Yesterday I did a workout with my running club for the first time in over eight months. They were doing a 5K handicapped “Chase Run”, where everyone estimates their 5K time and the slowest runners start first. The goal is for the fastest runners to chase everyone else. Theoretically, all runners will cross the finish line at the same time.
We met in our usual Saturday place, the gravel parking lot in Mundy Park. There was a healthy crowd of about 20 people gathered on this perfect summer morning. It was 8:30 and the air still retained a refreshing coolness that would make it ideal for fast running.
I know I’m not a runner anymore. In the old days I would have done a 20-minute brisk warmup with the “fast” group. Yesterday, everyone jogged together at a snail’s pace. It seems even the fast group no longer does a decent warmup, since I’m not there to push for it. I loved chatting with the running friends I hadn’t jogged with for so long, but I said goodbye to them after a few minutes and took a shortcut to the 5K starting area, knowing that my knee couldn’t handle much more than a 5K run.
While I waited for the others to finish their warmup, I went through my Pilates stretching routine. Then there was a further wait as the many slow joggers in the club started off on their 5K run. In my injured state, I was no longer one of the fastest runners, starting last, but my natural talent, weekly 5K jogs and all-out sessions on the Arc trainer had given me the fitness to run a 22-minute 5K, I estimated. Thus, I started in the middle of the pack.
My knee feels unusually good today! I’m so happy to be running!
I was just over halfway through the first of two loops when I saw the group of three girls who had started 30 seconds ahead of me. I was already gaining on them! I caught them as we finished the first loop, and was astonished to see my halfway “split” was 10:18. I was going much faster than my estimated pace, and I expected my second loop to be faster as my bad knee adapted to the somewhat uncomfortable motion of running.
It feels great to be able to push enough to breathe fairly hard! And I love this warm weather that makes me sweat all over without overheating enough to be uncomfortable…Running is so natural for me. I’m going much faster than I thought I’d be able to, even though I’ve run so little since my knee surgery almost eight months ago. I’m so relaxed…if my knee was normal, I’d be able to go a lot faster.
As I made the final turn onto the 500m finishing stretch, I dug a little deeper. My knee felt more comfortable when running on this slightly uphill section, so now I ran close to maximum effort. I finished in a surprising time of 20:21!
By the time I finished my shower, my knee felt uncomfortable. It’s always that way after my little 5K jog workouts. This “jog” had been faster than usual so I was prepared for a bad reaction.
Yet a couple of hours later, I had to wonder whether my knee had ever felt this bad. It’s hard to describe it, because there is almost no pain. I’ve been told I have abnormal bone growth in the knee. It’s trying to compensate for having no cartilage to cushion the area where the bones meet, but it’s counter-productive. The body is not wise in this case. I have the sensation of a huge blockage in my knee. I can’t straighten it, ever. Parts of my quadriceps muscles will never be used again. Sometimes I feel odd (or frightening) slippages within my knee, and sometimes my knee makes loud clicking or popping sounds. I’m assuming those errant extra bony structures are catching on ligaments.
I’ve known for seven months now that my knee is only going to get worse, not better. Most of the time, I think I’ve accepted that fate. I’ve learned techniques of pyschological comforting that enable me to be happy although my identity as a competitive runner, a huge part of me for over thirty years, has been abruptly stripped away. But sometimes I rebel.
I look at my knee in the mirror, and I hate it. I’m like an anorexic who looks in the mirror and sees her starving body as still being “fat”. Sometimes all I can see in that mirror is a monster–my knee that is crooked and bigger than my other one. It is even uglier within than without. Its inner structure will stop me from ever moving gracefully again. I’ll never be able to float over the ground effortlessly the way I used to on my medium-paced runs, when I reached that perfect balance of effort, relaxation and rhythm. I’ll never be able to sprint, pumping and powering my arms and legs in unison to feel the painful, triumphant joy of all-out exertion.
No. When I stand up after sitting for a while, I can barely walk. Later, when I go to Sasamat Lake to swim, I’m aware of the difficulty of steps on the staircase down to the lake; my knee cannot bend comfortably. I look at all the perfect young bodies on the beach. I’m not jealous of youth; I’ve accepted my mature body; and besides, other than butt-wrinkles it’s almost the same body I had when I was fifteen. Genetics and a lifetime of working out have been kind to me.
No, what I’m jealous of are normal knees. I’m jealous of knees that allow spontaneous bursts into jumping and running. I’m jealous because I’m embarrassed as I walk down to the water and know I’m limping.
The water is a cold shock for only a few seconds. Then I’m free again–weightless. I find a different kind of rhythm in the movement of a swimmer. The blue bowl of the sky is all around me, the sun dazzling above, the lake ringed by trees, the faraway sounds of voices and laughter mixed with the immediate splashing and breathing of my own body as it expresses itself in another way.