When he jogs, Richard Chow has good days and bad days, but he keeps running, even if he has to walk.
I start every run these days with a degree of hope, visualizing myself moving swiftly, as I once did. I have just commenced my annual Christmas Eve run, a tradition maintained over the last fifteen years. The five-mile route takes me past the beautiful grounds of the Huntington Library in San Marino, where we spend the holidays.
My first few strides seem strong. But this sense of normalcy proves to be fleeting. I feel no explosiveness in my legs. They seem heavy. Then my lungs start to hurt, as though congested. I stop after two hundred yards, bent over and exhausted. I have good days when I can run reasonably well. Today is clearly a bad day.
Since my Parkinson’s diagnosis five years ago, I know that the ratio of bad to good days will increase. In my 50s, this disease is starting to impair me physically. I rationalize this decline by telling myself that I am just aging faster. I am not unique in this.
But, quietly, I struggle. I realize that the cumulative effect of the bad days is a threat directed at who I am. My athleticism has helped define how I view myself. It has given me a sense of confidence and joy throughout my life. It is part of my identity. What happens when this gets taken away? Try imagining the singer who can no longer sing or the dancer who no longer has balance.
This reality is difficult to process. Maybe, this is what an existential threat is.
But, I am prepared for a prolonged battle with this disease. I firmly believe that I have a choice. I can succumb, letting the disease define me, or I can continue to adapt, finding other ways to express my athleticism and preserve my identity.
For the next 100 yards, I walk. I start to run again and last for 300 yards before stopping again. I have read that high intensity interval training is arguably more effective for staying fit than running distance at a moderate pace. I finish the five miles of my annual Christmas Eve run and log a “walk/run” on my fitness app. The endorphins flow.
Knowing that my run tradition continues, albeit modified, I am ready to celebrate the evening.
With a Perspective, I’m Richard Chow.
Richard Chow is a Distinguished Career Fellow at Stanford. He lives with his wife and two daughters in the Bay Area.