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Location: Midwest, United States

Sunday, August 13, 2006

What Tha!?! (Part 2)

Three years ago, I was feeling mighty strong. I had raced in the Chicago Marathon and, afterwards, I just kept running. I felt I was growing ever leaner, stronger, faster. I increased my training intensity and added hill workouts to my regime.

Disaster struck the following year. My knees and hips began to ache and simply wouldn’t heal. One day, after an otherwise uneventful (albeit labored) run, I woke from a nap several hours later with a searing pain in my right knee. I could not bear any weight whatsoever on that knee. It felt as if a knife had been thrust through the kneecap. I saw a knee specialist/sports doctor immediately. After X-rays and MRI’s, he determined I had torn my meniscus. I needed surgery.

(At this point I’ll resort to plagiarizing myself. I had already described this episode in a runners’ forum)

I had the arthroscopic surgery. I always thought arthroscopy was relatively benign. You hear all these stories about people roaring back from surgery, better than ever, in...say...seventeen minutes. That's kinda how I thought it would be for me. I assumed I’d get my knee fixed and cleaned up, hit the trails, build my speed back, and begin training in earnest for another marathon. Oh, how I wanted to run another marathon!

I entered the hospital in the morning and hobbled out seven hours later. Damn, my knee hurt! I couldn't swallow enough Vicodin to kill the pain. I couldn’t eat or sleep for the next two days. I couldn't move my leg without searing pain.

It wasn't exactly the walk in the park I had expected.

The doctor called me the following Sunday. He asked how I was feeling. "Well, pretty darn crummy, actually." He apologized. "Sorry, I’m afraid we really tore you up. Your operation was much worse than we expected. You had a huge tear in your meniscus…but…I’m sorry…that's the good news. The bad news is that you've lost practically all of the cartilage in your knee. The kneecap no longer glides on cartilage. It's just bone on bone. You have no cartilage remaining on the inside of your joint, either. And, by the way, you had a bone spur that kept your leg from fully extending, and you had massive scarring. We cleaned it all up, but you're going to be hurting for a long, long time." (Line item from hospital bill “Saw Blades and Drill Bits…$2,029.87”)

I saw the doctor four days later. I struggled to walk. My knee was the size of a cantaloupe. The doctor presents me with two pages of fiber-optic photographs of my knee...or whatever we shall call what I have left in that junction of femur and tibia. Gruesome pictures, really. Vestiges of normal cartilage cling to areas of bare bone, the edges of the cartilage frayed and torn. There are huge expanses of pure bone, with just a random patch or two of cartilage. The doctor says: "You're at what we call the 'end-stage' of arthritis. There is nothing left to save. There is nothing more we can do. Your cartilage has been destroyed. It's all bone-on-bone now. All you can do is preserve the joint as best as possible. The next step is knee replacement."

Doctor, can I run?" He shakes his head. "Not really. I suggest that you never run on pavement or asphalt, and only run on soft surfaces…occasionally. Maybe you can spin or cycle, but you'll have to see how that goes. I recommend swimming. We're going to do everything we can to get you mobile. I'm prescribing four weeks of 2x/week physical therapy. You won't be back to being functional for about eight weeks." (The physical therapy ultimately extended into eight weeks of searing rehabilitation exercises).

This is not what I had expected! I thought I was immortal! I thought I would run forever.

It took me the better part of a year to process all of this. I’m still processing this. I’ve been struggling to pull myself out from deep depression. This hurts on so many levels, in so many ways. It feels as if I’ve lost part of my identity. OK, I was never truly an athlete, never a serious competitor, but I was a runner! Running was a big part of my life - it defined me in a way. What was I now? What am I destined to be? I felt lost.

And all of this happened while my entire world was collapsing around me.

I feel old. This whole process of breaking down, rusting away, eroding to dust (OK, I’ll stop…I’m getting maudlin), is humbling and frightening. Aging offers a strange brew of pain, pleasure, brutal truths, nostalgia and heartache (but, if I’m lucky…acceptance, wisdom and understanding). I’ve accepted that I’m not a runner anymore. I’ll run on occasion, but I can no longer be a “runner.” I’ll hit the weights. I’ll begin swimming in earnest. I’ll climb on my road bike and pedal away…maybe I will morph into a swimmer or a cyclist…but I cannot be a runner anymore.

* * *

I miss running. I miss everything about it. I miss lacing up my favorite shoes early in the morning or late in the day. I miss the trails. I miss the sights, sounds and smells of the woods changing by the day and the season. I miss coming home with dirt and sweat caked on my legs. I miss the wind, rain, sun and snow on my face…reminding me that I am truly part of the earth and its cycles. I miss the way a shower feels after a long run. I miss the aches and the weariness. I miss feeling the heat my body generates long after I finish my long runs. I miss the chance to be alone with my body, my breath, my thoughts and reveries. I miss other runners…the banter before races, the company of athletes. I miss the challenge of pushing myself to my limits…thereby discovering where those limits are. I miss tossing souvenir race bibs into my “running box.” Each bib bears my notes about the race: the weather, my splits, my heart rate…each a snapshot of what I accomplished on that particular day. I miss the spectators. People know the runners are out there pursuing their dreams, and they come to admire and applaud…I miss their cheers. I miss seeing my singlets fade in color as I wash and wear them so many times that they become a second skin. I miss the looks I get when I tell people I’m running 10, 15, 20 miles that day. I miss feeling like I’m a powerful animal when I run for hours on end. I miss the serenity I feel after tiring myself out.

I miss running. I miss the physicality of it, the spirituality of it, the pride in it and the joy of it. I miss everything about it.

* * *

(stay tuned)


Blogger Amaris said...

Ah... you've made me realize how much I love to run, as well. My heart truly belongs in a boat, however... I am passionate about rowing my little starboard heart out in am intense regatta, but I can truly relate.

My little starboard heart goes out to you.

Wed Aug 16, 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

I suspect that "little starboard heart" of yours is bigger than than ocean. Just don't lose sight of the North Star the way I did...

Wed Aug 16, 08:57:00 PM  

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