(update of original September 2007 post)
I always said I’d quit running when my body told me to stop, not a doctor or my Mother or anyone else. But with a nagging pain in my lower back for several years now, it makes me wonder if my body is now talking, and loudly. Frankly, I had planned to run for a couple more decades and be one of those really old and greyed guys slogging down the road. So just a few months shy of fifty-five, contemplating the end of the road hurts more than my back does.
I started running during the First Running Boom, in the mid-70s, after college. I ran in some 10Ks, and then on a lark, my buddy Roy and I ran the Miami Orange Bowl Marathon. Being young and springy, we decided we would run at least one marathon every decade thereafter.
I ran 13 marathons, collecting New York, Boston and Chicago runs like prized trinkets, posting a PR of 3:38 early, and crossed a marathon finish line in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
Once I ran a 10K in 40:40, but I was never very fast. I just kept at it, year after year, logging my miles and goals and chronicling injuries in black-and-white Composition notebooks. I have a shelf full of them.
The running logs gave me a history of where I’d been and where I wanted to go.
Like a good coach, running made me eat better and forced me out the door to sweat regularly. It kept my triglycerides in check and my heart strong, resting at 54-55 beats per minute.
Before I stopped smoking and drinking for good in my late 30s, running reminded me how these things were killing me.
Of course, the Antirunning People insisted that running was a harmful excess and would eventually get me. It would ruin my knees, they said. Running marathons in particular was very unhealthy and, inferred, stupid of me. They always talked like they knew something, which no one did.
My argument was simple: Whatever, I like it, I’ll stop when my body tells me to.
So now in my current state, were the Anti’s right? I don’t know, but I’d do it all again. If I could get rid of the back pain, I’d go out for a run today.
I ran with epilepsy. To protect against breakthrough seizures, I took extra meds before long races and long training runs. Still, I had seizures on the road, once in a race. Another time I woke up in a ditch in the dark, slightly bloodied, and walked the wrong way home until the fog lifted. Another time I dropped on A1A as a car skidded to a stop inches from my head. I don’t remember any of it. The worse part was starting up again; running made me face deep fears.
My favorite run ever was Boston, the 100th, in 1996. Everything clicked that day. I missed breaking 4 hours by 5 minutes, but otherwise, the endorphins poured into my blood from an open faucet for 26 miles.
My toughest marathon run ever – the second New York, 2003. The first was run in a 50-degree Nor’easter monsoon, bad enough. But the second was a hot, dehydrated, cramped event that just whacked me to the Far Side. In my last Chicago, I ran ill-prepared with a respiratory infection and that one took longer to recover from – six months – but nothing hurt more than the last NY run, when instead of gorging on a big steak to celebrate, I ate chicken gumbo soup in my hotel bed and passed out.
Another unforgettable run was a 20-miler on the morning that Hurricane Francis blew into South Florida. In the dark, I snuck past the cops who had closed the Atlantic bridge. I headed to the beaches, which had been evacuated, and ran a deserted AIA as dawn broke. As a Francis crept closer to the coast, she cooled me down with a series of weirdly cold and violent feeder bands.
One year in my 40s, I ran just over a thousand miles, with time off to go skiing. 20 miles/week average. Pretty good.
Back in 1981, it was a low-mileage marathon plan by Jeff Galloway in RW that got me to thinking about running a marathon. Roy, like so many other over-indulgences since we were teenagers, was quick to jump all over it.
Years later, I convinced my friend Andy to quit smoking and run Disney with me, and my brother Kurt to run Chicago. Kurt went on to run several others and Andy went back to smoking. Roy wore down all the cartilage in his right knee. But it was a bum knee to begin with. The 15,000 miles or so he added after that first marathon probably didn’t help.
Roy and I ran that first Orange Bowl Marathon side by side and though we started many, many races together; we only finished one other together – 18 years later – at Disney. After that first year, we discovered he was fast and I wasn’t. So it went.
I’ve had my share of injuries, which has been central to my running experience. IT Band Syndrome, my longest running pain. I’ve worked through bouts with plantar faciitis, a groin pull, meniscus tears, hematuria, stress fractures, shin splints, tears in my calves and ankles, and the spasming lower back.
How many times have injuries become obstacles to running a marathon? Most, if not all. It’s why I’ve always said the toughest part of marathoning is getting to the start line. I wasn’t talking about completing the mileage – but avoiding injuries.
Still, injuries have been great teachers. I’ve freely passed along everything I know about inflammation and muscle knots and trigger points, et al, to anyone who will listen.
Injuries have also taught me persistence, otherwise I would not have made it to many start lines.
I also ran up to and through my 2008 treatment for prostate cancer. My oncologist was amazed at how I seemed to glide through the nine and a half weeks of radiation, with few complaints about fatigue. He could only explain it away by my fitness level for a typical fifty-six year old patient. That would because of the running.
So why can’t I run now? What’s different?
The back problem won’t clear up. I struggle to run a half mile, or even sit in a chair for long. Not running like I once did, I feel like I’m aging fast.
End of road – or another injury to persist through? Is my body screaming to stop?
I’m not sure yet, but I don’t like what I’m hearing.
Update November 2009:
Since I first published this post in September 2007, I've gone through severe and mild bouts with my lower back. I've tried a Medpak of super-anti-inflammatories. Extended chiropractic and massage treatments. Ab work. Treadmill-only workouts. Nothing works.
An MRI revealed a couple narrowed disk spaces, probably pinching nerves in my spine during the pounding, and a couple bulging disks; nothing operable. The result of years of running? Or just genetics?
No one can say.
My marathon days are finished, halfs are questionable. But I've adapted. I've given up the longer distances for shorter, slower runs, and conceded miles to the MRI in that I don't push the back when it acts up.
So far, so good. Back on the road again ...