Like a lot of children of the 1970s, I grew up mostly outdoors. Perhaps it was different in the big city, but in the piney woods of southern New Hampshire where I was raised, kids had to find their own fun, yet there was plenty of fun to be found if you looked hard enough. Street hockey, capture the flag, mud football, ultimate frisbee, sledding, H-O-R-S-E, various war games—I and my brothers and the scads of other young’uns in our neighborhood were always on the move in one way or another.
What made me different from, and even more active than, my hyperkinetic peers was my father, who was quite the fitness buff. In 1983, when I was eleven, he ran his first marathon. The next day I went out and ran six miles—monkey see, monkey do. Two days later, I did it again, and so on.
The following year, my old man—who had served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam—wrote a book called Get Tough: The U.S. Special Forces Physical Conditioning Program. If you’re able to track down a copy, you’ll find in it a few photos of a boy with a platinum blond bowl cut assisting the author in demonstrating various exercises. That blond boy was me, and I not only helped my dad with the photoshoot but I also completed the full twelve-week workout program despite having zero interest in joining the military.
In short, I got a lot of exercise in my youth, and as a result I was quite fit. Having never known anything else, I did not fully appreciate my fitness, however, until years later, when I lost it. Not some of it but all of it, and not gradually but all at once.
October 6, 2020, was the day I first noticed something was wrong. At forty-nine years old, I was as fit as I’d ever been, having recently completed a 10K time trial in 33:25 and plotting a bid for a duathlon national championship age-group title. Long covid tossed those ambitions out the window, but I held on to as much fitness as I could for as long as I could, continuing to run (albeit slowly, and never very far) for another twelve weeks until I was forced to pull the plug.
As recently as October 2021, more than a year into my long-haul journey, I was walking four miles a day and lifting weights four about twenty minutes most days. Nugatory as these activities were compared to my former regimen, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were holding back my recovery, as I continued to feel like shit pretty much 24/7. Then one day it occurred to me that every athlete I knew of who had recovered from long covid had gone for an extended period of time without engaging in physical exertion of any kind, in most cases involuntarily, being bedridden. Having nothing to lose, I stopped walking and lifting weights, becoming wholly sedentary for the first time in my half-century on earth.
It’s now been ten weeks since I took that drastic measure, enough time to lose what fitness remained in me after nine months without running. The jury’s still out on whether the measure is doing any good. Most days my long-covid symptoms are severe enough that whatever else is going on inside my body passes unnoticed. Recently, though, I experienced a momentary upswing in my health that allowed me, again for the first time in my life, to feel what it’s really like to be totally out of shape, and let me tell you, relative to being very fit, it feels awful—worse than I could have imagined, especially at my age.
One thing I noticed in the early days of my plunge into hardcore endurance training in my late twenties was that the fitter I got, the better I felt, not just during exercise but all day every day. When I was fit enough to run 50 miles over mountains without stopping, I felt like a man who could run 50 miles over mountains without stopping. Even when sitting quietly with a book in my hand I was aware of an inner vitality so volcanically intense I half-believed I could open a window and fly away like Peter Pan. Having lost this precious feeling, probably forever, I look back on it now as the single greatest benefit of being aerobically fit. Strangely, though, nobody ever talks about it. Consequently, those who have never been aerobically fit don’t know what they’re missing out on.
Think about it: What tempts people to try psychoactive drugs? The promise of an amazing high, that’s what! So why don’t we use the same promise—minus the downside—to tempt the sedentary into trying aerobic exercise? Do me a favor: The next time you find yourself in conversation with a couch potato at a social gathering, and the topic of your endurance hobby comes up, casually mention how wonderful it feels to be aerobic fit. See how they react, and report back to me. This could be the start of a game-changing “Just Say Yes” campaign!