Something remarkable has happened. I share this for the simple fact that it is a testimony to what is possible. For the folks who have read my book, and as a precious remaining old racing peers have recently seen, I am able to run again. It was a decade-long battle. Protracted dry-spells interspersed with faint glimpses of hope. Sparse healthy respites each ending with soul-crushing frustration. Suffice it to say it was a long dark period. Quite miraculously ̶ slightly more than a year ago ̶ it appeared that my left knee was forgiving the intrusions of my five knee-surgeries, and beginning to accept the artificial parts inserted during the last surgery now several years in the past.
I kept the secret mostly to myself. I was afraid that if I were to speak too soon it might jinx me. The fact I am a professed Christian not withstanding doesn’t mean I am willing to risk fate in the off-chance this thing is coming from a different realm than Christendom. Running is a precious gift after-all. I had to wait until I knew for sure. Each previous attempt had always ended in disaster. I’d hung up my son’s speedbag and tried boxing. But, with my upper-body that of a distance runner, there wasn’t enough muscle to yield the aerobic workout I was trying to reproduce. I spent $2,000 on a NordicTrack Freestride Trainer, and it made my lower-back sore. I purchased a Concept 2 Rower, but I developed carpal tunnel after using it for only a couple of months.
After watching the Freestride Trainer collecting dust for the better part of a year, I decided I to give it another try. This time, instead of expecting the equipment to conform to my wishes, I would make an intentional effort to adjust my stride and my cadence and accommodate the machine. With time and patience I managed to change my body’s natural mechanical inclinations. To alleviate the carpal tunnel, I began to push on the arm handles, instead of pulling on them. I altered my stride. Miraculously, the adjustments started to work. At some point, I was working out on a daily basis. Then, ever so slowly, I began to introduce sporadic days of jogging into my exercise routine. A year later, I enjoy a weekly routine of mostly virtual elliptical “runs”, with a couple of 3-5 mile runs out on the roads interspersed in between.
I am 25lbs lighter than I was a year ago, and have seen my (running) training pace quicken by a minute and a half per mile. For some time, I have been mostly free of the familiar pain and knee weakness that used to accompany every attempt at working out. In the last several months, I started toying with the idea of running races. I wondered, though, if I could participate in races and yet contain my enthusiasm. Could I enter a race and be contented with participating for participations sake? I thought I could. I hoped I could. My first attempt came on the evening of June 20th. It was the Short Run on a Long Day held in my hometown of Frankfort, IL. I was giddy with excitement as I waited on the starting line. Ten years of not being able to do the thing you want to do will that to a person.
I went through the first mile in 6:35. The pace was too fast. It was way too fast for a 54 year old man who’d just spent the last ten years fighting to come back from a career-ending knee injury. After hitting the 2 mile mark in 14:02, I walked off the course. There was too much at stake to risk pressing on with legs that were screaming for me to stop. There would be other races. The following day I signed up for Tinley Park’s Stars and Stripes 5k. On the hot and muggy morning of July 4 I told myself that this time I would hold back. I would wait and see how my body responded and then pace myself accordingly. Though I believed I was running more easily than the previous race effort, I completed this first mile in 6:25. Again, I experienced a difficult second mile. But, when I passed the two mile mark in 13:35, I realized the first mile’s pace had proven to be less costly than the last race. I stopped once to drink water and then twice to stretch during the 3rd mile. I completed the distance in 21: 45. A couple of days later, I signed up for another race.
On the evening of July 19, I toed the line of the Joliet Park District’s Sundowner race. Twenty four years ago, when I was at my peak, I won the race in one of the fastest times of my racing career. In an interesting twist of fate, and perhaps way more important than the earlier win, is the fact that the course today wends its way through Pilcher Park. In my book the Reasons I Run, I mention Pilcher Park because on its western edge lies the little neighborhood where my family lived back in the early 1970s. It was a place that was filled with painful childhood memories. So, when this 54 year old man stepped on the starting line I knew I was in for a unique experience.
Once more, I told myself to hold back. When I hit the first mile of the race in 5:45, I knew I was again in trouble. For the 3rd consecutive time, I’d started the race with the fastest mile I’d run in over a decade. Just as in the previous race, I stopped to drink water at the end of the second mile. I would stop five more times over the remaining distance, each time stepping to the side of the road and bending over with hands on my knees gasping to catch my breath. When I crossed the finish line, I was berating myself for having started the race at so fast a pace. If I’d run at an even pace, I would have surely run a better time than 22:12.
I sat on the grass, not far from the finish line, observing as other runners completed the course. Some were celebrating. Some looked as exhausted as I had felt. I saw their loved-ones and friends cheering them on. As I was watching it occurred to me that, just as I’d done in the races of long ago, I had been picking apart my performance. Instead of savoring the fact that I was participating in a race after being unable to do so for an entire decade, I’d been beating myself up and already was contemplating my strategy for the next race. In that moment, I realized that even when I was winning most of my races back in the day, I was always looking to the next race to find my redemption. My thoughts drifted to the little boy who, almost five decades ago, lived in the dilapidated house at the other end of Pilcher Park. I recalled the poverty, the sadness, the insecurity. Its ok little boy, I told myself…you no longer have anything to prove. Be still frightened heart. Be quiet before you awaken the fierce, yet so fragile, little ego. It’s ok to let it go…this time lets’ enjoy the ride.