The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Once a Cross Country Runner

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My knee hurts.

That’s the good news. I noticed it most of the morning and some of the afternoon, whenever I bent it. It’s the left one; it hurts a little bit under the knee cap, but not enough to cause discomfort or be much of a concern. It feels like a tendon or a muscle under the cap has been overworked, which it probably has. That probably happened after I ran 20 minutes on the treadmill after 20 minutes on the arc trainer on Sunday; Tuesday morning’s 15-minute turns on both only added to it.

The other good news is that I have worked up to 20 minutes on the treadmill. I expected to be farther along than that at this point, but also understand now that I’m 38 years old and don’t bounce back like I used to. In fact, I’ve spent a year bouncing back from what happened on Thanksgiving morning, 2007, when I first realized that I don’t bounce back like I used to.

You have to understand this: Once a Cross Country runner, always a Cross Country runner. The three former Cross Country runners in my office have reached consensus on this point, and we check in with each other a few times a year after having revisited that philosophy while out running a half marathon or a 5K or a few miles around the school with the Cross Country team. What that means is that you ignore minor pains; they only exist if you mention them or think about them, and if another Cross Country runner hears you talking about them, they’ll most likely call you a Sally. It means that when you go for a run, you don’t pay much attention to weather conditions because chances are you ran when it was hotter, colder, or wetter than the current conditions. Most importantly, you do whatever you have to do at the end of a race to avoid getting beat down the stretch. It’s a mindset that quickly becomes second nature to a Cross Country runner, and it’s something that can be flipped on like a light switch even later in life by those who lived it. If you have to throttle up your pace a bit to keep people off of you as you near the finish line, then that’s what you do. If you have to sprint at the end of the race to keep someone behind you or catch someone who just passed you, then that’s what you do. If you have to bolt headlong across down the street like your tail is on fire to beat someone, practically scratching and clawing and growling while sweat and spit fly, then that’s what you do.

That’s what I was doing when it happened.

I wasn’t trying to prove anything; that had been taken care of by the mere act of getting out of bed at 7AM on Thanksgiving Day to run the 14th Annual Jon Callaghan Memorial Turkey Trot as flecks of snow flew into my eyes and stuck to my tights. I was 2.5 miles in, feeling good about my pace and my chance to keep my time under 30 minutes, which was all I was really concerned about. There were plenty of other runners around me that last half mile as I settled in to cruise across the finish line. I had picked out a few that I was going to pass, but it wasn’t going to be an ostentatious display of athletic prowess or anything. I was just going to speed up a bit and glide through to the end. Some other dude had a different idea.

I heard him coming from a dozen strides back. His breathing was heavy, his feet pounded in a quickening cadence as he sped closer. I spied enough of his face when he passed to notice a salt-and-pepper pushbroom collecting snowflakes under his nose. He had a collection of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, and an accordion forehead. A navy stocking cap covered whatever gray hair wasn’t peeking out on the sides and back of his head. He was older than me, probably by ten years. He was five or six strides ahead before I realized what was going on. He was running way too fast for us penguins still on the course. This wasn’t some guy protecting his pride and finishing strong– this was hubris. I flipped my switch: Once a Cross Country runner…

I accelerated, hoping to close on him with at least a quarter mile left in the race. He heard me coming, and picked up his pace even more. I felt like I was two notches away from an all-out sprint, but had no clue about where he was in his repertoire of gaits. When I cranked it up another notch, I was able to draw even with him. We stole looks at each other, glanced to the finish line, and then stole another look at each other. He pulled ahead by a few feet, I drew even again with an eighth of a mile left. His gloved hands were flying in a furious rhythm, like he was trying to pull himself along to get an edge. I was sucking wind and blasting it out of my nose and mouth; sweat was streaming down my face.

I ground into my final gear. I was careening down the street, feet pounding asphalt harder than they had for five or six years. I was straining, and it was an uncommon feeling. I could feel the burn in my calves and thighs. I felt a pain under my ribs, like I was being poked with a filet knife. I pulled ahead by a stride, and then he drew even. I maintained my desperate sprint, hoping he didn’t have anything left, certain that I didn’t. I pulled ahead again. He tried to pull even, but gave out. Three strides later, I broke the finish line and doubled over with my hands on my knees. It took most of my effort to stay on my feet. It didn’t used to be this hard. When I looked at him, he had adopted the same posture. We eyed each other, shared a laugh, and shook hands.

“I thought I had you,” he guffawed.

“I thought you did, too! Nice sprint there at the end. I haven’t been pushed like that for a long time.”

“Yeah. That was fun.” We stood there speechless for a few moments, shaking our heads and laughing. My legs twitched. Sweat began to freeze on my face. I grabbed a drink from the refreshment table and headed to my car.

Later that afternoon, I stood up from the couch at a friend’s house to gather around the Thanksgiving feast, and my Achilles tendon spasmed. It was as tight as a piano string. Damn. That’s tender. I hobbled to the table and sat down, and didn’t think much of it; I had been living with daily physical annoyances since my late twenties. Sore calves, achy feet, stiff shoulders, and tight hamstrings, amongst other things, have become a fact of daily existence. I’d work through it, and in a week or two it would be better. I’d be sure to stretch a little bit to relieve the tension.

Three months later, and I was finally tired of the painful twinge in my Achilles every time I made a sudden move, changed directions, or jangled my foot in some odd way as I put on my pants or shoes. Also, I was tired of hobbling to the bathroom or kitchen every time I got out of bed or got up from the couch after watching a game or movie. I had cut back on the running, but still hit the treadmill at the YMCA for a half hour once or twice a week when I wasn’t on the elliptical. My tendon would flare about 2 minutes into the run, but I would keep at it. There was pain, but nothing debilitating. Once a Cross Country runner…

I went to my physician. He referred me to the orthopedist on staff, who ran me through a few exercises, twisted my bare foot around, tested my flexibility and strength, and asked me what had happened. I told him about Thanksgiving Day. He responded, “This is worse than you think. You should have been in here right after it happened. You’re lucky it’s not ruptured.” Leave it to a doctor to burst my prideful balloon, to undermine the braggart philosophy that many other people would have outgrown by now. “You need to lay off it. I want you in here twice a week for rehab. Ice it twice a day, at least, for fifteen minutes each time.” He scratched me a prescription for Mobic (7.5 mg, once a day), and said he’d see me in a month. His final words were anathema: “No running until I say so.”

So I went to physical therapy. I had weekly sessions on a stationary bike to loosen everything in, around, and associated to my ankle and Achilles. I was tutored in the ways of rehabilitative exercises. I layed on my belly as the therapist probed my tendon with an electro-stim wand, and then massaged everything from my heel up to my knee. I nodded my head as she implored me to exercise at home, work on my flexibility, strengthen the tendon, and above all else, “Keep off it. No running.”

I also learned why my calves ached about half the time when I ran. “Your flexibility is horrible,” the therapist told me. She measured it with a sliding plastic gauge each time I came in. I would sit upright with my legs extended, and she would tell me to point my toe out as far as I could. She would hold the plastic gauge up to the side of my ankle, make a measurement, and then tell me to pull my big toe towards my body as best I could. Sometimes she would put her weight behind it and push it toward me before making her measurement. “Your flexibility is shot; that causes you to run different. Your foot strikes the pavement at odd angles, and then it doesn’t roll the way it should. That causes stress on the calves. That’s why your calves scream sometimes when you run. And that’s what probably caused this. You were running awkward to begin with, then your burst of speed, with all that pounding, tweaked your Achilles.” What she didn’t say, but what I knew, was that my 215 lb. mass didn’t help matters. I was too heavy to be running so hard.

I had visions of a quick rehab– I would bounce back from this, just like I had from every other injury. There was a 5K I wanted to run in the middle of the Spring, and so long as I was more flexible and less painful at that point, I would run it… Once a Cross Country runner… I showed up to the race, warmed up sufficiently, and ran. I gunned it a bit at the end of the race, but not nearly as much as I had on Thanksgiving 6 months previous. I felt fine. I was ready to resume my normal workout, which was to run 3 miles 3-4 times a week.

That lasted about a week. Both times I went out the week after the race, my calves screamed for me to stop. Within two minutes of starting, there was throbbing pain in both legs. Every stride was a bolt of lightning up to my knee. I kept hearing the therapist’s voice in my head: “Your flexibility is horrible… your ankle doesn’t roll the way it should…” I spent so much time thinking about the mechanics of my joints and worrying about doing permanent damage to myself that I couldn’t focus on the run. The serenity I usually enjoyed from the steady pace and deep breathing may as well have been memories from a previous existence.

I went back to physical therapy. This time, it was laid out in no uncertain terms: “Stop running, or risk never being able to run again.” Maybe that’s what I needed to hear the whole time. I can’t not run; it’s too much a part of who I am. Running does so much for my mental health, so much for my physical well-being, so much for the metacognitive processes that are critical to my writing that I can’t not do it. I could no sooner extract a major organ from my body than I could stop running and hope to live a full and complete life. But given the choice between not being able to run for a little while, and not being able to run again ever, I decided it was finally time to listen and do what I was told.

So I stopped running. I went on a diet for the first time in my life (I never dieted before because running helped me keep weight off), and began riding my bike with a degree of fervor uncommon to me since I bought the machine five years ago. This went on throughout the summer. I rode 20 miles several times a week. I found excuses to ride my bike to places I would usually drive. I parked my bike in my bedroom as a constant reminder that it was either this, or grow into middle age as an out-of-shape lump.

It began to work. The constant rotation of my ankle on the bike pedals kept me loose and flexible. My Achilles began to strengthen. I noticed the improvement at the oddest times. If I was sitting on my chaise lounge on the balcony, I could push my feet out and remain flat-footed on the cushion 4 or 6 inches further than I could before. I could raise the weight of my entire body on both toes, and even bounce, with little or no discomfort. I could point my toe out further than I had been able to for 6 months.

September rolled around, and I bought a membership to the gym on the corner of the street where I live. I had access to brand-new elliptical machines and treadmills, and I could slowly work my way back up to being able to run three miles. I was convinced that this was going to be it– this was what was going to finally get me back running with as much fervor as I had before. I devised a foolproof plan that was so logical that I didn’t bother to waste the orthopedist’s or physical therapist’s time by consulting either of them: I would run on the treadmill for 10 minutes the first week, 20 minutes the second week, and by the time the third week came around, I would be up to a full 30 minutes. Once I could do that, I would have returned to normal. What’s more, I could do my favorite 5K run (it’s one lap around a local nature preserve) before it got too cold out to enjoy it.

That plan lasted almost to the end of the second week. I ran 20 minutes for the first time since the 5K in the Spring with only minor irritation, but within an hour after I was done, my achilles was inflamed and throbbing. I spent an entire week worried that I had really done it this time; I screwed myself up bad and my running career was over. I stuck with the elliptical machine for two weeks, trying to keep my ankle loose and flexible, and then went to the treadmill for five minutes at a time once I felt normal. I began to notice that again, my achilles felt strong and flexible. But it was tight. Real tight. It helped a little bit if I stretched it when I was done.

I’ve been building up in 5-minute increments ever since, and at this rate I should be able to run for 30 minutes by the middle of winter. The process is slow and agonizing, if only because I want to run like I used to a year ago. I want to be carefree and as painfree as possible when I run. I want to live again the mystical zen born from a long run. I want to be that boy who ran Cross Country in high school more than 20 years ago. If I can’t do any of those, if I never run again like I used to, the philosophy that sustained me for so long– and that lead to my downfall– will be no less important to me than it has ever been because this may be the point to which it has been pushing me all along. Perhaps what happened on Thanksgiving Day a year ago was how my life as a runner was supposed to end. If so, I don’t have much about which to complain.

Written by seeker70

November 26, 2008 at 3:46 am

One Response

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  1. Jeffburd,Do you recall the first 5K that JILG sponsored, way back before it was called Mama’s Run? I do. After that race, my t-shirt might as well have said, “Once a Cross Country Runner 5K.” I had decided to run it for a number of reasons: first, I wanted to support local running; second, I hoped to use the race as motivation for a post-bronchitis running-comeback; and third, I asked my team to run the race, so I figured I should play along, too.I wonder if you remember that race at all, because it is crystal clear in my mind. It was the first weekend after school ended, and the day was unseasonably hot. I arrived at the VP, eager kick off my comeback, but subconsciously worried about what type of performance I would be able to muster. As I warmed up and stretched, my “once a cross country runner” pride began to kick in, and I silently sized up the competition. It was a small race, so I figured I could do reasonably well in my age group. Rodney Winslow toed the line next to me, and when the gun sounded, my pride inspired me to bite off more than my body could chew. I decided that I couldn’t let a giant badminton coach beat me, so I started the race way too fast for my fitness level (or lack thereof). As we passed the mile mark, I learned that perhaps my bronchitis wasn’t as “post” as I had previously thought, and my lungs and diaphragm started to rebel. When I looked at my watch and saw 7-something for the first split, I tried to reassure myself that my years of training would save me…Then we left the safety of the shade and made the turn at the north side of the lake. Goodbye Giant Badminton Coach…hello misery. My diaphragm now seemed to be a giant knot nestled in my lungs, completely uncooperative to the breathing process. And my legs…not only did my legs feel like lead, but they were also starting to itch. We hadn’t really run through much grass, so I didn’t understand why I was having an allergic reaction. Rodney’s giant silhouette grew smaller and smaller as my pace slowed. Before he was too far away, he muttered back something about “beating the cross country coach,” but my brain was too murky at that point to process the insult or use it for motivational ammo. I was far too busy participating in a pity party of one. As I turned south on that desert-like path, sun blasting my pale self, I re-evaluated my goals for the race. This type of advanced thinking was difficult though, because my body was on my mind. I could barely lift my knees, my tongue was now four sizes too big for my cotton mouth, and it felt like I had stopped sweating. Shockingly, it would take me one more post-bronchitis race to realize that I should not run hard in the sun while taking antibiotics, but that’s another race and another story.As I contemplated simply stepping off the course and finding some shade and some water, a sound reminded me that I couldn’t quit: your footsteps. And for the last mile and change, my whole being was dedicated to one cause: do not let Jeffburd beat me. At several points, I had that weird feeling that time was standing still; I would look around and wonder how I had gotten to that spot in the trail, because I didn’t remember running to it. At other points, doubt crept in about my ability to finish. I tried to do math in my heat-stroked-head; all I could figure was that I had run my middle mile really slowly, because I was going to finish around the 30:00 mark. Then I’d hear your footsteps again, and I’d snap back to my reality…must beat Jeffburd. Must move one leg, then other. Finally, I enjoyed a moment of shade before attempting a kick. My arms felt out of sync with my legs, and my legs…well, they were doing what they could. I remember Crazyboledman (who had already finished, cooled down, had breakfast, showered and come back to cheer for us pluggers) giving me the “Oh, you are finishing” pity-clap along side a few of my runners. But I didn’t care. Because I had successfully held you off.After the finish line, I don’t remember much. Somehow I got home, because I do remember Jason’s knocks at my apartment door waking me from my fitful shivering in my sweaty t-shirt on my floor. I remember him leaving and returning with Gatorade. I remember him scolding me, “Why didn’t you just stop? What’s that rash all over your legs? Jesus, you’re totally dehydrated!” I remember smiling and simply saying between sips, “I had to beat Jeffburd.” And I remember him smiling back. See, he was once a cross country runner, too.

    Coach Di Grazia

    December 20, 2008 at 12:46 am

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