I haven’t written for a while because I hate to be the bearer of bad news—uh oh, you might be thinking, it’s over, no more running. But it’s not that bad (not yet anyway). My comeback is still a work-in-progress, though lately there’s been no progress and my knee has regressed. First of all, just a quick recap (this must be a trope of mine—when I proposed engagement to my lovely, perfect wife, most of it was a recap of our time together, as in, “When we first met, I thought to myself, wow, some man’s going to be lucky someday. I didn’t know it was going to be me, et cetera and so on… I sure do love you, let’s get married”). Anyway, when I started running again in the fall, my leg felt weak, needed time to loosen up, but there was no real pain when I ran, only the day after. And my workouts and my knee got better as the months progressed.
Six weeks ago it hurt while running and I had to stop. I took a month off. But since I’ve started up again, it hurts right away, after my first few steps, a pretty sharp pain on the inside of the knee where the bones from the upper and lower leg meet. It hurts, but I’ve been working through it with 10 or 15 minutes of alternating walking and running, some stretching, pleading, and hoping, and every time the pain has subsided and I’ve been able to run. Last weekend (after this frustrating warmup) I ran over 30 minutes and then did some strides. A couple days later (after this same warmup) I ran some comfortable, but invigorating 400’s on the track. When I stopped, it was because I was tired, satisfied with the workout, not because of any sort of pain.
Still, every time I start up again, it hurts. I don’t know what’s going on in there, which is why I’ve decided to make a return trip to my orthopedic doc and see what he has to say. I’m going to go back to my original orthopedic, who did my first 2 surgeries, but not this last one, the microfracture, because he seems better at diagnosing things based on my descriptions, and also seems to have more interest in helping me return to activity (Dr. S, who did the microfracture, has been pretty consistent with his message of, “Don’t run, why bother?” but Dr. K., after my last meniscus surgery, jokingly encouraged me to keep playing basketball, telling me it was “good for business”).
Of course, I want to run again, but when I go in I’m going to stress the fact that still, 15 months after surgery, I can’t walk up steps without pain. Now when my knee is warmed up, like after a bike ride, I can make it up a flight of steps pretty well. But other times, and especially after sitting for any length of time, I can’t make it up a single step without serious pain, I mean, sudden shots of 8 or 9 on the pain scale, not the kind I can walk through. So even if I can’t run again (is what I’ll say to the doctor) I should be able to walk up steps, right? I can’t expect to live the rest of my life avoiding steps (or taking them two at time, which does not hurt).
I’ve been doing internet research about other procedures (surgery, injections, et cetera) but the more I read, the more confused I get. Maybe the microfracture has failed, maybe it’s something else. At this point I just want to find out what’s going on. And I guess I’ll tell the doc I’d like to be aggressive. Even if it means another surgery, another 6 weeks on crutches, and the slow road back, I’ll take it. I still think I’ve got a long road ahead of me and I’d like to run some of it. My friend John just ran the Boston marathon (in 2:46, good work!) and we want to run a race together. It’s only been what, 28 years, since we’ve done that. I also want to do some triathlons with my son. Set a few goals and see if I can meet them. Really I just want to run because there’s nothing like it, but I’ve explained all that before.
This recent setback has led to me feeling something different than I’ve felt since I first injured my knee: anger. I’m actually feeling it for the first time. I’ve been frustrated, disappointed, and a little depressed here and there, but never mad about it until recently. Now I have this kind of low-level simmering in me directed at, well, I don’t know, just me, my stupid knee, and the universe, I guess. I’m not blaming anyone or anything, I’m just asking, Why? But no answers come. This is not fair, I think. Well, life is not fair and you’ve got it pretty good, I answer. Still, this sucks, I conclude. And I’ve got no response to that. This does suck. Stupid knee! Why?
I don’t particularly like being angry. Sure, it gives me a nice jolt of energy, but I know it’s not a good long term plan, that anger ends up draining more energy than it provides. Still, I’m going to let it work its way through me, see where we end up (and here’s an interesting question: would I take a good, strong knee if I meant I’d always be a little bit angry? Would I make that trade? I don’t know. Of course, if I had a good, strong knee, why would I be angry? And if I was, I could just run it off—I mean, who’s angry after a ten mile run, right? I guess I’d be willing to try it).
Luckily, it just so happens that while my knee has been acting up, I’ve had two new things to keep my mind off it. Two teams, actually. The first is my swim team. That sounds kind of funny to me, since I don’t consider myself a swimmer. But I did join a Masters Swim Team with my lovely, perfect (and fast in the pool) wife. Though it took a lot of deliberation, I’ll keep it short here and just say I was convinced to enter the Illinois State Masters swim meet. “Great fun, no matter how slow you are,” was the promise. I doubted that, but they said they needed me to put together a relay team in my age group. The goal was to win the meet and every point counted. I was planning to go watch the meet anyway and I sure didn’t want to be there and see them lose by the few points I could’ve helped score by joining a relay team, so I said I was in. I then decided to enter a couple individual events too, just so I wasn’t sitting around all day. I still needed to get my workouts in. At least an hour a day is my goal no matter what else is going on.
I really had no idea what to expect from the meet. I was nervous about everything—getting to my heat on time, diving off the blocks, not embarrassing myself. It ended up being tremendous fun. The swimming itself was intense, my adrenaline rush fueling me to kick and dig furiously through the water to post times much faster than I’d expected. Giving an all-out effort like that, focusing so completely, was something I haven’t been able to do since I hurt my knee. It was different than running a race, because with running, I have more body awareness and can see what’s going on around me. In the pool, it was all a blur–just me and the water, the wall where I did my flip turns, the air I gulped with every stroke, glimpses of my teammates cheering me on from the pool deck. When I’d get to the end of my races, I’d grab the wall and look around and it was almost like I had no idea where I was or even who I was or what had just happened. I don’t know if it’s like that for everyone or just me, or just because it was first time I’d swum in a meet, but I’m a convert. No matter what else happens, I can’t wait to do it again.
But it wasn’t just the swimming—it was the team, my team, the Smelts. People were swimming their hearts out, exhausting themselves with multiple events, all working towards a common goal. When our coach gave his great and hilarious motivational speech at the pasta dinner on Saturday night (with one more day of competition to go) there was no doubt that it was all-for-one and one-for-all and that everyone was going to swim their best. And the thing was, though I was new to the team, and slow, they were all so still encouraging. I don’t know if every swim team is like this. When my lovely, perfect wife decided to get back in the pool more seriously in the fall, she was glad to be able to join the Smelts, because when she’d swum on other teams, she’d always noticed that the Smelts seemed to be having more fun at meets. It was kind of crazy how much everyone pulled for each other and I was happy to be a part of it (my relay team did take 4th place, and our team took 2nd in the meet, losing by only 24 points. But just wait until next year!!)
My other team is my son’s high school track team I’ve been coaching since March. This has been great too. I kind of feel like coaching is a natural fit for me as I like to obsess about workouts, split times, good form, weekly mileage, a proper warmup, core strength, all of it. When it was just me, I’d end up obsessing too much on myself. I’d give my son tips, but didn’t want to get in the way of his coach. But now I am his coach and I’ve got him and 15 other runners to think about—all with their own talents, issues, et cetera. I’ve got to come up with the best training plan for each of them. I like that part of it and the kids are great too–they pay attention, do what I ask of them, run themselves ragged, we laugh and joke. Of course, as good as all of that is, it won’t matter much if they don’t get faster. Because that’s my job, right? That’s what running is about. I’d say so far, so good, but we’ve only had indoor meets and we don’t have indoor track, and not a lot of the kids had done much running leading up to the season, so I was using the indoor season as a way to get in shape to train for some fast outdoor racing. That starts next week, so we’ll see. Stay tuned.
So these two things, the swimming and the coaching, could not have come at a better time, to keep my mind off my stupid knee. They’ve also given me a possible vision of the future. If I can’t run again, I’ll probably throw myself a lot deeper into swimming. Honestly, it would be almost futile for me to attempt to catch up to be competitive in my age group because it’s a sport that rewards those who start young and have developed the right kind of strength and technique (case in point: one guy on our team said before the State meet he’d only been training for a couple weeks, and between races I saw him outside smoking a cigarette, and he still swam some great times!). I’d need to drop about 10 seconds from my 100 time to have a chance to score points in the State meet. That’s a huge jump for a swimmer, but if I can’t run, that’s what I’ll set my sights on. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
And with coaching the kids I can still, how should I say it, express my love for running. No, that’s not right, but it’s the best I can come up with right now. I can use what I know, my interest, my enthusiasm, to help others run faster, help them meet their goals. This will be satisfying in a different way than meeting my own goals. Not better or worse, just different. And I guess I’ll have more to say about that at the end of the season, depending on how the kids run their races over the next six weeks.
Still, as much as I enjoyed swimming in the meet, and as much as I like coaching, the best case scenario going forward would be that I:
1) do dedicate more time to swimming, set some tough goals for myself, and do more races with the Smelts
2) continue to coach and help my runners get fast and enjoy running, and,
3) run myself, at least enough so I can do some short races and triathlons, at least enough so I can enjoy the feeling of running again.
I think I can do all three. I’ve got enough time. I’ve got enough energy. I’ve got a positive attitude. I’ve got everything I need, except a fully functioning left knee. Hopefully, that will change. I’ll let you know what the doctor says.
In the meantime: Stupid knee!