Like it or not, I have followed the Platonic prescription. I am a runner-doctor with a defective constitution. And my diseases are a lengthening litany ranging from head to toe, from dandruff to athlete's foot. At one time or another something in every section of me has gone awry.
My respiratory tract, for instance, is noticeably defective. My sinuses refuse to empty. My Eustachian tube is forever closing off. My ears ring. My tonsils are out. And a postnasal drip is a constant companion.
My circulation is little better. My electrocardiogram is abnormal. I have peculiar heart sounds, a pulse that occasionally goes into a conga rhythm, and a worrisome ache in my chest when I think about these things.
All the while, there is hardly anything right going on in my abdomen, what with a hiatus hernia, a duodenal ulcer, an absent gallbladder, diverticulosis and two sizable inguinal hernias.
From my hips down, I am the battleground for a war between me and my running. My feet, legs, knees and sciatic nerve all have been the sites of major skirmishes, but now co-exist relatively pain free in an uneasy truce.
All of this has turned out to be, as Plato suggests, an extraordinary learning experience.
I am not a runner who suffers in silence. When I am hurting, everyone around me knows it. If I am in pain during a race—and I almost always am—the runners in my vicinity are all too aware of it. And even when I am alone on the roads, distressed by hills or speed, I'm likely to fill the air with groans and sighs and "Oh Gods."
One reason is that my pain threshold is at the level of a firm handshake. I am hardly into a race when the pain arrives in quantity. I am like a novice who suddenly realizes she is not made out of the same stuff as Saint Theresa. Or a seminarian who now suspects he is not another Ignatius. But there is no going back.
Feeling pain early and often is natural for me. It is equally natural for me to react to it. "Let the parts harmed by the pain give an opinion of it," wrote Marcus Aurelius. I agree. If I am my body and my body is in pain, let it speak. No animal would repress the wail, the groan. Why should I? Am I not first a good animal? Why not, then, do what is normal and natural?
I am also Irish. I come from a complaining race. We are civilized but not domesticated. Especially my people, the little black men from the bogs who feel pain and sing sad songs. Two generations of attempting to be gentry is not enough veneer to conceal what goes against our grain.