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!


One thought on “running is not a matter of life-or-death

  1. I have not read “Touching the Void” but I think I saw a documentary on the topic. I guess the climber who cut the rope was criticized by the climbing community. Anyway, it is an amazing story. I have been on mountain hikes where I ran out of water and the three or four hours back down in the dry hot sun to get some water were agonizing. I can’t imagine going several days without water. That movie 127 Hours gave a good impression of the deprivation that that climber went through. Anyway, hope you are healing well!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s