My mother had a heart attack when she was fifty-three, the same age I am now. That was the day she quit smoking, cold-turkey. (It’s pretty hard to smoke in intensive care, even if you wanted to.)
My mother had tried to quit smoking many times before that, always unsuccessfully. By the time she was frightened into quitting by the heart attack, it was, in a sense, too late. (Though I’m certain she wouldn’t be alive today if she hadn’t.) Her lungs were already severely damaged, and in addition to heart surgery, she’s had to cope with worsening Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Now she’s on oxygen full-time.
I think about my mother when I’m out running in Mundy Park, taking huge gulps of fresh rich forest-tangy air into my lungs. I think about her when I’m swimming. My seemingly-bottomless lungs allow me to be a half-decent swimmer even though my crawl stroke sucks.
I know I owe my success as a runner mostly to what I think of as my engine: the genetic gift of a top-notch cardiovascular system with a heart and lungs that I trained to the limit. I’ve always thought that if I compared myself to a car, I’d have to say I had a first-class engine propelling a lousy chassis. Even though I fuelled my engine with an intense desire to excel, that engine was too strong for a frame with slight bones and weak muscles, one that kept falling apart at the knees, heels, and Achilles tendons.
But back to my mother: I meant this story to be about her. What did she give me (in addition to her unfailing love and support) that went into my genetic makeup and enabled me to become a world-class runner?
My mother was a typical stay-at-home mom of the ‘60s who had three children in less than four years. As the mother of only one child, I have a more sympathetic understanding now of the energy and patience she must have needed to handle all of us (and my brothers, at least, were always up to mischief). I remember my mother as having boundless energy, sometimes extending her housework tasks into the late hours after we were all in bed, often sewing late into the night to support church fundraising bazaars. She sewed all my dresses too, until I was fourteen and wanted to wear mostly Lee corduroy jeans. She worked part-time, selling Amway products and teaching bridge classes in our living room. Later, she started volunteering at our junior high school library and eventually that turned into a paying job.
My mother was never interested in sports. She didn’t enjoy being outside just for the sake of walking and appreciating natural beauty, the way I do. She curled at a local club once a week, but that was mainly a social event for her. In good weather, she and my dad played tennis together, perhaps once every two weeks.
The flexed arm hang
Yet I remember one incident from when I was in junior high school. If you’re a Canadian around my age, you probably participated in the Canada Fitness Tests. They were given to all phys ed students in the early 1970s. Each student had to complete six fitness tests: the 50-yard dash, the 300m run, a shorter shuttle run with many turns, a minute of continuous situps (with score based on number), a standing long jump, and the dreaded flexed arm hang. If you performed well in any one event, you could earn a bronze, silver, or gold badge in that event. If you succeeded in meeting the gold standard in every event, you got the rare and coveted “Award of Excellence”.
The important thing about this fitness program was that it was my first chance to be a winner, rather than a loser, in phys ed class. In team sports I was hopeless, and as I got older, the reluctance of better players to have me on their teams just led to an ever-worsening spiral of physical incompetence and mental negativity. But I was good at these fitness tests, because I was fast! I achieved the gold standard easily in the first four tests. The standing broad jump was harder for me; since my legs weren’t strong, I wasn’t a great jumper. However, the standards in this event were based on height, so I didn’t have to jump very far, and after several tries I made the gold standard.
But my nemesis, as for many of the most athletic girls, was the flexed arm hang. To get gold, we had to hang on a bar in the full chin-up position for sixty seconds. Many girls had to be lifted by the gym teacher up to the bar, and collapsed instantly onto the mat the moment the teacher let go.
The first time I tried the arm hang, I could barely hold on for fifteen seconds. However, I had about two weeks to keep practicing and retaking the test. I finally succeeded—after two weeks of focused “hanging” workouts, I was able to hold on for the full minute. I was the only girl in my grade to get the Award of Excellence.
But the more astonishing story is my mother’s response to my success. By this time, she was already smoking heavily—at least a pack a day. But she was happy to see me achieve an athletic victory (which she knew meant a lot to her tiny daughter). It inspired her to try the arm hang herself!
Our next-door neighbours had monkey bars in their back yard. My mother went out and tested herself. I think she did about ten seconds on her first try. Of course we kids thought it was a bit ridiculous to see our 38-year-old “old” mother on monkey bars. But she kept practicing every day, and eventually, just like me, she was able to hang for a minute. I remember being really impressed by that. When I think about it now, I realize that I must have got a lot of my competitive drive and pride from my mother.
Almost ten years later, I had become one of Canada’s top female distance runners. I had already competed a few times on Canada’s team at the World Cross Country Championships. I was winning big road races. My mother became interested in getting fit. In part, she may have been inspired by my achievements, but also perhaps she was going through that mid-life crisis time when people realize that if they don’t make changes, it will be too late. My mother started going to exercise classes at a local gym with a friend her own age. Then she began to try walk/jogging the 2-mile greenbelt loop that Dave Reed and I used for our double-loop tempo runs.
But she was still smoking heavily. It took all her willpower to resist smoking a cigarette immediately before heading out early in the morning for her jog. She eventually reached a point where she could cover most of the loop at a very slow jogging pace, but further improvement was impossible with lungs that were so badly compromised.
I only “ran” with my mother one time. It must have been when she was at the peak of her running ambition. She asked my brother Alan and me to go for a jog with her at the Boardwalk after hearing my descriptions about our club runs there. We drove down to the Beaches area on a warm sunny afternoon about 4 p.m. It was much more crowded there than it normally was at 8 p.m. when our club workouts started. [Read my Boardwalk running post here.] I have only a vague recollection of the three of us jogging very slowly amongst throngs of walking or running people and dogs.
It was a shock to my mother and our whole family when she had her heart attack. Though she quit smoking for good, and embarked on a regular walking program as soon as she recovered, her health was never good again. She had major heart surgery some years after the heart attack, but her lung function continued to gradually decline. A few years ago, she had to be hooked up to oxygen when she was walking, and eventually she needed the supplemental oxygen almost all of the time.
My mother’s health was always a warning to me to never start smoking. Every morning I woke up to the sound of my mother’s hacking smoker’s cough. I witnessed her and my dad (who was a pack-a-day smoker) trying to quit many times. My father successfully cut back to only a few cigarettes a day, but my mother couldn’t shake the full-blown addiction. I think smoking functioned for her as an anti-anxiety, anti-boredom mechanism, and a social ritual in the days when the majority of adults smoked.
I tried smoking anyway when I was a teenager, and I immediately liked the “feel” of it. But after watching my mother’s struggles, and seeing many of my closest friends get “hooked” on cigarettes after only smoking a few as a social act, I forbade myself to ever smoke again. It was easy to resist the urge once I started running; the thought of inhaling that poison into my lungs was disgusting to me.
I’m thankful I grew up at a time when the dangers of smoking were becoming widely-known and publicized. I was also lucky that I became part of the cross-country running team at George S. Henry high school and became addicted to running instead of smoking. As I’ve written about in previous blog articles, I believe many “serious” runners have personalities that are drawn to addictive behaviours. Out of the fifty or so people who completed my informal “Runners’ Obsessions” survey, 17% reported being former smokers. One of Canada’s most famous marathoners, Jacqueline Gareau, was a heavy smoker before she took up running. In the early ‘80s, Gareau was the Canadian record-holder in the marathon. She won the Boston Marathon in 1980.
Now, every day as I get into the rhythm of whatever exercise I’m doing, whether it be walking, running, swimming, or Pilates, I notice my breath and I’m thankful for the ease of it, the everyday miracle of a healthy body repeating this simple act so steadfastly. When I’m pushing hard swimming or running I feel the power of my lungs, those lungs that have never let me down.
When I listen to my mother’s laboured breathing, I feel terrible about what she has lost; but she has taught me to appreciate the health I have.
More than that, she has given me, I hope, at least a fraction of her patience, her fighting spirit, and her dedicated love of her children.