MY LAST RUN
By Steve Ulfelder
With Simon being such a passionate and accomplished cyclist, I thought I would guest-blog about my own experience with a similar activity. Be warned, though: this does not end well.
I ran for the last time the other day, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I ought to be heartsick, but I’m not.
Backstory: I smoked my last cigarette Sunday, January 5, 1992, after a robust career that began at age 14, matured into a pack-a-day habit, and lasted 17 years.
The following day, still in jittery-jitters withdrawal, I wheezed over to the health club, joined up, and spent 10 minutes walking on a treadmill. Soon I mixed in a minute of running (feeling, of course, like I would die). Then two minutes, and so on.
Before I knew it, I was running 5Ks on the treadmill at a pace that didn’t seem like a big deal to me then (7.5-minute miles), but sure does now.
To compress the story, I’ll just say that running became a very important part of my life, culminating with a slow but successful Boston Marathon in 1999.
Ah, but that marathon did something unfortunate to me. I hadn’t trained properly, and I ran the last five miles looking like a cross between the Tin Man and a zombie. I injured my lower back, both knees, and both hips.
I didn’t get follow-up medical treatment (young and stupid), but I know those injuries launched my long, slow withdrawal from the sport. Before the marathon, I thought nothing of a 6- or 8-mile run. But I’ll be damned if I’ve run more than a 5-miler since.
As years passed, I kept running. But my routine 4-miler became a 3-miler. And every-other-day running tapered to thrice, then twice a week.
Finally, about six years ago, even the 3-miler felt like too much. So, for that matter, did running on streets and sidewalks. I adapted by using the treadmill in the winter and the local middle-school track in good weather.
I’ll confess here that somewhere during this period, my pace dropped from not-bad-at-all (I could run 8.5-minute miles all day long) to respectable-for-my-age-group (10-minute miles) to … sad. For the past few years, I’ve been chugging around that middle-school track at a 12-minute-mile pace. And I’m a reasonably youthful- and fit-looking guy. Most people who see me run assume I am recovering from some sort of grave injury. Twelve-minute miles are, frankly, embarrassing. But I’ll be damned if I could run any faster consistently.
Which brings us back to those injuries. About three years ago, I suffered one of those mysterious soft-tissue lower-back injuries that people my age get. I tried all the usual stuff to repair the damage, including rest – but not enough rest, apparently. Despite my snail’s pace and my diminishing abilities, running was such an important part of my life that I kept on chugging. And still that lower back wouldn’t heal. Huh. Go figure. (Dumb, right?)
Finally, though, a few things changed in my life and schedule that flat-out prevented me from running, even on a treadmill. I made up for it by hitting the gym, working with personal trainers, and learning other ways to stay fit.
It worked! I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been. Also, miracle of miracles, my back healed almost completely.
So last weekend, with some rare free time and a beautiful day, I laced up the old Asics and hit the local track …
… and knew within five laps that the running was harming my lower back. I’d felt no pain for months, and here it was again, that nasty burn located in the complex bundle where hamstrings, hips and spine come together.
I took a couple more laps out of pure stubbornness.
Then I quit.
That night and the next day, sure enough, my back hurt like fire. Time and ibuprofen made it better, but the message was clear: I’m not cut out for running anymore.
As I said early on, my feelings are mixed.
It’s been a hell of a long time since I felt like a real runner, with that smooth stride and lungs-a-working and confidence that I could hold my pace as long as necessary.
Moreover, the last 20 years have produced much great research on fitness, and I know ways to stay fit that don’t produce a ball of pain in my lower back.
But there is something pure about running as an athletic endeavor. I think it’s this: Running is binary. You are doing it or you’re not. You can fake weightlifting, and you can fake cycling (in the gym, anyway – how about those folks who choose the recumbent bike and pedal at a stately pace while reading the paper?).
You can’t fake running.
Steve Ulfelder is the Edgar-nominated author of the Conway Sax mysteries, including the new Shotgun Lullaby. You can find him at www.ulfelder.com, on Twitter @SteveUlfelder, or on Facebook at SteveUlfelderAuthor.