“the feeling of running”

Dear Dr. S,

Thanks again for meeting with me last week to discuss the progress I’ve made in skeleton_run_musclemy rehabilitation from microfracture surgery.  It’s been a long 7 months but the timing was perfect because just two days before we met I’d worked up to my first attempt at running!  It was just five short stretches of one minute each, and though I was nervous with each step that I might feel that old pain rip through my knee, it didn’t happen, and it felt so good–almost like I was floating over the grass.  It was a real joy to experience the feeling of running again.

I expected you to tell me that my knee’s response to those five minutes of running–the fact that I had no acute pain or swelling, just a general stiffness and some soreness when I walked up stairs the days after–was normal.  I thought you’d say, “Your leg just needs to get used to running again.  You’re definitely on track for a full recovery.  Now I don’t want you to go signing up for any marathons or…” 

“Ha!”  I would have cut you off.  “I’m not greedy.  I’m enjoying all my other workouts and can totally adjust to being a low-mileage runner.  Three good runs a week is all I need.  I can do shorter races.  For years I’ve been meaning to try to get in shape to break 5 minutes for the mile again…”

 “Well, just keep up the good work,” I expected you to say. “And you’ll be back at it soon.” 

Of course, that’s not how our conversation went.  Instead, when I told you about all the workouts I’ve been doing and my knee’s response to those five minutes of running, you said, “That’s probably as good as it’s going to get.  I don’t think you should run again.”  

“But it’s been feeling so good,” I said and told you about my sixty mile bike ride when I’d stood up on my pedals and pushed myself up over the hills with no pain at all. 

“Great,” you said.  “Maybe you should think about biking a hundred miles.  But running is going to be a lot harder on your knee than anything else.”

“But don’t my knee and leg just need to get stronger?” 

You shook your head and said, “Your leg is strong, and I think you’ve healed well, based on what you’ve been able to do.  But if you try to run again, I think your knee will hurt again, to protect itself from further damage.  I know some people say they like ‘the feeling of running.’  But I don’t think your knee is going to let you do it.”

When I left your office, I wanted to break out into a run right there in the parking Running_Skeleton1lot, to prove that my knee would be good enough to run again.  Instead, I went to the pool.  The first thirty minutes of my swim were pretty uninspired.  Never run again?  I knew that was a possibility, but I’d never accepted it as a real possibility.  Never run again?  Really?  Then what am I swimming for?  If it’s not to stay in shape for running, why am I doing it?  I like swimming, but I don’t love it.  I’m not very good at it.  I’m a runner.  But if I can’t run….

I’ve got to tell you, I was feeling pretty deflated.  But then I remembered what you said about some people liking “the feeling of running.”  I guess that means you’re not a runner.  Because if you were, you wouldn’t have said it like that.  And so it follows that though you may be an expert on knees and cartilage, you’re not an expert on running, and maybe you don’t fully understand the demands that running places on the lower leg.  It’s not just the knee, it’s all the joints and HB-Muscular-System-Anteriortendons, the calf and shin muscles, the ankle and foot.  This is something I’ve learned running mile after mile, doing all I could to get faster, whether it be pushing myself through hard workouts, or trying to summon up energy to finish a race.  Sometimes “the feeling of running” means struggling, means pain, means wanting to stop.  Those aren’t the feelings you were referring to, or the feeling I miss, but when it gets hard, that’s when I’ve paid the most attention to my body, when I’ve learned what makes it go, and I’ve spent enough time with those feelings to know that any weakness in my lower leg could lead to a stiff, achy knee.  And because I haven’t been running, and because none of the other exercises I’ve been doing use the lower leg in the same way as running, of course, I’ve got weaknesses.  But maybe if I re-strengthen the running muscles in my leg I will be able to run again.  I mean, doesn’t that seem reasonable? 

I’ve probably spent too much time since I’ve seen you reading about others’ microfractureattempts to recover from microfracture surgery, but I know that some people have worked through that initial pain to run again.  I know that some say the healing goes on for up to 18 months.  I also know there’s nothing like running to get the body in shape to run, so the only way to find out about my knee is to put myself on a program—something like run five minutes one day, rest for two, run seven minutes, rest again, build up to ten minutes, rest it again, et cetera, et cetera.  That’s the heart of any training plan, right?  Stress the system, then recover until you can stress it again.   

So that’s my plan, Dr. S, but you won’t hear back from me any time soon because I’ve decided to wait another couple months.  The main reason is because my brother–in-law and I have signed up to do a 90 mile bike “race” in 3 weeks and I need my knee to feel good between now and then to be in shape for that.  If that goes well, I probably am going to do a 100 mile ride in September.  I’m also going to be adding some more running-specific exercises to my routine.  And let my knee heal a couple more months without any impact.  But after that, once it’s fall, I’m going to try to run again.  

I understand you might be right about all of this.  But I think it’s too soon to know for sure.  I mean, if it is, then it is, and it will be, and I’ll figure it out.  But before I can accept that, I’ve got to try.  I’ve got to try to run again. And good news or bad, I’ll let you know how it all turns out.

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The Allure of Improvement

There’s no feeling quite like the feeling of improving at something, getting better.  If the improvement is a result of hard work, it feels even better.  I think this is what keeps a lot of people running–because more, harder, and better training makes a person faster.  This helps propel people through tough workouts, it getsimprovement them out for runs when they’re not in the mood, when their days have tired them out.  Sure, there’s the immediate satisfaction, on and after the run, but there’s also the big picture, the path one is traveling, the goal one is working towards.  This is true for many things besides running, but with running there is immediate, undeniable evidence of improvement.   Checking your watch after running your neighborhood route, a race, or a workout on the track, there’s no way around the numbers.  They stare straight up with 100% truthfulness, telling you either that you’re getting better or that you need to change things to make this happen. 

When I started running, I was 12 years old.  I loved to run, set weekly mileage goals, and do hard workouts, and there was never a question of whether or not I’d improve from year to year, it was just a matter of how much.  Of course, it’s different now.  In some ways, it’s impossible for me to improve.  I’m never going to run a mile in better than 4:29 (my high school PR), a 5K in better than 15:25 (my college PR), and I probably won’t run a marathon in better than 2:44 (though I’ll explain to anyone who wants to listen that I was in much better shape than that, as evidenced by my 1:08 20K a month earlier, another PR I’ll surely never better).   There have been studies done showing that runners have a set window of time in which to improve, five years or seven years or something like that.  It can’t go on forever.  I think most runners know this is true, and accept it on some levels, but ignore it on others.  Because everyone want to be getting better. 

I’m thinking about this because I’ve hit a plateau in my swimming.  I’d swum before this year, but never with the same kind of regularity or intensity.  And I’ve improved a lot these last 6 months.  Last year when I would do my occasional swim workout, I’d warm up with 500 yards in about 10 minutes.  Now I usually do it in about 8:00.  My hard swim workout last year was 100’s in 1:45 with 45 seconds rest.  Now I can do them in 1:30 with only 30 seconds rest.  But though I’ve been getting to the pool three times a week, for workouts of 3,000-4,000 SwimmingElephantyards, I’m just kind of stuck swimming the same times.  If you’re not a swimmer, these times won’t mean much to you—if you are, you’ll see how relatively slow they are.  But my times really don’t matter because I’m a runner, remember, and I’ve crafted my swim workouts to mimic interval workouts on the track.  My main objective is to get my heart rate up and tax my respiratory system without hurting my knee and I’m still doing that.  And I could still improve–if I swam 5 days a week, stayed in the water longer, did more drills, joined a team and learned from a coach.  But I’m not that invested in swimming, not yet.  Still, it was such a rush to get in the water and swim better times than ever before, to actually feel myself swimming faster.  Improvement is like a drug, and I just wanted more, more, more.  Now when I swim, it’s more like work.  It’s work I’ll gladly take on, because I know what the benefits are, but it’s work nonetheless, not quite as much fun.

Biking; however, biking has become my new drug.  Because I’m getting faster.   I began to bike on my trainer a few days after getting off crutches, but only with very low resistance.  After 6 weeks, I began to ride outdoors on my commuter bike.  I didn’t keep track of my speed or distance, just time, because I knew I was going slowly.  My legs were so weak.  When I’d biked in the past, it was always as a complement to running, and from all my running, my legs were strong enough. will-the-2013-tour-de-france-end-on-alp-dhuez-L-B8yfCU Not as strong as a biker’s, but much stronger than they were after only swimming and walking.  Finally, a few weeks ago my legs felt good enough to break out my road bike, and my second day on it I went hard for a two-hour ride and averaged a little over 16 mph.  That’s not fast, even for me, and it was a real struggle.  But every week, almost every ride, since then I’ve felt a little better.  My knee feels better, my legs are lighter and stronger, and I can spin the pedals around faster.  This week Tuesday I did a 40 mile ride at over 17 mph.  Thursday I did 62 miles with lots of hills.  Now I can’t wait to get out for another ride.  Yes, it’s partly because I’ve been spending an hour or two a day watching the Tour de France, but I think it’s mainly because I’m improving:  I know the more I bike, the better I’m going to feel, and the faster I’m going to get. 

When I’ve biked in the past, it’s always been to get ready for a triathlon, or just as cross training.  Looking at the big picture, that’s still what this is, but for the first time ever I’m not scheduling my rides around my running, so I can focus on it like never before.  And biking satisfies a lot of the same urges as running:  to be outside on a beautiful summer day, to sweat, get thirsty, see the world passing by.  I guess it’s the joy of movement I love, dialing into a rhythm and seeing how long I can hold a pace.  All that, plus I know it’s making my knee and my legs stronger.  Of course, doing physical therapy, lifting weights, doing body squats, walking with ankle weights—all those help make my knee and legs stronger too, and I’ll continue all that, but what I really want to do is bike!  Because I’m improving, and I know it, and I can feel it.

I realize there will be an end to this too—that it’ll probably come by fall, and even if it doesn’t, the weather and my work schedule will keep my from biking much, or at least in the same way.  But by then I plan to be running again, and not just running, but getting better, improving at that, and I can’t wait to see how that unfolds. 

Some of you may find it hard to believe I’m nearing the end of a whole long blog photo2post without once mentioning my lovely perfect wife, even though we’ve only been married a little over a month.  Rest assured, she’s still lovely and perfect, and our marriage is improving every day, but I’ve always had a one-track mind in summer—train, train, train.  For me that’s what summer has always been about, getting in better shape.  That’s what gets me up and keeps me moving day after day after day.  It surely makes me less productive in all other facets of my life, but I just can’t help myself, because there’s no feeling quite like the feeling of improving at something, getting better…. 

still not running (but getting close)

It’s been 6 months since my surgery, almost 9 months since I’ve run, my knee feels good 99% of the time, summer is in full swing, and I should be going CRAZY for a run, but strangely I’m not.  Why is that? 

photo1Well, maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because I got married!  Yes, from this point forward, Reader #1 will be referred to as “my lovely perfect wife.”  She may not like that designation, but she’ll let me use it, which helps explain why she is “my lovely perfect wife.”  I’ve got to tell you, I had high hopes for our wedding and everything turned out better than I’d imagined.  Not only am I delighted to be married to my lovely perfect wife, our wedding was great fun from start to finish and one of the most humbling experiences of my life—to have all the people we care most about come from near and photo2 far to celebrate with us, say such nice things, give their congratulations, it was really something.  Thoughts of running were so far from my mind I didn’t mind one bit sleeping in the morning after we’d gotten married while right outside our hotel in Peoria, thousands of runners were doing The Steamboat Classic (a race we’ve both run the last few years and which has quickly become one of my favorites), including race winner Shadrack Kosegi (who blazed the 4-mile course in 18:05!).

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because my wedding was the first major event my family has gone through together since my dad died in September.  As much as we enjoyed ourselves, we also knew it would have been even better with him there.  I guess that’s how we have to go through life now—no matter how things go, we know they could’ve been better.  That’s kind of a sobering thought, but I don’t see any other honest way to view it. 

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because on our honeymoon, my lovely1559 perfect wife and I hung out at the pool at the Wynn (where Prince Harry and Ryan Lochte had their drunken swim race), walked the entire length of the Las Vegas Strip, saw the Grand Canyon (just days before watching Nik Wallenda walk over it on a tightrope on live TV), and spent three days in beautiful Sedona where we hiked, mountain biked, ate great food, told each other we were glad to be married, and made plans for the rest of our lives (that’s what you’re supposed to do on a honeymoon, right?). 

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because when we got back home we learned that our good friends, the kind of people who deserve only the best in life, gave birth to a baby girl, but lost her soon after.  And yesterday I visited my uncle is a hospice.  I mean, we all know life is precious, but sometimes we can feel it a little more clearly.  I guess I’ve been having a lot of those feelings lately.

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because I’m still enjoying swimming and tour-de-france_1435254cmy knee is getting strong enough to do some more serious biking.  I’ve never ridden a Century and maybe if I hold off of my running, I can get in shape for that by the end of summer.  I’m also a Tour de France junkie and watching the race unfold on TV most every day really gets me in the mood to get out on my bike and pedal away.

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because I like having more energy throughout the day.  I did 10 workouts last week for a total of 12 ½ hours, but nothing tires me out like a hard summertime run.  When I swim, my heart rate goes way up, but my body recovers easily enough.  When I’m biking, my legs are just not strong enough to maintain a hard effort for long, so by the time my legs get sapped, I’m not breathing that hard.  These are deficiencies in my body, maybe I’ll overcome them with more work, but in the meantime, I’m feeling relatively fresh.  This could also be because I’m not doing the same type of training two days in a row.  Or maybe it’s because my lovely perfect wife and I have been sticking to our mostly-vegan diet for over 2 months now.  We don’t eat eat meat or dairy, only whole grains, lots of fruits and veggies, very little processed food.  The only way we’re not vegan is because we still have seafood once in a while (oh, and that pig roast we had for our wedding).  This diet has gotten me down to racing weight (even without running), and maybe it is helping to put the spring in my step, but I guess I won’t know that until I start running again.

And maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because I’m afraid to microfracture run.  I’ve been reading (again) stories of others who’ve had microfracture surgery like mine and it seems there’s a good chance of re-injuring the cartilage–one wrong move and the patch that’s formed can rip or tear away from the bone, and every day or two, when I turn or twist or make a quick move, I feel a sharp pain.  I sure don’t want to start this whole process over again, with probably lower chances of success.  I’ve told myself I should wait until I go a full week without pain, but I wish I knew what was going on in there—does it hurt because it’s still healing, or hasn’t healed correctly?  Or is it something that will continue to get better with more work?  Nothing I’ve read (or heard from my doctor) has made that clear, as least as clear as it needs to be for me to start running again.

And, finally, maybe I’m not going crazy for a run because I know it’s going to happen soon.  Parts of me are ready already. I’ve been checking race results online, figuring where I’d fit in.  I can’t drive past a golf course without imaging myself running on it.  Whenever I’m walking, part of me is saying, let’s try it, let’s run.  This week I wore 5 pound ankle weights on each leg when I walked—to keep me from even thinking about it.  I’ll probably do this from now on, keep myself on house arrest, as it were, until I’m sure it’s safe to run, or until I can’t hold back any longer.  For those of you who were hoping this running blog would include some description of running by this point, I know exactly how you feel.  But our patience will be rewarded.  I don’t think it will be long now.  It won’t be long before I can tell you how it feels to run again….