Seattle 15k by Mark Stone
September 2011. Outside a heavy snow tumbled through the morning sky, piling onto the previous night's blizzard. Somewhere in the room I heard screaming. It took me a long moment to realize that the screaming was my own voice. I had retreated to a corner of my mind as far from feeling and sensation as I could get, recoiling from that unrelenting sensation like a burning knife running up and down my right leg from hip to toe. That's the sensation you feel when your L5 disk has completely given way, and there's nothing left to shield your sciatic nerve from the weight of your own body.
When the paramedic came through the door, it took all the effort I had left in me to grit my teeth, stop screaming, listen to him, and try to respond.
"Sir, can you walk?"
"Can you stand?"
"Can you feel your toes?"
"Mostly. Not the last two."
"The ambulance can't get through the snow to make it up the hill. They're chaining up, and they'll be here as soon as they can."
Twenty minutes later, the sweet relief of morphine finally administered, I was carried out of my own house on a stretcher. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to walk again. I didn't know how much better my back would ever get. Yet I felt oddly calm. This was the low point of a long, long decline that had started with my first back injury almost ten years earlier. Whatever the future held, it wasn't going to get worse than that moment. Things could only get better.
Its worth noting that, at the time, we lived on the border of Stanislaus National Forest, at the end of what was classified as a "county unmaintained road". Remote doesn't begin to describe it. Its also worth saying that my wife Karen is the most amazing, heroic woman I have known. Snowed in from a blizzard, with four month old baby Nathan in her arms, far from any help, she responded to my accident magnificently. Every call that had to be made, every conversation with doctor or paramedic or surgeon, she was right there to see that I got what I needed.
That was 5 years ago.
- - -
Flashback to 8th grade.
"Come on, you long-legged dork! Run! Run your ass off!" The kids from the first heat are screaming and yelling at me from the sidelines. The words are all too familiar, but the tone is different: exhorting instead of deriding, respect instead of mockery. As I cross the finish line the P.E. teacher called out "72 seconds."
A glance over my shoulders shows no one within a hundred yards of me. I'm mad. I am furious. Because I know I can do so much better. And for the first time, the kids on the sidelines know it too.
We were doing track and field in P.E., my first formal experience with it. We'd just completed the 440 yard dash. Our teacher had seperated us into two groups which basically amounted to the jocks and the nerds. The jock group had run first, with times ranging from 58 to 80 seconds. I wanted to be in that group, because I knew I could run with them. Without someone to push me, I knew my own time was sub standard.
It was a pivotal moment, though. Two weeks later we did cross country running, a 2 mile course through Sligo Creek Parkway, and I finished in the top 3. In the eyes of my peers I had begun to change. It would be a gradual change, but it would continue all through junior high and high school. Less and less I was labelled a hopeless nerd, and more and more I was seen as a brainy jock.
I loved basketball and tennis, and excelled at basketball. But I loved running the most, and running cross country more than anything else. When I was 20 I could run 3 miles in under 18 minutes, and 5 miles in under 40 minutes. When I was 30 I could still run 3 miles in under 18 minutes, and 5 miles in under 40 minutes. But before I was 40 a bad fall cross country skiing at Bear Valley had resulted in the back injury that would rob me of my ahtleticism, and plague me for a decade.
- - -
Fast forward to January 2009. My weight is up to 240 pounds. For reference, that's 70 pounds more than when I graduated from high school, and 50 pounds more than when I graduated from college. Its the heaviest I have ever been. Its time to do something about.
I keep thinking about my last conversation with Dr. Booth. He did an amazing job performing by disk fusion surgery, and the state of fusion technology at this point is really remarkable. He had predicted 100% recovery, and I certainly felt that way.
As we talked about it, I asked, "Can I exercise now?"
"Hiking? Swimming? Biking?"
"That should all be fine."
A long pause, a bit of a grimace on his face, and then he said, "Well, I can't really recommend that."
But by January 2009 I'm ready to risk it. Almost 3 years had passed since the surgery. I need to do something, and nothing motivates me like running. I figure if I feel any real back pain or discomfort at all I can back off and try some other form of exercise. But I might as well start with what I love the most.
The first week of February I start. First day out I cover a mile and a half at a slow jog, and I have to stop twice to catch my breath.
- - -
Tomorrow morning I run in the Seattle 15K (that's 9.3 miles). That's further than I have ever run, but I absolutely feel ready.
These days I run 4x a week, typically totalling 22 miles. Two runs a week are 7 miles. The other two are a mix of wind sprints and hill sprints. I've dropped 40 pounds. In that sense I'm in the best shape I've been in for at least 20 years.
But age and injury have taken their toll. I have permanent nerve damage. On a good day I have a bit of numbness on the ball of my right foot and in my right little toe, and my balance on my right foot is off. On a bad day I have shooting pains that flicker all up and down my right calf. The killer cross-over dribble from right to left that I used to have on the basketball court is gone; I just can't get that explosive push off my right foot. Put me on a tennis court and I don't think I have the lateral movement to dominate the net and guard the passing shot like I used to. Three times in the last 6 months I've done 5 miles in under 41 minutes, but I don't know if I'll quite get my time down to under 40 minutes again. And I'll certainly never do 3 miles in under 18 minutes again.
But the Seattle 15K is not a race for me; its an affirmation. I won't be the fastest; I won't even be the fastest in the 50-54 age group. If I finish at under 9:00 minutes/mile I'll be thrilled. But I will finish.
- - -
This is supposed to be a blog about music, not just running.
Modern technology has given me a soundtrack to my running, something I didn't have in high school or in college. Its made me listen to music in a new way. Songs that may not be that deep or rich for pure listening can be inspiring when you're running. Ritchie Blackmore's guitar solo on "Highway Star" will get you up any hill. The intro to Midnight Oil's "Antarctica" will quietly nudge you to go just a little further than you thought you could.
And songs that meant one thing when you were young mean something completely different now. Any brush with mortality changes you, whether its confronting your own physical frailty as I have, or a brush with death. You're changed not just by your own confrontations with mortality but by the challenges faced by those you care about. It makes a throw-away, "live fast, die young" lyric like this one sound completely different:
I've been to the edge
And there I stood and looked down
You know I lost a lot of friends there baby
I got no time to mess around
Confronting mortality does make you impatient. And strangely optimistic. Once you've faced how much you can lose, you suddenly feel like you have nothing to lose. Not everything is possible (that's the naivety of youth), but you won't know what is possible if you don't try. And the only way to honor those loved and departed is to make the most of the gift that life has given you in passing through your own moment of mortality.
- - -
Ok, I want to end on a more upbeat -- even humorous -- note.
There's this fabulous quote from Jewell in a magazine interview she gave some years ago. She said, "All men secretly want to be cowboys. And all women secretly want to have sex with them." And I think of that quote with a big smile every time I hear the song these lyrics are taken from:
I play for keeps
Cause I might not make it back
Yeah, trying to run a 15K at my age and with my back is a little bit cowboy. See you at the finish line.