Then again, there’s always a “but…”
I’ve taken pains to make the case that running is the “proper” writing addiction, but I have not made the claim that it is the perfect writing addiction, nor will I. For all its benefits, running can have a dark side. To put it quasi-biblically, “Running giveth, but it can taketh the hell away, too.”
In that regard, running has some of the same problems Mrs. Roberts warned me off of with other types of addictions. If I can’t write without it, there’s always the chance that I won’t be able to write because I won’t be able to run.
It’s happened before, and I know it can happen again.
A fitting analogy, perhaps, is to look at running like finding that perfect partner, the one who gives you everything you’ve ever wanted in a relationship. To keep that relationship whole, you work at it, and you love working at it. In a strange duality, running is both the partner and the work you put into your relationship with that partner. You learn to count on running, always trusted, always giving, and forever faithful.
But somewhere along the way, running will hurt you and leave you all alone, desperately wanting the relationship back. This is what happens when you find yourself injured and unable to run for days or weeks or even months at a time.
It may be temporary. You hope that it’s temporary. But any way you look at it, it’s a bad breakup.
Some runners become so invested in being runners that when they can’t run, for whatever reason, their sense of self comes crashing down, and a deep depression can set in.
I’ve seen it in a lot of my running companions. The change can be like night and day, turning the lovable “Happy” into the far less endearing “Grumpy.”
I’ve seen it in myself, too.
Once, running had given me so much that my world revolved around it – running farther, running faster, running races, and pushing myself to new PRs (personal records). It completely rewrote my self-image.
Then, faithlessly, running would cause some disabling injury that would leave me unable to run at all. A week would go by, and I’d feel slightly less pain. So I’d try to run again, too soon, and the result was that the injury would retrench with all of its original intensity. Changing a more positive meme a bit, the mantra became “Run, hurt, anguish, repeat.”
There is a phrase runners use to describe running Nirvana, a place that is hard to reach but, once achieved, provides a state of perfect joy. The phrase and the place are called “Running Pain Free…”
Joyously: “I’ve been running pain free for a month now…”
Sadly: “I miss being able to run pain free…”
Hopefully: “My only goal right now is to run pain free…”
I was lucky though. Usually, I’d heal up and be able to run mostly pain free until the next maddening injury came along. Then came that one race, that one test of endurance that resulted in the worst running breakup ever.
* * *
The break happened several years ago. I was training for a particularly grueling hill race, a relay run in downstate Illinois known as River-to-River. The race traverses eighty miles of mostly rural roads, twisting, rising, and falling between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. Beautiful small towns, countryside, and (usually) friendly people can be seen along the way, but for much of the race, each runner is alone, doing his or her best to bring in the best time possible.
The race must be a logistical nightmare its organizers. There are approximately 250 teams of eight runners each, and every team has its own passenger van to transport its team members to various points along the racecourse.
The race itself is broken up into eight “legs.” Each leg is itself broken up into three sections, which, combined, average about ten miles for every leg. Every section has its own start line, which is also the finish line for the last section. This is where team runners pass their batons onto the runner taking on the next section of the next leg.
The team vans leapfrog across the state, transporting runners to their various starting lines and picking up the finishing runners at the same place. The vans empty out at these points, so team members can watch the exchange and cheer their teammates along. But more importantly, everyone takes these stops as an opportunity to scramble into long lines for a limited number of portapotties, where they hope and pray for literal relief before scrambling back to their vans to start all over again.
In the course of the day, you run the first section of whichever leg you’ve been assigned. When you’re done, you’re back in the van doing the leapfrog for seven more runners. Then it’s your turn again. The second and third sections of your leg go the same way, until, finally, everyone meets up at the last finish line in Golconda, Illinois.
It can easily be a twenty-hour long day of running and driving.
Like I said, it’s a grueling race, and every runner has to run every section as fast as he or she can. Cumulatively, this is a very hard thing to do because after you’ve run your first section, you’ve already given 100%. You should be taking a day or two off to recover. Maybe more. Instead, you’re going to do it two more times in the same day. (For some reason, runners love this sort of thing.)
Obviously, this requires intense training in the weeks leading up to the race.
Since we in the more northern parts of the state are basically flatlanders, training to run up and down the steep hills of the relay requires long stretches on a treadmill, running at full incline.
I’d always taken the challenge of River-to-River seriously, volunteering for the hardest legs and training like a maniac, so I wouldn’t crash and burn and let my team down on race day. Plus, I had that spunky new self-image that I wanted to hang onto.
So I was at it, running the artificial hills of the dreaded treadmill at least three times a week, between my more relaxed training runs.
Things were going swimmingly for me training this way, until my calf muscle tore and I tumbled off the treadmill barely able to walk.
The race was just two weeks away.
Skipping the relay never occurred to me. Mostly because my son was running the race with me that year. It wasn’t his first time, but I knew he was looking forward to it. (The kid is a beast. He always has been.)
So instead of wisely bowing out, I sat tight for those two weeks and didn’t run a bit, assuming the calf would heal, and I’d be flying up and down the hills like there was nothing to it.
Race day came, and I ran my first section of the race with nothing more than a stiffness in my calf. I was relieved. Stiffness isn’t pain, after all, and I could run just fine with it.
The second section I ran started to hurt, but not enough to slow me down.
One more section to go, the very last section of the relay, which took the runners out onto country roads with nary a team van in sight.
Half a mile in, the calf broke hard. The pain became excruciating. Only an idiot would have kept running.
But I was an idiot.
My entire relay team, including my son, was at the finish line by now, waiting for me to bring it all home. So I kept running. Hobbling, really, but I willed myself forward. Runners do stupid shit like this all the time, like the Black Knight, thinking ourselves invincible.
I was having none of the spiritual experience my old friend Henry got when he ran with the pain; I was in hell.
I finished the race.
I don’t know if there was a connection, but after that I was hit with something called planar fasciitis, which left me with disabling pain in my heel, a heel that wouldn’t heal. Walking and standing became intolerable. Running became impossible. There was no running through it.
I learned from my podiatrist that there are different kinds of planar fasciitis, or different afflictions, rather, that all fall under the general heading. Sometimes, it just hurts in the morning, until you’ve moved around a bit. I didn’t have that kind. I had the kind that stays with you every second of the day.
Three years later I still couldn’t run. Cross-training was out, too. Riding a bike hurt. Ellipticals hurt. Stairs hurt. Resting my foot on the highway peg of my motorcycle hurt. I couldn’t do anything but eat, sit, and get fat. So I got fat.
But I still wanted to run. I still thought of myself as a runner. Only I couldn’t run five paces without suffering. I couldn’t walk five paces without pain or stand for five minutes without shifting all of my weight to my uninjured foot. (This still my favorite foot.)
The mind was willing, as they say, but the flesh told me to fuck off.
Cortisone injections didn’t help. Orthotics made standing easier, but for some reason made my knees hurt. In any event, I couldn’t run. And I felt old. I was over 50, after all, so the feeling wasn’t completely unjustified.
It was a bad breakup.
Then my podiatrist offered to let me into a medical trial using a new form of shockwave therapy on my heel. It was experimental, but free since I’d be part of the trial. What did I have to lose? I accepted.
Several rounds of this therapy either worked or time finally did the trick. Either way, my foot hurt less, and I was able to begin running.
It wasn’t pretty. My calf muscles took turns tearing, forcing me to stop for weeks at a time. Breathing was impossible, almost like I was a smoker again. But I kept at it. Over time, I managed to be able to run two miles.
It was all like starting over again, but I was working things out with my old partner. We were together again. But if things were going to last this time, we’d have to come up with new ground rules.
I had to learn to control running instead of letting running control me – pushing me harder than my body was able to handle. I’m no Henry, after all.
* * *
So, no, running isn’t the perfect writing addiction. There’s probably no such thing.
I don’t run races anymore. I don’t try to run faster. I don’t try to run farther than six miles. I could. But if I did, I’d be letting running control me again. Right now, I control it. My risk of injury is lower. My enjoyment of the time I spend running is unbroken. I run today with a high degree of confidence I will be able to run tomorrow. And the writing I do while I’m running through the woods stays with me until I get home and begin typing what I’ve written into my computer.
But my heel still hurts now and then, just to piss me off.