Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Success

I have run the past two days, totaling more mileage (just shy of 5 miles) than I have accrued since the day after plica surgery on April 2 (I ran 5K the morning of the surgery - perhaps the antecedent to the complications?).  This piece was just written for an intensive teacher-class I just took - 9+ hours in the classroom each weekday, tons of reading, and, gasp, homework.  Reckoned I'd throw it up here for a more permanent record, and as a reflection of things beyond running.


“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . As he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness."

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden


I was six or seven.  It was summer.  A clear day, blue sky, the woody smell of Vermont’s Green Mountains deepened by the heat.  I was sitting on the third step leading up to the porch where we stacked our wood for the winter and had the swinging bench for summer days and nights.  The stairs faced the giant tree, the one I was always too nervous to climb.  The one with the “pull bark” that I would pick and flick like little knives.  I was crying. The tears came from a realization. A realization that one day, any day, I could die.  For some reason, unknown to me, on this day I confronted the only promise of human life, the promise that we will all end.  It was not an anxious moment, a depressed moment, it was just a great epiphany.  Still, it scared the shit out of me. 

. . .

There was a growing sense of foreboding.  We’ve all had it - that twisting pit of anxiety that builds in the bottom of your stomach and gradually builds to consume your mind, training your thoughts on all the negative possibilities.  The freezing cold water, engulfing me to my naval, did little to inspire confidence.  The cold caused my breath to grow shallow. Despite being surrounded by all this fresh water, my mouth began to go dry.  This was going to end badly.  Very badly.  Why was I doing this to Liz? 

“Dad, we’re swimming across,” Cooper proclaimed, the general soft, “kid” quality of his six-year-old voice masking a brash confidence I had lacked in youth, and adulthood.  My four-year-old, Jacoby, mirrored this confidence, but had the sense to say he’d be swimming on my back.  Between us and the far edge of Walden Pond lay a stretch of water that, despite being crystal clear looked like a black-hole, it’s impressive depth swallowing all the light before it could return to the surface.  Every instinct I had as a parent cringed at the thought of letting my two sons, whom I love deeper than my own life, risk theirs to swim across this water. There was no reason to do it, other than to fulfill a natural sense of wonder and exploration, the same drive that propelled the earliest humans to step into the unknown and explore the world.  I thought of Liz, who, during the summer months works longer hours while I watch the boys.  How could I tell her what was sure to happen to one, or both, of our children?  Heart racing, every muscle tensed, every ounce of parental instinct screaming, “NO!” we pushed off and began the swim.   This was going to end badly. Very badly.

. . .

Years before, my Grandpa Barney struggled to enjoy the last bit of his failing strength and vigor.  He and I strolled the beach outside his Florida home, an activity once done for hours without rest.  Today, we stopped at every beach chair we could find, Grandpa clearly struggling to walk the fifty yards between each.  Despite his troubles, we shared the deepest conversation we had ever had.  The details are fuzzy, bleated out by the bright sun and my realization that this would be the last time I could share a walk with him.  But looking at the man who, through his work and economic acumen had brought financial fortune to my family, I confessed the fear that I would never make much money.  My grandfather, who had started humbly, peddling fruit in Brooklyn to feed his family, then laid bricks, and eventually became a successful builder during the heyday of Detroit, told me, “Josh, there are many forms of success.” We sat silently for a moment. “Money is only one measure.  It’s probably the least important.” The conversation ended as we reached the next beach chair, Grandpa winded, eyes closed as he struggled to catch his breath, those “other” forms of success left a mystery to my freshly minted, college-graduate mind. A mystery that remains to be discovered through living. 

Years later, I walked this same stretch of beach.  It was late at night, mid-February, the temperature a welcome, but unnoticed relief from the wicked cold I had left in Boston a mere twelve hours before.  My mind remained in my grandparent’s home, where, just minutes before, I had held Grandpa Barney’s head, gently running my hand through his beautifully silver hair, hearing the “death rattle” in his throat, speaking to a spirit I hoped remained in the wasted, unconscious body.  As he lay dying we shared a moment of physical intimacy we had never shared before.  I said goodbye and, alone, left the light of the building, left the pain of my parents and grandmother, who would keep vigil that night, to walk to the hotel where my wife and two boys were waiting, asleep.  With not another soul in sight along the entire ten-mile beach, I stopped.  At first I heard the waves, their melodic rhythm unending, infinite.  I pitied my loss, my grandfather’s pain.  I turned to the heavens, to the great expanse of sky above the water and was awed by the sheer scope of the universe, the stars, eternal beacons to worlds beyond our reach, and to the great human sense of exploration.  Looking at that night sky, I realized I was looking at the same stars, which were forming the same patterns, which had been looked to in moments of joy and sorrow and contemplation for thousands of years. As my grandfather’s last bit of life was leaving his body, I thought of how every moment, in all of creation, had led to this one.  In this moment, wrapped in the personal suffering of loss, I thought of all the people who were, at that moment, comforting their loved ones in death, or were welcoming their child to the world, or were meeting the love of their life for the first time.  I thought of all the people who, despite the infinite vastness and opportunity that spread above me, were thinking of my grandfather.  From his earliest days, pushing his wooden fruit cart on the streets of Brooklyn, to his days as a grandfather and a great-grandfather, and all his days in between, his eternal stars were his relationships with others. His honesty. His integrity. His love.

There are many forms of success.

. . .

It had been a long three months for me.  Just weeks from the 100-Mile Trail Running National Championships, where I was confident in a top finish, my knee flared up.  I knew exactly what the pain was, having suffered from this three times before, and did all I could to rehab.  My fitness, both the physical and the mental, that is needed to run 100 miles was at an all-time high, having been built over the previous year through long miles and wake-ups that match last call at many bars, and an almost maniacal focus. As the weeks progressed and the recovery did not, this was lost.  I dropped from the championships, mourning the lose of a reality I had pictured, but that had never existed. Fourteen weeks from the initial flare of injury, after nearly two months of consideration and counsel, I stood on the eve of a “simple” surgery, which promised to fix my knee, fix the problem, forever.  In about fifteen hours a surgeon would put his tools into my knee, but first there was this ridiculous coaches meeting I had to attend.

It was Tuesday, April 1, 2014.  I had missed bedtime with the boys to sit among close to two hundred coaches for the Town of Arlington, mostly dads, many of whom joked around and caught up, my natural introvert squirming as I sat awkwardly at a middle-school cafeteria table, just waiting for the meeting to end. In lieu of my usually intense, and time-consuming training, I had signed up to coach my son’s U-8 soccer team, this meeting marking the start of the spring season and my formal commitment to three days a week of practice and games.  I was dismayed when Mike Singleton, the director of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer, was introduced as the guest speaker.  Honestly? A guest speaker?  I was coaching a group of seven and eight year olds!  I just wanted my gear so I could go – I had a surgery the next day.  Being polite, I feigned interest as Mike spoke about youth soccer and his many experiences coaching – from the awkwardly large ten year old who was six inches taller than him to the college level player who got hurt and lost his scholarship. My mind half present, a word floated through the air that caught my attention: pedagogy.  This was starting to feel like a really bad PD.

Yet, as Mr. Singleton spoke of pedagogy, comparing soccer to education, to school and planning, he addressed something that had been stewing in my mind for years, something I had been unable to articulate and something not enough people in education are willing to look at.  Now, with my rapt attention he continued, “Of the hundreds, possibly thousands of kids who play soccer here in town,” his demeanor intense with its honesty and passion, “Only a few, maybe ten, will go on to play Division I soccer.  Maybe one will go on to play professionally,” he iterated, placing a clear emphasis on the maybe. “But this, I promise you,” his voice now almost a whisper, “These kids will become adults.  Many of them will become parents. What we need to teach them is not how to be the best soccer player, but how to be the best people they can be.” Coaching, suddenly, was not just a “filler” for my lack of running.  It was a sacred act.

There are many forms of success.

                                                - - -

Thirty yards from the far shore, Cooper started to tire.  I started to panic. I offered words of encouragement, focusing to keep my tone calm and collected.  This was the moment I had gravely feared.  My mind’s eye showed my son sinking below me, me struggling to save him.  I became acutely aware of every little movement Jacoby made on my back, sure that he, too, would fall and sink like a rock.  Cooper grabbed my arm and clung on, his little legs losing their strength below the surface.  I pushed toward shore, my heart pounding from fear, carrying both boys, desperate to get out of this situation, until he said, “NO! I just need a little break.” Jacoby added, “This is fun.” The fear and grim fate I imagined did not exist for them.  We tread water for the longest thirty seconds of my life, and then, my two boys finished their swim across Walden Pond.

As a child, I never had the chutzpah to do something like this, to confidently advance in the direction of my dreams.  My successes were visible in athletic trophies and rankings, academic grades, gainful employment.  But always was that sense of, “Can I really do this?” sounding in the deepest recesses of my subconscious.  Perhaps it was that day on the steps, when I understood my mortality, but I was never willing to push myself to the absolute edge of potential.  It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I rode a roller coaster, until my 34th year of life that I went cliff jumping.  Even today, as a teacher and athlete, I continually question if I’m “doing it right” or “doing enough.”

When my sons, who, by any reasonable account were much too young for the risks and, all too real, consequences this swim across Walden Pond entailed, first told me they were going to do it, I balked.  Yet, perhaps for the spirit of Thoreau that pervades this place, we swam.  By embracing their goals and dismissing my fears, their challenges, their dreams were made my own.  They accomplished something that, for them, was truly epic.  Reaching the far side my heart swelled with pride.  Not at their accomplishment, but at the sheer audacity of action and willingness to push the limits of what they, and I, deemed possible.  It was this summer day, a clear day, blue sky, the woody smell of Walden Pond deepened by the heat, that my sons gained a true education. It’s an education that in most ways can only be known to ourselves, an education that, when gained, produces an inner strength of character that allows one to advance toward dreams with a confidence “unexpected in common hours.” I wish for them to continue seeking, and I strive (and struggle) to replicate this education, this success, inside the confines of my classroom.  Years after that lonely night walking down the beach in Florida, as Cooper and Jacoby lay panting on the far shore of Walden Pond, veritably glowing with pride and accomplishment, I felt what Grandpa Barney’s words meant.

There are many forms of success. Grandpa Barney realized that the ones that really matter are the ones that people may never know you’ve achieved.


The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.  Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?


- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Monday, April 21, 2014

Losing The Zen, Finding Relief

The doctor had just called and you could hear the concern in his voice.  Nearly three weeks post-op and the fact that I had developed chills with a low-grade fever and no other symptoms did not bode well.  The knee was hot to the touch and the swelling, despite being wrapped with ice and compression nearly 24/7 the past two weeks, had not changed at all.

I put the phone down, sitting on the edge of the Ottoman, about to lift myself with the two crutches that have become the key to my mobility the last three weeks.  Liz had refused to go to bed until we knew what was going to happen.  As I braced myself for the throbbing pain that I now expect when raising myself from a seated position, I stopped.  I didn't want to hurt.  I didn't want to suffer.  My fingers went to my eyes, which were beginning to burn with warm saline.  My nose got stuffy, and I sobbed.  I shook my head, thumb and pointer finger holding the inside corner of each eye, tears flowing, angry that I had "elected" to have this surgery. "There's no use thinking about that now," Liz counseled.  The TV showed highlights from the day's game at Fenway, at that moment focusing on the pre-game with the survivors from the marathon bombing in 2013.  I was too self-obsessed, too far into the realm of self-pity, anger, and frustration, that I couldn't feel compassion.  My suffering was all that mattered.  What if I did not come back from this trip to the ER?  What if I had a raging infection in my leg, and the only solution was amputation?  What had I done? I sat there, Liz consoling me, hand on my shoulder. In our seventeen years together I have broken down like this maybe three times.  "I'm sorry," I sobbed, my thoughts now turning to what she and the boys would have to go through without me.  The memories that would never be made, the missed joy and experiences simply overwhelmed my psyche, which swirled with negativity and hopelessness.  I was engulfed in an imagined future that was horrible.  There was no other way to say it: I was scared.

Nearly everything about this post-surgical recovery has gone so horribly wrong.  With another trip to the ER in front of me, I expected this time to be no different.  With Liz's encouraging words, I gained some composure and loaded myself into the car.  The only positive thought I had?  Maybe I'll get to see that damned mountain lion that is hanging out around here.  It was 11:17 PM, Sunday night, two-weeks and one day, almost to the minute, since my last visit to the ER for complications from this knee surgery.  A surgery, which should have been "simple," but has proven to be anything but.

One benefit of of becoming a "frequent flier" at the ER is that I know how to make my stay a bit easier.  I brought a backpack filled with my meds, and other "essential" items, that I could throw my jacket into.  I went knowing there was a real chance I would be spending a huge amount of time there.  I went armed with knowledge about what tests to ask for and what I wanted to avoid.  Despite these mental and physical preparations, I was not ready to hear the doctor telling me, given how the knee looked and felt, there was a good chance that another surgery to "clean out" a (very likely) infection was probably in the cards.  The last thing I wanted was to have these wounds opened up again, and someone else poke around my knee.  I just wanted my ability to walk back. I was tired of suffering.  It was 1:30 in the morning - I was also just flat out tired.  "If this is infected, and we don't treat it, you will probably never run again because it will do some serious damage to your knee." I try not to swear much in public, but, in this moment, "Shit," was all my vernacular could muster.

Growing up in Vermont, I remember "tapping" a sugar maple tree on our property and then my mom boiling down the clear sap to a dark, amber, deliciousness.  Lying in the ER bed at Winchester Hospital at 4:17 AM on Marathon Monday, this was most definitely not the image in my mind's eye as the doctor took the largest needle I'd ever seen and prepared to "tap" my knee to pull as much fluid as he could out of it.  This fluid would determine the course of my immediate future - if it tested positive for nasty bugs, I didn't want to think what would happen.  If it didn't, well, I'd likely have some relief from the pain/pressure I'd been feeling near constantly for the past two weeks.  Finger's crossed as the needle broke the skin.

My late Grandpa Barney would have said, "That's a crap-house load of fluid." The doctor said, "Well, it's not a record, but that's certainly a lot of fluid." After pulling many, many ounces of what looked like blood (and not puss), I caught a small glimmer of optimism.  "The tests will take a couple of hours, and the real result will be the culture, which will take a couple of days, but we'll start you on some IV antibiotics, and I'll let you know as soon as I get any word." With that, the doctor left the room, and I settled into a fitful couple of hours, with one thing abundantly clear: draining all that blood had relieved a lot of pressure and discomfort.  I could flex my foot without the knee feeling like it was going to explode or pop.  Still, since I've been taking anti-coagulants for blood clots (the first post-op complication), the concern was more bleeding in the joint and blood simply refilling it.  As my father (a family doctor up in Vermont) has told me through this process, "Blood where it is not supposed to be, especially in/around a joint, can be extremely uncomfortable." I had experienced that the last two weeks.  It was 4:31 AM.

I spent the next hour and a half falling in and out of sleep, trying not to move my knee, thinking, for some reason, that this would limit the bleeding, and relishing the lack of pain/discomfort in the joint, even when just lying there.  I tried to meditate, to find my Zen, but fatigue and the fervent hope that no "nasties" would be found in the blood, made it difficult to settle the mind and just embrace the moment and reality.

"I know it's been a long night, but I have good news.  The first tests are showing that this was just blood so you won't be needing surgery right now.  Your INR (a measure of the level of anticoagulant Warfarin in your blood) is also therapeutic now, so, if you follow up with your PCP this morning, you may be able to stop injecting yourself with the Lovenox (a "bridge" medication that prevents blood clots from getting worse.  You inject this medication into your belly, every twelve hours.  I really don't enjoy it, and have a whole new respect for those that have to do things like this their whole lives.  I had been looking forward to stopping this routine since my first trip to the ER, 15 days before).  We'll know for sure in a couple of days with the culture, but, for now, I'm going to give you some antibiotics, and send you home." It was 6:02 AM.

The fact that a second surgery would not be needed lightened my heart.  The fact that my knee had felt fine since being drained (and remaining propped up) made me excited to "test it" as I left the hospital.  I envisioned being crutch free, triumphantly walking into my house unaided and pain free, celebrating a massive victory in what has been the slow progression back to health.  I put my foot down on the floor and stood up, hope replacing the fatigue I felt.

I nearly fell back down.  I could feel the blood returning to the knee, and, as my dad said, "it felt a rather uncomfortable." It took me a couple of minutes to stand upright on my crutches.  My head swam in a hazy cloud of an all nighter and pain.  By the time I got to the car, I was winded, teeth barred against the discomfort.  It hurt.  It took me four minutes to get the ten feet from the car to the house because of the throbbing.  But then I sat down, propped the knee up and the pain went away.  I've spent the next 13 hours sitting on the couch, watching the incredible performances at the Boston Marathon, and, unlike every other day for the last fifteen days, my knee has not bothered me one bit while sitting.  I've been flexing my foot with a smile on my face because it feels "normal" to do so - not like a water ballon being squeezed by a tantrumming toddler.  Sure, it hurts like hell when I get up, but just thinking about the fact that I will likely get a comfortable night's rest, has been exhilarating.  Knowing I have (at least a temporary) reprieve from additional surgeries is huge.

We had a picnic dinner in the living room tonight so that I could keep my leg propped.  Cooper and Jacoby were willing to play games with me lying on the couch (before Liz took them to the Marathon, Jacoby and I were trying to play a game and I kept falling asleep as he asked me the questions - "Dad?  DAD!  It's your turn!" His sweet little voice kept waking me up when I would fall asleep ever thirty seconds or so).  I eventually gave in and mumbled that he could just play on the iPad.  Cooper (who when he first saw me in the ER following last-year's Vermont 100, told me, "You could have just walked it in."), kept telling me, "I can't wait until your surgery is better," or "At least the plica is gone and can never bother you again." I couldn't agree with him more.

I wasn't proud of myself for losing my Zen last night before heading to the ER.  But, just like "tapping" the knee led to some serious relief, by allowing myself to fully experience all those negative thoughts and emotions, even if it was just for a relatively brief time, I was able to find some sort of relief from this silly ordeal that has consumed my body and mind since April 2.  A good initial lab report didn't hurt any either!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Time Heals All Wounds: A Story In Two Parts

Part 1: Sometimes You Need a Really Sharp Knife

On Monday, March 31, 2014, Dr. Anthony Schena received a call from a patient (let’s call this patient, oh, I don’t know, Josh).  A message was left that went something like this: “Doc, I know my surgery to remove the plica is on Wednesday, but, I’m not kidding, just two days after we finalized the date for this, the knee started to feel better, and, well, I don’t know.  I’ve been able to run to and from school this past week, and am just wondering what your thoughts are about this, if the surgery is really necessary.”  What I (I mean “Josh”) couldn’t articulate in the message was the feeling that, like my recent procurement of a new winter running jacket, having surgery at this point, after fourteen weeks of discomfort that had seemingly, miraculously healed itself (literally, two days after finalizing the date), was, somehow a “luxury.”  The pain was (mostly) gone, so why did I even need this?  Afterall, I was running again.  Each day that past week, I had made it to school and most of the way home.  Why would I willingly let Dr. Schena cut into my knee and put me back on the DL for several more weeks?  I couldn’t help but shake that feeling of being the impatient American, a consumer, looking for the “quick” fix that would cure my personal woes.  Because there was no pain when running, I started to think of this as “cosmetic surgery.” I started to think about the miles lost during recovery.  If the operation had just been scheduled for two weeks before, before I had been given the gift of pain-free running again, there would have been no question what the right choice would have been - cut this plica out!  It’s amazing how quickly we can ignore history when our present situation fits our mental model of what we hope will happen.

On Tuesday, April 1, 2014, Dr. Anthony Schena left a message for his patient Josh.  It went something like this, “Josh, you can always postpone surgery.  However, I think, as you’ve experienced and know, this is something that has already come back three times.  You may feel fine for a day or a month or a year, but then, one day it will bug you and you’ll be out again.  You’ve been out for almost four months already.  If you want to postpone, just call my office.  Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow.”  This was the reality: the plica wasn’t going anywhere, and it would become irritated again.  At some point down the road, I knew I would be facing this same choice again.  

Over the past year (perhaps starting at the Vermont 100), I’ve begun listening to both my “gut” and other’s advice more careful, more thoughtfully, especially those most important to me.  And so it was that I found myself on the morning Wednesday, April 2, 2014, shaving my leg before heading to the hospital (I was looking forward to the shaving of the leg part, because, really, when else would I have such a great excuse to do that?).  It was certainly not an easy decision (the surgery, not the shaving).  Of course Googling “plica surgery recovery” did not help make up my mind, as I soon discovered that the Internet is full of horror stories of people that, years later, still have pain.  A doctor was about to stick some rather invasive tools into/through my knee!  But I am learning.  I tried to not heed the words of anonymous users like DJBlueSKY1179 on random Internet forums and instead focus on the voices of people that know me.  After a couple of weeks of counsel from friends and family, it was the words of my father (a family doctor in Vermont who had happily taken my MRI to all of his orthopedic and radiologist friends, who had all graciously looked over it for me) and my wife (who was the one who was going to have to deal with all the post-op kvetching on my part) that truly helped me make up my mind.  First, my father and the several experts he had shown my MRI to had all seen the plica.  They reported that everything else in the knee looked great and that (in the universe of the knee), the plica was not near anything “of consequence” to the structure of the joint.  Then there were Liz’s words.  She has been patient with me these months, and truly understands how much of my personal identity is wrapped up in my ability to run long distances (not necessarily compete, but to be able to move, under my own power, where I choose.  She also has the distinct pleasure of knowing me well before I was a runner!).  She reminded me that another two to three weeks of recovery would pale in comparison to how frustrated and angry I would be at myself if I postponed the surgery, when the plica became irritated again.  I would have to start the whole process over.  It had taken fourteen and half weeks this time.  She was absolutely right.  Ultimately, this decision was mine to make, and, heeding the inner-voice, I knew I’d be going under the knife.  Time does heel all wounds, but, I realized, sometimes those wounds need to be made by a really sharp knife in an operating room.  

Just over 72 hours post-op, the procedure seems to have gone quite well, with the doctor telling us that my knee, “Looked perfect, and now the plica is gone.”  Liz and I actually got to have a little “date” pre-op, where we simply chatted for about two hours, interrupted only occasionally for IV lines and status updates (I also took great pride in setting the alarms off on the pulse-monitors, because my heart rate was reading 39 BPM.  After having run only about ten miles a week (if that) over the past fourteen weeks, I was sure my resting heart rate would have been much higher.  If nothing else, this objective measure made me think, “I’ve still got it,” which was a great boost of optimism before knowing I would be very limited in activity for a good chunk of time post-op).  When I removed the surgical dressing forty-eight hours after getting home, there was much less swelling than I had imagined.  The stitches certainly tug, my calf is a bit tight, and I am being super conservative in putting weight on the knee, but I’ve even felt improvements today - a more “natural” stride with the crutches and more confidence in placing weight on the leg.  Patience has become the name of this new game, and it is a patience tinged with an optimism I did not feel much over the last fourteen weeks: if I am cautious now, the bloody thing that bothered me is no longer there, so I’ll be okay!

This has been my biggest lesson so-far: be optimistic.  The days leading up to the surgery, I still couldn’t help but Google “plica surgery recovery”  (I’m still learning not to trust the myriad opinions/voices on the Interwebs - I’m not totally there yet!).  A fascinating article about Joan Benoit Samuelson (from Runner’s World) appeared in the search results.  Turns out she had the same procedure I did back in 1984.  “A few days later, she tested it to the . . . tune of 17 miles.” 17-days post-op, she won the first ever women’s Olympic Marathon Trials.  She then went on to win the first-ever women’s Olympic Marathon!  Her story certainly has given me a reason to be optimistic (and wise about recovery.  The article also explains how, following her “test-run” she had caused such damage to her leg muscles that she needed 14-hours a day of “microcurrent stimulation.” Sorry, I’ll pass on that).  Although I feel “weak” (mentally and physically) because I succombed to the knife, I am determined to enjoy the recovery and subsequent return to form.   Right now, when I am overly-conscious of every movement my knee makes, this process feels glacial, but, by the time summer arrives here in New England, and I am running pain free, it will be but a distant memory.  And, for years to come, each time I come home from a long run, the kind when you’re out so early that you experience that subtle transition from dark night, to gray dawn, to bright day, the kind where you’re so thirsty and tired, and it’s so hot you wanted to stop miles before, I will smile and likely not even remember that time, one April, when I was laid up on the couch for a couple weeks.

Part 2: In Which I Am Grateful For Having Written Part 1 Three Hours Earlier

“Patience has become the name of this new game, and it is a patience tinged with an optimism I did not feel much over the last fourteen week: if I am cautious now, the bloody thing that bothered me is no longer there, so I’ll be okay!”

Somewhere, in the deepest folds of my brain’s gray matter, those words, which I had finished writing just hours earlier must have been playing on infinite repeat, because the only thing that was really freaking me out was the fact that the nurse had just casually mentioned that I would have to self-inject the medication before he casually left the room.  And now, about twenty minutes later the doctor and nurse were back explaining that I would be starting Lovenox immediately and the nurse would be “teaching” me how to inject it into my belly every twelve hours.  And now, just seconds after that conversation, the nurse was grabbing a fold of skin and fat around my belly, saying, “This is going to burn and itch for a bit” and stabbing a needle into my gut.  It was 2:30 in the morning.  What in the hell just happened to me?

Shortly after finishing Part 1 of this story (which was supposed to be the only part!), I went up to bed.  It was Saturday night, about 10:30 or 11:00.  My calf (below the operated on knee) had been really sore since Friday morning, when I first tried to take some “substantial” steps (I mentioned it as “being a little tight” in Part 1.  That was like an ultrarunner saying they feel “fine” at mile 80 or so.  It really means things are not well).  It felt like it does after a really steep/long run.  I figured it was the stress of surgery and the fact that I had been trying to not move the leg much post-op.  It remained sore for much of the day, but I thought little of it, trying to stretch a little, even massage it.  Nothing seemed to help, but I thought little of it.  Saturday morning dawned and, getting out of bed, the calf hurt.  It hurt enough that I got a little nauseous and thought, “This isn’t right.  It shouldn’t hurt this much after a night of rest.” I laid back down and focused on my breathing, trying to push the “what if” thoughts out of my head.  The calf continue to bother me throughout the day, especially after it had been lying on pillows.  That really didn’t seem to be right.  When I got in bed this night  (again, minutes after finishing Part 1), the calf hurt simply resting on a pillow.  This is definitely not right, I thought to myself.  I lay awake for most of an hour, thinking that something was terribly wrong and that Liz would discover the worse in the morning.  It was about 11:30 PM when I got up and called the surgeon.  On the other end of the phone I heard the exact advice that, since Friday morning, I had been desperately trying to deny in my mind, “Go to the ER and be prepared for a long night.” I woke Liz up and refused to let her drive me, simply telling her I would hopefully be home by the time she woke up.

And so there I was, lying in a hospital bed, having an ultrasound of my left leg.  Perhaps it was a combination of fatigue or having already accepted that this is what was going on, but I was not too shocked or surprised to hear the ultrasound tech say, multiple times, “There’s a clot.  There’s a clot.  Here’s one.  Let’s just check here too.” I had had a feeling that this is what was happening, and just stared at the monitor.  The tech brought me back to the room - I tried to be gracious to her for a doing such a thorough job -  and I closed my eyes, and started meditating, focusing on my breath, letting thoughts roll in and out of my mind.  It served me well by helping to avoid the fears and anxieties that were starting to surface, from the question of what this meant for my running, for my post-op recovery, and, more importantly, for my family - was my telling Liz I would be home by the time she woke up a simple act of denial? - and ultimately the question of my mortality - could this kill me?  The short answer to that last question was, yes, especially if I had simply been my typical stubborn self and thought myself invincible.  The good news was that as soon as the nurse stuck that first needle into my belly, I was on the way to protecting against this worst case scenario.

The official diagnosis is Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), which is a fancy way of saying that there are a bunch of blood clots in my leg that shouldn’t be there.  These are possibly complications from surgery, especially of the knee and hip, and, if left untreated, can ultimately lead to a pulmonary embolism (PE), when a clot “breaks loose,” travels through the heart and into the lungs.  A PE is not good: an estimated 100,000 Americans die of PEs every year.  Perhaps it was denial, perhaps it was that I had already accepted the reality of this situation, but this was not one of the two things that really freaked me out.  Those were, first, fact that I was going to have to start injecting myself with “blood thinners” (which are actually anticoagulants, which limit the blood’s ability to clot.  A very good thing if you have congestive heart failure or DVT or PE.  A not so great thing if you are, say, running on a trail and trip and get a really deep cut (which I have done more than once)).  And second, that I would be on some type of anticoagulation medication for three to six months.  These two facts of my newly shaped reality really freaked me out - like sick to my stomach, dry mouth freaked me out (beyond the fact that these steps which I fear will likely prevent me from developing PE, another positive is they have helped me realize I will never become an IV drug user.  I’ve been able to do the injections, but there is no way to get around it except to say they are absolutely horrible.  I have a whole new level of respect and empathy for what diabetics must go through on a daily basis).  

Since that first shot at 2:30 Sunday morning, there has been one moment where I felt nearly completely overwhelmed and simply thought to myself, “FUCK.” It was Sunday night, right before I went to bed.  I was checking on my boys, who sleep in a bunk bed.  I looked at them and thought, “What the hell was I thinking?” I questioned, again, if the surgery was even necessary and felt like a horribly selfish person for doing something simply to be able to return to running faster.  It was a sad moment for me, where I thought about all the “what ifs”; and especially what this could have meant for my family.  And then, as I hobbled over to kiss both of the boys, the crutches clanking so so much I feared I’d wake them, I thought of a lot of the lessons I’ve tried to teach to my students this year: about acceptance, perseverance, kindness and strength of character, and the negative thoughts were fought back.  The reality of the situation, of the present, returned, and I stopped thinking of a past that I wanted to reinvent (not have surgery), or a future that I feared (all those what-ifs), or the “perfect” future I craved (a speedy post-op recovery).

As I got in bed that night, I focused on my breath again and just let my thoughts flow freely, not judging them, but observing them.  In the end, this new reality has not changed the lesson I learned when I thought the recovery was going to be “quick.”  It is still about patience, still tinged with optimism, albeit a bit different than before.  This optimism is less about my own ability to return quickly to running great distances, and is about something much bigger to me: an optimism for the good of humanity.  While my physical recovery will be longer, my mental and spiritual recovery has begun in earnest.  I feel so much gratitude for all the people (especially my family and friends) that have been so supportive and caring, listening to my bellyaching (literally - it’s from those injections!).  A gratitude for the surgeon, ER staff, ultrasound tech, and other medical professionals (especially old Dr. Dad Katzman, who has provided several hours worth of consultation already), who have helped me make sense of this situation and get me on the path to recovery.  It has brought a deeper gratitude at hearing the tales of friends who are running trails and winning races - something that, at times, had brought jealousy, but now just creates a sense of awe at what the human spirit is capable of (and offers some incredible incentive to heal quickly!).  It has even brought a deeper gratitude for my students, who, when I returned to school (a couple of days later than originally planned) for the first time today, treated me with a kindness and care that is not often demonstrated by teenagers.  I was so impressed with their concern and compassion that I joked with my fellow teachers that I was considering faking more surgeries in the future and showing up on crutches more often.  As for actual surgeries . . . I’ll avoid those as long as I possibly can!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Boy. A Jacket. A Love Story (Or: A Review of the Inov-8 Race Elite 260 Thermoshell)

It was the winter of 1998.  It was the beginning of the online shopping boom.  I was eighteen, just days away from my nineteenth birthday, had a credit card, and had just discovered REIoutlet.com.  Seriously?  REI gear at way cheaper prices?  Uh oh.
. . .

As long as I can remember, my father has had a sweatshirt from a well known company (who’s name transports a person to the Southern Hemisphere).  It is black and zips up the front.  He wore it in the winter, often when we would chop or stack wood.  It had piled all over the outside, usually had little splinters of maple sticking to it, and I remember, when it would hang by our fireplace, drying after a snowstorm, I would collect those little “buttons” of fuzz, inhaling the years of carried wood and collected chainsaw exhaust, and look at the label on the left breast, picturing myself in those mountains that graced the logo.  Yes, this sweatshirt has a special place in my psyche.

So it was with a certain titilating nostalgia that, as I scrolled this newly discovered virtual world at www.rei.com/outlet that I saw it: for $22.73 a “wind blocking, lightly insulated shell for all your winter adventures.” It was blue, full zip, with a left chest pocket.  And, in my (nearly) nineteen-year old mind, most importantly, there was that beautiful logo above over the left breast.  Immediately I sent it to my “Shopping Cart,” clicked “Check Out” and waited.  Several days later, I was opening the package, figuring this jacket was, to paraphrase Macklemore,  so much more than just a jacket.  This jacket would give me the ability to climb the highest peaks in the world (regardless of lacking the requisite skills), would make me able to tell tales at bars that began, “As I crossed the altiplano of Bolivia . . .” (regardless of lacking the requisite charisma.  I was also not a runner at this point in my life, instead merely a Walter Mitty mountaineer).  These images rushed through my image-conscious, teenage mind.  There was great anticipation.

Utter and complete dissappointment.  This jacket, which I had come to see as a doorway to greatness, flat out sucked.  It was ugly.  It looked vaguely like a shiny track suit, minus the retro “cool” factor.  The outside felt like a nylon tarp, and the “insulation”? It wasn’t even Polartec!  In fact, it was so thin and light that I figured this jacket should only be used as a shower mat.  And that would be pushing its envelope of functionality.  Buyer’s remorse in full effect, the jacket got tossed into a pile of neglected gear I never saw but once a year when I added some other ridiculous purchase to it.  Shit.  How was going to reach the goddamn altiplano now?
. . .

It was late spring, at least a dozen years later, and I was summiting Bondcliff in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, with my great friend Sam Jurek.  We had been running in a steady, cold rain and bitter wind for about 3 and half hours, as we attempted a Pemi Loop.  Temperatures hung around 37 degrees, and when we had refueled at Galehead Hut, instead of warming us, as we had hoped, the inside of the hut simply reminded us of the cold – each exhale turned to mist, and we quickly began to shiver (a symptom that disappeared as soon as we started marching up the soaking “staircase” to S. Twin.).  This was Sam’s introduction to the Whites, and I, being the wise veteran, had packed my once-dismissed, ugly, blue “tarp” jacket (with the cool logo), which, despite being soaked, was keeping me warm and, as we cruised the exposed ridge, kept the constant wind at bay.

You see, once I became a runner I discovered this jacket in the back of a closet.  It was winter, probably around 2003, and I fancied myself a serious runner, so I needed something on a particularly cold and windy day, to keep me from freezing to death as I headed out the door.  I gave this jacket, which I had held such high hopes for when clicking “Check Out,” a try.  I don’t think I had worn it before that day.  To this day, it is my go-to piece of gear when it gets cold.  Now, like my father’s sweatshirt, the inside (which I am now convinced is lined with some unique, magic fabric, found in no other garment, ever) is slightly piled, the outside is stained with tree sap and road (and body) salt, the zipper is half-broken, the elastic around the bottom, that once helped seal out wind, is now a bit too stretchy, so the jacket wears a little bit like a zip-up poncho, the waist cuff often rolling up a bit, and it holds a very particular smell (after thousands of miles of running, not quite as nostagalic as the cut wood and chainsaw exhaust of my father’s sweatshirt, but nostalgic nonetheless).  Yes, I truly love this jacket of mine.  It has served me well .  I have come home from “blizzard” runs several times to have it completely frozen, a thin layer of ice around it that I have to break to get it off.  It hangs by the door in our house, at the ready,   from October to April (although this year, it may be June).  Putting it on is like going for a run with an old (and kind of smelly) friend. 

So you can imagine the great internal struggle, when, just a couple of weeks ago, I received a brand new, super-light weight (and sweet-smelling!), Race Elite 260 Thermoshell from Inov-8 (even the fact that this new jacket has a specific, technical name impressed me.  My jacket is called, I don’t even know what it’s called.  I guess just “running jacket”).  (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am sponsored by Inov-8, who, despite my being laid up with an injury for the past 12 weeks, has continued to show a great deal of support and encouragement to me).  When I first heard about the Thermoshell last year I was, to say the least, excited.  It is a very sharp looking piece, like a runner’s version of a puffy jacket (and I prefer to be warm and sweat a little (or a lot) on a run, than to be on the border of warm and freezing my privies off).  It packs down to about the size of a large orange (or, perhaps, grapefruit, if you are particular about the size of your citrus), and is designed for pure, athletic function: half-zip, with one chest pocket, single hand cinches around the waste.  It feels like air holding it. The real kicker?  The inside is made of a wind-blocking material, and the jacket is reversible, so if you flip it inside-out, for some reason, it’s actually warmer!  If my running jacket is a Chevy Nova, the Thermoshell is a friggin’ Ferrari.  On steroids.  (And yes, the whole flipping it inside-out to make it warmer thing is legit.  We’ve had plenty of days to test that here in New England this winter). 

The day I got it, I didn’t try the Thermoshell on until after my boys were asleep.  I think I didn’t want them to see me “cheating” on it.  And when I did finally pull it on, I felt guilty about how good it felt.  If you have ever changed into a puffy coat on a cold night to go sit by a campfire, you know what it felt like slipping the Thermoshell over my head.  “CURSES!” I thought.  The thing felt like Mithril from the mines of Moria, light, flowy, comforting.  (Yes, I know, I’m sponsored by Inov-8.  Yes, these thoughts did actually go through my mind when I put this jacket on).  I decided to give the jacket a real test the next morning, biking to school.  The temperature was forecasted to 1 degree by the time I would be biking.  After thirty five minutes pedalling through those temps, my core was totally comfortable (my hands however were not.  My hands were numb after about eight minutes).  The jacket works: it will keep you warm.  When I wore it on one of my “attempted” runs, (“attempted” because my injury allows me to run about 2 miles at a go), again, on a bitter morning, I actually had to use the small second zipper to let some air out (a nice feature – the half zip actually has a top and bottom zipper.  Once you zip the top zipper, you can pull the bottom zip to create a window of ventilation.  The jacket stays comfortable around your neck (I despise getting drafts down my back), but a lot of extra heat can escape out the front).  And, to top it all off, on the first day I wore it, I went to the grocery store.  Now, I am not one to get compliments on my style or fashion choices (see above description of my running jacket).  I kid you not, two people, approached me and commented on the Thermoshell.  One to say, “Man, that jacket looks really warm” and one to say, “That’s a really nice lookin’ jacket.” I felt like an absolute rock star.


Which is where I will end this tale.  A tale of a boy and his jacket.  A love story.  To be honest, I feel guilty: Since I got it, I have only worn the Thermoshell.  My running jacket still hangs by our door, but now it seems like one of those old dogs that can’t quite keep up with the new puppy and just sort curls itself up in the corner, looking annoyed by the young whippersnapper’s playful antics.  It’s more than a little sad.  I have honestly felt a bit of guilt in my move to the Thermoshell as well.  My running jacket was working just fine - I had yet to freeze to death on a single run.  Is this new choice of jacket (and willingness to simply toss aside such a faithful companion) not a simple choice of functionality, but more of a window into my soul and character?  Does it show a shallowness, only wearing this new jacket because I was complimented by those two people when I wore it to the store?  Does it reveal a hellbent consumer, fueled by the hungry ghost of materialism, creating an unethical demand on the world’s resources?  Gosh, I hope not, because if that’s the case, I’m gonna have a hell of a hard time saying goodbye to the Thermoshell!  And if it does, is there anyone out there who can provide a happy home to a 16-year old, blue, running jacket, with a partially broken zipper and unique smell?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Flat Tires

Rock bottom looked a lot like a flat front tire.  That’s because it was.  


Limping to my “dressing room” at school on this particularly frigid January morning, an hour before sunrise, I ebbed my growing pessimism about this day with one thought: at least I could bike home quickly after my meetings, about 13 hours from now, saving my knee (and spirit) the torment of not being able to run. Opening the door to where the bike is kept, my spirit collapsed: the front tire was completely flat.


Being injured is never fun.  At first it feels unfair - Why me? (Well, just maybe, it was the foolishly long back-to-back runs you did, even though your knee hurt at the start of the second one).  Then it is frustrating - I just took two days off!  Why the hell does my knee still hurt?  (Because you crossed that fine line between “just enough” and “too much” in training).  Then it is kind stressful - Am I losing all my fitness?  I’ve haven’t run for four days!  (Just relax, you’re being a headcase).  It is a vicious cycle, that I’m guessing most of us have gone through.  I’ve dealt with this specific injury before - plica syndrome (which sounds much more malevolent than it is.  I consider it the non-injury injury), but I still go through all these stages, until I finally come to acceptance (which usually looks like setting up my bike trainer in our living room and spinning during Downton Abbey).


A flat tire on a bike is usually not that big a deal - just a quick patch or change of the tube, put some air in, and you're good to go.  Usually it's no problem. This morning I had no patch, I had no tube, and I had a broken hand pump.  About an hour earlier, I had left my house, my knee feeling normal for the first time in three weeks.  Since December 22, in the midst of my build up for the Rocky Raccoon 100, the plica in my left knee had pained me with every step I ran.  It begins as a little pulling sensation on the medial side of the upper patella.  By about half a mile the tugging feels like a bee sting.  By a mile, it feels like a knife being stabbed into this spot each time the heel draws toward the butt.  By 1.10 miles I grimace with each stride.  Usually by 1.25 miles I stop.  This morning it was a mile with no issue.  At two miles it was a dull ache.  By three it just hurt.  By four I was hobbled, on the side of the road, the object of such abject pity that my school's librarian (who thankfully drives this route each morning), pulls over to offer me a ride.  I gladly accept, thankful for having left my bike at school the day before, knowing running home was not in the cards.  Then the discovery of the flat.  Rock bottom.


As I write this, it has been seven weeks to the day since my last substantial run and nearly eight weeks since the first symptoms.  The day before the symptoms emerged I had completed a run that had given me the confidence I could run sub-14 at Rocky Raccoon.  Today, after an hour and fifteen minutes of PT, I managed about 150 yards of pain free running.  In between, at different times, I had taken six days, then eleven, then five, off of running (I don't think I'd ever done that). This bout with plica syndrome has given me pause (and the time) to really think about my relationship to running. 

For several months I’d been thinking about this relationship.  Running, for better or worse, has become a huge part of my personal identity.  From long runs with friends, to exploring nearly every road and trail in a thirty mile radius from my house, to racing, to RDing, to the fact that nearly every person at my 1,000+ student school knows me as “that crazy guy who runs everywhere,” to my strange love of sporting indecently short shorts, clingy tights, and, yes, the truly beloved man-pris tights, running has opened many windows into myself that I never knew were worth exploring.  I relish the monk-like routine of training: waking up hours before sunrise, eating simply, reaching that moment when you feel you have nothing left, only to discover, from the deepest fibers of your being, a new, magical will to continue.  It is my moving meditation, when I think about everything and nothing all at once.  It is simple, it is challenging and it is easy.  And I take pride that only a real man, one so comfortable in his being and essence, would even consider wearing such ridiculous clothing in both running and non-running venues.


Yet, running is, in many ways, my greatest vice, my mistress, my addiction.  I sneak away (often at very odd hours) to meet her. I tend to get cranky and anxious when I can’t see her.  Yes, I could be addicted to much more harmful things (although, if you have ever seen me at the end of a hundred miler, it could very easily be argued that I might be doing much less damage to my body if I had a more “traditional” addiction), but my running can certainly get out of control at times - balancing weekend long runs and weekday workouts with meaningful family time is difficult when my thoughts center on, “when will I get these miles in?”  I may or may not have skipped work once (or twice. Or thrice . . .) to get a long run in.  More than once the first thing I’ve Googled when planning a family vacation is the local trails.  This latest bout with injury, which has, for the last 8 weeks, removed running from my daily routine, has thrown this relationship, this addiction, into sharp relief. I've come to realize that running ain't always as good to me (or more importantly, the people around me) as I've often told myself it is.


. . .


The closest bike shop to my school is about 3 miles away, but, after this impossibly long day, it didn’t matter because I didn't even have my phone or wallet.  In three short weeks I was to be competing for the podium at the Rocky Raccoon 100 - this year’s 100-mile national championship and a Montrail Ultra Cup event (which gives automatic entry to the Western States 100 for the top three finishers).  But right now I was hobbling my broken bike (and body), in the dark and bitter cold, over a mile to the bus stop.  The deflated tube made these sad little squeaks as it rolled along the iced-over sidewalk.  As I stood waiting for the notoriously inconsistent 89 bus, a stranger offered me the use of his pump.  We tried to give my tube just a little pressure to get me just a little closer to home with no luck.  After 26 minutes (it should have been 11), the first bus came.  It was the “other” 89, going to the terminus I was not headed to.  The second bus came.  It lacked a bike rack.  Finally, after more than 45 minutes of waiting, I hoped on different bus, which would bring me miles out of the way to a connecting bus, which would get me a couple of miles from home.  I had to get off that bus when another passenger got caught in the back door.  What the hell was going on here?  Two and a half weeks earlier I had completed a 57 mile training run with ease. I had been independent and free, literally able to run anywhere I wanted to, whenever I wanted.  Tonight I was a prisoner of bike parts, bus schedules and erratically closing bus doors.  Rock bottom.


As I fell asleep that night, five weeks ago, fingers blistered from the tire that simply did not want to mount on the wheel, I realized I had no business feeling sorry for myself.  I was letting this injury make me selfish, as I often felt my training did.  If I was not going to be able grow physically by training, I certainly wanted to make every effort to grow personally from this forced break.  I fully accepted the injury that night, and realized I would not be competing at Rocky.  I had been helped by a number of people that day - first the librarian, then the man who offered his pump, then lady on the bus who let me borrow her phone to call Liz, then Liz who dragged the boys out into the cold to meet me in Arlington Center (and, despite the pain in my knee, at least I hadn't gotten stuck in the bus's doors and had my glasses broken.  Fortunately, that woman was fine otherwise).  Sure, I can't run right now.  Sure, I haven't run this little in over thirteen years.  Sure, it's looking like the resolution will likely be surgery to remove the plica, and that likely won't happen for at least four or five more weeks.  Sure, I know getting back to the level I was will be a long journey.  But so what?  

The next day, after I had felt sorry for myself because my knee hurt and I'd had to wait for a bus, my wife's aunt died, after a life-long battle with disease. At her funeral services, the rabbi made me think of the lyrics from opening song from Rent: "525,600 minutes/525,000 moments so dear." He spoke of how Liz's aunt had lived, not letting her illness define her, and measured her life not in days or years, but in dinners with friends, trips with family, and birthday parties with our kids, her great-nephews. Later, we stood at her grave as snow fell on the freshly dug dirt, we shared in a Jewish mitzvah of shoveling dirt into her grave. I thought of how would I measure my life. In the end do I want to have measured it in the most basic, simple measure - with an obsessive attention to miles and pace?

I have accepted that I am losing my fitness, but know, when healthy, it can come back, albeit slowly (plus, Galen Rupp had the same surgery, and has done pretty darn well since!).  I can't join my friends for epic runs, but we still spent several hours clearing brush together at Hale Reservation (site of the TARC 100) this past weekend.  I haven't missed coaching a single game of my son's indoor soccer team (including the game when he scored his first goal (and then second!), which would have been the day of Rocky Raccoon).  My family and I have shared pajama mornings, and long-nights of reading Percy Jackson (somewhat unfortunately followed by really early mornings of reading Percy Jackson). Liz and I even went to a late-morning movie when I got a (silly) snow day (instead of me simply going for a three or four hour run). For the time being, it seems, my mistress, my running, has left me. I miss her, and will woo her back through PT and other medical means (and the use of a treadmill at 15% and around 4 mph). Until then, my life seems no worse the loss. Plus, there is always a spare tube (and patch kit) in my saddle bag.  There's only one place to go from rock bottom.