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Ten years ago, I had knee surgery.
I will never forget what the doctor told me when I woke up. “It’s worse than we thought.” He then added that the drugs from the surgery would mean that I wouldn’t remember those words, but he was wrong. Running as I knew it ended that day.
Seven years later, I had a hip replacement. Arthritis is the family bane. But this time, I wasn’t even thinking about running. Not only had I gained dozens of pounds, but the hip was so bad that the surgeon took one look at the X-ray and said, “That’s a bad hip. Let me check my schedule to see if we can move up your surgery.”
She did, for which I was grateful. I’d reached the point where the 150 meters from the nearest parking spot to the track where I was then coaching had become the longest walk I could manage without a break, and I took it for granted that there would be a time or two each day when the pain would be enough to make me nauseous.
But this is not that kind of story.
Because earlier this month, I rediscovered racing.
Not fast. In my youth I would have gotten around the course in half the time. But that didn’t matter because I discovered that that which I loved had not been taken from me forever.
Yes, it had changed. And I’m still digesting what this means, because I wasn’t even intending to race. I just wanted to participate. “Racing” was something that unexpectedly happened when I did.
Non-runners like to tell me that running caused the damage to my hip and knee. They are wrong. I am told by doctors that I have a syndrome with some polysyllabic name that tends to set in just before adolescence if the growth plate on the ball of the femur “slips.” I was lucky it wasn’t worse. At age 36, when it was diagnosed, I was told not to run, hike, or do much of anything “because we aren’t going to give you a hip replacement at age 36.”
I’d chosen to take a different path, and spent the next two decades backpacking, bicycling, and running age-graded PRs at every distance from the mile to the 10K.
But if arthritis runs in your family and the shape of the ball of your femur is described by orthopedists as “odd,” there comes a time when you have to call it quits. Followed by weight gain. Followed by surgery.
That was me. I became a walker. (My knee, I eventually learned, was simply a victim of the odd biomechanics induced by my hip.)
As a tribe, members of my family aren’t runners. We tend to look more like Mr. Potato Head, with round bodies on skinny legs. I’d only managed to avoid it for as long as I did because running had kept it at bay until the arthritis struck.
But again, this isn’t that kind of story.
Eleven months ago, I decided enough was enough. I lost 73 pounds. Not by running, because I thought that part of my life was over (though I did walk 40-45 miles a week), but by religiously counting calories. COVID-19 helped, because it confined me to home, where I got tired enough of my own cooking that it was easy to avoid temptations.
Then, we hit the fall. Which for my club means cross-country. I wrote an article promoting our club’s quasi-virtual race series, then realized I needed to put my money where my mouth was, and do it myself, starting with the first one, only a few days away.
Like many virtual races, it was self-timed, with times and distances verified through Strava or similar online postings.
It was, however, run on a set course, meaning that all runners had to run the same route, sometime in a 7-day window. Hence my use of the term “quasi” in describing it.
Pretty much nobody ran it in the first few days. On the 4th day, I decided it was time for me to give it a go. My intention was to walk, but of course, my competitive spirt set in and I walk/jogged. However, it was in a park with a spiderweb of trails, and I misread the map and came up about 400 meters short.
So, I took a break and tried again, a few hours later.
This time I got the right route and, while my time was slower, my average pace per mile was faster. Less walking, more running. More confidence. More like racing.
Happy, I drove home…and discovered I’d run the route the wrong direction. Counterclockwise, when I should have gone clockwise.
At this point there were a bunch of youngsters I more or less wanted to strangle (albeit in a friendly way). The course description said “see map,” with a link. Last year, we’d run a variant on this course counterclockwise. Nothing in the description said “surprise, this year we go clockwise.” When I looked closely, the Strava map did have clues I’d gone the wrong direction. But I’m 66. Strava is not my thing.
All of this was promptly fixed the moment I pointed it out. But that didn’t solve my problem. I’d raced, twice in a single day, and my result still shouldn’t count because again, I’d not gotten the course right.
There was only one thing to do.
Ignoring sore muscles, I went back the next day and did it a third time, this time the correct direction. And, like the racer I once was, of course I had to beat my “wrong direction” time, which I did by a whopping 2:08.
Not that it was fast. The only way you can make improvements like that is if you are slow. But it felt amazingly like running, almost like racing. I’d thought those feelings were gone forever.
The next day was a Saturday, and a lot of other runners were there. I went back and, in coach mode, ran back and forth across the course to cheer on runners and make sure nobody on any team made a wrong turn.
I did the same Sunday morning.
Then I looked at the results.
I was last.
But not by as much as I thought I’d be. Two other runners looked catchable, and the rules allowed you to try as many times as you wanted to improve your time.
I thought about it for a while. I’d already done better than I’d ever have imagined only a week before. Should I let that be enough?
But I’d been once been a serious racer. Not super-fast, but in the hunt for age-group medals. The guy one spot ahead of me was in my age group.
There was really only one thing to do. For the fourth time in four days, I ran the course. For the fourth time, more run, less walk.
I beat not only the guy ahead of me, but the one ahead of him, too.
I still wasn’t fast, but I’d been faster each time. And I realized that whatever it is that makes us racers never dies. It’s who we are, at a very deep level. And it has almost nothing to do with how fast we are. It’s about the doing, not the clock. That drive to do is what makes us who we are.