I felt like an archeologist last week when a friend showed me a well-worn copy of a magazine article I’d written that, for some reason, he had been saving for the past 14 years. It had been published in Runner’s World back in November of 1998. As I re-read my guest column, it hit me that this was back in the publication’s heyday of iconic (male) writers like the 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, and Joe Henderson, and Dr. George Sheehan, and a full decade before the magazine published its Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running, and almost 20 years after I had first taken up distance running myself.
While revisiting this historical artifact I’d written, I was struck by its over-arching theme of loss. It’s a universal concept common to both heart patients mourning their loss of “normalcy” and to former distance runners mourning their loss of identity as runners.
I used to be a runner, but I’m no longer a runner now. This was how I told Runner’s World readers my story of that surreal transition:
by Carolyn Thomas, Runner’s World, November 1998 Vol. 33 Issue 11
“I watch them now with different eyes. Runners on Sunday morning long runs. After work runners in motley, laughing groups on their way through the park. Pre-dawn runners alone with the darkness and their thoughts.
“I used to be one of them.
“I remember clearly the Sunday morning when, after 19 years of running, I stopped being a runner, when my persistent heel pain suddenly, shockingly, made it impossible for me to run even one more step.
“At first I chalked it up as a minor injury. Off I limped to a podiatrist, demanding orthotics. He frowned at me, sniffing:
“You realize what you’re doing wrong, don’t you? You wear high heels at work, and you run.”
“Undaunted, and armed with my new $300 custom orthotics, I hit the sports medicine clinic next. I told the sports medicine guys:
“Ultrasound, ice, heat, exercise – just do whatever it takes to get me back up and running.”
“When the pain grew worse, I had to look at other options. I tried acupuncture and cortisone injections. I lived on anti-inflammatories, trying to dull the teeth-grinding pain that had become my constant companion.
“Weeks of treatment stretched into months. Slowly I realized what my body knew all along: my running days were over. Run? I could barely walk.
“Worse, I was even beginning to think of myself as a former runner.
“My longtime running partners were now running without me. For 19 years, our group would meet every Sunday at 9 a.m. for two hours of running – followed by two hours of eating. During the winter, we took turns hosting the group, each of us leading the others along urban mystery routes. During the summer, we circled Elk Lake on a woodland path, driving to our favourite coffee shop afterward for gooey cinnamon buns.
“We were a wildly diverse group of women, ranging from lawyers to waitresses – some single, some married, some fast, some much less fast – bound by the support we had discovered in group running. We didn’t run to win race medals or improve our times, although as the years went by, we did. In fact, we never seemed to have any particular training goals. Mostly, we just wanted to run together as one unwieldy mass of colorful Spandex and flying ponytails.
“And how we loved to talk! We explored each others’ lives like documentary filmmakers. Divorce. Death. Co-workers, men and teenagers driving us crazy. Everything that was tearing at our hearts or delighting our souls would turn up on Sunday morning’s topic agenda. Sometimes we all talked at once; sometimes just one of us talked for the entire run. When I was going through a painful separation from my husband, our group sometimes had to stop running and walk for a bit because I was unable to run, talk and cry all at the same time.
“Immediately after my injury, I would still join the group for our usual post-run Sunday brunch. There were hugs all around when I’d arrive, but gradually something began to feel different.
“As summer turned to fall, then winter to spring, one Sunday at a time, I got too busy to meet them for breakfast. I was now an outsider, a foreigner to the land of speedwork, quad pulls and the latest in running shoe technology. Some of us still got together socially, but at parties I was now introduced as their ‘former running buddy.’ I was no longer one of them.
“When I first stopped running, I would watch runners on the road with curiosity, identifying familiar faces. Months later, I’d feel only a wistful pang as I studied that beautiful stride, fearing that I might never be able to join them again.
“Now, I feel oddly resigned to my life as a former runner.
“These days, I can walk to work, five miles round-trip, at a moderate pace. I’m thrilled to be able to walk without limping now, but the very idea of running is still unthinkable.
“Last weekend, I had my runner’s ponytail cut off. I gave away my old running magazines.
“And now, as runners pass by, I watch them with different eyes (and shorter hair), from that strange, uneasy place that hangs between my running past and my unknown, non-running future.”
© 1998 Runner’s World
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