The Run for My Cure

In which our intrepid misadventurer sets out to win a marathon and quit smoking. (Hint: He only succeeds at one.)

    Photo: Illustration by Marcos Chin

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Call it the race to quit. It began last year; I was traveling in Sweden when my mom, a former smoker, called and mentioned offhandedly that she had just undergone surgery for atherosclerosis. She went on to remind me that her father, a smoker, had died of hardened arteries, and then she told me something I didn't know: He was 33 when he collapsed.

Being 30 years old, this spooked me. I live in Boulder, Colorado, probably the single healthiest city in the country. I road-bike, I telemark-ski, I've climbed Rainier. And I smoke. About a pack a day for the past decade. I'm not proud of it, but there it is.I never envisioned myself as a 30-year-old smoker. Fresh out of college and traveling around the world, I smoked like everyone else did, sharing stories and cigarettes in the hostels. When I moved to New York City to look for work, puffing away on my stoop became one of the few forms of recreation I could afford, and then once I found a job, the habit persisted, through price hikes, health kicks, and disgusted girlfriends. I tried to quit dozens of times with all the obvious strategies gum, the patch, cold turkey. On one birthday I even swallowed my pride and asked friends for the one gift I couldn't seem to give myself: motivation. Their sincere, passionate e-mails stuck like Pam. As soon as I felt strong, I'd slip.

But Mom's revelation was different. It hit me like a falling anvil. Suddenly I had an artery-hard deadline.

When I recovered from the blow, an elegant plan took shape. What I needed, I realized, was not to quit something but to start something. So I decided I would run. I'd trade that schizo nicotine buzz for a wholesome runner's high and then celebrate the swap with an elevated vacation at the Nunavut Midnight Sun Marathon, a rugged 26.2-mile course 435 miles above the Arctic Circle in Arctic Bay, Canada. Only a few dozen people fly to the top of Baffin Island to compete each July, and I imagined the treeless landscape the icy bays, the wide, loamy valleys stretching out in all directions like a blank canvas, the perfect place to draw a new, smoke-free self. Never mind that the last time I'd actually jogged was at the back of my JV cross-country team. I had my mantra: Run from the addiction.

LIKE MOST FOOLPROOF ideas, this turned out to be a moronic oversimplification.

With only three months to go before the starting line, I scheduled a visit to the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, a training facility that has coached Olympians. Prepared for the ugly truth, I was pleased to find I wasn't ruined after all. Sweet. Three hours of performance tests revealed that my body was drumroll normal, with a respectable VO2 max of 54 on a scale of 30 to 70. The butt I gulped in the parking lot beforehand had little effect on the results. A cigarette's carbon monoxide, which robs red blood cells of space to transport oxygen, is quickly expelled under exertion, and half of the nicotine, a stimulant like amphetamines, had disappeared by the time I took the first treadmill torture test two hours later.

"Cigarettes probably haven't damaged your lungs," concluded Dr. Hunter Smith, the center's pulmonologist.

The most damning second opinion I could find hardly held my feet to the fire. "Your lung function is completely normal actually at the upper end of normal, bordering on supernormal," said David P.L. Sachs, clinical associate professor of pulmonary and critical-care medicine at Stanford University Medical School. How could this be? "One person might notice airway irritation after just a couple cigarettes a day for a couple of years," he told me. "Another might smoke two packs a day and die at 95 without a wisp of shortness of breath. It depends on your genes."

Nonetheless, he assured me, I was playing Russian roulette with a two-barreled revolver. I'd been lucky so far. But I had a family history.

It was the sports lab's physiologist, Neal Henderson, who put the first dent in my motivation. He designed a heartbeat-by-heartbeat workout plan that centered on jogs so embarrassingly slow they could accurately be termed "dawdles."

"LSD, long slow distance, is what you need for the next three months," he said, prescribing a pulse rate of 138 to 156 sustained for one to three hours.

Forget runner's high. I chugged through the foothills, barely passing adults carrying infants. Chunky sorority girls in ill-fitting sweatpants waddled past me along Boulder Creek. Only once a week, when I ran fast enough to cough up great wads of phlegm, did my body reiterate what my mind knew: that I was probably sprinting toward the grave.

Quitting was a different story. Here, I was on my own. I quickly dropped to half a pack a day and whittled down from there. I removed all triggers rearranged the deck furniture, switched from coffee to tea, avoided boozy barbecues. On road trips I ate sunflower seeds. When my resolve lapsed, I appeased the oral fixation by rolling smokes from the loose leaves of a green herb called damiana, which smells like dope and supposedly enhances your libido.

But my brain went haywire. Missing the neural lubricant that is nicotine, my synapses misfired. I stopped working for two weeks. After the initial depression it was kind of fun not knowing what I would say next. But I still couldn't give up those last precious cigs, the one or two I'd twist up each evening with rolling papers stolen from the homeopathic stuff. Perhaps because I'd never had to pay for my sins, I just couldn't shake them. By the time I left for Nunavut, I was running much faster but still running with the addiction.

I ARRIVED in arctic bay in the permanent daylight of late June, our passenger plane/cargo transporter (mail, fresh strawberries) touching down on the gravel airstrip in a blaze of dust. The other runners and I said goodbye to the NASA scientists and Japanese tourists continuing 225 miles northwest to the last stop, at Resolute, and disembarked onto the windswept mesa.

Most everyone was from the East Coast or California. A few were marathon virgins like me, including a laid-back thirty-something Manhattan couple, Josiah and Jennifer; he was going to try to keep up with her in his first marathon and she was going for her tenth even though she was wearing a foam neck brace from a recent fender bender. The rest had been running for decades. Forty-eight-year-old Bob, a quiet Navy graduate professor, admitted after a little haranguing that he'd run the Boston Marathon in just under three hours. Bill, a soft-spoken bachelor in his sixties, was headed to Hawaii next, for his 101st marathon or 351st race, if you count the 250 ultramarathons. Bruce, a 60-year-old minister, and his retired architect boyfriend, Robert, had completed marathons on every continent and joked about their own short-shorts before any of us dared. The veterans kept the mood light, teasing that we newbies must feel "like a sackful of cats on the way to the river" as we trundled down the hilly race road. The jokes mattered. Arctic Bay necessitated them.

Established in the sixties, the town is one of the last hamlets, or what Americans call "reservations," to which the Inuit were forcibly relocated after living nomadically for five millennia a fact glaringly absent from tourist brochures. The place consists of 175 box houses in various states of completion, perched on stilts over the permafrost and surrounded by collapsed komatiq sleds, disemboweled Ski-Doos, and rusted water tanks. Most of the locals had left to hunt narwhal at the floe edge for the summer.

I should have followed their lead. I'd arrived a whole week early, in fact, because I wanted to get to know the place, maybe take up some offers to share a seal-meat dinner or carve some ivory. But the next morning, when the other early arrivals left on a guided camping trip to join those locals, I stayed behind. Seven hundred fifty loonies? That's almost 670 bucks!

Note to self: idiot.

Since the health department had closed the only hotel, I was billeted in the "crew trailer," a metal bunkhouse for the repairmen often flown in to fix the town's two generators. For eight days, I breathed diesel fumes, sizzled bland breakfasts of outrageously expensive eggs on outrageously expensive toast, and watched delayed broadcasts of the Tour de France on a soft-focus TV. Fidgety from withdrawal, no smokes in tow, I wandered the lifeless hamlet, nodding absently to kids in FUBU sweatshirts, walking across ice floes to stand out on the frozen bay, and brooding forlornly on the husk of a dog carcass decomposing near the stony beach. By day three, even Annaleen, the leggy, motorcycle-jacket-wearing Dutch model stalled out here working on her anthropology thesis, couldn't distract me from my cigarette jones.

Here I was, in one of the most remote places on earth, a settlement that fascinated me so much I wanted to arrive days early, and I was ignoring the one person who'd offered to show me the town's good side. I was hiding from a lonely Dutch model!

Soon enough, I was holding a pack of Export A's that ran me $13.25 Canadian.

I removed a stubby fag from the flat, wide pack, struck a match, and inhaled deeply as the tip crackled into a glowing cherry. The 16 milligrams of tar stained my teeth a bit yellower, gave me that wonderful ashtray breath, and then swirled into the nooks of my dentistry, upping the chances I'd suffer gum disease. Microscopic chunks of nastiness, incinerated at 900 degrees, raked the soft pink tissue lining my trachea, challenging it to permanently scar and exponentially decrease the amount of air I could move. As the soot disappeared into the bottom of my lungs, toxic particles coated the alveoli, small air sacs no bigger across than the width of a hair, sat there, blackening them. Sixty proven cancer causers seeped into my bloodstream, hastening dozens of diseases and illnesses, from cataracts to leukemia.

And then the wonder drug kicked in, the nicotine having reached my brain in seven seconds, faster than mainlining heroin. At the horseshoe-shaped pleasure-reward pathway at the top of the spine, the nicotine molecules triggered a flood of dopamine, and suddenly the Arctic appeared not desolate but full of potential again. I remembered better why I was there (to transform from Marlboro Man to Marathon Man). I could concentrate more clearly on how to prepare for the race (get good sleep two nights before). My senses grew keenly aware of what was important in my immediate surroundings (Annaleen). And I could better solve any problems (boredom). I realized I probably wasn't going to kick the habit anytime soon.

It wasn't an epiphany, just acceptance of fact: I could inhale a tar tube, rip out two hours' worth of seven-minute miles, and savor the comedown with another smoke. My body could do that. For now. And just as well, because the determination required to rapidly place one foot in front of the other barely approximated the strength of spirit required to skip a brown-leaf meal.

I hadn't run from the addiction; I'd run headlong into it and come to find that I was weaker than I ever thought.

AT 8:30 a.m. on july 5, a crisp 42-degree morning, our little pack of racers gathered expectantly under a clear dawn that looked like noon that looked like midnight, the sun merely wobbling around the horizon. Five of the old guys had left four hours earlier, having cajoled one another into back-to-back marathons. One would finish in a mere eight hours.

The ranks had swollen to 11 with the addition of two formidable new racers: Rory, the 23-year-old son of one of the grandpas who'd doubled down, who was helping to decommission a mine nearby and figured what the hell, and Knut, a 32-year-old Oslo sailor who'd been frozen over in Arctic Bay for the past two winters. I lined up close to Boston Bob, whom I'd liked well enough until then. Though we all fit across the starting line, he stepped forward for the pre-race photo, so that the snaps depicted essentially Boston Bob and the Others. I had my nemesis.

The Mountie fired her pump-action shotgun low over the school parking lot, and amid the great cheering of the crowd of three or four, we took off.

Bob bolted. At the crew shack, his seven-minute mile had already established a 100-yard lead, and by the time we reached the fueling station at the edge of town, the pack had fallen far behind. No problem; catch him later. I coasted in the middle, using my chest monitor to keep my heart rate steady at 156, never exceeding my lactate threshold of 162, the maximum pace that the testing had determined I could sustain. Beyond the mouth of the bay, solid ice, a white pelt with blue-green splotches, stretched as far as I could see. Miles disappeared.

And so did Bob. By the time I reached the first turnaround, a dangerous curve sign at the top of a six-mile hill, he was already a mile back down. I thought I might close the gap, risking a hamstring tear with strides like so many grands jetés, but Bob was gone.It wasn't difficult to make peace with second place. Say it's much-needed penance, I thought, and settled in to run my own race. As the course passed through town again with five miles left, I turned myself loose and began humping up an incredibly steep hill rising 700 feet in half a mile. This, Coach Henderson had instructed, was the time to burn it out, forget the heart-rate monitor.

The little gizmo spiked to 175.

Soon I saw Bob. He was passing the last aid station, a truck parked at the bottom of the hill. Was he flagging? I ditched my sweaty shirt on the tailgate, followed the road past fillets of char drying on a string, and started reeling him in.

I caught him at a marsh with two miles to go. Hanging behind, I momentarily thought that maybe we should cross together. After all, his girlfriend had hinted that he'd dropped $2,300 for this marathon because he thought he'd found one he could finally win. But that charitable impulse passed. I stepped out, pumped my arms, and left him to limp home second, three minutes behind.

Again, it seemed, I hadn't had to pay for my sins. My time, 3:27:10, beat the four-year-old course record by 20 minutes and Bob, a gentleman, congratulated me after he stopped the silent treatment. The old-timers assured me I had a long, glorious future in marathoning, and for a couple of hours I believed them. I could see myself running more, at least enough to break the three-hour mark, maybe enough that someday, like Rory, my son would join me at the far corners of racedom.

I'd won a marathon. I was a marathoner.

The transformation was taking place. By the spaghetti banquet that evening, I felt confident enough to share my secret with the racers gathered around the long folding tables in the high school home-ec room. "So actually, up until yesterday afternoon, I was a smoker," I began. They all gasped and said things like "Good for you" all except one, that is. Sitting at the far end of the table, Jennifer misheard. After brownies and cake, she motioned for me to follow her outside.

"You want a cigarette?" she offered, producing a pack of ultralights. I wavered but, the truth is, not for long. Standing out behind the high school, far from the familiar indignity, the health worries, and the depressed spasms of withdrawal, I couldn't say no. Tomorrow I'd quit. Today I was the winningest loser.

Next month, Eric Hansen RV's the Oregon coast with his 94-year-old grandmother.

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