The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Once Again a Cross Country Runner

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I thought I was back; I thought I had recovered from all that happened Thanksgiving morning 2007. By the end of last winter, I was routinely experiencing strong half-hour treadmill runs at the gym, and was throwing in frequent turns on the elliptical machine . My Achilles felt flexible and as strong as it had since I hurt it 18 months previous.

Then I went for a 3-mile run outside.

It was 2 weeks before the same 5K race that ended my comeback the year before. I figured I would rip off a few outdoor 3-milers to prepare myself. The day after my first training run, my ankle and foot were so sore that I could barely walk. I figured that was because the rigors of road running are far greater than those of treadmill running; for one, there’s a great deal more pounding. I thought if I rested a few days and just stuck to the elliptical, the pain would work itself out. So I did, and for the most part the pain subsided.

I went out the next week, and it happened again. The next day, my ankle was a rusty hinge, like I could hear it grate when I walked or when I rotated my foot. It was hard to walk the next 2 days. I could walk 5 days later, though, when the race came around, which to me meant that I could run. So I did.

The next day, forget it. I couldn’t move my foot. It stayed like that for 3 days. I thought I was finished running. Forever. There’s no way I could run if every time I did I had to spend 3 days or more recovering. Hell, if I had to spend three days barely being able to walk, I would never be able to mold myself into any kind of running shape.

The only solution was to go back to the doctor. Both he and the physical therapist shook their fingers and heads at me throughout the summer. They fit me for two pairs of orthotics; one for my everyday shoes, and one for my running shoes. Oddly, Julie (the physical therapist) found that when she pulled my heel and extended it outward from my ankle, I was experiencing pain. Lots of pain. Like there was some kind of twisted blade inside my ankle that was slicing in any which direction, slashing and scarring whatever it could. It made no sense… how often is your heel pulled away from you when you run ? I thought for sure I was having an “impact” injury from striking the pavement. But what do I know? I’m the guy who ran myself into the same injury 3 times in the past two years.

In between going to the doctor and the arrival of the “foot levelers,” I was in therapy twice a week. Julie again twisted, turned, pushed, and pulled my ankle as she had done a year before. She heated it up, iced it, and showed me ways to strengthen it. She coaxed it with electrical impulses, and massaged it until it was so loose that it felt like my foot might float away from my body. Whatever she was doing about the odd heel pain seemed to work intermittently. I had my doubts with the whole process, and grew frustrated.

Once the orthotics arrived, they were difficult to get used to. It felt like I was cramming my feet into my shoes every time I slid them on. The first week I had them, my feet were so sore and swollen after 2 or 3 hours that I couldn’t bear to wear shoes. If I had them on all day or did a lot of walking around, my feet were as sore as my ankle had ever been. But, the orthotics slowly loosened up a bit (actually, my shoes stretched in the right ways to accomodate the inserts and my foot, in addition to any sockage I was sporting). Once I adjusted, I could almost feel the inserts healing my Achilles. It seemed that some nights my tendon felt noticably stronger, and all I would have done was wear my shoes and go through my daily routine.

I was out of PT by the middle of August. At the end of September, I visited the doctor for a follow-up. He cleared me to run, but only if I started at 10 minutes maximum on the treadmill and worked up no more than 5 minutes per week. If I wanted to run outside, it was no more than 1 mile, and I would have to work myself up at the same increments. It was a maddeningly slow process. I wanted to strip my gears, to get out and run run run. But I had to remember that I am mortal, and that for two years I have been laid low by an injury that resulted from carelessness in the first place. I ultimately realized that it wasn’t a matter of condition myself physically, but also emotionally. I was going to have to adjust my head if I wanted to run, and that adjustment demanded every bit as much discipline as the physical conditioning.

Today, right now, I consider the process well under way. It may never be complete, but I’ve made enough positive strides in the past few weeks to know that I’m Back. Twelve hours ago, I ran the First Annual 5K Turkey Stampede in Elkhart, Indiana. It wasn’t the race I wanted; I wanted the one in Gurnee where I flirted with mortality two years ago and got burned. I wanted to balance the scales on the same course; it seemed like it would be perfect justice. But my family plans changed, and I found myself heading back to my hometown. On the way, I found a chance to run. So I did.

It was a beautiful morning for a race, everything an old cross country runner dreams of: wet, cold, and windy. It’s the same kind of stuff that helped forge an iron will 23 years ago. Part of the course ran along a river, and I noticed numerous large puddles of water throughout the course as I made my way to the park where I was to register. I was salivating by the time I made my way to the start line, and after several minutes of waiting, I snapped to the woman standing next to me, “Is there really going to be a race this morning, or are we just gonna stand here and get our asses rained on?”

The horn sounded, and we were off. I settled into my familiar place in the back of the pack, and worked on my breathing. My Achilles felt strong, though my calves were a little weak and crampy. They have been for the past few weeks, ever since I worked myself back up to running 3 miles outdoors. I focused on one thought: Run my race. I wasn’t going to focus on anything but breathing and finishing, position be damned. I thought it was the perfect plan, and it worked perfectly up until the final quarter mile. I was feeling strong, and could see 15 people between me and the finish line. I knew I could smoke at least twelve of them, and as soon as I realized that, a familiar thought flashed through my mind with the speed of a synapse firing: once a cross country runner, always a cross country runner. I envisioned myself flipping on a long-unused afterburner that would enable me sprint through to the end, upping my standing in the race and reducing my time.

Instead, I maintained pace and coasted across the finish line in a little over 29 minutes. I’ve been happy with that all day long, and that’s because of another thought that streaked through my brain as quickly as the cross country truism had. Perhaps it was another truism, perhaps a reminder of past wisdom; perhaps it was an epiphany born from the adrenaline and meditative state that results from the steady breathing and repetitive physical motion of running. Whatever it was, it’s something I will cling to as I continue my running rehabilitation: There is a force that pulls us to normalcy; it steers us to what we cherish the most. It has pulled me back to running; to be able to run, which I know as normal for some of my teenage years and most of my adult life. But this normalcy is at its truest only in brief moments that can pass so quickly that they may have almost never happened. Other times, that normalcy can be snatched away in an instant of carelessness or unwarranted bravado. It wasn’t worth risking losing that normalcy for another two years.

So I coasted.


Written by seeker70

November 27, 2009 at 3:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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