spine protesting illustration
I am somewhat in awe of the body’s ability to basically mutiny against poor working conditions for the past four-plus decades, as one body part goes on strike and jams up the entire assembly line. (Illustration: Brendan Leonard)

There’s No Way I Could Have Seen This Totally Predictable Injury Coming

Reflections on getting just a little bit older

spine protesting illustration

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“I don’t know if it’s luck or just taking it kind of easy, but I’ve been able to run a bunch of ultramarathons without ever having any sort of serious injury.”

—Me, December 2021

“All I did was bend over to help my dog into the car, and when I stood up, it was like a lightning bolt hit me right in my lower back.”

—Me, talking to a doctor in the emergency room, February 2022

In high school, during what I remember was a phase when we were fairly obsessed with the Doors and Jim Morrison and with procuring beer or liquor despite not being of legal age to buy it, a friend of mine used to say, “Live fast. Die young. Leave a good-looking corpse.”

Which is definitely one of those dumb things you say when you’re 16 and feel like you’re kind of invincible but don’t realize that feeling is actually naivete. And if you’re lucky, you will actually not die young but will survive those years and make it a couple more decades and then refer to those years as “when I was young and dumb.”

I had a back spasm a few weeks ago doing something very nonheroic and not at all dangerous. My dog, who is not so young himself, needs a little help getting into the back of my car, so I bent over to help him by picking up his back end and lifting it into the car. As I stood back up, I felt a stabbing pain right where my lower back joins the anatomical region known as “the butt.” I walked a few halting steps in circles around our driveway, while releasing a stream of expletives (e.g., “Fuck!”).

I immediately thought: I have done something like this before, same general area, painful, but not debilitating, and it takes a few days to loosen up. I have to stand up from a chair in slow stages for a couple days, but it eventually goes away, and I go back to my normal life.

This time felt a little different though. I don’t know, maybe 40 percent more uncomfortable? I carefully folded myself into the passenger seat and took the dog for a slow walk, came home later, and tried to massage the spot with a lacrosse ball, which did nothing. After an hour or so of trying to sleep in any position without pain shooting through my back and leg, I asked my wife, Hilary, if she would mind maybe taking me to the emergency room, if it wasn’t too much trouble?

The ER doctor asked me to rate my pain level, on a scale of one to ten, and I thought about it. I know it’s just a routine question they ask to figure out how to help you deal with the pain, but everybody has different tolerances. I have been lucky in that I haven’t had a lot of pain that wasn’t self-inflicted (in the “Type 2 Fun” way)—no car accidents, no medical problems, no chronic pain or discomfort. I figure ten on the pain scale means something like you’re ready to die because it hurts so much. A nine pain rating, then, to me, is maxing out, right at the edge, like you’re willing to continue, but barely—probably the upper limit of the human capacity to withstand pain. I don’t think I was there. The worst pain I’ve had in the past decade or so was during a 100-mile ultramarathon, in which pain from blisters in my feet started shooting up my legs for the last 30 miles—that plus indigestion plus the pain of moving on my feet for 30-plus hours while being awake for 40 hours straight. But in a situation like that, you choose to keep going every time you take a step forward, and to me, if it’s a choice, it’s unfair (and tone-deaf) to categorize it with the unchosen suffering that humans have endured. Plus I paid someone to let me do it to myself, and I could literally lie down on the side of the trail if it was really that bad. Ultrarunning pain, definitely not a nine, more like seven. So, this back pain, that I hadn’t chosen:

“I would say it’s an eight.”

One thing I could have said in response to injuring myself: “Getting old sucks.” And sure, I’m older than I was, and my body is less elastic than it was, say, ten or 15 years ago. But as people older than I am would tell me, I’m not that old. And if I’m honest with myself, it’s not because I’m old—it’s because I’m lazy. Like everyone on earth, I like to do things I like to do, and I avoid doing things I don’t like to do. Like stretching.

When I fill out the “bio” section of anything, I usually write the word “runner” or sometimes “ultrarunner,” in the tradition of sharing things about yourself that you’re proud of or passionate about, even if, percentage-wise, they don’t take up the majority of your waking hours. If I was honest, I’d say something like “I sit on my ass a lot and tap on keyboards and draw with an Apple pencil, and then I try to balance that out by running for several hours every week.”

Stuff I do pie chart
(All illustrations: Brendan Leonard)

Hard work, I’d like to think, adds up. Well, as it turns out, all that ass-sitting and not stretching also adds up, and eventually you reap the rewards. What I had, as Paul the physical therapist told me, was likely a herniated disc. As he put it, the jelly is squeezing out of the donut between my L4 and L5 vertebrae, which is causing the pain, as well as numbness in my knee. And I won’t be running again for several weeks.

All this is kind of a bummer. But I am also somewhat in awe of the body’s ability to basically mutiny against poor working conditions for the past four-plus decades, as one body part goes on strike and jams up the entire assembly line.

spine protesting illustration

As I started to get little bit of mobility back, I drew this chart, a play on the “live fast, die young” saying (which actually goes back to 1920):

live fast -> die young _> avoid back spasm illustration

When I put it on Instagram, many people commented about their own experiences with humbling injuries that surprised them:

instagram comments illustration

As much as I fancy myself some sort of amateur athlete, when I get immobilized by a very ridiculous injury, I have to admit: I basically do one quasi-athletic thing, which is keep moving on trails for hours at a time. If I attempted an American Ninja Warrior course, I would probably last less than three seconds. I’m not exactly Cirque de Soleil material at this point, and even rec league basketball might be a bit dangerous. When this is all over, though, I would like to become A Guy Who Can Bend Over and Pick Things Up Without Risking a Trip to the ER. And some trail running might be nice, too, if that’s not too much to ask.

Lead Illustration: Brendan Leonard