Elevators in the Empire State Building stuck in my mind this morning. So was an old friend who, at age 77, suffers from a disease that makes him dangerously vulnerable to covid-19.

These two subjects would appear unrelated. Allow me to explain.

As our world comes to a creeping halt, I ask you, how do elevators and, for that matter, Olympic swimmers, keep from getting rusty? And what about us?

Pandemics don’t last forever. Some day (who knows when), tourists will return to New York City excited as puppies to ride elevators up the Empire State Building for a bird’s-eye view of the splendor below. Olympic Games will go forward next year, rather than this summer, in Tokyo.

Still. Inactivity takes a toll on everybody and everything. Are Empire State Building elevators,  still running up and down all 102 stories now that its famous observation decks closed due to the pandemic? If not, how do you stop those elevators with their miles of steel cables from getting rusty?

On a minor note, I’m entered to run a Wyoming road race in a few months and worry it will be canceled along with other events. My race looks iffy. Regardless, it’s my job to stay organized during chaos. If a race doesn’t happen, no big deal. We nevertheless owe it to our state of mind and body to prevent rusty buildups throughout our own elevator.

So long as we maintain our daily jogs, heart and lungs stay happily well-oiled (that’s a medical term). Our cardiovascular system couldn’t care less about some race in Wyoming. If it no longer functions with that smooth efficiency of the old days, that’s to be expected. 

For instance, it took nearly nine minutes to run up a half-mile hill yesterday. Sure, mud and ice coated the road. Sure it was cold. But our ascent would’ve been little if any faster had it been warm and dry as a bone. 

Eventually, the hill’s crest came into focus as hot lungs cooled. Our heart rate slowed to almost resting once the road leveled out and dipped downhill. What little speed –if you can call it that–we picked up on our descent was soon offset by another climb ahead. Having recovered from a steep half-mile hill behind us, this new shorter, more gradual incline in front looked easy peazy. 

We floored it. We lost momentum. We died. Legs dropped like ship anchors. What precisely were we thinking? 

We were not thinking. Our mind abandoned us, leaving lungs and heart to do heavy lifting. Or so it seemed. We thought we’d given up while our body gradually pressed onward and upward. 

Does a mind play tricks on us? (Does a bear crap in the woods?)

Perhaps the prospect of quitting on that second hill actually fired up our desire for relentless forward motion. Painful as it felt to keep jogging, this pain was nothing new. As scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn noted in “Full Catastrophe Living,” athletes frequently put themselves in situations that produce pain. 

“They too know the power of the mind in working with their pain so that they are not defeated by it,” he wrote.

Now regarding my old friend… 

Bob ran several marathons with me before retiring. A few years ago, he became breathless walking up a ramp at Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a John Prine concert. 

Doctors later diagnosed Bob with an incurable lung disease. His life forever changed. He now drives a wheelchair with an oxygen tank at his side. More to the point, he never complains. Ever.

Recently, he mentioned a new biography of Abe Lincoln on his bookshelf. He enjoys reading it because, as an avid history buff, learning more about one of our country’s most multi-faceted presidents deepens his understanding of how America overcame such a divisive, chaotic era. 

Plus, Bob loves to shoot the breeze and he’d much rather talk about Lincoln that his own lungs.

Bob no longer jogs. That’s impossible. Yet his intellectual activity remains stuck in fifth gear.  As is often said of over-achievers, Bob has forgotten more about the Civil War and slavery than I’ll ever hope to know. His curiosity seems relentless to me.   

Which causes me to wonder…

As this deadly pandemic rolls on for who-knows-how-long, how many of us will survive? The key, I think, is simple. Focus on stuff we can control.

I jog and write. My friend reads and motors around his neighborhood in a wheelchair. Got to keep those elevators running.