Of Time and The Runner


I’ve been telling myself not to think about when I can run again, to be patient, patient, but every day I hear, as Andrew Marvell wrote, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”  In that poem, the speaker is trying to seduce a woman out of her “coyness.”  He goes on to tell her that, “The grave’s a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace.”  I’ve always loved those lines, and never thought I’d think of that poem in terms of my knee, but lately I feel I’ve been trying to coax my knee into feeling better, convince it that it really is time to start running again.


Sweet talk has never really gotten me anywhere though, and it’s especially pointless directed at a square inch cartilage-like material that has (hopefully) formed over the bone my surgeon poked with holes to promote healing.  And my talk isn’t even that sweet—it’s more along the lines of, “Come on, you know you want to (go running), I know you’re not satisfied just pushing off the end of the pool again and again.  I know some nice, quiet places we could go and be alone, hear the birds chirping, soak up the sunshine, now doesn’t that sound dreamy?”  That does sound dreamy to me, especially because it’s finally spring, the time of year when, Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of love.”  Of course, I’m not a young man any more, but even when I was, in spring my thoughts turned not to thoughts of love, but thoughts of running!  To have the temperature, the daylight, the time, to run to my heart’s content always felt like a godsend, a reward for enduring the long, cold, dark months of winter.


But this year, the spring weather seems more apt to torture me, as I can’t take advantage of it in the ways I want to.  My knee is just not ready.  I’ll still classify it as “improving” but last week I biked two days in row, then limped around for the next three, my knee complaining with pain, stiffness, swelling.  Okay, I said, that was too much, I get it, but why do you have to go on making your point?  After surgery, my main question wasn’t when I would run again, but if, and I told myself not to set a timeline.  Still, I’ll admit now I expected to be back at it by now, at some level.   I guess my life of running had skewed my perspective to the point where I really couldn’t imagine life without it.  My hopes for this summer were to be in triathlon shape at least—I figured I could swim, spend a lot of time on the bike, and get in a few short runs each week.  But I see now that was wishful thinking.  I’ve been searching the internet for stories of others who’ve come back from microfracture surgery, and there are some who have and some who haven’t, but even those who were able to run again needed 7 or 8 months of recovery. 


This experience has reminded me how much of life, our conception of the world and reality, is tied to time.  And though it surely matters to everyone, it seems runners have a different sort of relationship with time.   At the very least a runner is more deliberately aware of it, every day thinking:  what time will I run today, for how long, at what pace?  If I’m running repeats, what are my goal times?  How long to recover between each?  Is that enough time, or too much?   A runner also looks weeks and months ahead, at training cycles and goal races.  Runners know how long it takes them to run a certain distance.  They know how long it took them to do this on their best days.  Like many other runners, I know how many minutes I’ve spent running for most of the days of my life—it’s all in my training logs.  If I wanted to, I could go back and count it all up.  Of course, that seems to me a waste of time.  It wouldn’t help me to run again, or run any faster. 


To an injured runner, time is a little different.  Every day I think about how long it’s been since I’ve run, when I’ll run again.  The only thing that makes it tolerable is the fact that it’s unavoidable, that rushing back will lessen my chances of running in the future.  So every day I tell myself it’s not wasted time, it’s healing time, to cross-train, get stronger in other ways.  And so I wait, but waiting is hard when you don’t know what’s coming.  At this point, I don’t, and it’s so nice outside, and it seems like everyone else is running, and even those that aren’t; could be.  I see them on their good knees walking to work every day, doing boot-camp at the Y, flying kites, playing tennis, standing for hours outside of brunch spots on Sunday mornings waiting for tables to open up (as if brunch itself didn’t suck up enough time!).


Of course, I’d never switch places with anyone, though I might, if it was possible, swap out my surgically repaired cartilage for someone else’s.  But that’s not going to happen, so what I am today is not only an injured runner, but one past his prime, who’s begun to think of time as a matter of years, every day thinking, what if I really don’t ever run again?  How many years of life as a non-runner lie before me?  What will that be like?  Or sometimes I’ll think, what if I can run, but it doesn’t feel like it used to?  What if my body just changes so much that I can’t be the runner I want to be?  When I think about it like this, it feels like time is slipping away, that the winged chariot is picking up speed, hurtling forward out of control.


I hope I can get back to running so time matters like it used to, so I can pay attention to it, set time goals, and train for them.  But even if I can’t do that, I hope I can run again in the way that helps me forget about time.  Because I also know that for all the obsessiveness runners have with time, the best runs are the ones when time doesn’t matter at all.  On a good stretch of a good run, there’s no room in the mind for thoughts about pace, elapsed time, time of day, day of the week, week of the year, year of one’s life, et cetera.  Because running is a way to move beyond time, beyond awareness of it, the self, the world, and everything.  At least it’s the best way I’ve found to do this. 


I realize I’m romanticizing my life of running, not thinking about how hard it will be, the work and pain, the days when a run just won’t seem too appealing, when my body will be tired, achy, nauseous, when my body will let me down.   I’m not thinking about those days, but I’ll take them, and gladly, and I’ll take the good days too.  Because I believe in running.  And I believe my knee is going to feel better.  And to convince that knee to feel better I’m going to go sit on the couch and stretch and massage it a bit—because if talk is cheap, sweet talk is cheaper; because actions speak louder than words; and because this is the best thing I can do with my time right now.  The pool’s not open until later this afternoon.




My knee is feeling okay.  I’ve been adding more weight-bearing exercises to transition back to running. Most days this goes well, but some days my leg aches.  Swimming is still my go-to workout, because I can get my heart rate up more easily and really tire myself out.  In other health-related news, Reader #1 and I watched Forks over Knives and are trying out a strict diet for six weeks that is not only vegan, but restricts oil, sugar, and salt.  I’ve always watched what I’ve eaten, but this has been tough.  When people ask me how I feel on the diet, I say, “Hungry.”  Still, I like the idea of challenging myself and figure if I can get down to my running weight before I start running again, it’ll be easier. I’ve decided when I can walk up and down stairs and not feel any pain or weakness in my knee, I’ll try to run.  Though sometimes I tell myself if I’m out for a walk and the mood strikes me, I’ll break out into a run, that my body will know when it’s time.

It’s been two and a half weeks since the Boston Marathon bombings killed 3 people and injured over 250.  Many are still in the hospital.  At least 15 of the victims had to have amputations.  That little ache in my knee, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, doesn’t seem that bad any more.

Boston marathon day, I watched the race, then tracked the runners I know as they made their way along the route.  I got updates on their pace every 5K, their projected times, and could even watch little running figures spinning their legs along the map of the route.  I was happy for them, but jealous too.  Since my surgery, I’ve done a good job keeping myself from thinking about how much I want to run again.  And I’ve told myself if I can run again, it’s going to be different—less mileage, more cross-training, no more marathons.  Maybe I’ve been telling myself that’s all I need so the running gods will see I’m not greedy.  But watching the race and tracking my friends that day I got a little greedy.  I not only wanted to run again, I wanted to run another marathon, and not only that, I wanted to run the Boston Marathon again!

The guy in the picture above, Jeff Bauman, was at the race to cheer on his girlfriend.  He lost both legs below the knee.  A newlywed couple both lost part of their lower left legs.  A professional ballroom dancer lost her foot.

As you know by now, I love running.  I think everyone should run.  I think it helps people learn about and appreciate themselves, others, and the world.  But I also think it’s a very self-indulgent activity.  When a runner runs, it’s for him or herself.  All the miles, workouts, and races are for the benefit of the runner and no one else. I think we can admire runners for their toughness and dedication, that we can be happy for them when they reach their goals.  But we shouldn’t glorify any of them for running, even the best runners in the world, who train the hardest, who do things the rest of us can’t do, because all that time, all that work, though it’s hard, it’s not a sacrifice.  It’s just part of the equation, part of being a runner.  They do it for themselves.

I only bring this up because the people killed and hurt by the bombs were not running in the Boston marathon–they were there to watch–and watching someone else run is a selfless activity.  Watching a race, especially a big city marathon, takes a lot of time and energy.  It usually means getting up early, skipping breakfast, then standing and watching and waiting; tired, hungry, thirsty—all for the sake of the runner, who is out there having the time of his or her life–I know that’s what it is, especially now that I can’t wait to do it again.  But these people stand and watch and wait, sometimes in the cold, sometimes in the rain, for a glimpse of their runner, maybe a wave, a quick “Thanks” afterwards.  What they get is nothing close to what they give. 

But don’t get me wrong–I think runners are great.  Most of my best friends are runners.  I hope to become one myself again soon. I’ll run as much as my body allows and know it will all be time well spent. Engaging in a self-indulgent activity doesn’t mean person is selfish or narcissistic.  The runners I know are friendly, generous, and compassionate. And like I said earlier, I think the habit of running helps make people better.  I was talking to a college professor recently and she said when the Admissions officer sees “cross-country” on a student’s application, it goes to the top of the pile. I think that’s a good call, and that runners are more likely to be good students, good workers, good friends, good people.  But still, the running, the actual running—that’s all for themselves.

I also don’t mean to say that people watching races, like the victims of the marathon bombing, don’t want to be there.  They do, and that’s makes it even more impressive.  Because I like running, I like to go watch races.  I went to one last weekend.  But I know that for non-runners, watching others do it is not the kind of thing that takes one’s breath away.  Still, so many people that don’t really care about running want to be there to support their runners.  And of course, they do have a good time on race days.  Because that’s what the best people do—make the best of whatever situations they’re in.

In many ways, running is a solitary activity.  Some of my best and favorite workouts have been done alone—around the track in the evening, hitting my times, talking to myself the whole time, stretching out afterwards as the sun goes down—I wouldn’t have wanted anyone there to interrupt my reveries. 

But it’s different with races.  I want the people I care about to see me then.  Some moments I remember best from my years of racing are when I’ve seen my people out on the course, cheering me on.  I remember when my dad showed up to watch me run the best race of my life, a 20K Labor Day weekend when I was just out of college.  I didn’t even know he was going to be there and didn’t see him until about the 4 mile mark and got a sudden boost of energy.  When we looped back and I saw him again at 6 miles, I was in the lead.  The course followed an old railroad path which spectators couldn’t get to, but one thing that kept me in the lead was knowing my dad would be there the next time the path crossed over the road.

More recently, I remember Reader #1 standing with my brother, and nephew shivering at mile 16 of the 2009 Chicago marathon as I cruised by running my best race in years.  I think this was the first time she’d watched me run.  I remember my brother the year before that leaning out his car window whooping encouragement as he drove beside me on the final stretch of the Lakefront marathon in Milwaukee.  I could go on and on.  From all my miles of racing, why do these moments stick out?  Maybe it’s because, as Chris McCandless of Into the Wild wrote just before he died, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

It occurs to me I haven’t done enough to let the people who’ve come to watch me over the years know how much I’ve appreciated it, what an essential part of my running life they’ve been.  Is it too late to do so now?  For some, it is, and I’ll have to figure out what to do with that. 

After the Boston marathon, I didn’t feel right about blogging about my rehab, my nearly perfect knee, on my leg that stretches all the way to the ground.  I also didn’t want to write about the bombing itself because others, who were there and could say more, have done so already.  But I wanted to keep this blog going, so I had to write something.  In life, as in running, you don’t get anywhere by doing nothing.  And as Jeff Bauman, the guy who lost both of his legs said, “I’m pissed, obviously, but it’s in the past, you know; you can only look forward.”  So forward it is, and much easier for me than for him….