Here I sit with my left lower leg foot and swathed in bandages and crutches resting next to me, waiting for that next time I need to hobble somewhere. Since my office is in the basement, this means planning ahead for basic things like use of the restroom. My hands are rather bruised from excessive crutching around at a company meeting yesterday (fortunately it’s my left leg that’s out of commission and I don’t drive a stick-shift anymore, so I’m not confined to quarters). No matter how fit I was, my muscles weren’t prepared for the assault on my right leg and adjoining parts, or the sudden demand on my left calf to hold my leg up for so long while moving about, so things hurt. And all of this is because I had to repair an injury that didn’t stop normal activities and was pretty clearly caused by this obsessive habit of running and racing a lot.
Let’s put this in perspective. What I’m dealing with is nothing compared to what others have endured, whether the victims of the Marathon bombing or the results of last night’s car wreck on the freeway. This is kids’ stuff by any measure, so I’m not complaining loudly. But the irony can’t be lost in that in a quest to be healthy, I brought this on myself. Consider that I was completely mobile and functional as I walked into the hospital to have this done. Indeed, in defiance, I went for a run just an hour before reporting – with some pain, mind you, but fully capable of what the average Joe would consider an acceptable level of exercise. It wasn’t like I’d snapped or broken something and had no choice. This was my option so that I could get back to high-intensity running and racing sooner.
So one has to ask the obvious question: Is it worth it?
Let’s back up a bit and paint the picture. I’ve been battling a pesky problem in my left Achilles for a good year and a half now. If I had to pin it down, which I’m not sure I really can, I’d point to the folly of trying my first five-thousand-meter indoors on the track back in January of oh-twelve… in track flats… that I’d just bought a couple weeks earlier… and had run in for all of about two miles total. As an old friend used to say, “Don’t be a fool, you idiot!” But I did it, and my calves screamed for a week, right up to the indoor half-marathon I hammered the following week with two-hundred and sixty-some sharp left turns. Oddly – gee, what a surprise – about the time the calves calmed down, the Achilles started hurting. I can’t be certain, but if I had to pick a stretch out of the constant stream of bodily abuse that may have started this ball rolling, that may have been it.
In true runner fashion, I did what any other obsessed athlete would do: I tried to run through it. This wasn’t as foolish as it may sound in hindsight, because it really wasn’t so bad. Over the course of the next year plus, I trained hard and found personal-best success in almost every distance. That pesky Achilles reminded me it was there from time to time, but never raised itself to the level of a serious worry. Or at least it didn’t do so until a few weeks after this year’s Boston Marathon, when it decided it was indeed time to raise itself to the level of serious worry. Some seriously reduced training didn’t cure it, some time off didn’t cure it, so it was off to my favorite medical professional, Dr. Foot Doctor, for some advice. To my surprise, I got not only his professional advice but his personal, first-hand account as well. Once we’d determined the verdict – a vertical tear in the Achilles – a place with nearly zero blood flow and therefore nearly zero healing capability – he related that he’d suffered the same fate, and without treatment, it had taken him nearly a year to heal. Not willing to wait that long, we opted for treatment, which consisted of perforation of the tendon with a Topaz wand to incite blood flow and healing, and a lateral stitch to hold it all together during the process.
Result: painkillers, three weeks on crutches (one down, two to go), a few weeks in the Dreaded Boot, then slowly rehab, regain fitness, regain fighting form. Cross country season, sayonara. Fall marathon, she’s gone, good-bye. Competitive indoor season? Highly unlikely (ooh, and the thought of track flats again? Hmmm…). Adding that to an already lost summer racing season, is it worth it?
So-called normal people ponder the standard goal of recording some aerobic activity for twenty to thirty minutes, three times a week, and shudder. So-called normal people don’t see what we see in this sport, and don’t do what we do. It would be so easy to back down to the level of normal people. After all, the level of discomfort wasn’t really a factor on a three-to-four mile easy slog.
But if you’re reading this, you already know that the standard goal doesn’t do it for us. We push harder, we endure the workouts, commit the time, suffer the pain, and despite what that might say about us, love it. And the funny things is, while I may have brought this on myself, the more I talk to normal people, who become far more verbal about their medical history when they see you on crutches, the more I realize that if it weren’t this, it would be something else – something else that normal people have to deal with.
I may have put a vertical slit in my Achilles, but normal people who aren’t in shape go out on weekends and blow their entire Achilles in to smithereens. Normal people blow out their ACLs when they smell a company softball game. Normal people encounter all sorts of problems that they might not have seen had they been a little stronger, in a little better shape. Not to say we don’t, and won’t, have normal issues as age creeps inexorably onward, but the clear picture you get is that not being obsessive about fitness is not a ticket to avoid the need for various repairs such as that I’m recovering from.
So is it worth it?
Returning to running has redefined me in a satisfying way. Running – and racing – has brought innumerable new friends, by and large the kind of people I truly enjoy, focused, strong people who certainly enjoy a brewski but don’t define their life by their alcohol consumption but instead by what they can accomplish. Running has provided adventure, motivation, success, pain, and pleasure. Running has brought measureable health benefits. In short, running has provided a great life over these past eight years.
When asked, I coach people to think about the long term, think about what it will take to still be running ten years from now, rather than worrying about next month. It’s a tough pill to swallow when it’s on your own plate, but I forced myself to follow my own advice and get this thing fixed at the expense of near-term goals but in the interest of still being out there many years from now. This too will pass.
A little short-term misery? It’s unquestionably worth it. I just hope it works!