My friends Kyle and Kelly wrote about why they run after The Oatmeal comic on the same topic a couple months ago. I wrote something too, but I didn’t post it. I’m not always comfortable talking about physical stuff. I’d rather talk about flying. Or sailing.
Kelly says post it. And it is good to listen to Kelly. So, here we go.
I don’t run far*, and I don’t run all that fast. That’s ok.
When I was a toddler my feet pointed inward so much that I not only got the clunky corrective shoes; I also wore a special pair of boots to bed. These were made of stiff white leather and had a metal bar bolted between them. SUPER stylish.
I remember climbing out of bed and swish-walking down the hall, listening to the sound of my clunky feet.
Man, I hated those things. But I was happier when I figured out how to move in them.
Happier still when they came off and, after a year flailing around in ballet, I started gymnastics and figured out how to fly.
That lasted until I started flying off the beam at odd angles. Angles that kept getting bigger, no matter what I did. I was eight. Too young for scoliosis, the docs thought. They were wrong – I had a double curve at angles that required bracing. Because I was so young, I saw a specialist in another state for treatment. The other people I met at that hospital were dealing with physical issues much bigger than mine. I was cowed, frightened, and aware that others were in greater pain than me.
For the record, scoliosis is a common condition, affecting 2-3% of the population in the United States. Most cases require observation; curves between 25% and 45% are braced, and curves higher than 45%, where organs can be compromised, require spinal fusion surgery. [Some other conditions are complicated by scoliosis. My friend Cait, for instance, has Aicardi syndrome. Her curves — which are neuromuscular and can’t be cured with bracing — are limiting her ability to sit up in her wheelchair.]
Me, I fell in the bracing category. End of gymnastics, but I could still do other things. Even so, I had a lot going on at home, good and bad, and I can’t say I was the easiest patient. I paint-penned graffiti on my brace. Drilled the doctors with my research about the spine when they spoke to my mother and not to me. Left multiple (yellowing, because they were second- and third-hand) copies of Judy Blume’s Deenie lying around, with notes in the margins. Total pest. I hated being confined. Hated even more having to take the lunky brace to summer camp.
But a counselor pointed out she’d had a brace too, and that there were plenty of things I could do to break free again. She reminded me I needed to move in order to stay flexible. (I’d gotten permission to only wear the thing at night at camp.) I started to realize my way out: sailing. Speed and wind. Later, when I was a counselor myself, a camper confessed how much she hated her brace (which was much sleeker** and less graffitied than mine had been) and I got to pass that gift from my counselor on to her.
Later, another orthopedist told me I probably shouldn’t run. Or tumble. Or ride horses, or a bunch of other things. He told me this in part because the experimental brace intended to correct my curves had instead created a big mess in my back. The result is pain, with added tendency to wrench. This doctor worried running, riding, and what-have-you was going to make things worse – within ten years, he said, maybe fifteen. He wanted me to take it easy.
“Would the outcome change if i didn’t do any of these things?” I asked. I was still pretty snotty with doctors. He shook his head. He didn’t think so. He wasn’t sure.
So in college I went running with my friends. We were landlocked and sailing wasn’t an option. And running was fun. Despite the doctors’ concerns, my back pain didn’t change whether I ran or not. I liked the way the wind felt on my face when I ran. I didn’t mind that my feet still felt clunky, or that I had to remember not to pronate in order to keep my left kneecap in place. It didn’t matter that my friends ran faster than me. I liked running to the beat of my music. I rode horses too. I did back-handsprings (crooked ones) and handstands.
(I’m not saying these are good things for people with spine issues to do. Not at all. I’m not a doctor. Just a me.)
When my daughter was born, I stopped exercising because I couldn’t find the time and my joints were too loose. Then, for a while, I got sick and couldn’t run at all. And I found that even when I was sick, I felt better if I exercised a little. So I tried to do something when I could.
And when I got better, I started walking, then running a bit again. I found a pace that was comfortable for me and a way to push my limits, without adding more pain. Sure, swimming does that. And biking. But I was always allowed to swim and bike. I like to run. Even when everyone else trucks past me. I love running up hills. Wonderful forbidden hills.
I ran my first 5k because I figured what the heck, I might as well go for it. I finished at the end of the last group. Didn’t matter. I ran at a pace that worked for me. I found a beat that didn’t cause me additional pain, or make me want to lie down on the street and beg for a ride to the nearest urgent care. I finished the race. Then I stopped running again, because things got busy.
And then I noticed I was feeling trapped and constrained by things I couldn’t control. I was grumpy and jumpy. Not qualities I like in myself. And my friends Kelly, A.C., Bear, Kyle, and Sarah started talking about exercise and we motivated each other to get out there. (Kelly calls us accountabilitybuddies.) So I put my shoes on. I could walk a mile, but not much more. I got out there and kept getting out there. And I went farther. I tried to run the hills sometimes. Then all the time.
I’m going to do that 5k again this fall.
Now when I run, I try to do one more hill than last time, go one more block further than last time. When there’s pain, I slow down. I walk. If I can’t walk, I don’t beat myself up. I know I’ll get back out there. And my goals are pretty simple: not speed or distance (though I’d like to keep increasing the distance gradually), just continuity.
And I laugh, because it’s been a lot longer than ten years, and I can still run when I put my mind to it.
So a confession: Running makes me feel like a rebel. Even when people pass me on the road. Even with my clunky feet. Running lets me hack my grump, break free of constraints, figure out problems in a story I’m working on. It lets me fly.
*I’m doing my ‘long distance’ more regularly, which is cool Up to 3 miles! (If you want distance, go talk to my sister, the ironman tri-athlete).
**yup, that’s back brace envy, right there. EYEROLL AT SELF.