Runner at Heart

I turned 40 and had a baby and knee surgery all within a year. It took me two years to recover. The doctor told me that with bone on bone in that knee, the one thing I should never do was run. Of course, having been a runner for 25 years, I tried it anyway. After two months of pain I realized I was doing more harm than good—permanent harm—and stopped.

I missed running terribly. I had to do something. I joined a gym and tried swimming. I got into the pool, swam six laps (why did my butt float now?), climbed out, and almost passed out. But the activity brought running back with a surge, in a way I never expected. Whether it was the physical motion, the time to let my mind wander, the endorphins, or that I swam in college, it didn’t matter. A sense of running hovered around me, like a friendly spirit. Next I added weight training.

Gradually everything but the actual running came back to me, and now I can brag that I am in better shape than I was three years ago. It is the first time I’ve ever been able to say that—ever. With newfound strength and confidence I skied my first black diamond. My son was so proud. My husband gave me roller blades for my birthday, the closest thing to running I’ve found. I started skate skiing, feeling like a total uncoordinated doofus. How long had it been since I’d learned something new, a new physical skill? I knew I had to be patient to learn it, practice how to give up my runner’s cadence for a glide.

I began to feel that old urge to compete, but which event? One day I noticed an announcement for an intermural track meet at MSU. I sent an old friend an e-mail saying that I was thinking of running the 440 and pretending it was a mile. I knew I could run that far one time. But I didn’t have the nerve to do it.

Then last winter I saw the ad. A 5K "classic" cross-country ski race, for masters. I used to run cross-country and had always wanted to try the skiing version. It was a distance I knew I could finish. On a whim I signed up. I rented lighter skis, warmed up, stretched. No starting gun, just "ready, set, go" and off we went, me quickly to the rear in a brief uphill start. Then I caught the other beginner, found my pace, my heart rate. Up and down, up and down. He passed me on every downhill, and I passed him on every uphill. Of course the finish was downhill. Dead last in my first race, and I still won my age group. My daughter was so proud she hung my medal on the fridge.

I felt happy as could be all day. There was something there, the movement, the challenge. I knew how to do it, to pace myself into feeling strong. My body was still a racer whether I knew it or not. It wasn’t running, but it was close enough. It was fun.

Today I saw a serious young college girl running in the pool. She hung in the deep end, wearing a life vest to keep her chin at surface level, and making the exact motion of running—only underwater. I can remember doing that too, but it was even duller than 40 laps in the Fieldhouse. If that was the only cross-training I knew, I would surely be a blob today. And yet, the best part of my cross-training workouts is still the 50-yard jog from the locker room to the gym.