…for leaving you in suspense by not writing sooner about my triumphant return from knee surgery (ha!), but for the last few months I’ve been in a sort of limbo, with no sense of up or down, forward or back. I’ve been working on getting better, but haven’t been able to tell if I was making progress, regressing, or simply fading away. As a result, I just didn’t know what to say. I’ve said a lot, of course, to myself, to my knee, but most of that was not worth sharing. But it’s not all bad news, as you might expect, and now I’ve even got some good news, but I’m going to try to bring you up to date before I get to that.
As you may recall, after getting on a limited, but predictable running schedule, pain forced me to stop in March. I got an x-ray and my doc it was inflammation. So I didn’t run, took every anti-inflammatory I could find, went for acupuncture, iced religiously, et cetera. The pain decreased, but didn’t go away. I had good days and bad moments—one little misstep and be wincing in pain. I wanted to resume running, but not to just to have to stop, or hurt myself worse. I needed to know what was happening in there, so got an MRI. I expected either a re-torn meniscus (the little bit that is left in there) or signs the cartilage had not grown properly after the microfracture. I wondered if I needed surgery again, if there was some other fix, or if I was really done running.
When I went in to get the results, I braced myself for the news, telling myself no matter how bad it was, I could overcome it. But the doctor said everything looked pretty good—not perfect, of course, there’s bone wear and tear, not a lot of meniscus left, and the MCL showed signs of a strain, but there was no “injury” and the really good news was that there was new cartilage where the microfracture was performed (an MRI is the only way to find this out), so from his perspective, there was nothing to do, besides “take it easy.”
Of course, I knew just what he meant by “take it easy.” He meant I could start running again. I left the doctor’s office with a feeling of buoyancy, like I was about to go on vacation. And in fact, my lovely perfect wife and I were meeting friends in Texas for a long 4th of July weekend and I held on to this happy, floating feeling for the next two days—during which I flew to San Antonio, drove to the Gulf, stayed up late drinking beers, woke up too early and a bit hungover to go fishing, got a little seasick (and didn’t catch a thing), then after a couple hours of recovery on the couch, decided it was time to try to run again. By this time it was high noon and 93 Texas degrees outside, the road I was going to run on offered no shade and only a slight (hot breeze). Finally, the inhaler I’d packed (I’ve had exercise-induced asthma for the last four years) was empty, which means I essentially had a narrow throat through which to gulp air. Not an ideal lead up to a run, but I couldn’t wait.
On the first stretch of road I felt clumsy and awkward, almost as if my body had forgotten how to run (again!). And I could only keep moving for about 3 minutes before I was gasping for breath. But my knee didn’t hurt. My leg felt weak, I could feel myself limping a bit, but there was no pain. Still, for the rest of the run all I could muster was with 3 or 4 minutes of running at a stretch followed by walking breaks. I told myself the breaks were good for my knee, to “take it easy” on it, make sure I wasn’t hurting myself. But there was no way I could’ve done a continuous run. This is what it feels like to non-runners, I thought, so hard, so impossible to keep moving. Still, for short stretches I was able to dial in to something of a rhythm, the great feeling of running I love, and so I huffed and puffed and fought my way through 45 minutes. When I got back to the house, I had that great post-run feeling: calm and agreeable and accomplished with the sense that everything in the world was in order. I iced my knee and it seemed no worse for the wear. Let the comeback begin again! I thought.
And for the rest of the summer I did slowly get myself back in shape, at least the kind of shape that let me run 2-3 times a week, all short workouts, sometimes strides on the soccer field by my house, other times going to the track, building up to 3 mile runs, or mixing it up with (slow) speed workouts. My goal was to be able to do the Waupaca Area Triathlon in August with my son: ½ mile swim, 20 mile bike, 5K run. I had no delusions of running quickly and just wanted my knee to hold up for the full distance. If I had to walk, I told myself, I’d walk. If I had to drop out, I’d drop out. But on race day my knee felt pretty good and I had a solid swim (my son beat me by a minute or so) and bike (I passed him early on the ride and gained a three minute gap). But what would happen on the run? Well, I could feel myself limping a bit at the start, but my form smoothed out the longer I ran, gobbling up slower runners like Pac-Man, and I was able to not only run the 5K nonstop, but at 7:10 pace to hold off my son by about a minute (honestly, I was kind of hoping that I’d run well but he’d come flying by me anyway). Though a far cry from what I could’ve done a few years ago, I told myself it was not bad considering everything. And it was great, of course, to do a race with him.
I followed this up with a couple more good runs, including a wonderful Saturday 5 1/2 miler on the lakefront trail in Chicago from Ohio Street Beach to Fullerton and back at under 7 minute pace (even though I like to run alone, sometimes it’s fun to be with all the runners and bikers on the path, catching as many as I can). That day I really felt like myself again, found a fast rhythm right away and was able to maintain it. And my knee didn’t hurt afterwards, I mean, besides the pain I still always felt walking up steps, so I thought I was back on track again, ready for a fall of running. I wasn’t planning to do any races, just 2-3 runs a week, maybe trying to get in shape to run a mile under 6 minutes, or building up to a 3 mile time trial on the track before it got too cold. Fall is the best time of year to run and I just didn’t want to miss out. I was already planning to back off for the winter, maybe not running at all, but swimming and skiing and spending time in the weight room, strengthening my legs to hopefully feel really good in the spring, when I could get a little more serious.
But four days after that I tried again in the morning before class, and it hurt, enough for me to stop. But then I went to my son’s cross country meet that afternoon and ran a least a mile around the race course, cheering him and his teammates on, and felt no pain. Maybe it just hadn’t loosened up in the morning, I thought. I put it out of my mind and five days later, on a perfect September evening, I went to the track. I was feeling full of energy, full of running, as they say, and my plan was to warm up then see how fast I could run 3 miles. But after my warmup, which usually loosens up my knee, I couldn’t make it 50 meters without stopping. And it wasn’t the kind of pain where I said to myself, Hmm, this kind of hurts, maybe I should stop. It was the kind of pain where I’d stopped and was standing there halfway down the straightway on the track, wincing and swearing almost before I even knew what had happened.
Rightfully (I told myself) depressed, I spent the rest of my night online, desperate for answers. I found lots of information but couldn’t figure anything out. That’s when I decided I needed to see a new doctor, a specialist, a sports medicine orthopedic. I’d seen two orthopedics since my surgery and their advice was always to just not run, to just accept it. Besides the fact that it didn’t seem fair (of course I knew that didn’t matter–life’s not fair), it also seemed premature, too simple. There had to be more to explore: first of all, why was it still hurting? Inflammation, but what was inflamed? I mean, if I didn’t know that, how could I know what might make it better? And I knew there were other treatment options: cortisone, hyaluronic acid injections, et cetera. None were guaranteed to work, but they might work, so why not try?
After a bit of research on sports medicine orthopedics in the area, I found Dr. J, whose focus seemed to be getting athletes back on track. He studied under Dr. James Andrews, a famous surgeon who has worked on scores of pro athletes including Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Brett Favre. He’ll figure this out, I thought, and made an appointment. As I waited the few days for it I did my best not to think about it, the fact that my optimism was probably foolish, borne out of desperation. He’s going to say the same thing, I thought to myself, as I walked into the office. Don’t run. It’s so simple. What would I do then? Would I find another doctor? Really give it up? I didn’t know.
In the examination room Dr. J pushed and pulled my leg in all sorts of directions and asked me: does this hurt, or this? Ironically, my knee was having a very good day and not much hurt. “But sometimes it really hurts,” I told him and tried to describe the long story of my knee without overwhelming him with information. But between what he gleaned from these tests and the MRI he told me he thinks the pain is rather easily explained. The bottom of my femur bone (rounded) is sometimes making contact, or coming close to it, with the top of my shin bone (flat), and bones, though our bodies are full of them, aren’t made to meet, not without cartilage between them. If they do meet, the pain is extreme. He said he thinks the two meniscus surgeries I had is the problem—there’s just not enough meniscus left to serve as a cushion between the bones and at certain angles (like when walking up steps or sometimes when running) the bones touch and give me that big shockwave of pain. What I’m left with is a bruised femur bone that won’t get better because it keeps getting re-aggravated. He said in general the knee looks pretty good besides that, and said that the cartilage regrowth from the microfracture looks good too. Then he gave me the really good news: there are lots of ways to fix this problem! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. While my other docs said again and again: it is what it is and there’s nothing else we can do, he was saying: oh, there’s lots of stuff we can do, lots of solutions.
The easiest, and the one I’ll try first, is a custom fitted knee brace that will be designed to slightly shift the alignment of my knee so the impact when I run will go more to the outside, where I do have meniscus to serve as a shock absorber. He said injections may be the second choice if the brace doesn’t work. But even if that fails, he said he could do a meniscus transplant! This means he would pull out my puny damaged meniscus and put in a full replacement (from a donor). It’s kind of funny, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years lusting after people’s knee joints, thinking to myself, if I had your knees, I’d be running right now! And that might actually happen. But that wouldn’t be for a while, after we’ve exhausted other, less involved solutions. But if the brace and the injections and the other solutions don’t work, I won’t hesitate to go through with it. It’ll mean another long recovery, 6-9 months, but I’ll do it gladly if that’s what it takes, if it really can be the light at the end of the tunnel.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Dr. J thinks the brace has a good chance of working. And now this guy, even though I’ve only met him once, has quickly moved up on my list of favorite people in the world. Funny how that works, isn’t it? We like people who can give us what we want. And I still want to run. I’ve actually done a couple runs since those two bad ones without incident. It seems I’m better off running faster than slower as I must land and push off differently. Dr. J suggested I get my running gait analyzed as this is probably related to my knees failing me. I’ll do this, but not until after I get the brace, because I know now I’m favoring my right leg so the test would be kind of pointless. And I’m pretty sure I know what the problem is: though I’ve always had pretty good running form, I think I’m slightly knock kneed, especially when I get tired, and this puts a lot of stress on the insides of my knees, which is where all my problems are. I think it’s a slight misalignment, but over the course of thousands of miles, well, things add up. Apparently, this motion is typically caused by weak hips and though I’ve been working on those, I’m going to make it Priority #1 going forward. I also think just being more aware of it will help. Of course, the damage in my left knee is already done, but this will help me adjust to running with the brace and hopefully preserve my other knee for the long haul.
Speaking of long hauls, if you are still reading, you are probably thinking, enough about the knee, how is everything else going? I’m happy to report it’s all good: my lovely, perfect wife I both swam Big Shoulders, a swim race last weekend at Ohio Street Beach in Lake Michigan. I did 2.5K and she did the 5K (and fast!). The water temps were in the low 60’s and the water was moving (as you can see), not great conditions for a skinny runner trying to swim. Though I’d done the majority of my lake swimming with a wetsuit. my lovely perfect wife was going without, and my friend I’d talked into doing the 2.5K with me was going without, and though I thought I could beat him if I wore the wetsuit, and that he’d probably beat me if i didn’t, I plunged into the icy drink in my just my swimsuit and hoped for the best (you should know by now I believe in a fair fight). The first half wasn’t bad, but after that, I could feel myself getting colder and colder. By time I made it to the second buoy, two-thirds through the race, I was shivering and the swells were bigger than any I’d ever swum in. I forgot all about racing and just wanted to finish, When I finally hit land again, I was just happy to be done, and satisfied, as this was something I wouldn’t have even considered a couple years ago. Still, I was really disappointed with my slow time (4 minutes behind my friend) and back of the pack finish. On the beach as I waited for my teeth to stop chattering (thirty minutes or so) I missed running, being in racing shape, because then if there was a running race of a thousand people, I’d finish near the front, not the rear. Is it just vanity that makes me want to run? I suppose that’s part of it. I mean, the experience of doing something, of taking on a challenge is most important, but there is a different kind of satisfaction that comes from being fast, being good at something. I guess I miss that.
Son #2 trained like a champ all summer and his cross country season is off to a great start. He’s already dropped 40 seconds off his PR for 5K down to 17:08 (that’s a huge jump already) and has plenty of races to go. It’s good to see him running fast and proving to himself that hard work does pay off.
So, again I apologize for being absent these last few months. Rest assured, I was thinking about you, but really, you wouldn’t have wanted to read the posts I started but abandoned over the course of the summer with titles like “Self-loathing as a means of self-improvement,” “Who cares about running, anyway?” “I used to be kind of fast,” “Maybe Lynn is right,” and “Aqua jogging is for losers.” These all seemed reasonable when I was in limbo. But I’m not in limbo anymore—now I’m just waiting. Waiting for my brace, and then waiting for the future–where anything, anything is possible.