NeologisticsRunning → Mortality

Our Mortality

December 23, 2000

It's six days and ten hours until the start of the 18th annual 72- 48- 24-Hour Run, Walk, Nap and Eat Across the Years race, at which I will attempt my one and only foray into 48-hour land. Today, as I go about making preparations, I had occasion to reflect on human mortality.

For the benefit of readers whose familiarity with racing may be limited to road races from 5K to marathon distance, I'll explain: The object in a fixed-time event is to go as far as you can in the time allowed. In order to facilitate measuring the distance, the courses are run on loops, often on ordinary 400-meter high school tracks, as will be the case with Across the Years. So that's what I will be doing the last two days of 2000, and the first few hours of 2001.

"Say what?? Hang on! Mortality? What happened?"

I'm glad you asked.

I'm a graduate of New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois, class of 1961. This venerable public school has graduated some highly notable persons over the years.

Today I received in the mail some alumni materials. On April 27, 2001, my graduating class is having its fortieth anniversary reunion. The next day the school is throwing a centennial bash for anyone who has ever graduated from the school. I doubt that anyone will show up from the class of 1901, and believe that with the 1961 reunion going on the day before, our class will be disproportionately represented.

Enclosed were three lists of names.

The classes at New Trier were quite large in those days. The class of 1961 metriculated 963 persons. Therefore, I did not know everyone in my class, and although I have an unusually sharp memory for things in the distant past, after all these years I'm sure I've completely forgotten the names of at least some persons I knew then. Some names are quite familiar, but I can no longer pin an image of a face on them. Still others I remember well.

The first list named the Reunion Committee. Of these I knew several, and two of them were among my very closest friends. I was best man at one's wedding.

The second list was of graduates of the class of 1961 who have not been able to be located, asking for help to trace as many of them as possible. I studied the list carefully and highlighted twenty I remember well. One I remember as far back as fourth grade. But I have nary a clue what has become of any of them.

The third list was labeled: "Class of 1961 — Deceased List." I'm not sure what actuarial tables would tell me about the percentage of persons who die by our age — most of us would be about 57 — but 51/963 = 5.3%, and there are probably at least a few more in the missing list. Some of them are probably missing because they've been dead a long time.

I have to wonder whether the percentage is skewed in any way by Vietnam casualties. I'll never know. However, only 16 of the 51 dead are women. Perhaps that's normal, because women generally live longer than men. Our class stayed just ahead of the very edge of the draft. When they were taking 18-year-olds, we were 19, and when they started taking 19-year-olds, we were 20, and so forth, and then they finally stopped sending any young man who could stand upright into that controversial and tragic war. Most of us, especially the perpetual students among us, escaped that end.

I studied each name closely, and found that I knew or at least recognized the names of twenty of the dead. Some I knew well.

Some came as no surprise, knowing that they did not seem to take life very seriously when I knew them. One, whose last name was Bigelow, I used to call Battleship Bigload. He was a 300-pound sloth who spent his free time during PE swimming classes floating endlessly on his back without moving a muscle. Another sat next to me in my advisor room. He entered as a freshman as the person with the highest measured IQ of all incoming students, and was placed in all the most advanced classes, but was utterly resolute in his contempt for all things related to school. He chose to wear hood boots and leather jackets and hang out at the off-limits drug store with the greasers. To my knowledge he never even attempted to open the cover of a book in school. He was determined to ruin his life. It was probably the only endeavor in which he ever succeeded.

Others were sadder to hear about. One had been national math champ, having gotten a perfect score in the competition, and also a perfect score on his SATs before entering MIT. Yet another, whom I'd known since fourth grade, held three national swimming records in the backstroke while in high school. One had been my tentmate in Boy Scout camp, and was a good boy, but sickly. Another, also a fellow Boy Scout, was my partner on a twenty mile hike, and was brilliant, the one who was able to identify all the trees and correctly do the required compass work. Another was a timid but sweet girl I used to dance with frequently at all the school dances. Two others were just good friends that I'd known all the way through school.

The most well-known graduate of our class was blues and rock guitar superstar Michael Bloomfield, another who was completely indifferent to school, but found his calling early in life. He was in my English class, borrowed a pen of mine that he never returned, played Wipeout very well with an electric band on a school show at age fifteen, which made the girls scream and the boys gasp, went off to fame and glory in many bands, and was found dead in his car in 1981 from a drug overdose.

Another name on the Deceased List, one that I did not know, was Roy Ruby. A biography I found of Mike Bloomfield says that he and his friend Roy Ruby began haunting the black blues clubs on the south side of Chicago from the time they were both fourteen. I learned that he met a fate similar to Michael's.

To hear suddenly all in one day that twenty people you used to know are all dead could be unsettling to some persons, but I handled the news in stride. After all, it's been a long time, and most of these people I have not seen at all since the day I graduated.

Happily, the only "Deceased List" I'm on is the Dead Runners Society, and I'm not missing from that list of graduates either. I've now lived over three times the age I was when I graduated. A lot has happened in the last forty years, much of it totally unexpected. But I'm quite alive, vigorously healthy, supremely happy, and voluminously productive.

I've made some bad and questionable decisions in my life, as have most of us. But I've also made a few good ones. I believe that one of the good ones was to determine, seven years ago, that along with everything else I do, for as long as I have strength to pursue it, I will continue to train as a runner.

There is utterly no guarantee that running 48 hours will extend my life, or keep my name off any Deceased Lists. In fact, a race of that duration could perfectly well kill me. But there's not a doubt in my mind that the last seven years of training, of which running has been the epicenter, has increased my odds of continuing to remain among the truly living.