Sunday, August 18, 2013

I hop

I was crutching my way back to my apartment from my favorite café when a young man came up beside me. “Excuse me—hi! I was wondering about your injury. What happened?”

He was one of those much-pierced-and tatt’d guys who somehow manages to look endearingly puppy-like despite the metal and ink—perhaps because of it. As I told him my tale, however, I kept alert. Years of living in New York have permanently imprinted certain rules in my brain, and one of the top five of these is never trust anyone who stops to talk to you on a sidewalk.
“Oh wow!” he exclaimed, eyes wide with interest. “Hey, would it be OK if I prayed for you? I like to pray for people to heal. Could I do that for you right now?”

I could have said I was in a hurry to go someplace and crutched off as fast as my one good leg, one gimpy leg, and two metal ambulatory aids would permit. Instead I said “yeah, sure.” This wasn’t New York, after all; when in Rome, as in semi-rural Heartland, you let folks pray.
He got down on one knee. I had time to wish someone were there to take a photo and post it on facebook so I could change my relationship status to “engaged to random stranger.” My pretend fiancé placed his hands over my Ace-bandaged foot; I meanwhile clutched my shoulderbag a whole lot tighter. Hey, I’ve seen magic shows. The ol’ keep ‘em distracted by praying over your foot meanwhile your wallet’s getting picked—yeah, I know that one, pal.

“Oh heavenly father I pray for healing,” he began, upon which point I sort of tuned out, the way I used to way back in those very few times I attended Mass as a child. At some point he changed things up a bit, got more comfortable with The Lord. “Oh Dad, we thank you for your mercy. Daddy, we thank you for your love.” I pictured Daddy rolling his eyes, shaking his head, waiting for the plea for a bigger allowance.
Finally the prayer ended and he stood up. “Did you feel the Holy Spirit enter your foot?”

Well, no, but then the Holy Spirit’s healing calendar may be kind of full at the moment, what with, like, wars and stuff going on, so I’m not going to be too offended.
“You didn’t? That’s OK! Not everyone feels it right away.”

Well, all right, then. He smiled, said his goodbyes, and went on his way. I smiled, checked my wallet, and continued on myself.
Being on crutches is a bit like being pregnant, I’d imagine, only with armpit bruises instead of back pain. Your body is in this temporarily altered state, and there’s no hiding it, and for whatever reason it suddenly becomes OK for the public to focus very directly on this state. People who would never dream of staring at or talking to an amputee or a severe burn victim will openly approach a person with a cast or a sling and ask for the gory details. I don’t know how many times in the past week a stranger has looked piteously at me and exclaimed “you poor thing!” and asked if they could help, be it through prayer or a motorized shopping cart at Schnucks. (A combination of the two wouldn’t be unwelcome, come to think of it. Oh Daddy, we pray for a decent selection of organic produce and a sale on our favorite cheese. You’re the tops, Pops.)

While it certainly hasn’t been an enjoyable experience, this one-legged week has had its share of amusements, and not just from random tattoo’d puppy-eyed men praying for my foot. All this hopping around the apartment has been excellent training for playing The Floor Is Lava, for example. I can make it from the refrigerator to the sofa in less than three toe-touches. When TFIL becomes an Olympic event, I am so representing the U.S.A.
Yes, I am in fact trying valiantly to put a brave, cheerful face on all this. I kind of have to, given that I did this to myself and knew what the results would be. I knew I’d miss out on running for a while, and strongly suspected I’d miss out on most outdoor activities in general. I even figured the weather would be especially lovely, and everyone I knew who wasn’t a gimp would be engaging in a last frantic burst of fun before summer unofficially ended with the final weeks of August. I’m trying, but failing. It sucks to be injured. Duh.

On the upside, I’ve got jury duty starting tomorrow. I’ll get all sorts of chances for strangers to ask me what happened, and the rest of the today to figure out a good story. I’ve already got one in mind should I be chosen for voir dire: Well, I was on my way to a meeting of the Midwestern Anarchists Association when this guy tried to steal my purse and because I believe in vigilante justice I kick-boxed his ribcage and twisted my ankle. I’ll have to find a way to work the surgical scar into that story. Maybe the would-be thief had a knife. And was riding a motorcycle. There’s got to be a motorcycle in there somewhere.
Bruised, scarred, limping, grinning. That was me after my first ultramarathon. None of these will last, not even the grinning. At some point I will heal, one way or another, and return to the life I had before. It will be a relief to move freely again, a joy to run outside, but there will also be a certain heaviness that returns to my life. With limited mobility, I can’t think too far ahead; I can only focus on my next step, on avoiding any immediate pain (as well as imaginary lava). Upright, crutch-free, fully healed, I’m back to being on my own, strangers no longer interested and concerned, the steps ahead of me now shadowed with a greater uncertainty. Knowing you can move forward doesn’t necessarily mean you know where you’re going. The floor won’t be lava, but it probably won’t be a clearly marked path either.




Monday, August 12, 2013


It sounds like the worst idea ever: run around in circles for eight hours on a Saturday in August. I didn’t want this to be my first ultra. So of course it was.

Surprised? I sure am.
Something that isn’t a surprise: I wrecked my left foot in the process of running those 34 miles. I can’t put even the slightest weight on that foot right now without feeling a blaze of intense pain. To get around the apartment, I’ve been alternating between hopping one-leggedly, scooting buttly, and crutching ridiculously, because the crutches I borrowed were meant for someone a good 6 inches taller than I am.

Something that’s the biggest surprise of all: it was totally worth it. I enjoyed every minute of those 8 hours, even those minutes—and there were many—when I knew I was going to pay for this.
The race is called Howl at the Moon, even though it happens in the daytime. There’s an explanation. I won’t give it; suffice it to say that the name results in some cool T-shirts and medals featuring a wolf’s head framed by the lunar orb. It takes place on a 3.29-mile trail loop at a nearby state park, and it’s this…Thing that trail ultra runners do. I’ve done it, so I guess that officially makes me a trail ultra runner.

This means more to me than my PhD. I’m not kidding. That diploma’s coming down off the wall; I need the nail to hang up my race medals.
So let me get this straight. Five weeks ago you were in the ICU with a leg full of clots and an arm ready to burst open. You’re still on clot-busting drugs, you still aren’t back to your pre-hospital level of fitness, and the week before the race you were noticing some disconcerting twinges in your left foot—the same sort of twinges that preceded the whole leg-swelling-up-to-tree-trunk-size-due-to-extensive-DVTs business. And so you decide that it’s a good idea to run 34 miles in that condition?

And now you’ve messed up your foot so badly you can’t even walk?

Also correct.
And you probably, like, knew this would happen, right?

Oh yes. I knew very well the foot would get trashed. I knew every step of the way. Every time I finished a loop, I knew if I stopped, I might prevent further damage.
And yet you continued.


I know. Let me try to explain.

The big things in life are always risky. You may risk failure. You may risk your heart. Most of the time you undertake something big and crazy, you think you know the risks and you decide they aren’t that big a deal compared to the potential reward. And then you’re wrong and you get so thoroughly clobbered you can’t imagine getting out of bed to face another day much less trying anything with the slightest hint of risk again.   

I took a risk. I paid the price. I knew I’d pay that price. It was totally worth it.
A few days ago a friend and I met at a favorite downtown café to talk about books we’ve been sharing. In between discussion of plot and character and soul-destroying swords (these are scifi/fantasy books, of course) we chatted about life in general, and he happened to suggest that I take another running trip abroad. Why not plan another marathon in a far-flung locale? I told him I’d love to but haven’t got the money. I thought about it later on and wondered if that was even true. Not the money part—definitely haven’t got that—but whether I really would love to go away like I used to. I wondered if I’ve lost my nerve, my sense of adventure, my willingness to try new things. After a while you start to get burned on trying new things; reality so seldom lives up to expectation, and you realize no matter what exciting new thing  you do or exotic new place you go, you are still you, inescapably, and perhaps that means your patterns are set for life. Wanderlust means perpetual restlessness and dissatisfaction. You can’t run away and you never feel at home.

As near as I can describe, and as grandiose as it sounds, my first ultra was the perfect combination of running away and coming home.
I’d never run this particular trail before. I’d never run this race before. I’d never run for 8 hours straight, and of course I’d never run more than 26.2 miles in my life. New experiences can happen anywhere, not just in the far-flung and exotic, and they allow you to get out of your everyday self, even if only temporarily.

After the first couple of loops, something changed. The course became familiar. I knew when we’d pass the cemetery, potent reminder of being alive. Shortly thereafter we’d pass the memorial sign to the runner who died on that trail, on that spot, doing that race. What a way to go. I knew the long hill would be shady and cool. I knew we’d get to the road where the friendly guy in the green shirt was directing traffic, stopping the crazy old jalopies on their way to the Crazy Old Jalopy convention in another part of the park. I knew we’d run by the steady shriek of cicadas on the woods. The halfway rest stop would be ahead, where they’d have cold boiled red-skinned potatoes that you dipped in kosher salt before eating. They taste amazingly good. I knew Tony would be there, cracking wise and handing out Gatorade (at least until the last loop; then he breaks out the margaritas). I knew we’d run by the green pond before we got to The Hill. Everyone walks The Hill. There would be watermelon and ice at the top of the hill, and then it was just a short bit down the road back into the woods and then, once the trees cleared, there would be the familiar view of tents and canopies where runners’ crew members waited with peanut butter sandwiches, Tylenol, sunscreen, and S-caps. Then it’s past the scorers’ table and on to another loop.
Sometimes familiarity breeds comfort. Sometimes it even breeds bliss.

Yes, I’m paying for that bliss right now. It’s a price I find more than reasonable. I would love to be there again, running in those woods. I know that soon enough I’ll be back where I started, and with that comfort in mind I can continue on.



Saturday, August 3, 2013

Schwa de vivre

What I am about to describe is not for the squeamish. I debated providing that warning at the start of this post; if I didn’t say it, those with squeam would howl in protest when they got to the second paragraph, but now that I have warned you, those who are squeam-free will likely shrug and sneer, What, is that all? Ah well; can’t please all of the people all of the blog.

I’ve lost two toenails to running, both on my right foot, and that foot’s big toenail is about to be number three. Beneath the two littler lost nails there was a smaller, runty-looking toenail, and the experience was rather like the reverse of losing baby teeth. The big toe’s nail is not like that. It has been black for many months without showing any signs of falling off—until today. After a ten-mile run, I took off my shoes and socks and noticed that the big black toenail looked askew. I touched it. It was clearly loose. I lifted it up much as one might lift the hood of a car. Beneath it was not a small, runty-looking toenail but rather a big disgusting mess. I stared at it, much in the same way I tend to stare uncomprehendingly at car engines, and closed the hood.
Hey, I warned you.

I wasn’t especially grossed out. I doubt many of the hard-core distance runners reading this would be either. That said, I didn’t find it particularly fun to look at. My surgery scar, on the other hand—that thing absolutely enthralls me. I love that scar; I’ll be sad the day it fades to a mere ghostly white line of its former glorious ghastliness. I love showing people the scar, watching their faces contort in shock and horror. It looks about a thousand times less horrific than it did a month ago, and it still makes people cringe. Sometimes when I’m sleeping I’ll have my arm up next to my face, and when I wake up staring at that thing even I scream a little. Then I remember: oh, right, that thing is on me.
Part of the shock of the scar comes from the fact that it really does look like I got it in a knife fight or a motorcycle accident—two of the answers I like to give people when they ask me Woah what happened? Sometimes I say knife fight on a motorcycle. Nobody believes this, of course, but they do admit the scar makes me look like a badass mofo of the toughest degree. This pleases me so much I may have to get a tattoo of the scar once it does fade.

I’m only partially kidding about that. I’ve often wondered what kind of tattoo I’d get if I were so inclined to get one. There’s nothing I can think of that I consider significantly symbolic to me, so usually I think of something fairly random. A schwa, for instance. You know, that upside down “e” that’s meant to signify an unstressed vowel sound? I’m not a linguist, and I don’t play one on TV; I just think “schwa” is a fun word to say and schwas themselves look neat: something so ordinary, so commonplace, turned upside down. That said, I’m sure the fun and neat qualities would fade a lot faster than the ink itself would, plus there’s the fact that if I, say, got it on my arm, every time I looked down it would just be a plain old boring letter “e.” I’d rather have my gruesome scar, thank you very much.

Several years back a friend of mine got a tattoo that she was very proud of. She described it to me over the phone in great detail—she had designed it herself—but I had a hard time picturing it, or maybe I just didn’t bother picturing it given that other people’s tattoos, like their cars, pets, and children, don’t tend to interest me all that much. When she finally showed it to me, turning and lifting her shirt so I could see her back, I was horrified. I had been expecting a dainty little thing no bigger than a half-dollar. This thing was monstrous, the approximate size of a salad plate, and very darkly inked. As she explained to me how long she had to be in the chair and how much it hurt and how much she loved the results, I just stared. Then she asked my opinion.
“Wow,” I stammered. “It’s…big. And…dark. Wow.”

“Do you like it?” she pressed.
I was so stunned I couldn’t even be polite. “I wasn’t expecting that. Uh…wow.”

She stood there a little longer with her shirt pulled up (we were in a bar, by the way) while I mentally implored her to cover the atrocity. I knew she was disappointed, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pretend to like something that awful, something that made me want to ask her why in the hell she would do that to herself. Self-mutilation is never the answer. Help is available.
Of course, people ask me why in the hell I run these crazy-ass distances, and they’re not likely to stop asking this once that big toenail comes off for good. Despite the fact that one chooses a tattoo and not a scar or a black toenail, there’s a common denominator here. Maybe the real appeal of all these bodily aberrations is the way they hint of what depth lies beneath without revealing it outright. Black toenails are cool; missing toenails are horrifying. Nobody really wants to see what’s under there. Likewise, few people are comfortable witnessing someone else’s raw pain. A scar after the fact, though? Cool. The tattoo is a way for people to say, this is a glimpse of who I am; the scar says, hey, I’ve been through stuff. I have stories to tell. I’ve suffered, and I’ve healed. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve ridden my Harley through a plate glass window. While fighting ninjas. With a knife.