Not too long ago I came across a shirt by Nike that says “NOT RUNNING SUCKS”. While I doubt its creators were thinking about 31-year-old former runners with six hip replacements when they conceived this kickass shirt, I jumped to purchase it almost immediately.
It’s only been very recently that I have gotten to a place that I am willing to concede the following: I am not a runner and never will I be one again. This revelation came on the heels of a conversation with Vin which was centered on what else? Running. I can’t remember the specifics, but in response to something I said, he turned to look at me and said, “but you’re not a runner”. He wasn’t being malicious. All he was doing was stating a very obvious fact, but the truth of his statement wounded me deeply.
Being a runner isn’t just a hobby – it’s part of your identity; part of your soul. At a very young age, running became a safe place for me to hide from the circus that was my parents’ marriage. I would lace up and head to the cemetery up the street where I would run the paths there in rarely interrupted quiet.
There are very few stories that my father tells about me that involve him being proud of me, but the one that immediately comes to mind is about running. In fifth grade, our school was holding try-outs to select one student to send to some sort of State competition. After several rounds, it was down to me and one boy. On the day of the final run, I forgot to wear sneakers and instead was wearing my favorite boots at the time: studded faux leather motorcycle style. My father likes to leave out the part of the story where neither he nor my mother made themselves available to bring me my sneakers, and so instead I kicked off my socks and boots and crouched barefoot at the starting line. I will never forget how the dewy spring grass felt beneath my feet as I beat my male counterpart by a healthy distance. A runner was born.
After my first round of hip replacements, it took me a few years (and a few knee surgeries) to work up the courage to begin running again during my senior year in high school. Freshman year at college was a really challenging transition for me, and, with running as my escape, consistent sub seven miles became my norm… Until sophomore year when I found myself back in my surgeon’s office talking about hip replacement number three. Dr. D was in the twilight of his career at that point, and in his stern, grandfatherly way he made it abundantly clear how he felt about the “abuse” that I was putting my hip replacements through. But a year after surgery I was running again.
As my 20s flew by in a blur, I felt the steady decline that most runners don’t feel until their 40s. My titanium hips were hanging tough, but it was my knees, surgically scraped of all remaining cartilage, that would betray me. I went from icing my knees after a good run to feeling like there were shards of glass in my joints in the blink of an eye. I didn’t have much time to process this, however, as hip replacements four, five and six would happen over the years between my 26th and 28th birthdays.
It took more than three years after surgery number six for me to lace up an old pair of trail runners and hit the pavement. But after years of high anxiety every time I felt even the slightest twinge of pain in the general hip region, I completely overlooked how badly my knees continued to deteriorate during this time.
I eased into my run trying to find my stride and a comfortable pace. I barely made it a mile before my knees were on fire: not my lungs, but my knees. I pushed forward thinking “I’m just warming up”, but, while you can warm up your muscles, you can’t warm up your bone. As my running app alerted me that I was on mile four, I found myself running directly toward a garbage can. I made it just in time to throw up while other runners cruised past me. I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t hungover and I wasn’t out of shape. My body, in a visceral reaction to the pain I was experiencing, was trying to signal my brain to stop fucking running. The walk home was excruciating. When I finally got there, I barely resisted the urge to crawl to the bathroom where I washed down two Vicodin. Since Vin was away at a with friends that weekend, I crawled into our bed, put on ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and cried myself to sleep on that sunny summer afternoon. I was no longer a runner.
I often say to people, “This disease takes from you things you never even knew you wanted”, but there was never a question as to whether or not I wanted to be a runner. I wanted to battle Heartbreak Hill and cross the finish line on Boylston Street. I wanted to know that there would always be a place for me to escape, and a community of like-minded (somewhat crazy) souls for me to belong to.
Next weekend I’m doing The Color Run with my sister, my sister-in-law and my neighbor. The Runners only wave starts at 9:45 the morning, but we’re not in that wave. We’re in the Run/Walk/Dance/Cartwheel/Party Wave at 10:00. And with my knees supported by a rainbow spiderweb of KT tape, we will do exactly that.