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.