The Love Of Running And The Agony Of Not Being Able To

Once upon a time, I loved to run. Then, one day, I couldn’t. I was capable of walking, sprinting if I needed to, and using my legs in every other way, but every time I ran as part of a training program, it fell apart due to pain.

I didn’t start that way and I think I may have it beat, but I figured I’d share what all transpired in case it helps anyone in any way.

Let’s start in my early childhood. I was the slow kid in school. I never won the races and everyone dreaded having me on their relay team during P.E.

But I would watch the Olympics and would watch the track and field event with complete attention. That was impressive for an ADHD kid who didn’t pay much attention to anything.

Track is an easy sport to follow. You watch the people run a defined distance and whoever gets there first wins. It’s simple. So simply that I could understand that during the Munich Olympics as a toddler, even though I couldn’t understand the terrorist attack that marred those games.

As a child, though, I had no future in track, it seemed. I ran like a chicken having a seizure. It was awful.

Yet my mother, ever ready to support me, asked me if I wanted to enter the All-Comer’s track meet here in town. I said I did.

I went to the first practice. I was going to run the 100-yard dash.

The coach, however, saw how awful my form was. I didn’t even realize there could be a “right” way to run, but it was. At least for sprints.

While I ended up dropping out of the meet for a number of reasons, some on me and some not, I remembered all about how it was faster if you ran on your forefoot than with a heal-strike.

Throughout the rest of my childhood, most of my athletics was confined to YMCA soccer. That’s all we had so far as soccer, but I actually felt like I was almost decent at the game. I wasn’t great, but I was good enough and it was fun, so I played until I sort of aged out of their system.

There was nothing left.

Middle school had nothing, but when I transferred to a private school, I had the opportunity to play basketball during P.E.

It was an unofficial practice for those who planned on playing basketball the next year in high school. In truth, I wasn’t going to do it at first but when I forgot my gym shorts and the other coach wanted a note the next day, I switched to basketball to avoid having to provide said note.

Yeah, not the best reason to play a sport.

But, it turned out basketball was fun. I wasn’t any good, but it was fun. It also rekindled my desire to compete athletically.

The next year, I played basketball until I was asked to become the manager for the varsity team. The coach confided in me that I wasn’t very good and I wouldn’t get much playing time, but as manager I could be part of the team.

That conversation hurt, but it was truthful. Deep down, I knew I was a crappy athlete.

But track season approached and I figured I’d give it a shot. I approached the coach and he let me know when practice was. I’d never run track before, but I still dreamed of being a sprinter.

Coach pegged me for the 800 meters.

I was disappointed, yet again. Worse, I was a twit who made no effort to hide that disappointment.

My coach as a man named Jim Culpepper, and he handled it beautifully, in my book. He basically said, “OK, you want to sprint, fine. I’ll let you run the 200 in this first meet.”

Awesome.

Well, it was until I got my ass kicked nine ways to Sunday. I got smoked. Worse, all the upperclassmen who had sort of adopted this goofy freshman were in the stands.

I was embarrassed.

Coach Culpepper simply came up to me and asked if I was ready to run the 800 going forward. I meekly replied that I was.

However, something odd happened. Those upperclassmen? They applauded me. They supported me. In fact, they made it a point to tell me how awesome I did.

Now, these were the most popular kids in school, and they were celebrating the freshman class geek.

It was pretty cool.

The rest of the year improved from there. A lot. My best race had me making something of a challenge for the school record as a freshman. I didn’t make it, but because I didn’t have quite the endurance, not the speed.

At the end of the year, my teammates voted me Most Improved for that season. I may have been the only freshman to receive a varsity trophy that school year. Then again, I may not have, but I do know it wasn’t very common.

Unfortunately, the next years weren’t filled with such success. Coach Culpepper left and a combination of factors conspired to keep my running from even equaling that first year.

My senior year saw me not even able to compete due to a trigonometry grade, a credit I didn’t even need for graduation.

Ugh.

Now 18-years-old and looking at my athletic career going down the tubes, I looked for a competitive outlet. I coached youth soccer at the YMCA, trying to pay forward all the efforts I’d received from my own coaches, and while I enjoyed it, I needed something more.

I started running 5Ks.

After all, I was a runner, right? It was the only athletic endeavor I’d ever not completely sucked at.

I wasn’t great, but I also didn’t really know how to train. I just ran until I knew I could complete the distance. Even still, I’d managed to podium in my first two 5Ks at this point. (I’d done one sooner, but my training was for the 800 and neither I nor my parents understood how to train for something like that…even less so, that is.)

The books out there didn’t really help. They’d tell you to run an X-many minute per mile pace for so many miles or whatever, but how the hell did you know how fast that was?

By then I was in college. I’d dabbled in competitive swimming, even becoming part of the Darton College Swim Team–don’t get excited. I didn’t have enough time to get very good at that either–but running was still my passion.

But college, not so much. Once again, my grades sucked.

Now, before I got too much further, allow me to explain. I’m not dumb. But I do have ADHD and dyslexia, as well as a profound dislike for being required to study things that bore me. That means me and traditional education don’t go together very well.

However, at the time I thought I just needed to mature a bit more. I decided to enlist in the Navy.

Once I was in boot camp, it was time to PT. They had us do the obligatory pushups, situps, and run.

It was here that my troubles began.

You see, the military likes things to be done in certain ways, and that included a lot of running in step. The way we did it was that every other left foot strike, you’d stop. This kept your stride the same as your shipmates and made it so everyone was identical.

After eight weeks of that, I somehow forgot how to stride, so when I was free to run, I just ran.

During my second year, though, I started to develop nasty shin splints. Sometimes, they’d be so bad after a PT run that I could barely walk up to my barracks room. I spent a lot of time on light duty and taking a lot of Ibuprofen.

Yet they never referred me to a specialist or anything to try and fix whatever the problem was. I didn’t know what it was.

After the Navy, the same thing kept happening. I’d start to run and the shin splints would return. I’d rest, return, and they’d come back.

I’d seen doctors and they’d recommend rest and OTC pain killers, but the problem kept coming up.

I tried special exercises, special shoes, everything I could find to make the problem go away. Eventually, I just gave up. I accepted I couldn’t run anymore.

That is, until a few weeks ago when Dave and I were talking about running. He mentioned a couple of running methods that might help, and I took a quick look at one of them called Pose Running.

It utilized a forefoot strike. I tried it during my next conditioning workout and things clicked.

You see, when that all-comers coach told me that sprinting was running on your forefoot–he actually said “toes,” but he was talking to a kid and clearly meant forefoot–I’d internalized that and changed how I ran in general. I’d had a forefoot strike at any distance.

But the Navy’s requirement changed my stride. I’d forgotten what my stride really even was, mostly because it’s probably not something most runners think of on a regular basis.

When I was able to run again, I just lengthened my stride and didn’t worry about how I was actually running. Running was running, right?

In the process, I’d broken myself a little bit. I’d put myself in a position where an important part of my life, including a number of dreams, had to be put aside. There would be no Olympic podium for me.

That was the least of it, though.

Running isn’t a very expensive way to get fit. A pair of running shoes and a stretch of road are all you really need, though there are other things that can be beneficial. You don’t need those things, though.

Only, I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t get fit the way I most preferred.

The whole time, though, I dreamed of running. I dreamed that something would happen and I’d be able to run yet again. I just didn’t talk about it because, why would I? Why talk about dreams that simply can’t happen.

You see, I love running. I love running more than any other form of exercise. Much as I love lifting weights, running is my ultimate passion and I know it.

Not being able to do it was a knife in the gut.

I’m not about to stop lifting, mind you. I see the two as co-existing and I think all runners should lift weights to some degree. Or, at the very least, do some kind of resistance training.

But after a week of running, I feel so much different. I feel more like an athlete again. I feel more strong and proud. It’s hard to describe. I just feel like more.

It’s not even a lot of running. It’s a minute of running followed by 90 seconds of walking. That’s what it was this week. Next week the running will lengthen a bit. That will continue until I’m running for half an hour. In theory, that should be enough for a 5K.

Based on what I’m seeing, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Especially since I did 1.75 miles in 20 minutes of that pacing. A full 30 minutes of running shouldn’t be that slow.

During this, I’m focusing on where my foot makes contact with the ground. I’m focused on my forefoot strike and guess what? I feel freaking amazing!

OK, to be fair, I feel a little tightness just below my calf, but that’s a matter of stretching that muscle, the fibularis brevis, sufficiently. It doesn’t actually hurt.

That’s a small thing, as has the low-level soreness that’s been all over my body for the last week or so, but that predated the run on Monday that marked the beginning.

In other words, this week has been a victory. It’s a week I’ve taken something back, something that mattered to me on a level few would understand.

But it’s also made me extremely thankful. I can run again, but what about the people who really can’t? Those people are out there. They’re paralyzed or damaged in some other way and they just can’t. They can do plenty of other things, but get up and go for a run as you and I think of it isn’t one of them.

I think of that and a tear wells up in my eye. Seriously.

The truth is, I’m blessed in so many insane ways that I can’t even begin to talk about. This is just one more blessing, but one that reminds me of just how many I have.

I’m taking the weekend off from any exercise to let that low-level soreness dissipate, but on Monday, I’ll be back out there. Running.

Just like I was always meant to be doing.

 

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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