Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Chutes and Ladders

"What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it." - Jiddu Krishnamurti

   When I experienced my first significant running injury, I was able to shrug it off pretty easily. I'd been luckier than most of the people that I knew that ran comparable distances. I'd gone from couch sloth to my first marathon in 9 months. And I'd continued to pile on miles and speed from there, with no major setbacks, for several years. But my luck had run out. I was running on the lakefront on a cool fall night and something popped in my ankle. I'd felt similar sensations in my ankle before, but nothing this severe. Running another step wasn't an option.

   I had no insurance. So I decided to trust, that with a little rest, my body would take care of the healing on its' own. In my mind, it was nothing more than a minor obstacle that might require a little patience. I'd still run the marathon in Memphis that was just a few months away.

   I didn't run that marathon. That was two and a half years ago.

    I've spent a good deal of that two and a half years thinking back to that injury and everything leading up to and following it. The injury happened in the fall of 2011. I'd started running in the spring of 2008. So my mind has had plenty of ground to cover.

   Discovering running changed me in ways that went far beyond fitness. For the first time in my life, I'd found a passion for something that was all mine, from start to finish. I'd been influenced and inspired by others along the way. But I owned the miles that I ran. I owned the process of lacing up my shoes, day after day, and building. Building strength and speed. Building confidence. Building purpose. Building a connection between my thoughts and actions, and the flesh and blood of me that was moving and breathing down the street.

   For a long time, I looked at that ankle popping on the lakefront as the moment that I began to lose that connection. I saw that moment as the moment that all of those things that I'd worked to build, began to crack and falter.

   One of the biggest frustrations of the two and half years following that injury, was the confusion and uncertainty about what was actually wrong. There were days and weeks on end when I felt fine. Even good. And then out of nowhere, that same pop. It went on like that for a year and a half. And as I write this, it's hard for me to understand why I didn't find a way to see a doctor. But I didn't. And little by little, slowly over time, I got weaker and slower, and my will and my confidence withered as well. It happened so gradually, that I never really noticed it. One day I was confident that I'd work through everything. The next I was wallowing in self-pity and despair. I felt like the guy in an old cartoon from my childhood. I remember him being sound asleep as a river carried him miles away, only to leave him confused and abandoned and full of fear, in a foreign land.

   I did have moments of hope and respite in that first year and a half as well. I signed up for two marathons in 2012, and I was able to finish the second one. And I felt good about that, even though it was at the slowest pace I'd ever run. But then the bottom dropped out.

   In early February of 2013 I had a hamstring strain that dropped me completely on my ass. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sit. Even laying down was painful. I finally went to the doctor. But that was only good for immediate relief. I still had no insurance, so he gave me a two minute examination and determined that I just needed pain killers and rest. I took both and I sank. I wasted away on my couch. I couldn't work, so I fell behind on bills. I was embarrassed by the state I was in. I was depressed. And I only got worse.

   In late May, I hurt the same hamstring. This time even worse than the last. And at the same time, several other parts of my life began to unravel. Some directly related to the state that I'd let myself fall into. Others well outside of my control. All of which I'll choose to leave out of this post.

   The cumulative weight of it all was crushing. The one thing I most wanted to do to work through it, was run. And that was out of the question. I'd owned my miles. But I'd had no idea of the extent to which they'd owned me. It was as if I'd never known another positive outlet.

   The bottom's most useful quality is also its' most devastating. Time. It moves like a snail through molasses. I spent most of my time at home alone, or on a bar stool in varying degrees of solitude. Lost in my own thoughts and feelings, I had no choice but to search through the wreckage. I felt my way around some pretty dark places. Picked up the things that I found. And I tried to get to know them.

   I thought about what I'd been getting from running while I was healthy and I tried to consider how I could find that in other ways. That's not to say that I ever gave up on getting back to running. I didn't. But I had to reconcile myself to the fact that losing it was a possibility. And as frustrating and frightening as that was, I had to consider what that might look like. I considered other physical releases that might create less stress on the body, like swimming and yoga. They didn't excite me in the way that running does, but they can help fill that void a bit. I also considered the challenges available in my personal life. I considered the ways in which I'd failed to put everything into, and therefor get everything out of, my relationships with those closest to me. And I considered the challenges and potential fulfillment from investing my energy into my work, in ways that I've never really tried.

   I considered those things in part, so that I could begin to see a way forward. But also to see more clearly where I was already at. To understand what it was that I'd been so afraid of in the first place. And I still don't know that I fully understand that. I have some abstract notion of a fear of loss. A fear of losing what I love. A fear of losing love itself. A fear of my clumsiness with my passions and loves.

   But there is a fear too of putting myself into the world as I am. Flaws and weaknesses and all. And while running has helped me build so many positive things, it's also helped me build something to hide behind. And when I lost that cover, I cowered in the corner.

   This past October, I flew down to Austin to visit some old friends. By then, I was in a better place mentally and emotionally and, for lack of a term that feels exactly right, spiritually. But that trip seemed like a significant turning point. I didn't run one step, but I felt more light on my feet than I'd felt in ages.

   I spent my afternoons swimming through creeks and under waterfalls in the Texas hill-country sun. I spent my nights in outdoor beer gardens. Enjoying tacos and beers and easy conversation with friends that seem like they've always been there and always will be. And they seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them. People whose company and wisdom and care had carried me through other rough times. It was a long overdue trip home, and one that helped push me forward out of the malaise that I was finally leaving behind.

   When I came back to Chicago, I set to work on getting back into shape. Slowly, and without putting the weight of my peace of mind on the results. I started with lifting weights, in the hope that I'd be better equipped to handle the miles when that time came. And little by little, I began to find comfort again on the yoga mat. And now, the miles are coming back.

   For the most part, I've stayed true to that slow and steady pace. For the most part, I've stayed true to running and working out for the joy of the movement. I've also used it to weather a few storms, and I'll allow myself that. But I'll try to remember too, that I have other things to fall back on when I need them. And I'll try to remember that I've got friends to fall back on too. Though I still have a lot to work on, when it comes to letting that last one happen.

   I was supposed to run ten miles this evening. But I strained my back earlier today. I told myself that I could run through it. But once I laced up the shoes and ran a few steps, I knew I was in too much pain. I don't know how it'll feel tomorrow or the next day. I still hope to get that ten mile run in this week. But if that doesn't happen... well, we'll see. This is still a work in progress. But for right now, sore back and all, it feels good.



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