30 August 2013

Is It Worth It?

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!

26 August 2013

Beds & Meds

My rock & roll month of packing in every bit of living possible before the Big Slice came off as planned.  For those keeping score, I managed to sleep in ten different places over the first twenty days of August.  (Yes, home counted, but only for one…)  That all came to a screeching halt Friday morning, when the Saints of Marlborough Hospital laid me out on the slab for the dissection.  Now, nicely medicated against what has turned out to be a surprisingly small amount of pain, I’ve got – at least in terms of running – nothin’ but time.  Time to rest and recover with a lot of hard work down the road to rehab and regain racing form, but for the moment, just time.  Dearest Daughter the Younger coined the catchphrase for the month:  Beds to meds.  I love the irony.  Hey, you might as well take joy from wherever you can find it, right?

Getting there is all the fun.  After last episode’s Adirondack Death Marches, DDY and I headed to New Hampshire for a few Death Marches of our own.  In a bid to obliterate the Adirondacks’ reputation for having rougher trails than the Whites, we directed ourselves up the North Slide of the Tripyramids, a monster that rises twelve hundred feet in a mere half mile – do the math, that’s an average forty-five percent grade.  This thing is a trail only by virtue of the fact that paths lead to and from it, and that someone built a few cairns on its upper reaches.  Otherwise, it’s merely a climb, and while not quite of the ‘butt-hanging-in-the-sky’ caliber of trails like Acadia’s Precipice, it’s clearly in the daunting category. 
There’s nothing like watching fist-sized rocks whiz past your kid’s head while you clamber hand-over-hand for the next tenuous root upon which your life will depend for the next thirty seconds.  Yes, this trail was proof that time heals all wounds.  Otherwise there’s simply no way I would have done this again, had I recalled its intensity from my last trip up some twenty-two years back.  Needless to say we survived the ordeal, as well as the following day’s excursion which brought DDY to the half-way mark of her quest to summit New Hampshire’s four-thousand-footers (and my second trip around, in keeping with this blog’s title, having wrapped up my first round of these peaks back in ‘ninety-five).

Home no more than a few nights, we set off again for a third trip to New York State in two weeks, this time to celebrate a family wedding, pay some social calls, and scope out colleges in the Big Apple. Translated to the “Let’s Trash the Achilles Before Surgery” mission, this meant miles upon miles of pavement pounding, highlighted by New York’s new High Line elevated-railroad-turned linear park, the classic Brooklyn Bridge walk (don’t die without doing it), and a surprise entrant to the ultra-cool places to walk and run, Poughkeepsie’s Walkway Over Hudson, a two-hundred-foot high, mile-and-a-quarter long rail trestle turned spectacular walk.  Or run.

Yes, in the midst of all this commotion, my diabolical plan was to run to the end, knowing it would be a while before I can hit the roads again.  Having taken the June break and the May-through-July slowdown, slowdown has been the key word for any miles lately, yet I was amused to find that among the hundreds of runners in New York’s Central Park, I was still the passer and not the passee.  After registering runs in seven of the month’s ten bedding locations, pride kept me going up to the last morning, when I popped in four and a quarter just an hour before reporting to the hospital.  Being accustomed to two hundred fifty miles a month, merely topping a hundred for August wasn’t a big deal, but hitting it just before the slice did feel pleasantly defiant.  And besides, I didn’t have to re-hydrate afterward, as the nurses had a nice IV bag ready to do that for me.

And frankly, that IV was the worst part of the whole ordeal.  I am a Certified Wimp on that score, but once past that, this repair thing was a breeze.  The procedure, according to Dr. Foot Doctor, went well.  As he’s once again promised pictures (can’t wait!), I’ll leave the details brief here for now, but in short, after slapping myself down face-first on the slab and imagining I was in for a good massage, I instead took a nice chemically-induced nap while he filleted the back of my heel, punctured That Pesky Achilles nine times (take THAT you troublesome bit of flesh!) to promote blood flow and healing, added a lateral stitch to hold it all together, and Zip-Loc’d me back up.  Less than an hour later, I was back in the real world, riding my horizontal chariot to recovery.

A big part of the reason this was so easy is the cadre of Saints at our local hospital.  The nursing staff is simply awesome; attentive and caring of course, but also performing with a cool competence that is both comforting and confidence-inspiring.  They deserve songs of praise, so imagine I’m singing as I say thank you to Enid, Patrice, Carolyn, Barbara, Sharon, and everyone else I missed.

Later that day, save for a bad trip on some overzealous meds, soon replaced with merely zealous and well-functioning meds, I found myself in so little discomfort that I was tempted to suggest that Dr. Foot Doctor merely performed placebo surgery, with the intent of getting me to stop running long enough to let things heal on their own.  Of course that’s not the case, as a bit of random pain and swelling and the inconvenience of being back on crutches have reminded me, but really, this is nothing at all like the misery of that last repair back in ‘oh-eight.  It’s merely a small price to pay for the joys and benefits that a life of running has brought.

I’m already on recovery Day Three.  This cast and crutch thing will be gone before you know it, the boot will come and go, and I’ll start the road back.  Keep smiling, it’s only eight months till Boston!

10 August 2013

Insulting the Injury

Mother Nature has a way of hijacking your plans.  The originally intended theme for this week’s musings bubbled to the forefront of my gray lobe while I was actively abusing my body in New York’s Mud Zone, the Adirondack High Peaks region, earlier this week.  I’d been thinking of my decision to return whole hog, to whatever level of training I could muster in order to gain whatever conditioning I could before my impending immobility, as well as assure that Sir Achilles looked good and angry when Dr. Foot Doctor went in.  No point in him wondering which part hurts, right?

Having delayed my date with the scalpel because of August’s packed schedule – and part of the reason it became so heavily packed was precisely because of that looming scalpel – it occurred to me that what I was doing was living to the max before an unavoidable deadline.  Thus came to me the theme, “What would you do if they told you that you had only so many days left…”

Now of course what I’m facing isn’t the end, it’s just an interruption.  But knowing it was coming I’d not only jacked up my mileage, but planned a couple significant mountain treks, sandwiched between business travel, college tours with Dearest Daughter the Elder, and a family wedding just to make things complicated.  But Mother Nature doesn’t care about your plans, and she has a cruel sense of humor.  Or perhaps she does know about your plans, and likes to subvert them, or is impatient to just get on with them.  In my case, my plans are to have my Achilles rather brutally stabbed with a Topaz wand to cause bleeding and, hopefully, healing.  This morning Mamma Nat figured she’d get in on the act a little early.  She took it on herself to entirely brutally stab that very same Achilles with one of her finest soldiers as I human-powered my seriously retro squirrel-cage push mower around the homestead.  I can’t say which version of stinging machine it was, but I can say it was the most intense pain I’ve felt in a long time, and a long time it was, lasting till even now.

With mountain trek number two launching at an ungodly hour tomorrow – indeed I should be sleeping now – this was simply an insult on top of the injury I’m already dealing with.  So while I had been thinking about how much living you can squeeze into the time you’ve got, I suddenly found myself dealing with an ironic insult.  And the irony was layered:  Heck, why pay for a doctor and a hospital?  Just let some insipid insect inject insulting injury into the source of your woes, and maybe, just maybe, it will bleed, it will swell, and it will heal!

Cut to reality.  I can only wish for such a miraculous recovery.  More likely, I’m just hoping it holds up while we scale the rockslides on the Tripyramids tomorrow.  Save for this insult, the chances are good, since even in its injured state, it held up to thirty miles and ten summits over two days in the rough-tumble-and-mud-entrenched ‘dacks earlier this week, or in other words, I’m slipping in a segway to the original idea:  Live it up, you’ve got only days…

Hiking significant mountains in the east, significant here being defined as four-thousand-feet and over (go ahead and laugh you folks out west, but just remember, we don’t believe in wussy things like switchbacks or trails graded for horses), generally involves a simple formula:  you go up, you might bounce over a few lumps while up, and you come down.  But my Intrepid Young Hiking Partner hasn’t quite learned those basics.  For him, the formula involves drawing a squiggly line on the map, more or less ignoring those pesky little contours on the topographical map.  OK, I embellish a bit here, in truth he knows well what he's up to, he's simply seriously aggressive with his plans.  And with the hospitality his family offers in their slice-of-heaven Adirondack lair and his enthusiasm for the mountain equivalent of the kill, who am I to complain?

On a perfect Monday morning, sunny and forty-three degrees at the Adirondack Loj (yes, proper spelling), he, I, and a trail buddy we’d met last year set off for phase one of the day, a relatively run-of-the-mill twenty-five-hundred foot ascent of Mt. Colden.  Save for the gale-force winds up top, it was a simple and perfect ascent, with expansive views from the Great Range, to New York’s ultimate summit Mt. Marcy and it’s many nearby siblings, down the amazing plunge to Avalanche Lake, and across to the McIntyre Range, our next target for the day.

Oh, but there was that detail of the plunge between us and the other range.  This was where we tossed out the usual up, bounce the lumps, and down rule, by inserting another complete down and up before even getting to the bounce bit.  Two thousand feet down, and not an easy two thousand feet, but rather two thousand feet of slick steep slabs almost entirely canted diagonally to assure maximal podiatric and quadriceptual abuse (yes, I just turned a muscle into an adjective, call the Grammar Police!).  And that’s not to mention the delightful alpine cliff-side ladder, an Adirondack specialty, strategically placed to make access certainly frightening if not overly technically difficult.  Mentally and physically, we were worn, but that was only phase two.

Phase three brought another nearly two-thousand foot rise in an unreasonably short distance, a relentless climb by any description.  But while I’d been the laggard on the phase two plunge, my body simply despising the shocking abuse of descent, phase three let the runner endurance and more importantly the runner mentality pay off.  Once into a rhythm, the marathoner mind just churns the body onward, damn the insanely steep rock piles, damn the insanely steep slabs, damn the obvious weariness, damn the torpedoes, we don’t quit at mile twenty-three and we don’t quit on the mountain, either.

Reaching the ridge of the McIntyres, with an incredible view of the fresh landslide on Colden delivered by Hurricane Irene in 2011, we finally resumed the basic formula, bouncing over the lump of Boundary Peak to reach Iroquois, before bouncing back over Boundary and ascending yet another half-a-thousand or so to Algonquin, a peak I’d last visited in 1985, some twenty-eight years ago.  This time, it was better, and not just because of the weather, but because twenty-eight years later, I (we, really) still could, even after already climbing that first mountain.  That being said, with a solid five and a half thousand feet of climb under our belts, we were fully spent on the way down, and unanimously elected to eschew our last planned summit for the day since we’d all three already bagged it earlier.

Thoroughly fried, Intrepid Young Hiking Partner and I did what any other hard core hiker would do, and headed out again the next morning.  But fear not, we’re crazy but not stupid, and cut down our planned four major summits to merely two (and a few minor ones along the way).  As we neared the end of this second numbingly wearing trek, Intrepid Partner had elevated his total to forty-four of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, with plans to finish the quest within a week, and I, who’d never really considered this quest realistic, found myself at nineteen.  Or in other words, hooked.

But more importantly, I relished how much living I was packing into the brief time before the Big Slice on the twenty-third, and pondered how all of our lives could be so much richer, fuller, and more productive if we only remembered that there is a finish line out there, somewhere, hopefully way out there but certainly out there, for all of us.

What would you do if they told you that you had only so many days left…