When Your Body Says No
A lifelong runner and outdoor athlete is hit with a mysterious physical breakdown. Once the engine starts to fail, what happens to the mind?
One day three years ago, I went for a run around Green Lake, a favorite route near my home in Seattle. It was early September, just after Labor Day, one of those bronzed afternoons when the thermometer still says summer but the school buses and quickened pulse of the city suggest otherwise. As I circled the lake, it was hard not to think about the end of things—of long days, cloudless skies, and freedom.
At one point during that three-mile loop, something jabbed me in the left calf. I spun around, ready to swat an unleashed dog. There was no dog. I staggered home.
“A calf tear,” pronounced the sports-medicine doctor, bored by the mundane case before him. Take several weeks off from running, he said. Do some physical therapy. You’ll be good as new.
Several weeks passed, however, and I wasn’t good as new. Charley horses reared up whenever I flexed the muscles of my lower legs. Taut sailing knots formed beneath the skin. Calves locked, arches seized. Even when they weren’t cramping, the muscles around my shins and calves felt tight as banjo strings—as if they, too, were about to go.
As a lifelong amateur athlete, I’d been injured many times. But those afflictions had always healed in a matter of days, or at worst lingered for a few weeks before fading away, with help from ibuprofen, rest, and a photocopied regimen of exercises handed out by a physical therapist (and usually performed half-assedly). But this was different. In the months that followed my calf tear, even after the muscle had healed, nothing improved. I could no longer run more than a mile or two, after decades spent doing whatever I wanted.
In search of help, I pushed through many doors. A podiatrist filmed my gait as I loped on a treadmill. A neurologist eavesdropped on my brain as it sent messages to my legs. Therapists scraped tendons with metal tools, as if I were an old hide in need of softening. Pints of blood were drawn and spun to gauge concentrations of magnesium and potassium and creatine. I saw physiatrists, osteopaths, orthopedists, and two vascular surgeons, who breezed in late, scowled at my legs, and left.
As my exasperation grew, I strayed from the white halls of Western medicine. I submitted to the needlepoint of acupuncture, the feather touch of Bowenwork, the spasm of strain-counterstrain technique. A myofascial specialist said everything would be fine if I simply learned to walk slower. An integrative-medicine doctor prescribed bone broth. Over a span of months that soon became years, I spent $20,000 on appointments and tests and unguents.
I also spent a lot of time on the floor of my little house, stretching and kneading and coaxing my legs back to exercise. After months of reduced activity, they had grown pale and less muscular; they no longer seemed an intimate part of myself, resembling instead the legs of a stranger.
Many times I tried to run again, slowly bricking up tenths of miles, but the circuit around Green Lake might as well have been the road to Marathon. Once, I managed to run all the way around the lake and wept with happiness. A few days later I set out again. Two hundred yards in, I felt a familiar jab in the left calf. I staggered home. I was right back where I’d started.
Back when I was first becoming a journalist, I tried to keep the habits of the writers I admired. But whiskey nights brought devastating hangovers; cigarettes turned me green. So it would be running for me, as it always had been. On the day I tore my calf I was 45, and I’d already been a runner for 38 years.
You could say the choice was made for me. My father was a field-artillery officer in the Army, stationed at the U.S. Military Academy. The Colonel was at the forefront of running’s first big boom in the 1970s, a grinning, caffeinated martinet who ran down our street in West Point, New York, wearing New Balance sneakers, our Labrador retriever straining the leash beside him. He never ran very fast or very far, but he put in his roadwork daily. And when the Colonel decided that his three children should also love running, it was more decree than suggestion. Other neighborhood kids had to take out the trash for their allowance; my sisters and I ran for ours.
The conventions of memoir dictate that we must have hated our father for this—our own Great Santini. But my sisters and I adored him, and we adored running. I grew up an eager if unexceptional athlete; my medal haul from years of competition would not fill a soap dish. Those early decades of running shaped me, though. At day’s end in college and then later, as a young writer, I laced up. Having run almost every day since childhood, I rarely found the act too unpleasant, even when I was pushing along at a decent clip. On these runs, something curious always happened by the 18th minute. The ragged bellows in my chest grew less insistent. The chaos of arms and legs settled into a rhythm. Thoughts from the day—current arguments, past heartaches, the sentences that resisted being pinned to the page—drifted past as if on a conveyor belt. I reached out and picked up each in turn, considering it from different angles.
These runs rarely produced thunderbolts of insight. But by the time I got home, with streetlamps flickering to life, my brainpan had been rinsed. The world felt possible again. For me, these runs were almost like dreaming.
And sometimes, when Churchill’s black dog—depression—appeared, I would pull on my running shoes and pound the streets until I left it heaving by the roadside and I was too tired to wake at night. As years passed, towns and job titles changed. Friends came and went, as did success and failure, romance and loneliness. The one thing that never left me was running. When a woman I loved wrote, on the night before Christmas Eve, to say that I meant the world to her but she was going to marry someone else, I pulled on my shoes and ran for hours through the darkness, the only sound the creak of cold dirt. Running was not the answer, I knew even then. But it was the only thing that was shaped like an answer.
Like my father, I never ran very fast or far—four, five, six miles at a time. But I ran daily, an act as certain as vespers. I was never happier than when I was moving, a low-budget Mercury skimming along the skin of the earth in torn running shorts. The satisfaction lay simply in heading out the door and covering ground. To be able—that was the thing.
My body and I were on a grand adventure together in those days. We ran marathons. We ski-toured for weeks through the Swiss Alps and Dolomites. Sunburned and dehydrated at 13,000 feet, we crabbed across tilted granite on the Grand Traverse of the Tetons. We pedaled 460 miles and 45,000 vertical feet in one week, up and down the byways of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, through hailstorms that would strip paint off a Buick.
Often these adventures were arduous to the point of misery. But for me, to experience days where the body bends but doesn’t break was the reason to be out there. It was an animal pleasure, uncomplicated, a thing worth doing for the simple reason that it could be done.
It never occurred to me to be grateful back then. The joys came daily, and they seemed without end.
When the wheels start coming off an athlete’s chassis at middle age, the big surprise isn’t that it happens. It’s that you, me—we—barreled along so blindly for so long, not seeing that the road ahead was really a narrowing one-way street.
We were built to break down. Throughout the course of human history, 40 years was more than enough time for us to sire children, run down the meat to feed them, and wink at the grandkids before death by sabertooth. In the cosmic roll of things, by middle age we’re taking up space.
And yet, if you’re like me, you’re caught off guard one day when you spur your body on and your body balks. It’s bewildering, this betrayal of the flesh. In the span of a moment, you’ve left one place and arrived at another. You see that you can never go back. And with this knowledge a peculiar grief descends.
Americans struggle to accept the changes. We’re happy to know that Old is out there; we just can’t countenance Old happening to us. And so we talk about aging not as a normal stage of life but as a personal failing—as if the changes were the result of having skimped on our 60,000-mile maintenance. We say that our bodies break down, they fall apart—a casting from paradise. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man flinging out a spanner.
And so we resist. We massage the body. We Botox it. We lift it and buttress it. Still the changes come, as unstoppable as evening.
“The question,” as Robert Frost wrote in “The Oven Bird,” “is what to make of a diminished thing.”
One morning, I pack a bag with my running shoes, pull shut the crooked door of my little house, and fly to Virginia. I find the Colonel hunched and stiff in his easy chair. He’s nearly 80 now. Parkinson’s disease has frozen his muscles and chewed at his mind. He doesn’t recognize my mother, his wife of 54 years. His eyes are afraid. Some nights, after we’ve helped him to bed, he cries. He says he fears that he was not the person he wanted to be.
When I awaken these days, I smell my father on me, a musty smell of attic and old clothes. If only the Colonel was still doing his roadwork, I think. Then things would be better. Just a mile or two, every day. Then neither of us would be so afraid.
Not long ago, I rented out the house in Seattle. I packed my car and headed east, into the Cascades, to a place with ready access to all the things I once did all the time: trail running, nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking. City friends remarked on the romanticism of my move. Yet there was an edge of desperation to it, like when a spouse in a creaky marriage accepts a job offer across the country in the hope that a change of scenery might salvage things.
In the mountains I rented another small house, an old cabin on a bald knob. During winter, cold air fingers into the interior through gaps in the window frames, and wasps seek shelter in the walls. But its large windows look north, into the wilderness, and they are good for daydreaming. The cabin’s flawed charm suits me.
All these years later, my injury remains undiagnosed. But here in the mountains, I can do many of the sports I enjoy, in moderation, without too much discomfort. I miss my old self, though, and I miss those daily runs, with a bruised feeling behind the rib cage. It is the same feeling I have when I think of the woman who wrote that letter.
It’s not age that makes you an adult, I see now, or even most of the experiences that age brings. What finally does it is the things you lose along the way. A parent dies; you don’t get the girl. And you are wrecked. And you are less for these losses. What makes you an adult, finally, is that you choose to keep going afterward.
The problem is that I can’t decide who I want to be. I want to be the bulletproof man I was, but I want to age with equanimity. I want to fight, but I want to appreciate the grace of all I still can do. Maybe this confusion explains why acceptance still feels too much like giving up.
At day’s end, I get up from the keyboard. I change clothes. I lie on the cabin’s creaky floor. I stretch and knead and coax my legs, as before. Then I head out into the forest. Shards of blue sky hang in the branches of red-skinned ponderosa. I run for three minutes. I walk for a minute. I run three minutes again. The latest physical therapist has ordered this regimen. It scarcely counts as running. There is none of the old dreaming in it. There is only the hope of dreaming.
When I reach a small rise, even this modest challenge robs me of breath.
It is useless, I think. I should give up.
The wind sighs its opinion to the tall trees.
The minute’s rest is over.
I don’t know what else to do. So I run.
Christopher Solomon (@Chrisasolomon) is an Outside contributing editor.