A Runner Again


If you’d told me eight months ago that this year I would win an age group award in a New York Road Runners race and appear in their race galleries, I probably would have laughed in your face.

Back then I was still 41-going-on-71, pain in both knees, despairing every time I’d drop an object and have to ask someone else to pick it up for me.

I’m not pain-free yet, but with the right help and the right mental attitude, things are turning around.

When I last wrote, it was to say I’d found a doctor who really seemed to want to help me, however long it might take. Well, true to my expectations, it has taken a while, but you don’t fix a runner who’s been broken for two years in a matter of a few weeks.

Dr Kevin Toss was strongly recommended to me by a member of the Monkey Bar Gym here on Staten Island. They’re a group of super-competitive obstacle course racers who are some of my favourite photo subjects when I shoot the High Rock Challenge and other events. Sometimes the monkeys get broken, and Dr Toss knows how to fix them.

The full-circle synergy appealed to me: I get injured, I end up doing a lot of race photography, through doing race photography I end up in contact with the people who can recommend the doctor who can get me running again. I love it when a plan comes together. Things happen for a reason.

So here we are, months later, and I’m running again. It’s been a very gradual build-up. Back in April I aborted a run after a mile with severe pain and essentially stopped running for a couple of months. In late June, I complained to the doctor that I was getting worse, not better, at the rehab strength training, specifically lunges, that he’d given me to do.

“Are you here to get better at lunges, or to get better at running?”, he asked me, rather pointedly. I made some waffling excuse about how I could I possibly run if I couldn’t do the things that are supposed to prepare me to run, but it didn’t seem to carry much weight.

I left his office, went home, ran a mile, survived, opened a beer and felt better. Two days later, I ran two miles. Three days after that, a huge milestone, 5k.

All of which hurt a little, but not as much as those lunges. Most importantly my attitude was now turning around. Instead of spending most of my free time thinking about my pain (which is almost the definition of clinical depression, though I always thought I was doing so in a constructive way, i.e. how can I get better), I was now daydreaming about my next run. Three-and-a-half? Do I dare think about four miles? Can I go to the trails?

I took this back to Dr Toss, who has really been just as much as a coach and therapist to me as a doctor. Am I not just replacing one obsession with another? He was fine with it. He truly understands the mindset of athletes. Thinking about the high of the next workout is what we do, that’s our normal.

So just to wrap up this part of the post, I do have to give a big thank you and enthusiastic recommendation for Dr Toss. If you’re an athlete on Staten Island (he also has a NJ office) with soft tissue type injuries – really, anything other than a broken bone – then he ought to be the first person you should see. His knowledge of anatomy is amazing, he’s willing to take his time explaining things to clueless patients like me who didn’t take biology in high school, and his ability to analyze form and work out where pain is coming from is a real gift. He’s also not expensive, even off-insurance, and very easy-going about whether he sees a patient twice a week or twice a year.

So back to the recovery. The mantra continued to be “run to conquer pain”. A bizarre concept, but seemed to work for me. At this point I’d been physically examined once or twice a week for three months and the doc was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with my structurally. Running might hurt, especially the first mile, but I’d feel way better after doing it, and have little or no lasting pain the next day, so it appeared that I could do it if I was prepared to be stubborn and suck it up a little.

The next huge confidence booster was running the ups and downs of the Greenbelt trail system, for which I have to be very thankful for the Greenbelt Conservancy‘s weekly Wednesday evening group runs and especially our guide Anthony. To be able to just settle into a run and find my stride and let someone else pace and navigate was fantastic for a recovering runner.

Early October arrived, which always makes me think of the Staten Island Half Marathon. The first goal race I ever trained for (as a new runner in 2010), and more recently the most impressive race I ever ran (in 2012). I was having a nostalgic day thinking back to that 2012 race on Facebook, and thinking whether I should go down and take photos of this year’s race, when I was challenged by our running team’s open captain to show up and run the 5k, a new addition to SI Half Marathon day.

I hadn’t thought about this at all. When I’m feeling down-with-the-kids and using hashtags on Facebook, I’ll throw out a #run2015 and a #believe every so often, but racing was always very much a #race2016 kind of deal. Yet the more I thought about it, the less good excuses I could find as to why I couldn’t race. My long run was up to 13 miles (albeit very slow miles), I was free that morning, what was stopping me?

And so, encouraged by Facebook friends, I renewed my NYRR membership, signed up for the race, picked up my t-shirt and race number, ran a two mile Friday shakeout run that had me thinking I’d made a horrible mistake, spent most of Saturday with my knees hooked up to ice and TENS therapy, and went to bed crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

Race day was a pleasant surprise. Threw on my new shoes (far heavier and more cushioned than anything I’ve ever raced in, but my feet seem to need it) and the aches from Friday were gone. Drove the car to my lucky parking space from 2012, near Snug Harbor, and jogged to the start. So many runners doing pre-race miles to get ready for the marathon. Ran by one of my 2012 summer long-run training friends Matt, who told me I was looking strong, which may or may not have been true, but I knew I was back. More friends and teammates outside the Richmond County ballpark, including our masters team captain Gus, who I’d finally be representing. Told him my estimated pace for the race and his eyes lit up. Turned out he thought I was running the half-marathon, not the 5k.

As for the race itself: I knew that as the secondary race of the day, the 5k would not have that many exceptional runners, though as a NYRR event, you know that the top finishers are going to be really top-notch athletes. In between the elites and the “I’m just doing this while I wait my half marathoner to finish” crowd would be me, and hopefully at least a few other runners to keep pace with. If I’m signing up for a race I want a true race experience!

The horn sounds and we’re off. I’m immediately thankful that my right knee, which is now my primary pain point, is not hurting me. Adrenaline works – good to know. The first mile is more down than up, heading along Bay Street, and I find myself not only keeping my pace with our men’s Open captain Charlie, but slightly ahead of him. I know I’m not going to last long at this pace, so drop back just a little, but tell myself to keep him in sight. Second mile sees my spirits drop just a little when the course has been altered and we have to turn right, run half a block, then do a 180 degree turn and come back the other way. No runner likes those turns, but if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to send jolts of pain through my legs, it’s lateral or twisting movements. My heart sinks a little, I grimace and get through it, and then it’s time to head for home. The pain is still manageable but I’m getting some muscle fatigue: I’m doing about 6:20 a mile, a pace I haven’t run at all in training, hoping to sustain it for 3.1 miles is optimistic. That fatigue, and the uphill last mile, mean I’m phoning it in as I approach the end, but still manage a bit of a surge for the fun finish – a long downhill followed by a sweeping turn into the ballpark an a run to home plate.

20:28 was the finish time. I’d hoped for around 21 minutes (though I admit I started dreaming of sub-20 after the first mile), so a success.

I’m writing this three weeks later, as October ends. I’ve continued to progress steadily. Runs keep getting longer, or hillier, or faster (but not all three at the same time). I’ve always been a very data-driven athlete, and my logs tell me that the last time I ran more miles than I did this month (125.4) was back in November 2013, back when I was healthy and preparing for the Trail Festival 50k.

The bottom line, then, is that whether or not I still have pain, I don’t think I can keep calling myself an injured/recovering athlete any more. I’m a runner again.

Tomorrow this┬árunner goes to the start line of the New York City Marathon. Not to run, but to volunteer. Being on the sidelines for so long, my feelings for running have wavered up and down over the months and years, but I’m excited to get close to this great event at last. And health permitting, I think I’ll be throwing in an entry for next year’s lottery…

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