“And just like that–my running days was over.” Forrest Gump
For about twenty years of my life, I was a runner. You know, one of those people you drive by every day, rain or shine, blazing heat, bitter cold, or pouring rain. The guy shuffling along the side of the road in shorts and a t-shirt, eating up miles like a fat kid eats potato chips, eyes always looking down the road ahead. The guy you ease your car around and mumble to yourself, maybe out loud, “that guy’s nuts to be jogging in weather like this.”
And you may have a point. Most runners are a little crazy. Actually, they are addicted. They run because they need to, like a smoker needs another puff and an alcoholic needs one more drink.
It took me about six months to become an addict. I was twenty-nine. I had lost my dad to a massive heart attack (at age 50) four years before. A doctor told me I had mild high blood pressure and was “a little” overweight. He suggested that I begin some sort of exercise program. And then he uttered the phrase that I have heard at every annual medical exam since: “You know, with your family history…”
So I bought a pair of running shoes and hit the local high school track. I could only run a mile or two without stopping at first, but I did it pretty much every day. After about a month, I was up to three miles. I bought a watch with a stop watch feature and began to time myself. I set little goals for myself each day and tried to get a little faster.
And I began to change.
Within six months, I was running five to seven miles a day, five or six times a week. What the doctor described as “a little overweight” became a thirty-five pound weight loss. The Red Head began to complain that I was beginning to look like I had been recently released from a concentration camp. But I was already hooked–I couldn’t stop. If I missed my run more than two days in a row, I had trouble sleeping; didn’t feel “myself.” I learned that the major benefit of the daily run was that it allowed me to “de-stress”, get rid of all the day’s frustrations and relax my mind.
Over the next five years, I kept the same routine. I began to run little races. In the South, there is always a race of some type nearly every weekend: 5K, 10k, half-marathon. They were usually fun and gave me a way to gauge my progress. I think I only won one award in these races (third place in my “age class”), but I never expected to win. I was never going to be really fast. Besides, as every amateur runner knows, you are not really racing others. You are only racing yourself. Every few seconds improvement over previous runs is a personal victory.
After a few more years, I quit the weekend race scene, but I kept putting in the miles each week. I had never run the “big one”, a 26.2 mile marathon, but I always kept it in the back of my mind. One day I’d run one. It was something every runner must do at least once. It is the runner’s equivalent of the Moslem’s trip to Mecca, the Jew’s visit to Jerusalem. A pilgrimage every runner must complete to be fulfilled.
I gradually put some weight back on so I didn’t have that emaciated look anymore. My daily run was a part of my life, like eating three meals a day and going to work. It was just something I did. Annual doctor visits were always good–weight normal for my height, body fat low, cholesterol 125.
And then one day I began to notice some soreness in my left heal. I tried some self-treatment (new shoes, ice packs, etc.), but it gradually got worse. I went to an orthopaedist and got the bad news–bone spur on my heel, which was causing an inflammation of my Achilles tendon. “Don’t want to rupture that Achilles,” he said. “That’s not fun–long recovery.” I asked him what I could do. “Get a new hobby,” he said.
Like the addict that I was, I decided to cut back instead. For the next three years, I only ran three or four times a week, and cut back on the mileage. The pain was always there, but it was manageable for a while. Then it began to get worse. It eventually hurt most of the time, not just when I was running.
I went to a different orthopaedist. He suggested surgery to remove the spur. Not a bad operation, six to eight weeks recovery. That seemed to be a good plan–it would allow me to resume my running schedule. I told the Red Head that I’d get my stride back, train hard, run that elusive marathon, then “semi-retire”–just run enough to keep the weight off and stay healthy.
It was a good plan. It really was. But the surgery was a nightmare. The six to eight weeks turned into six to eight months. I’ll spare you the gorier details–but let’s just say the incision from the surgery didn’t heal properly. And the pain was much worse. After everything more or less returned to normal, I went for my final doctor visit to be “released.” I asked him if it was O.K. to resume running. He said “I think you need to get a new hobby.”
So I stopped. It was a difficult process, but I became reconciled with the fact that my running days were over. My foot no longer hurt, and I eventually kicked the habit. A year of no running finally broke the addiction.
And then my favorite cousin, a runner himself, came to Alabama for a visit. He had just run his first marathon. “You’ve got to run one with me,” he said. “There’s nothing like it. When you cross that finish line, it’s like no feeling you’ve ever had.” It was not a hard sell–didn’t have to be. After all, one drink can relapse a recovering alcoholic. One challenge can relapse a running addict.
So I laced up my running shoes again. There was a marathon in Birmingham in six months, and I believed I could be ready by then. I began to eat miles again, and it felt good. My heel seemed to be holding up. I’d put in four or five miles a day, then take a “long run” of ten to twelve miles on the weekend. I was going to finally achieve a long-held goal. I’d run my marathon.
Two weeks before the big day, I decided to try a twenty-mile run. All the running books say you simply MUST do this before attempting a marathon. I was running 15 miles with ease, but the books say that “15 is not 20.” They argue that if you don’t run 20 plus miles before race day, you’re not likely to finish. The logic seemed reasonable. The body becomes almost totally depleted at about 18-20 miles (runners call it “hitting the wall”); the last few miles is run on shear “will power.” The books say that you need to experience this sensation so you can deal with it on race day.
I ran the twenty miles. It was not a problem–until two days later when my right foot went numb. It wasn’t really painful, just a weird sensation, similar to that you experience when your foot “goes to sleep.” A quick trip to another orthopaedist was bad news: tarsal tunnel syndrome, a swelling in the sheath that contains the main nerve to the toes. It might go eventually away with drugs and rest, but surgery was probably necessary to be cured. I asked about the marathon. “Run it if you can,” he said. “The damage is already done.”
I went to Birmingham and ran my marathon. It was as my cousin had promised–a feeling of total exhaustion and accomplishment.
Some runners collapse at a marathon finish line; some are giddy; some cry uncontrollably. I was melancholy.
Like Forrest, I knew “my running days was over.”