“I have failed you,” said the orthopedic surgeon, “my job is to name the problem and find a solution and I can’t do either for you.” As I watched a thin trail of dark blood ooze from four holes in my lower legs I was both relieved and heart broken by the lack of findings. I found myself, like I had so many times over the last seventeen years, face to face with a disheartening and depressing status, something near to my soul, that I loved very much would continue to be just outside my grasp.
Pressure measurement testing from eight long needles, deep into four compartments in my lower legs appeared to be my last hope for information and maybe a path to a cure, from a battery of testing that up this point provided no insight into the mechanism of a debilitating lower leg injury. Though I had shifted my athletic activities out of necessity, the thing I loved the most, running, had become almost completely impossible.
Over six thousand days had passed since I had enjoyed the freedom of lacing up my sneakers and heading out for a run with any sense that I would not limp home. The purity, simplicity and release a jog can give is like no other athletic endeavor I’ve embraced. The reason it’s called a runner’s high, is because of it’s narcotic effect. In response to the effort endorphins (pain inhibitors), serotonin (a euphoric mood enhancer) and bdnf (anti depressant) flood the body, leaving even the most novice and inefficient harrier feeling renewed and alive and often addicted.
Although other forms of fitness training produce similar physiological responses, the ease, availability and the purity of a run had been my favorite from the beginning of my days in motion.
As I sat in the examination room and watched the blood drip from my lower legs, seventeen years after the initial injury, I had once again exhausted the medical model and I was left with the same feedback, “we don’t know and we can’t help you.”
Just like after multiple orthopedic exams, X-rays, MRIs, nerve and vascular testing , I found myself face to face with a painful reality and had no choice but to sit in the place of not knowing. As a professional in the medical/healing world I’ve had the privilege of helping thousands of people improve their health and restore their bodies from neglect, disease and injury. In spite of my experience, knowledge, discipline, and desire for information and restoration about this shifty Achilles heel still eluded me. PT, massage, acupuncture, self care, rest, patience and now every relevant medical test available all left me in the same place, this was the way it was, and it required some level acceptance.
In the 10-15 glorious minutes before the pressure test, I jogged laps in the parking lot at Sharp Hospital, strategically inducing symptoms for testing purposes, During the sacrificial stride, I felt a joy and a calm that I hadn’t even attempted to experience in years, as any similar effort had been so predictably followed by pain over hundreds of attempts. Initially, as minutes and pavement passed, I ran symptom free, I straightened up, covered ground a bit quicker, and smiled bigger. “Could it be that just the pre-stick of the surgeons needles could have provided an obscure healing release?”
Had a mini-miracle occurred, a reward perhaps for my 17 years of dedicated rehab and best efforts? The warm smiles of the doctors, patients and security guards I passed on my trot felt like a little homecoming. I had forgotten the depth of the intoxication of the runner’s high. In an instant however, as was usually the case, the peace and the high were ambushed by sudden pain which clamped down fast and decisively, this time my right calf, deep to the bone. The joy and freedom vanished. My jog turned immediately into a walk which turned into a limp back to examination room for a measurement of the exercise induced symptoms.
As the surgeon injected the needles, measuring the compressive response of my facial system to running, I secretly hoped to hear, “Oh yes, the numbers are high, we have an explanation for your pain.” But that’s not what he said.
“I’m sorry Cris, your numbers are normal. I just don’t know whats causing your pain, I don’t know what to to tell you….” is all he could say.
Al Pacino, playing an aging football coach in Any Given Sunday once said, “As you get older, things get taken away, that’s just how life is…”
Pacino’s character was correct, things do get taken away. Sometimes predictably, sometimes snatched at the blink of an eye, the clogging of an artery, the piercing of bullet.
If you had asked me back in late July, 1997 if I thought my running hobby was done I’d would have said of course not. I assumed the radically painful cramp that mysteriously bit down on my left calf in the last 1/2 mile of what was to be a life time best race, was random and temporary. Adjusting my stride, embracing a little pain, I got through that race and I assumed a little post race massage, stretching and perhaps a couple days off would take care of the problem.
Little did I know, that I had likely gone on my last run where enthusiasm and fatigue would be the only limiting factors of the distance I would cover.
My life changed that July day. Running, which was way more than picking up and putting down my feet was no longer an option in any way resembling what I had known. Time on the roads, sand, and trails had been a source of stress and grief management since I was a boy and I picked it up the summer after my father suddenly passed away. At age 9 I completed my first 10k and had found something that calmed me and lifted me out of despair, above the anxiety and beyond the land tears.
Anyone (which is everyone) who has had something or someone important taken away from them knows that there is a hole left when the person or the thing goes away. There is no perfect solution to filling the hole. You either acknowledge the pain, the need for repair and do what you can to imperfectly fill the gap or you stop moving forward in life and your life gets defined by your loss. A little bit of your soul draining away day by day.
This was not option for me at age 9, nor has it been over the last seventeen years and nor will it be now in spite of the depressing, uninformative findings on my injury.
So here I am again, reminded that making the most of what you do have is what life is really about. A focus on what’s missing and what’s been taken away is a recipe for sorrow, bitterness and limitation.
Feel your feelings, know your purpose and do what needs to be done my friends. Patch, putty, stitch… your holes, give thanks (for those things you have enjoyed, even if they are long gone) and bravely expand your view of the possibilities available to you. There are more possibilities than you realize, I guarantee it.
Friendship Strength and Honor, Coach Cris
ps- I’m headed for a swim now, there is a world championship to be one on the water this fall!