So for the past couple of months my lower back has really been bothering me. I’ve tried different things (new running shoes, old running shoes, time off, chiropractor, etc), and nothing much worked. Finally, I went to a specialist, who took XRays and had me undergo an MRI.
Last week, she gave me some bad news. Namely, I’m fucked.
I have a bulging disc in my back, as well as deterioration between the discs. Both come with punishment and age (I just turned 40). The doctor told me there different approaches—physical therapy, spinal fusion (she didn’t say this with any enthusiasm), more rest. “The truth is,” she said, “that the best thing to do is stop running and find different sports. It’s abusing your body.” I, of course, countered with the requisite BUT—”But … I’m running the Marine Corps Marathon in three months …”
“You are the only one who can determine what you want to do,” she said. “What sort of pain are you willing to live with?”
The next night, I went out for a six-mile run. The pain shot into my back and down my left leg. Each step was brutal. After about a mile, I stopped, turned and walked home. I’m pretty sure my life as a runner has ended.
I’ll write that again: I’m pretty sure my life as a runner has ended.
I am devastated. Beyond devastated. The other day a friend said, “You seem to be taking this well”—only I’m not. I’m heartbroken and crushed and, athletically, lost. I ran my first 10k 32 years ago, as a second grader at Lakeview Elementary School in Mahopac, N.Y. It was a race around Lake Mahopac—the town’s four elementary schools allowed any student (age 8 or older) to participate. In hindsight it’s a bonkers idea (300 elementary schoolers dashing around a lake), but I caught the fever. Over the ensuing decade I must have participated in, oh, 300 races. This was back in the day of 5 milers and 10ks and half marathons galore, and I became a regular member of the circuit. Once, Pete Warner, a co-worker of my mother’s, asked if I had any interest in doing two races in a single day. Did I! It was fantastic.
The road race circuit became my home; almost like a second family. There was always the same group of 10 or 11 kids fighting for age-group trophies (I landed my share), and I loved chatting about Nike’s new so-and-so shoe of that horrible hill between miles four and five. By the time I reached Mahopac High School, I was all about the sport. I ran both track and cross country, and as a senior was rated the second best 1,600-meter runner in all of Putnam County (I say “all of Putnam County” with great sarcasm. There was Carmel’s Mike Barrett, who went on to run at East Carolina; there were my teammates, the excellent Daiji Takamori and Craig Vanderoef; and there was, well, me).
Even though I was a 4:59 miler, I dreamed of running in college. I wrote letters to dozens of Division I coaches, bragging about placing X in X and Y in Y. Deep down, I probably knew I was, at best, a mid-level NAIA scrub. But I had dreams, and those dreams were glorious ones. Of course, no coach of any wisdom would write me back … save for one. Jim Fischer, longtime University of Delaware guru, told me if I showed up in Newark, Delaware, there’d be a spot for me. “OK,” I said. “I’m there.”
I’ll never forget my first day of school, freshman year. We all met in the dingy Delaware Field House, and after Coach offered a few words, Bryan Lennon, a senior captain, asked if anyone wanted to go out for a “short run.” Fuuuuuuck. It was brutal. Up and down and all around; a crisp pace few—if any—of my high school teammates could have kept with. I did absolutely everything to hang on; to pass the illusion that I was DI caliber. It was, in fact, the story of my cross country and track seasons. Fighting to hang on, placing last, second to last, third to last … and loving every single minute. I even earned a legitimate Division I letter in track—placing third in the 3,000 against Lehigh (there were, ahem, three of us in the race. A runner who came in top 5 got a letter).
Rosters were reduced the following year, and I had no shot. Not a problem. I ran my first New York City Marathon as a college sophomore—then, through the years—ran 10 more. I PRed in Chicago, at 3:11, and was thrilled. I also ran ones in Huntsville and Philly (awful) and Lake Rockland, N.Y. On and on.
And now, it seems, I’m done.
Spin class starts at 8 …