running is not a matter of life-or-death


I’ve kind of made a deal with myself not to assume anything about how well my knee is recovering until a few months have passed.  When it feels good, I’m glad, but tell myself it’s “too soon to know.”  That way when it hurts, instead of thinking I’ll never be able to run again, I can also tell myself it’s “too soon to know.”   But I’m walking better and the shots of pain when I twist or put too much weight on it are coming less frequently.  I’m being cautious and deliberate when I move but have gone through long stretches not thinking about it, which is nice.

Besides swimming, I’ve been to the weight room a few times–mostly upper body and core work but also some low-weight leg extensions.  I’ve also gotten on my bike (on my trainer, in the basement) and spun with low resistance.  My heart rate barely climbs, but that’s all right because my heart and lungs get a great workout every time I swim, where it’s always go, go, go, and it just feels good to be moving my legs again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about running, wondering if I’ll be able to do it again, of course, but also things beyond that like why do we do it, what’s the point, and how hard is it really?  I’ve always known running is hard, that a tough workout or race is more than what most people put themselves through.   I don’t think I take myself or my running too seriously or give myself too much credit for anything (though I do realize if I was guilty of either of these things, I’d have no way of knowing it), but I guess I’ve always given myself some credit for being a runner, for taking on the challenge, for doing something that is so hard.  But now I’m beginning to think maybe it’s not that hard after all.  Because when I rode my bike I watched a couple movies about mountain climbing and I’ve got to tell you, it made running look easy.

The first movie I watched was Everest—I chose it mainly because it was 45 minutes long and that’s how long I wanted to ride.  So why, after those 45 minutes did I have a different view of running?  Well, first of all mountain climbing is much more dangerous.  For example, from the small pool of climbers who attempt to climb Everest each year, on average a half dozen people die.  Why do they die?  Well, even though Jack Kerouac was right when he said, “You can’t fall off a mountain,” you can take one wrong step and fall hundreds or thousands of feet down one and kill yourself in the process.  If that doesn’t happen, the weather can get you–the heavy snow, the biting cold, the howling wind.  And even if the weather is good, oxygen depletion is always a threat.  At high altitudes, blood grows thicker and the heart has to pump faster and breathing gets harder and muscles tire quickly.  Sometimes the brain swells or fluid builds up in the lungs.  At the top of Mount Everest, oxygen levels are at only 1/3 of what’s available at sea level.  Climbers have got to deal with all of his on top of the exertion of the climb which would be tough even without all these other factors.

In the movie they show the climbers slowly making their way to the summit and it made even my toughest stretches of running seem easy by comparison.  Fighting a headwind on a flat boulevard at the end of the Chicago Marathon–mountain climbers would laugh at that being categorized as tough!   The only thing I could think to compare it to is the one time I had food poisoning, when all I could do was crawl around my house and took me hours to get from room to room.  I thought maybe climbing Mount Everest is like trying to finish a marathon with food poisoning, but that seems impossible, nothing could be that hard!

Still, people are capable of amazing things when their lives are on the line.  That point was made clear in the second movie, Touching the Void, which tells the story of two climbers who scale a previously unscaled mountain face in the Andes.  Now this was a technically difficult climb, which few people would even think about attempting.  The fact that they made it to the summit is amazing.  But getting back down was the real challenge–one of the climbers fell and suffered a broken leg (the impact actually pushed the shin bone up through-the-knee into the thigh bone!), and even though it’s generally accepted that an injury like this, on a mountain like this, meant certain death, the other climber began to lower his partner down on a rope, 300 feet at a time.  That worked for a while, but at one point, the un-injured climber had to cut the rope on his partner, who was, unbeknownst to him, dangling over a deep crevasse.  When he made it down and saw the deep hole he’d dropped his friend into, he was sure he was dead.

But somehow he survived the fall.  The bad news was there was no way to climb back up.  So what did he do?  He lowered himself into the darkness of crevasse.  He didn’t know if it would lead to a way out but it was either that or die looking up the 80 feet of ice he couldn’t climb.  Luckily, after lowering himself a few hundred feet, he was able to get out.  Then it only got tougher as he had to crawl down the mountain on his mangled leg, cold, dehydrated, malnourished, et cetera and so on.  This took days.  He lost 30% of his body weight, began to hallucinate, was sure he was dead a number of times, but somehow made it.

Luckily, I’ve never been in anything close to a situation like this and hopefully never will be. But I realized that while the sensations of a hard run or a race might feel perilous or dangerous, that’s really not the case.  A runner can stop any moment.  I won’t say it’s all for fun, but it’s not a matter of life-or-death, not at the end of a marathon it seems to take everything to keep moving, not in the middle of a 5K, holding pace, on the edge of falling into oxygen debt.  No matter how hard it is, a runner can always just stop.   The climber can’t.  The nature of the activity puts the climber into a position in which there is no choice.  A runner always has a choice.  Every step a runner takes, he or she can stop.  And now that I think about it, keeping going when you don’t have to is impressive in its own way.   It’s not climbing Mount Everest, true, but it is something.

And this kind of brings me back to my other questions–why do we do it, what’s the point?  Right now I don’t know.  I probably won’t be able to start to answer that until after I can run again.  It’s a good question though.  I’m going to think about it.  In the meantime….off to the pool!


if you can’t run, swim


I’ve been off crutches for five days now and it’s wonderful–to be able to wake up and put my feet on the floor, walk to the bathroom, carry my coffee to the dining room table.  Everything was harder.  The funny thing is towards the end I’d actually gotten used to it.  I’d even thought to myself, I could do this forever if I needed to.  I mean, I could have.  Our bodies and minds are adaptable if nothing else.  That’s the whole point of training, right–teaching yourself to do new things, or to do things better?

I’ve been to the pool five days in a row.  I’m no swimmer, and I don’t love it, but it sure feels good.  My workouts are between 30-60 minutes and when I pull myself out of the pool I’m so pleasantly spent.  That feeling may be even better than the one at the end of run:  so tired, calm, and peaceful, but with none of the aches and pains of running.

One day there was a group of real swimmers in the lane next to me, skimming the surface at tremendous speeds.  On the other side was an older guy who seemed to be doing more sinking than swimming, his feet would drop halfway to the bottom of the pool with each stroke and he’d be clawing through the water at nearly a 45 degree angle.  Of course, I wanted to identify with the swimmers, thinking I was an athlete just like them, but I couldn’t do it.  I knew I was doing my fair share of sinking too.  When I thought about how slow and feeble my efforts must have looked from above the water and compared that with how frantically hard I was working underneath, I had to laugh.  Or maybe I should say I “chose” to laugh.  It seemed the best option at the time.

That night I did a little research on stroke mechanics and drills and have begun to incorporate them into my workouts.  Whenever I’ve swum in the past, my goal has been to simply burn some energy and rest my legs, because it was just cross-training for running.  It didn’t matter if I was efficient or fast.  But now, I figure if I’m going to spend five hours a week face-down wearing goggles, I may as well learn how to swim properly.

My knee feels fine in the pool, even when I’m kicking hard, but I’ve still got a limp when I walk.  It’s not painful, but it’s not painless either.  I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like—the aches could be from lack of use and scar tissue or be a sign that the surgery didn’t take.  Time will tell me that.  My doctor said there’s no way to strengthen the cartilage—nothing can help, not glucosamine, sardines, Vitamin C or E or anything.  The body simply doesn’t know how to grow or strengthen cartilage.  It is what it is.  I have to do my best with what I have.

Looking back, it seems like the first six weeks of this year was like one long hangover.  Initially I was in enough pain to not care I’d be on crutches for six weeks.  As the pain subsided, I became agitated–I wanted to run, bike, swim, something!  But I couldn’t. Finally I reached the phase where I accepted that I couldn’t do anything for a while and my life just kind of flattened out.  I was going through the motions of my life, but wasn’t invested in the same way.  Nothing was as interesting to me.  Nothing mattered as much.  I was tired, listless, dull.  I thought to myself, this must be how people who don’t work out feel all of the time!  How awful.  But then I realized I don’t know how anyone else feels.  Maybe some people don’t need to work out to be themselves.  Maybe they’re just happy, peaceful, and calm all the time.  I mean, I never heard of Gandhi’s exercise routine, or Mother Teresa’s.  Surely there are other ways to feel good.  But I also know I’ve been around long enough to know what works for me, and that’s running. Or, if I can’t run, it’s swimming, biking, and getting my body ready to run again.

I know I need to diversify my training to strengthen my leg.  I need to lift weights and ride my bike.  That will help me protect the knee to some extent.  But it was hard to resist the pool this week.  At this point it’s the most efficient use of my time, the best way to get my heart rate up, get out of breath, get tired, hungry, and thirsty—all the things I’ve missed so much.  Six months from now if I report that all I’ve been able to do is swim 5 days in a row, I don’t expect I’ll be happy about it.  But for now, it’s more than enough.  I’m beginning to feel like myself again and it feels pretty good.

the starting line

trailIt never occurred to me to keep a running blog until it occurred to me I may not be able to run again.  I’ve run for most of my life, with ups and downs, success and failure, but never thought it worth writing about before.  This is kind of a strange time to start a running blog:  I’ve spent the last 6 weeks on crutches and haven’t run for over 4 months.  I’m older than ever before (I know this is true for everyone, but it seems worth noting).  I’m in worse shape than ever before.   I’m heavy and damaged and can barely walk, much less run.  Yesterday my doctor said I may be able to run in a few months, maybe more, maybe less, maybe never.  I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that “maybe never.”  What will I do if I can’t run?

My plan for these next few months is to strengthen my leg (I had knee surgery—more details on that later), swim a lot of laps, ride my bike, lift weights, et cetera.  I’ve done all these things over the years, but always in the context of my running—to take a day off of running, to balance my body for running, to help improve my running.  That’s what I’ll be doing again, but now I don’t know if I can run again.  And I guess when I say run, I mean run, at an all-out effort, the kind where nothing else can come into my mind–the final stretch of a hard race, the final straight of a track workout, the last long hill of the day.  When I say I want to run I mean I want to reach the feeling of completely giving myself up to the run, the feeling of being completely spent afterwards.  I want to stop and look back over the stretch of ground I just covered and think, what just happened?

So if I do have a goal—I guess that’s it.  If I reach that point, I’ll have other goals–workout goals, race goals, but that’s it for now, and it’s ambitious enough.  To get there is going to require a lot of work, a lot of running.  To be in shape for that kind of effort requires not only a fit body but a fit mind, a harmony between body and mind that comes only out of sustained training, focus, concentration, effort.  That is, I need to get in really good running shape to exhaust myself the way I want to.

Does the world need another running blog?  Probably not.  Do I need to write this running blog?  Apparently so.  I’m going to use it to keep track of my progress and keep myself from losing focus or giving up if it gets tough, which is seems likely to do.  If I can’t run again, at least I’ll have a record of myself trying to, so I’ll know I didn’t just surrender, that I did what I could.   And if I can run again?  If I can?  Well, I guess we’ll wait and see….