Running at Your Best

John Stermscheg- Photo supplied by Author

I’d like to think of myself as being active and enjoying outdoor activities. But that pales compared to my father. Dad was born in the former Yugoslavia and excelled at sports, including soccer where he played semi-pro. When he wasn’t on the soccer pitch, he’d be out mountain climbing with two or three friends. And when he had limited time between preparing and teaching at the local community college, he’d head out and run a couple of miles. I’d go as far as claiming to be physically fit, but compared to my father I’d come up considerably short.

I recall my earlier years, back when I was in junior high school and when I had lots of energy. That early morning knock on my bedroom door, with my father poking his head in and that gleam in his eyes was all the persuasion I needed. No need to rouse or prod me to go for a jog. His smile and anticipation was enough motivation.

Occasionally, I’d be tempted to put it off and skip the workout, but I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. Later, of course, I was grateful for the wake-up call and enjoyed the invigorating run. I recall jogging the circuitous route around the edge of our little town, part of the route meandering along the Winnipeg River. It really was beautiful – the dew on the grass, the birds chiming their song, and the freshness of the morning air, all rousing my senses from the night’s slumber.

Dad, always the optimist, used the early morning outings as a way of connecting with his oldest son, listening to my hopes and dreams, not interrupting but interjecting his wisdom when warranted. Looking back, it’s those early morning runs that still stand out for me, when I would enjoy one-to-one time with my father. He was a busy man, employed as an electrical engineer by Atomic Energy of Canada.

Although he worked on important and complicated projects on nuclear energy, he sought out opportunities to connect with his two sons and one way was through his love for the outdoors. Although he enjoyed running, he didn’t limit himself to only that. He relished a good game of tennis in the summer and working up a good sweat with x-country skiing in winter.

So, it came as a surprise to me when I didn’t get the usual call-out one morning. Instead, I found dad in the kitchen in deep conversation with mom. Once I’d rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I could see that he was in some discomfort, massaging his right knee. It was then that I recalled him commenting to me the previous day that it (knee) was sore, but now it seemed to have gotten worse.

I thought no more of it and headed off to school. But several days later, when he still wasn’t up to going for a run, he explained that it wasn’t just soreness and he was actually favouring the knee. Naturally, he sought out the local doctor’s advice. His symptoms pointed to something quite unexpected: arthritis. To make matters worse, the doctor advised him that it was quite normal for someone his age (53), and all that would help was resting the joint and taking pain medication. Dad was as perplexed – miffed would be a better description – as I was, and after some deliberation he decided to get a second opinion. The second medical man didn’t offer a different opinion, only confirming what had originally been diagnosed: osteoarthritis.

Well, anyone who knows my father can tell you that the news didn’t go over well. He didn’t like the prognosis and immediately looked for an alternative to the prescribed rest and pain medication. He was no quitter. Now, finding an alternative form of dealing with the arthritis was no easy task. This was in the early 1970s, long before home computers and the internet.

I vaguely recall dad scouring the local library for information on arthritis and ways to combat its progression. Thanks to mom, he found several books on the subject, including one entitled, Food is Your Best Medicine, by Henry Bieler, MD. He read the book with great interest and found natural remedies that purported to give relief (for osteoarthritis) in some cases.

Dad was all excited and had mom devise a mixture of protein, eggs and raw vegetables that she put in a blender. The result was a greenish-looking liquid that looked dubious for medicinal purposes and tasted even worse. To my horror, dad didn’t shy away from the concoction but actually drank the stuff – twice a day, without complaining. Yuck!

Over the course of the next few weeks, I was busy with school activities, sports and Air Cadet outings, so I didn’t really pay much attention to dad’s daily self-inflicted torture routine.

But curiously, his condition didn’t worsen as I had expected. Instead, I witnessed a steady progress as he continued to improve to the point that he could walk without pain or discomfort. It was now winter, and dad, not feeling any pain, was itching for some fresh air and moderate exercise. He decided to forgo the walk my mother had suggested and go cross-country skiing. I wasn’t around to dissuade him, but later that afternoon, I saw him talking to mom in the kitchen, telling a story that had both laughing in the end.

Father and son – Photo supplied by Author

Naturally, I had to find out what was going on. Dad explained matter-of-fact how he had strapped on his cross-country skis and gone out for a short run through town, not far from home. The familiar trail paralleled the town’s perimeter road and crossed it in several places. With glee in his eyes, dad retold how a car approached just as he was crossing the roadway. Dad recognized the driver as the same doctor, who not only weeks earlier had advised him to rest his knee and find relief through pain medication. Dad waved his ski-pole in greeting and crossed the road.

The good doctor, with recognition settling in, starred at dad in disbelief and nearly drove into the ditch as dad merrily continued on his way. My father’s condition steadily improved to the point that he could stop taking that awful concoction. That spring, he resumed walking, then jogging, and by summer, he was again playing tennis.

Needless to say, his determination, tenacity and willpower didn’t go unnoticed by those who knew him, including me. My father was and has been an inspiration to me in so many ways, ranging from his dedication to doing a good job, to treating others fairly. I understood that we shouldn’t take anything for granted, including our health. He was an excellent role model and lauded the importance of physical activity, including a good run to stimulate the senses. 

I will always treasure those moments.

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