The Run That Changed My Life

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The boy lay pensively inside an oxygen tent, struggling to breathe the cold, aseptic air; nurses and doctors gathered curiously around their little patient. The child became frightened by this sea of white coats, not knowing if their appearance might precede some other invasive treatment for his inability to inhale.

The child had almost died two days earlier from asthmatic bronchoconstriction. After an ambulance rushed him to a hospital emergency room and then stabilized his gasping, labored breathing, his heart raced from fear of these doctors plus the speedy effects of epinephrine surging through his bloodstream.

Ten years later, the child had “outgrown” his acute asthma attacks and was becoming a rebellious teenager. Since this was the mid-1960s, around 50 percent of adult men in the U.S. smoked cigarettes, the 20th-century symbol of iconoclastic culture, the rise of Marlboro Man.

Hollywood icons such as Sammy Davis, Jr., Yul Brynner and George Peppard popularized the cool habit—and then died because of it. A monolithic tobacco industry employed marketing trickery to make the dangerous  and addicting product appear benign if not downright healthful. Smoking had become the cultural norm celebrated in advertisements and movies.

The teenager became hooked on nicotine before the U.S. Surgeon General announced, in 1965, that cigarette smoking could be a cause of lung cancer and other serious diseases. By the time this teenager became a college graduate student in psychology, he had smoked as many as two packs of cigarettes per day, and lung abuse was beginning to take a toll on his health.

The person I'm describing is me. An asthmatic in childhood and addicted to cigarettes in my youth, I owe my health today to a man and a philosophy of living that he personified. And to me, this man's life also represents how suffering can be faced and managed and inspired by the courage of others. The day we first met, coincidentally, became one of my life's most significant watershed moments.

At the beginning of my second year of graduate school at the University of Kansas, several students and I visited a popular professor at her home. During our conversation, her boyfriend stopped by, a man of imposing stature, at that time weighing around 215 pounds of solid muscle. At six-foot-four-inches and with a chiseled jaw, Mark Crooks initially appeared to be a stereotypical jock, albeit one who could have also posed as a male fashion model. I learned that he was a Ph.D. candidate seeking double degrees in sports psychology and exercise physiology.

Mark's extraordinary fitness and his friendly nature caused me to confess to him that I was then having growing concerns about my health. By the early 1970s, the connections between smoking and cancer had gained wider acceptance in spite of extraordinary denials by tobacco companies. I knew my long-term health was on the line. Mark invited me to go jogging with him the following Saturday, and though hesitant, I accepted.

We ran in a city park in Lawrence, and at first, I kept pace, being young and lean. But as the miles stretched out, Mark's graceful stride left me in the background. I recall seeing him running effortlessly ahead in the distance. Because I wanted health more than anything after a childhood punctuated by illnesses, I quit smoking four days later, on Sept. 14, 1973. Mark never scolded or lectured me about smoking but caused me to seek health because of his example.

In emulating Mark, I began to enjoy the best health of my life, which has endured for over four decades. I finally understood what it means to live strong, and that has been more important than any transitory social gains I might have experienced as a young (and dubiously cool) cigarette smoker. The anniversary of my quitting day is as important to me as my birthday. Mark and our fateful run together changed how I approached my health and transformed my life.

Brent Green is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant focusing on the intersection of aging, business, and technology. This excerpt is from his forthcoming book, Questions of the Spirit: The Quest for Understanding at a Time of Loss.

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Related Topics: Tobacco & Smoking, Health & Wellness,


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Submitted by Durham Tobacco Lady at: March 20, 2017
This story is so inspiring! I also wanted to share mine: I grew up surrounded by secondhand smoke from my mother and many other family members. I started smoking when I was 11 years old. By the time I was in high school, I was already addicted. Throughout high school and college, I struggled with asthma and chronic bronchitis, and at 25-years-old, my doctor told me I had a "death wish" if I continued to smoke. In December 2008, I was able to quit after starting a 14-month contract position in West Africa, where I would not be able to smoke. I used Chantix and nicotine lozenges to help with the cravings and withdrawal. When I came back from West Africa in 2010, all the restaurants and bars in NC were smoke-free. This policy helped me stay smoke-free, even though most of my friends and family still smoked, because it reduced the number of triggers in my environment. The following year, my aunt, and close confidante, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer after smoking for many years. She died in 2015 at 57 years old, leaving behind a 17-year-old son. Since I quit, I no longer use my inhaler for asthma nor do I suffer from chronic bronchitis. My smoke-free lungs have allowed me to run a half marathon and to regularly participate in 100-mile bike races. One of my proudest moments was calling my grandparents from West Africa back in 2009 to let them know I was 9 months smoke-free. My grandfather, a former heavy smoker, was suffering congestive heart failure, and my grandmother was still smoking. She died of a stroke five days after that phone call. The last thing she ever said to me was, "Your grandfather and I are so proud of you for overcoming this horrible addiction." I promised her then that I would stay smoke-free. To honor her and all the other family members I've watched die from smoking, I now work as the Tobacco Health Educator for Durham County, advocating for cessation resources and more tobacco-free spaces. Because not only do I know how hard it is to quit, I know how hard it is to watch smoking kill the people I love most.
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