I heard the words no runner ever wants to hear last Monday.
As I leafed through a April 2015 Glamour magazine, pretending to care the new best shape for plucked brows, I was really watching my right leg shake out of the corner of my eye.
I knew they were coming. I had an MRI on my lower back last June, and had studied the report. While I did a respectable job with Dr. Google translations, it wasn’t the anatomy that concerned me. It was the choice of adjectives. The words advanced and degenerative were used often, usually in front of nouns like disc, narrowing, stenosis.
When the doctor, a sweet man who knows that both my professional life and emotional wellbeing center around running, came in, he gave me a hug—a first.
Then I really knew the words were coming.
After some small talk and looking at the MRI, he gently put it out there: “I think you really need to consider not running anymore.”
Sensing that direction may be a little too abrupt, he added, "Well, you can run a 5K now and then if you want."
By my casual count, I have staged at least eight running comebacks, bouncing back from pregnancy, bunion surgery and stress fractures galore, among others.
The most recent injury, what I initially thought was a hamstring issue, felt different though.
Not only was it the longest (10ish months out), progress was also the least discernible. Which was upsetting because I was cramming physical therapy moves like a wannabe MD crams for the MCATs: daily and with focus. I also was sampling dry needling, the chiropractor, traction, Feldenrkrais, elements from the McKenzie method and the Big Three from Dr. Stuart McGill.
While I definitely felt like I was getting stronger from planks + glute bridges galore, I also felt the injury wasn’t getting better.
Yes, the hamstring ache abated so pushing on the gas pedal wasn’t akin to a getting root canal anymore (win!), but I still felt physically fragile. Like doing anything cardio beyond swimming or walking would set everything off again. (In June, I figured out that stair climbing was also easy on the leg, so I also put that into the cardio rotation.)
As much as the physical situation gnawed away at me, the mental part of an injury, as I hope you don’t know personally, can be more vicious than a rabid raccoon. It is especially brutal when it doesn’t involve a broken bone or similar injury that has a clearly defined recovery timeline.
After a few months filled with managing the trifecta of pain, frustration and impatience, the when-can-I-run again loop cranked up the volume in my head. I tried for 20 minutes in Phoenix on spring break in March, and it wasn’t pretty.
When the comeback anthem wasn’t on repeat, it was replaced by thoughts that this dry-needling session or that new exercise, found by watching hours of DIY physical therapy videos on YouTube, would be the one that would finally make me feel whole. Didn't happen.
I clicked on Facebook posts showing delicious trails I wanted to run, even though going around my block twice in June had me gulping Advil.
I threw in a few miles of easy running on a hike in Wyoming over the fourth of July, and only mildly regretted doing so.
My fifth or so time running in 2017 was on the Sunday before my doctor’s appointment. I got off the stepmill with 10 minutes to go of my hour workout, and stepped on a treadmill. I put the speed at 5.0, turned up Rent’s La Vie Boheme and ran. And then my hamstring stabbed me again on the way home.
Got it, universe.
You know that feeling when you see a moth dart again and again towards a street light? Not only can't it help itself, has no idea its fascination with the beautiful shiny thing is eventually going to send it plummeting to the pavement.
This year, my brain was in moth mode. I couldn't turn it off, even though I inherently sensed my body was already plummeting.
I count the start of my official running career as the 1997 NYC Marathon. The end of it? 2016 Philadelphia Half-Marathon, which was unbeknownst to me at the time. That’s 19 years of running regularly, Add in four more years of reluctant miles during college, and I’ve been a runner for nearly 25 years. (And yes, I get to round up.)
The impact a near-quarter-decade of running has had on my 6’4” body with an extra-long spine is not insignificant. Is all the damage from running? Of course not. But I can't deny that the thousands of miles I've run doesn't play a significiant role in my current spinal status.
I'm 45 years old, and I need to be mindful of what physical conditions can be reversed and what conditions can simply be managed. My discs, one of which is a total flat, oozing mothehumper that bites into my nerves, and stenosis are in the latter category. I want to be active for the rest of my life, and if I continue to run, I am not confident my body will allow that to happen.
For my own (and family’s) sanity, I have to kill the moth and the endless wondering and comeback plans. For my body's sake, I have to minimize the chronic pain. For my spirit's sake, I have consciously redirect my energy away from my running. (I am not entirely sure where I'm sending it yet, but you'll be the first to know.)
So I am taking the good doctor’s advice, and firmly pushing stop on my running.
I type that sentence with tears streaming down my face. Running has been my partner, consistently my side for over twenty years. She's always ready to rally. She is my confidante and my antidepressant, my kick in the butt and my place to relax, my connector to a higher power and my path to peer inwards. She is my cool side of the pillow and my reality check when I need one.
She can create and dry tears (sometimes in the same workout); make me second-guess my devotion to her with two minutes of a tempo effort; elicit a burning pain in muscles that I both love and hate; and summon feelings of pride, confidence, gratitude strength and ownership I've never felt standing still.
She held my hand when I, a rower trying to make the US Olympic Crew, was injured and I had to run by the river while everybody else rowed on it. She made me, a singleton in NYC, feel less alone as we lapped Central Park. She whooped it up with me, and my BRD Dharma, as we discovered trail running in Santa Fe. She fought for every step on my longest run—16 miles—as I, healing from a stress fracture, cruised around Colorado Springs so I got get to the starting line of the 2006 Nike Women's Marathon. She didn't get mad at me in the Couer d'Alene Ironman, when my run/walk segments were really walk/walk/walk/tiny, tiny run/walk segments.
And she never complained when I sang out loud in a voice that made my 4th-grade choir wince. (True story.)
I've known her longer than my husband or my kids, and losing her has—and will continue to—make permanent indent on my life.
That said, I have to admit: I also feel lighter than I have in months. Sometimes the hard decision and the right decision are the exact same thing. When it is finally made, you can't help but exhale relief.
Just because running is off the table for me doesn’t mean adventure is. I've got plenty of #BAMRish plans on my mind (Grand Canyon, anybody?), and I'm still planning to write about them—and running in general. Stay tuned.
Most importantly, I am not going anywhere in AMR on the TLAM Club. While running is the thing that introduced us, our bond is so much deeper than a race distance, a PR, a daily workout. Count on me to continue to cheer for you in person and around these virtual parts. I want to high-five you for your daily victories, and I want to boost you over speed bumps when they arise. Please continue to tag me, ask me, tell me, and invite me to celebrate.
Connection and teamwork are two of my deepest values, and they, unlike my spine, aren't degenerating anytime soon.
Deepest thanks for reading this far, and for supporting and loving me through all the ups and downs. xoxo