once a runner
She moved the chair down slowly, but I used my core to keep my upper-back lifted.
I wanted to see.
And yet, she positioned her shoulders in such a way that cleverly blocked my view. I felt the all-familiar spray hit the top of my foot: cold, like pine needles dipped in ice and painted on my skin.
I'm all too used to this. On the inhale, the needle goes in, searching for what's wrong. The pain is brilliant at first, like a white light cracking through tall trees. Soon it dulls, travels to the knife-edge side of my foot, and wafts up my shin.
My breathing stays rooted. It's really not that bad. And then it's over.
"We'll see if this works," she says.
She says that all the time. We try this, we try that. Frankly, unless a left foot transplant is the next viable option, I don't want to try anymore.
When I started writing on the Internet,
something I'm still getting used to, a huge part of what I wrote about was my relationship to running: the marathons, the mile repeats and 300m cut-downs, the cross-country adventures doing races and relays, and, most importantly, the people I met along the way.
In the last few years, I haven't written much about running. In fact, it's been well over a year since I ran my last significant anything: The New York City Marathon. I was undertrained, injured, and dealing with a fresh breakup. I somehow spit out a 3:48, a solid 20-30 minutes slower than where I want to be, but something I was proud of given the less than ideal circumstances.
After that race, I wondered what would become of my identity as a "runner." It's something I've always considered myself until recently. Am I a runner who barely runs? Who is chronically hurt, and now faces a five mile run with less heart, and way more fear?
Clearly, a lot a lot a lot has unfolded in my running life. I want to revisit it now.
Four score and/or six months ago, I moved to Colorado.
On the day I arrived, I jumped into my running shoes to explore the trails. A huge reason why I moved out here was for said trails, so I wanted to start on the right foot. (Insert foot-pun here.)
I ran for 15 minutes, and thought I was going to vomit most of the way.
Yes, running at elevation (5,000 ft) will do that to you. I was prepared for it to be uncomfortable. But this was a next level "situation."
I had two foot surgeries that summer to try and heal two neuromas in my foot. Neuromas are actually pretty common, and most people just "live with them." But mine are four times the normal size of the abnormal nerve cluster. And for someone who was running upwards of 35 miles a week, they weren't something I could simply "live with."
One typically develops neuromas from either wearing high-heels, or running a lot. I tried to blame the two weddings I went to that year, but knew it was from the miles. I had tried everything to heal: cortisone, steroids, pills, cryotherapy, physical therapy, padding, orthotics, rest, penny-throwing into fountains—you name it.
Since battling this injury, I haven't written much about it. And here I am. Over the last 24 months, these dumb nerve tumors (intense name) turned into a chronic pain that is debilitating not only physically, but mentally.
Recently, I was on Bainbridge Island in Washington, meditating on a porch that overlooked the Puget Sound and Seattle skyline.
I tried to picture myself walking without pain, and I couldn't. In fact, I can't remember that last time I walked pain free.
When I went on that first run in Colorado, I hadn't put my sneakers on in almost two months. I was wildly out of shape, still in a lot of pain, a mile above sea-level, and at an all-time confidence low. It was one of the hardest runs in my life.
Still, I kept running. Daily. I slowly ticked my way up to 20, 25, and then 30 minute runs. I continued to be in pain, and a three mile run usually ended with my foot propped up on pillows, being iced via frozen bag of peas. A health insurance debacle kept me away from the prescription drugs I needed, and kept me feeling helpless.
I moved out here to move out here—run, bike, hike, ski, climb.
And here I was celebrating a two mile slog a quarter-way around a reservoir, only to come back home barely able to walk.
This narrative, though, slowly shifts towards the positive, although not in the "and then I got better and ran a 50K!" positive. After realizing I couldn't even go on a four mile hike without needing to be carried down a mountain (which almost happened, sorry Rich), I stopped running.
I started swimming and biking, an alternative that kept my heart rate up by my spirits still low. But when I moved to my own place in Boulder in October, I joined a yoga studio. And that changed a lot.
Even though my injury can be tricky with yoga, I figured out some modifications to make it work. And surprisingly, in the last four months, I've gone nearly 80 times (yes, I am counting!!) and feel like I've been given a new body. My arms feel stronger, my breath feels lighter, and I feel like my yoga studio is a second home. I never thought I'd be saying "namaste" so much since no longer working in Nepal, and yet..
And yet, and yet. I don't feel like "a yogi," despite the fact I've spent more time in 75-minute hot, power yoga classes than I have on any of the Colorado trails. I love yoga, and I don't plan on stopping soon. But when I lay in bed at night, I think of slipping on my sneakers and sneaking off into the woods. I think of the 50K I wanted to sign up for, but realistically knew would be a disaster. I think of the November Project workouts I go to twice a week, but always wish I could feel stronger in (though thankful the number of miles we run is actually pretty minimal. All about those burpees & pushups).
I think I'm not a runner. I think I am "Once a Runner," to steal the title from one of my favorite books. I've lost the words to talk about running, because I've lost the stories. It's the weirdest identity crisis I've felt in awhile.
My podiatrist keeps pestering me about an invasive surgery that will "fix everything," but keep me off my feet for six months. I'm not ready to take either plunge—to go under the knife yet again, but to also be denied the movement I've been longing for.
So here I am now. I'm at a coffee shop, finally writing (typing?) down these words, coming face-to-face with the fact that I don't feel like a runner anymore. And for some reason, admitting this might actually allow me to let these feelings go.
"Once a runner, always a runner," is what they say. I'd like to meet "they" and ask for more information. I'd like to know what the qualifications are to be a runner. I'd like to know when I can rediscover my stride.
I'd like to run mindlessly, wordlessly, painlessly, under these pink skies—where the air is thin but filled with so much hope.