Smoky Ghosts

Day 53- Regular Run- 6.4 Miles/ Day 54- Easy Run- 5.5 Miles

Day 55-Easy Run- 4.12 Miles/ Day 56- Race- 13.11 Miles

Day 57- Recovery Run- 4.01 Miles/ Day 58- Day Off

Day 59- Intervals- 8.01 Miles (800 meter intervals x 6)

I have now been on vacation in Greece for 11 days. My training hasn’t been as regimented as it is as home but I have been running almost every day. Today I managed to find a track and do some of the speed work that I would typically do on a weekly basis at home. I have been kind of caught in the memories of this place since I got here. Dealing with the reminders of who I was when I was here in years past. Thirteen years is a lot of time for both me and this place. But like I said so much of this has been preserved that despite the changes, I can’t help but remember to what it was like to be here when I was 15 and 22.

Since 2003, Greece and the Island of Xios have gone through a remarkable transformation. Politically, socially and culturally, the place I left when I was 22 years old is very very different. The one thing that has not changed, is the smoking. Cigarettes are sewn into the fabric of almost everything here. You can’t go far without dealing with it. I notice it on the beaches I go to and the places where I eat. Smokers may not be a majority but they are a very loud and apparent minority.

Once upon a time before I started running, I spent fifteen years with my friends Marlboro Reds. A pack a day, sometimes more, for more than a decade. By the time I had come here in 2003, it wasn’t even a secret from my family. I remember I loved this place partially because I could smoke without any of the shame I dealt with back at home. Smokers weren’t ostricized or criticised here, they were welcomed and encouraged. The other day I went across the street to my neighbors’ home and the father asked the son to leave him a cigarette before he left. People are aware of the health risks but its as if they are in prison and the one thing they won’t let go off is this addiction. They will deal with capital controls and new austerity programs but don’t you dare try to tax or inhibit smoking.

As a former smoker I have come to deal with the triggers at home pretty well. I know how to avoid or deal with the moments when those cravings start setting in. The cravings have essentially been eliminated but there are moments when I feel the urge pass through me. By the way I smoked my last cigarette more than five years ago so anyone who tells you its just a physical thing is insane. This is a full on addiction that has an extraordinary tail life after you have quit. Unlike a lot of other recovering smokers, I don’t play the role that I find it disgusting now. I remember all the pleasure I derived from it but I know it was illusory. I know I prefer my new addictions over the momentary bliss that nicotine provides before it latches back on to you. Coming back here, its like there are fresh triggers that I forgot about.

On Monday, I went with a friend from New York to a remote beach and afterwards we stopped at a small taverna sat at the lip of a small marina. We ordered the following:

  • Salad made with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes that actually were actually full of bright red flesh, onions and a block of white feta delicately laid on top.
  • Sardines, covered in lemon and olive oil.
  • Baked goat cheese.
  • Grilled octopus.
  • Fresh bread.
  • Fried cheese croquettes.
  • A plate of thick cut french fries.

I washed it down with a beer and had a greek coffee to finish off the meal. The meal was perfect. I felt the salt and sun on my skin from the day and each bite filled my empty stomach perfectly. When I was finally done, I felt full and completely at ease. My counterpart had a glass of ouzo, skipped the coffee and then he finished his meal off with a cigarette while we sat there over a paper table cloth under a bamboo roof looking out at the boats docked in the marina. I smelled the cigarette and recalled how good it felt it have that cigarette right after a meal like this. My hands smelling of olive oil and fish, I would have loved to have had a cigarette to compliment the coffee I was sipping.

But fortunately my brain has now evolved and the temptation quickly faded when I thought about the miles I needed to log before the end of this trip. I also remembered the thing that helps me deal with these triggers back at home. All it takes is one to slip back into the habit. They warn you so much how addictive cigarettes are but nothing can prepare you for how bad it is. I am five years removed, nearly 7,300 miles logged and still I feel the pull of those things. I am not criticizing anyone who smokes now. But for me I hate the concept of being controlled and manipulated. And the 15 year old kid that started smoking had been duped. Despite all the warnings, he started smoking and became addicted without realizing the level of addiction that was happening and the damage I was inflicting on myself.

This is why I am never judgmental to anyone that smokes but I am sympathetic, whether they want to quit or not, I know they aren’t completely in control, regardless of what they think. And part of it is recognizing that I am someone who can get addicted easily. I stumbled into running and found something that like smoking makes me feel so much better, but unlike smoking the feelings linger and expand as the day goes on. I need that next run but its not as if I am rebuilding and replenishing everything like I was with each cigarette. Each run can bring a different satisfaction and each run can help the next one get better.

Take for instance the thirty five year old version of myself. Instead of waking up and groggily lighting a cigarette wondering how I will get a cup of coffee, I am waking up this morning at 6:30, brewing a pot of coffee, drinking some water and driving to a public track. I was in control when I finished my sixth interval, did a mile cool down and decided, despite the dryness in my mouth and my aching muscles, to tack on an extra half mile so I would be at an even 8 miles for the day. If running is the addiction now, I don’t mind because I feel so much more in control. And I am never one to preach but for anyone trying to quit — any addiction — the only thing I can say is that the other side of getting passed those trigger points is always better, because you are in control.