitzer nominee and two-time nominee for the National Book Award, he is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: the untold story of America's road to empire through Indian territory (Yale University Press) and Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation (Little Brown & Co)
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