27 October 2019

The Cheese Storm Incident


It’s fitting, I suppose. My first attempt to run the New York City Marathon dramatically came to an end thanks to a major storm. So it was, again, this time. Sort of. That first time it was Hurricane Sandy, which, after a week of dithering (what to do?), finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. This latest time it was an entirely different and somewhat odd type of storm, which, after a month of dithering (what to do?), it too finally put the nail in the coffin of the event. Such was born the Cheese Storm Incident.

I suppose I deserve it. I’ve always had an aversion to trash-talking of any sort; you trash-talk and you usually get bit. That’s why I never do it before a race. I avoid it so much that my clubmates regularly ignore me when I anti-trash-talk (if that’s a thing) and point out how crappy I’m usually feeling and how poorly I expect to perform before toeing the line. Even when I really do have a Meh race, they often don’t see it that way, only reinforcing their disbelief of my pre-race grumblings.

This time, I blew it.

Granted, what I did would hardly be called trash-talking, but by my standards, perhaps I jinxed myself. I wrote “I Must Run This Marathon”, and I stated aloud far too many times that I’d be running New York come hell or high water (though considering Hurricane Sandy, high water would in fact be a good reason why I wouldn’t run, but you get the idea). I guess that for me that qualified as braggadocio. I opened my mouth. I got bit.

I’m out. Cancelled. Not only that but sidelined. I’m now oh-for-three on New York.

To cut to the car crash, as a former co-worker used to say, I’m the proud owner of a complete radial tear in posterior horn of the medial meniscus of my right knee, and, in the wake of the Cheese Storm, it might actually be worse. Dr. Triathlon (we’ll get to him later) prefers the self-healing option, which could take up to (gulp!) six months, though I’m hoping for four. Surgery, says he, only removes material and hastens the onset of bone-on-bone arthritis, not a good idea for the active, athletic type, especially when there’s already evidence of some bone degeneration around the tear. In short, me and the (literal) pain-in-the-ass stationary bike down at El-Cheapo gym are going to be good friends for quite a while.

Oh how did we get here? How have we sunk so low? How has the ever-increasing entropy of the universe caught up with us? (We? Us? I hear you saying… Yes, you’re just fine, I’m the hurtin’ puppy. It’s just linguistic artistic license. Go with it.)

It all started in a 5,000-watt radio station in Fresno California… no, wait, that was Ted Baxter (just checking to see how old you, dear reader, really are). In my case it all started with a simple walk around town back in May, prior to Sugarloaf. Or at least that’s when I noticed it. It probably started before that, because the symptom that came on quite suddenly that day, as Dearest Spouse and I neared completion of a long circuit around our beloved city wasn’t so much in the knee as behind it. Suddenly I couldn’t straighten my leg, and later I’d find I couldn’t bend it all the way, either. This, it would turn out, appeared to be the work of a big-ass baker’s cyst, which itself appeared to be the work of an already ticked off meniscus. But at that stage, who knew? I did what all runners do: walked it off, managed the pain. We live for pain, right? Then Sugarloaf came with decent results, so I shrugged it off. Runner mentality.

But as I’ve previously documented, I really couldn’t entirely shrug it off. I don’t need to reiterate the bitching and moaning of my last post. Suffice to say that during the last Adirondack Death March weekend of the season the pain was manageable, but for days afterward I wasn’t moving too well. And New York loomed. What to do? This called for a Plan, yes, that’s Plan with a Capital P.

Serendipity dropped an interesting idea. A running bud posted that a half-marathon needed pacers. On Nantucket. Now, I’ve lived in the Commonwealth for over thirty-four years, and I’ve yet to go to Nantucket. I know, it’s just an island, but someday I need to set foot there. And a half marathon would force some decent miles, three weeks before New York. And acting as a pacer would force a slow, comfortable pace. It would be a proof point, a bit of confidence heading into which might be an Epic Struggle in New York. To be fair, it wasn’t the greatest deal around; though the race was free for pacers, the boat ticket and the pacing team shirt rang up to a decent price, but I really didn’t care. It was an Adventure. It was Nantucket. And it fit within The Plan.

Just to be sure I wasn’t running on anything seriously broken, I paid a visit to a new orthopedist, an athletic type we’ll call Dr. Triathlon (I told you we’d get to him) who came recommended by my current physical therapist and spiritual advisor as the best knee guy out there. A couple of fresh x-rays revealed nothing (though I’d never learn why the radiologist put a menacing arrow on one of them), no surprise for what I expected was a soft tissue issue. I left his office cleared to run but a bit perplexed. I was skeptical of his diagnosis (said skepticism would prove apt in due time) that the lower end of my hamstring, which wraps around the inside of the knee where the pain was greatest, was seriously angry. This really didn’t fit the bone-centric pain I was feeling, but hey, he’s the doctor, right? I left with a prescription for some beat-things-into-submission meds.

Which did nothing. So much for that theory. And the horizon seemed to be sinking by the day. By the time the pacing team shirt showed up in the mail, I was no longer certain I could even run that half at the comfortable pace I’d committed. And as a pacer, I couldn’t chance letting down those whom I’d be pacing. Time to amend The Plan.

Turns out I had a free entry to another local half marathon (which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty; it was free because the previous race by this organization had, um, underperformed, let’s say, so they offered me this one). Two weeks before Nantucket.

Now you are starting to see the absurdity of the situation. From running a Boston Qualifier in May, I was reduced to running a half marathon just to see if I could run a half marathon slowly as a pacer, which in itself was just to see if I had a shot in heck of running New York. Sad, ain’t it?

The day of said local half dawned close to ideal. It’d turn mildly warm a few miles in, but nothing to provide any excuse for a total collapse; no, this would all be on me. A small gaggle of about seventy lined up at an obscure spot on an obscure road in an obscure town, and with zero expectations for racing performance – this was, after all, just a test of going the distance casually – I sauntered off about as casually as I’ve ever started a race. Frankly, it was downright pleasant.

And for a while, it stayed that way. I was easily exceeding the pace I’d need to pace without much effort. For a few miles I linked up with the young lady who’d win the women’s side; curiously she looked familiar, which turned out to be because I’d run an earlier event with her identical twin sister. All was sunshine, butterflies, and happiness (along with a couple of good hills, which I rather enjoyed, I really loved the course) till about halfway in. Then all went to hell in the space of a mile.

From cruising to barely moving. From, yeah, the knee hurts a little, but no different than usual, to a stride so uneven, so favoring the tragic knee that the opposite calf started twitching dangerously. From humming to a broken wreck. Stretching stops. Both calves flipping out. As much pain walking (no, limping) as running (no, jogging). Downright pathetic. But just as stupidly as ever, willing myself to finish. I shuffled home, tail between legs, and drowned my sorrows by crashing the party at the hometown 5K, a far more jovial, friend-filled, and food-and-beer equipped event.

Now I wasn’t just not moving too well, I was in downright agony. Running was out of the question. A flurry of phone calls to Dr. Triathlon’s office over the course of the week got me booked for an MRI that Friday night, and after laying in the bang-bang tube with the earphones pumping bad music (really, that’s what they called ‘classic rock’?) I left with a DVD that I totally could not interpret. I mean, x-rays are straightforward. MRIs are wild. Looking at those images, I swore there were cracks right through the base of my femur, which felt about right for the pain (wrong: just normal vascular structures that exist inside your bones…who knew?). But by the weekend, the pain was calming down and I was feeling like this too would pass.

Do you remember that this is supposed to be about the Cheese Storm Incident? I haven’t forgotten. It’s time.

It’s now Monday evening. I have an MRI in hand. I have an appointment with Dr. Tri and, I suppose, with fate, in the morning. And I have a substantial bowl of pasta in front of me for dinner, whipped up by Dearest Spouse. And DS picks up the jar of grated cheese, because this being a more-or-less desperation dinner, it doesn’t merit grating up the real parmesan in the fridge. And it’s one of those store-brand plastic jars with the lid that opens on one side to sprinkle and on the other to pour or spoon. And she holds onto the lid flap and shakes it vigorously to break up the clumps. But only one lid flap. The other is freer than a love child at Burning Man. And it’s the side that pours. And oh, did it rain. It poured.

Cheese Storm. Category Five.

An instant of silence, that tension of, she’s wondering, will he be pissed at this lapse (which, admittedly, I’ve been known to allow to happen, I’m not proud of that failing), and… we burst out laughing. A happy old married couple moment. Dearest Spouse starts to move to clean up and I say, oh, just sit down and eat, we’ll deal with it later. We eat our dinner surrounded by a fresh coat of cheese as delicate as the soon to arrive snow. See, even I can be poetic if I try hard.

Sated with pasta, I retrieve the vacuum from the basement, and we work more efficiently than FEMA after a tornado to remediate the mayhem. Satisfied, I walk gently down the stairs to return said vacuum, still fully aware that my knee is not in top form. And halfway down, on an otherwise ordinary step, something goes pop, or crunch, or snap, I really don’t know, but I know it makes some sort of discernable unpleasant nonstandard noise, and the pain shoots, and I cannot move. At that moment, I know it’s over. My hopes of pulling off the New York City Marathon at last – are toast. I spend the evening crawling around the house. It’s that bad.

Thus, the Cheese Storm Incident. So, how did you kill your knee? Cleaning up cheese. No, really.

I stumble into Dr. Triathlon’s office the next morning on crutches. He doesn’t seem alarmed. I guess he’s used to this, but since I’d left him in far better shape the last time I’d seen him, I guess I expected at least a little surprise. The MRI, which, having been taken Friday night before Tropical Storm Romano made landfall, is probably already obsolete (though again, Dr. Tri didn’t seem concerned by this either), shows the damage. Only a radiologist could string together prose like, “Complete radial tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. Associated edema at the meniscocapsular junction at the level of the posterior horn may represent meniscocapsular sprain.” There was more, but I don’t want to unnecessarily raise the average word length of this saga.

I didn’t disagree with Dr. Tri’s assessment that it’s worth trying to let it heal rather than surgically snipping out parts that will never grow back. So it’s months of no running. Pray for my sanity. No Nantucket – not a big deal, though I felt bad for having committed and having to pull out. But moreso... No New York. And so that’s it. Three and out.

Unlike Boston, New York does allow for a deferral, so I can translate my entry to next year (paying again, but whatever…). But I’ll have to decide that around January, when it may not be entirely clear how well the healing is going. I had already concluded that it was probably time to scale back to shorter distances – I just planned to ease into that after New York, and Boston, and, well…I’d get there at some point, and not fret about it. There are always adventures to be had that don’t require twenty-six miles, and there are plenty more summits as well. Just take it as it comes…

But you’ve got to admit that if it had to happen, you couldn’t ask for a better title for the big moment.

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