One moment you’re cruising along, thinking about lunch, or that next meeting, or the weekend, or when is the sun ever going to come back – merrily surfing about the random stream of thoughts that wander through on an easy run. And then it starts.
“What is that? What is that pain there? When did that start? Is it getting worse, or staying the same?”
Anytime you’re asking that question during a run, it’s the equivalent of all of the warning lights on the Administrative Console of your body turning yellow. It’s not an emergency – not yet – but something is amiss. A smart runner would pay attention to such a warning sign. A smart runner would realize that pain is sometimes a warning sign to be heeded, not a hedgerow to attempt to leap over.
However, as you can well imagine without too much effort, I am not a smart runner.
Four miles into what should have been an easy three miler – a run where I felt like bagging it early but said to myself, “Nobody ever ran a fast marathon by cutting their runs short. Get in the five…” my right calf went from aching to exploding with pain as if I’d stepped on a Claymore. I felt it go POP, and that was it. I hobbled the last mile back to my office, and knew I was in trouble.
I had just finished a 12-week build for the Coastal Delaware Marathon, and was starting my taper. I wasn’t even running fast. I hadn’t done anything remotely near my usual levels of training stupidity. Sadly, none of that mattered; I was broken. The phases of breakdown went about how you’d expect them to go: Monday afternoon was spent limping around with my old friend Denial. I had lunch on Tuesday with Bargaining, and then turned to a low simmer all of Wednesday with Anger. Acceptance was waiting for me in my office on Thursday with the phone number for First State Orthopedics. So Friday, in that office, Depression was there waiting for me.”Looks like a partial tear of the post-tibial tendon, and a strain of the Soleus. This is a no-running recovery for you. The marathon is out, but you can paddle, row, ride, walk, just do me a favor and don’t run. Please?”
It was the “Please?” that caught my ear. It was spoken by a doctor who knew me well enough to know that like most people who spend times torturing their aerobic systems for fun, taking the wheels off of the race car for a bit was nothing short of an act of physical treason. He knew as soon as I walked out of the door that I would be looking for something to do – anything to keep me moving, and not let the injury win.
Anyone who has ever fought through a training cycle knows that it’s all about momentum. When you start, it’s like trying to turn an enormous concrete flywheel. It always takes SO much energy to get it moving at first, but you stick with it. You might not have speed, but you have consistency. The wheel starts to pick up speed, and soon it has enough mass that it can almost run on its own. Once training becomes a habit, you find ways to make the workouts fit in no matter how small they may be. You suffer through the start of any long build, because in the end you know it will be generating enough energy and momentum to carry you through the finish.
But when it goes wrong – when the body breaks down, that flywheel doesn’t just stop on a dime. It’s like putting on the brakes for the USS Nimitz; it’ll stop, eventually. I got on my rowing erg, I paddled, I lifted weights. I didn’t run. “Please?” He’d said please. I had to respect that.
I got hurt on April 4th.
My patience lasted until April 18th.
It was 74F and gorgeous. It was also Marathon Monday in Boston. Despite being only two weeks into my recovery, I brought in a run bag to work. “Just 20 minutes. Easy 20. No more.” I picked a 1KM loop in my office campus so that if something bad happened I could stop and be close to home. As I headed for the door like a kid trying to cut out of school early, I heard a voice ask me, “Hey. Are you supposed to be running yet?”
It was Don, next door neighbor to Jeremy, my Chief Torture Officer for running. He knew I was hurt, and knew from Jeremy that I was not supposed to do anything that remotely resembled running. “I’m just going to test it out. Easy. I promise.” I half stated, half pleaded. He replied, “Does your wife know? Is she okay with this?” He held up his cell phone.
It was a bold move. I thought to myself, “Why does Don have Lynda’s info on his cell?” But I figured it was a theatrical gesture and replied, “She does. I’ll be careful.” Truth was she had looked at the bag that morning and said, “You running?” It was a question asked in that special tone a smart woman uses when she knows she’s watching a man do something he shouldn’t be doing, but she won’t be stopping him. It was a tone that pretty much said, “Really?” I knew it was a risk, but I had to try.
After a cautious start and jog, I soon settled into an easy rhythm. I had no pain – none at all. Once again I felt warm sun on my face, beads of sweat forming under my hat, and that feeling of going somewhere, purposefully. I felt so good that I just kept going, going, going, and that’s how I learned that my limit was 23 minutes. One step beyond the 23 minute mark, the pain came roaring back. Once again I found myself stopped dead. I hobbled back to the office, defeated. I told Jeremy about it the next day, and he summed it up in six words.
“STUPID, STUPID, STUPID, STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”
Granted, you’ll note this summary was one word repeated six times, but you get the idea.
It wasn’t so much stupid as it was wishful thinking. It was hoping above hope that I was somehow better than my doctor thought. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone, I just was willing to take a chance that things might be okay, and perhaps I could get back to running a little sooner than I’d hoped.
When we train, we break ourselves down again and again, because we know when we build back up, we’ll be even stronger. Go on this way long enough without getting hurt, and you gain a quiet sense of immortality. Not too much – just a quiet confidence that you’ve got a body that can handle almost anything.
Which is why injuries, especially those without warning or reason, are especially cruel. They remind us that we are very much mortal – very much flesh and bone – very human. I remember the words of a cycling teammate back in New York City, feeling a quadricep strain surfacing in the middle of a race: “YOU F*CKER. I CANNOT HANDLE THIS INSOLENCE FROM MY SOFT TISSUES!”
After my accident in 1995 I had conversation with my surgeon that went like this: “You have deep bruising across your back and pelvis. No running until it heals,” he warned me. I frowned. “No running?” “No running. Walking.” He countered. I asked, “Hiking?” He paused and said, “Hiking. Not too strenuously.”
For the next three weekends I parked my car at the base of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts in order to hike to the summi,t and then back down. It was the tallest, steepest, nastiest peak in the Berkshires, but I was technically following doctor’s orders. 12 miles at a shot, almost 3,000 vertical feet ascent and then descent, but on paper I was absolutely following orders.
After the Marathon Monday failure, I waited another two weeks and tried again. This time I made it 28 minutes, and stopped at exactly the same spot as the first time it all went pear-shaped on April 4th. I hobbled the final mile, defeated, again. I went to see the orthopedist. When he asked how things were going I told him, “Pretty good, just had a few setbacks.”
He spun and raised both hands. “A few? As in, multiple? as in, more than one?”
So I told him the story of Marathon Monday and how I tried again two weeks after that. I concluded that perhaps my problem was just with Mondays, but he wasn’t buying it. He waved his hands the same way Formula 1 mechanics wave both hands when they need the driver to kill the engine in the garage because something is so very wrong, they want to shut it down so they can save some of the parts of the car that still work.
“LISTEN. This injury is an EIGHT-WEEK recovery. You’re four weeks in, and I wouldn’t let you run yet if you hadn’t gone and tried it already – TWICE. And how’d that work out for you?” He crossed his arms and stared at me as if I was an insolent teenager.
I recalled the day I had my wisdom teeth removed in 1992, and the dentist told me, “No exercise – let your stitches set.” I told him that I’d be fine to ride easy. It was Monday (again with the Monday thing), and Mondays were recovery days.
The dentist called my mother while I was driving home to warn her.
My mother hid my bike in my neighbor’s garage by wheeling it across the grass. I arrived home, got changed, ignored the warnings of pretty much everyone, got the bike out of the garage by following the wheel tracks my mother had left in the grass, and rode an easy hour with my mouth closed the entire time to ensure I couldn’t breathe hard enough to take a risk.
Now THAT would merit the Six-Stupid reply you read earlier, because I was 21. At 21, you’re still immortal and can get away with that stuff.
But here I was at 45, still trying to push boundaries that didn’t need to be pushed. I knew they didn’t need to be pushed. But, I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want to accept that I was mortal. I didn’t want to hear it when people said, “That’s what happens when you’re approaching 50…stuff just starts to break down…”
I don’t break down. I don’t get injured. I run so I can keep the Grim Reaper miles away from me. But after trying to run away from my injury twice, only to find that I did nothing but give it another chance to set in and stay awhile, I had to come to terms with the fact that no amount of wishing, willing, heart, hope, or desire could make torn tissues reconnect faster than nature designed them to. I bowed my head.
“Please. Let your body heal. Four weeks. Don’t. Even. Try.” I looked at the floor – I knew he was right. He’d even tossed in another, “Please.” He asked me, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I answered, “How about a shot of patience?”
He chuckled and said, “I wish. Be good. See you in four weeks.”
I wanted to be good, but I also knew I had an event I promised Katie I’d run with her – the Girls on the Run Practice 5K at her school. Because I couldn’t run the actual race with her on June 4th, I promised her that I’d be there for the practice race. A practice race that came 8 days after my visit where I promised to be good.
I had to choose between a promise made to a doctor versus a promise made to my child.
Tissues do heal. Scars do fade.
Easiest call I ever had to make.
I’ve moved my next visit with my Orthopedist back one more week.
Four weeks. Four weeks no running. Starting…now.