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.


  1. Eloquent, Josh! Get well soon. Reji

  2. Hi Josh, if it provides any comfort I had both plicas removed in both knees about 22 years ago by 2 different surgeons in 2 different states. After the first plica became irritated (just as you describe), it was only a couple of years before the second one met the same fate. The good news is that the surgery is simple, effective and lasting. Neither of my knees have bothered me at all since the 2 surgeries and there has been lots of running in between (olympic marathon trials in 2000, Boston, Cal International and even Stonecat a few months ago where I finished 5th at the ripe age of 46!) Diane English performed by surgery out here (I am pretty sure she is still practicing); the other one was done in Colorado. Good luck and keep the the long view in mind...

  3. To say I can relate to this post would be a gross understatement. I completely understand how you feel Josh. I'm wishing you a speedy and complete recovery.

  4. Dan - I read your post, but have been having trouble getting comments published (I've been on a iPad). Please keep your write-ups coming!

    Meghan - your success with surgery has certainly given me some hope! Sadly, I've had to rearrange several appointments and (not sadly) am away this week, so I'm still a few weeks from an MRI and then a possible surgery. Glad to know that it can work out!

    Hope to see you both (and Reggie!) out and about soon!

  5. Josh, I hope you have a complete recovery and I'll get to see you out on the trails. Sorry to hear about the injury.