09 October 2007

Learning to fly

...condition grounded
but determined to try...


A little over a year ago, I tore the arch of my left foot on my morning run. That injury has informed my life like no injury before it.

I've always been an extremely active person. At the age of two, riding my tricycle wildly around the laundry room, I crashed into a machine and went headlong through the door and into the tub. I still bear the scar below my left eyebrow.

Concussions (2), sprains (uncountable), a fall down the stairs, broken toes (all of them, some twice), time on crutches (months over the course of years), all these bear testament to my Energizer Bunny lifestyle. Scars tell the story of falls off bikes, falls on slippery tennis courts and cinder-covered tracks, a fall onto a pile of rocks I was jumping over (because it was there!), kicking the barre instead of into the air, and a really good slide into second base playing kickball. Cactus spines in my legs, glass in my thumb, a hunk of asphalt in one knee.

One moment, you're running, at peace with yourself and the world, just hitting that high, and the next something goes *pop* and you and the world come crashing down.

Six months ago, after months of unsuccessful treatment and a crop of complications, the doctor told me it was time for surgery.

Naturally, I balked. I had an extremely busy summer planned, and there was no way anyone was putting any restrictions on it. Childish, yes; stupid, almost certainly, given I'm facing the threat of the tendons in my ankle ripping out and incapacitating me completely. But in the wake of a quite perfect summer, tendons intact, I know I made the right decision because I'd never have forgiven myself if I'd opted to sit it out.

And even if I hadn't had a wild summer planned, I'd probably still have balked. Surgical outcomes are always subject to failure. What if I went through the surgery, months of recovery and then still couldn't return to some semblance of my normal routine? That was unthinkable.

At the same time the doctor said the "s" word, he also told me in no uncertain terms that weight-bearing exercise was out of the question. Buy a stationary bike, he told me. That's your exercise.

Well, there's a reason I don't go to a gym. I don't like machines. I like the great outdoors, I like to watch the birds when I'm biking down the river path, I like to see what people are doing in their gardens, I like to run through the hills around my house and reach the summit and look at Catalina in the distance. It's infinitely more satisfying than sitting in my house on a stationary bike.

But I took him at his word. I bought the bike. I've used it religiously since April. I hate it with something bordering on passion, and about the best amusement I can get from it is making the heart rate monitor attached to it go crazy. It's very small amusement.

And I've cheated slightly by doing a little ballet, very little, to keep the muscles the bike doesn't exercise intact.

Okay, well, I also cheated by standing and dancing for hours at a time while the band tore it up onstage all summer, but that was why I didn't have surgery, so I'm not sure it counts as cheating.

A few weeks ago, I decided that it was worth testing the foot, gently, as if a summer full of hard rock concerts and plane flights wasn't sufficient test, to see if there was any chance of a return to "normal activity" without surgery.

I began with a short, slow meander (that's 2.5 miles at 4 mph to normal people), no hills, good sidewalks, nothing uneven. Just a walk. Some pain and a bit of snap-crackle-and-pop in the ankle, but it wasn't the brutal unyielding pain to which I'd become accustomed. Tried again two days later, and it was little worse, and two days after that, a lot worse.

I sat out for two more days, pondering, while an hour on the exercise bike grew ever more wearisome.

This morning was beautiful, clear, cool, blue October weather. My body and soul screamed to be out in the hills.

Why not? Isn't that the real test?

I fire up the Ipod with my running list, and no intention of running, and take off. Snow Patrol, "Make This Go On Forever" as I round the corner of my street.

...first time that I felt connected to anything...

An orange plane, clean against the blue sky, heads into the airport. For a moment, I am connected to everything around me.

But then, there are gardeners. Everywhere. They are throwing manure. Everywhere. They are in my way.

Rihanna. "Shut up and drive." Good advice. This one makes me laugh because I will always associate it with the Kiss and Fly at O'Hare, which is where I first heard it while D. was doing doughnuts in the rental car trying to find the Kiss and Fly. Of course, we'd already been to Indiana (accidentally) that morning and in a toll plaza with a tour bus from the band we'd seen the night before (which is why we ended up in Indiana). Infinitely more cheeful, I ignore the gardeners and zoom on to my next destination, the main drag. This is all sidewalk, but it's canted toward the street, which makes traversing it a bit painful. I step with deliberation, and directly onto the injury site. Even though the arch twinges when it hits the ground, I have to do this. If I don't, I am skewing my gait, and pressuring those failing tendons. I fear stepping wrong; in my imagination, I can literally feel the tendons rip out from behind my ankle.

ELO, Wolfmother and Tori Amos take me up into the hills. I am moving at a pretty fast pace, but I'm feeling tension in the ankle. This is not good, and it suddenly dawns on me that if something goes horribly wrong, I'm more than a mile away from home.

And I forgot my cell phone.

For a moment I debate going further up into the hills, but instead listen to the voice that says "Don't push it."

Well, I'm already pushing it, but...no need to be crazy about it.

It never occurs to me to just go home.

Even so, the next right takes me well and truly into the hills anyway, a hill so steep that I have trouble biking up it when I ride this way. I maintain my pace, but my heel is starting to scream. As I hit the base of the hill, I am still moving fast, and a truck coming out of a driveway tries to cut me off.

"Don't try it," I mouth at the driver, who simply stares at me while he waits.

...barking at strangers and speaking in tongues...

Some things never change, I think with just the slightest smug satisfaction.

I am not running up this hill. I so do not want to even go up this hill. I am still moving, but I don't want to be. I take a deep breath, never slackening my pace and let the bass line do the talking.

...one day I feel I'm ahead of the wheel
and the next it's rolling over me...


Frustration washes over me as I feel the deep burn start in the peroneal tendons. My ankle is on fire and I'm not even halfway up the hill. The Energizer Bunny cannot keep going and going.

I can get back on

And suddenly, in a white hot burst of light, just like those fireworks all summer long, I suddenly feel intense joy and well being. I haven't broken my pace, I am panting and sweating, and my left leg from the knee down wants to shrivel and die, but I am ready to scream with joy, as I walk the last ten paces to the top of the hill.

This is where running, if I were running, meets sex: runner's high. And I am not running, but I am at the top of the hill and I'm so damned happy I could explode. I start carefully down the other side, ecstatic and in an agony of physical pain.

Sounds weird, I know. But at the moment that I hit the worst pain and the best high, I knew the decision was made: I need to go back and see if the doctor still believes surgery is indicated. And if he does, I need to do it.

And finally, I am ok with that.

Go and listen to some good music from my Ipod running list:
"Make This Go On Forever" from the album Eyes Open by Snow Patrol
"Shut Up and Drive" from the album Good Girl Gone Bad by Rihanna
"Don't Bring Me Down" from the album Discovery by Electric Light Orchestra
"Joker and the Thief" from the album Wolfmother by Wolfmother
"Raspberry Swirl" from the album From the Choirgirl Hotel by Tori Amos
"Far Cry" from the album Snakes and Arrows by Rush



Go listen to some more good music: "Learning to Fly" from the album Echoes by Pink Floyd.


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