BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I suppose many runners run just for the intrinsic pleasure of the activity. The animal joy of loping along the trail is what some might call an irreducible experience–something that can’t be made sense of by reference to something else. We run to run, I suppose.
But it’s the life lessons offered by running that keep us going through the hard parts. A friend of mine recently finished his first hundred-mile ultramarathon, nearly breaking his ankle partway through. You can’t tell me those last 20 miles of cramps, nausea, and teeth-buzzing fatigue, all on top of a wrenched ankle, were fun. He must have had some other goal in mind.
I submit today, though, that the hardest part of running is when we are sidelined with an injury. (Not to take anything away from my centurion friend: I do not mean the injured runner is tougher than him, but merely that s/he grapples with a less satisfying problem in waiting to heal than he did in rising to an awe-inspiring challenge.)
On the second of May of this year, I was doing a routine tempo-hill workout on the treadmill (it’s a convenient, if ignoble, way to get in hill work). I finished 9 kilometers at about an 8 percent uphill grade, probably running about 6-minute splits. Not a blazing performance, but not bad for a 50-year old, once nearly dead bureaucrat.
Before plumbing the depths of self pity, I should point out what a nice place I was in before I got on the treadmill that day. For the last three years, I had been experiencing a nearly miraculous break in a 30-year long debilitating bout of runner’s knee. After decades of having to settle for biking, fast-walking, and other vulgar things that runners do when they cannot run, I was somehow able to run again. Not fast, but I could turn in decent 30k stretches on the trail, this year even jogging the downhill parts, which had once been strict no-gos.
What’s more, even though I wasn’t young anymore, I could still fake it. To get my heartrate up to the flush of the six-minute miles of my youth, I ran uphill. A 10-minute mile uphill felt like an all-out six-minute mile on flat terrain back in my glory years. Plus the scenery on the trails was better.
Not that everything was clear sailing. I still had the usual aches, strains and mystery pains. Despite the distances I could occasionally put in, I still fell out with small injuries now and then. I had tried three times to prepare for the Zermatt Ultramarathon, but each time I had to pull out with some kind of small, nagging injury.
This year was different. I followed a solid, patient training plan starting in November. I built up slowly throughout the winter, gradually increasing my endurance, climbing strength, and even speed. By April I, I could easily do 30k of hilly trails at 10k per hour (I only managed about 8 and a half last year), and I even simulated the first 30k of Zermatt on the treadmill–21k at a humane, 5 percent climbing grade, then 9k of churning hills up to 12 percent. And I felt strong. I was not just loping along in dumb animal joy; I was trampling out the motherfucking vineyards.
I suppose this was Pride, which wenteth before a Fall. When I stepped off the treadmill on the second of May, I felt a dull, vaguely painful tightness up where the quadricep meets the groin and lower abdomen. A connoiseur of running pains, I could tell this one was muscular, and I didn’t worry much about it. Muscle strains heal after a couple days; it was the joint pains that got you.
Except this time it was the muscle pain that got me. The ache got worse two days later when I took my oldest kid for a short hike. I iced it, stretched moderately and tried to tell myself I would easily be back in action in time to resume training and salvage my plans for Zermatt. I could no longer entertain the idea of breaking six hours, as I thought sure of doing, but at least I would still finish.
At the end of three weeks, though, I still couldn’t run. On the four-week mark, I vaingloriously strapped on my ultra-pack and hit the trail for a do-or-die trial. I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I do: I would either break through what I hoped was merely a nagging injury, or I would at least find out the worst–Zermatt would have to wait.
The MRI a week later illuminated what I learned that day on the trail: I was done for the season.
Luckily there was no major damage. The tendon attaching the quad and groin muscles to the hip carriage was fine, but I had achieved several micro tears of the muscle tissue near the tendon. This was mostly good news, but it ruined everything I had been working and hoping for since November.
I cannot honestly say I run in order to learn life lessons, but Jesus, they do keep coming. Run for any period of time, and you will inevitably get better at framing setbacks positively, seeing the intrinsic worth of something that seemed to have only extrinsic value. It’s not Zermatt I wanted (although it was); it’s being out on the trail, running up my local hill, or even squeezing in a treadmill workout before dinner.
I am on the mend now. I can jog three easy kilometers. There’s still a slight pain there, but it’s getting better. I’ve stopped thinking about Zermatt, or any particular event, for that matter. I would like to treat myself to a birthday run (in October) of some consequence, but I have cleared my calendar of races for the time being.
I am habitually optimistic. I believe reflexively that everything will be mostly ok if we exert ourselves and try to avoid beastliness. Running, with all its setbacks, illustrates over and over again the great variety of ways in which everything will be mostly ok. This is one reason I will never let it go.