The dichotomy between what “able-bodied” activities you can easily replicate and those you can’t as an above-knee amputee has been brought into stark relief for me over the past week. As part of the “You-Will-Be-In-Better-Shape-At-50-Than-You-Were-At-40 Project” – note that I have given myself a long runway (7+ years) to achieve this goal – I have been running on a semi-regular basis. I have also had the opportunity to play both tennis and volleyball in the last 72 hours. Here are my observations about each.
Anyone who tells you they like running is lying to you. I’m not exaggerating. Studies show that 98% of people actively dislike running. While I haven’t officially confirmed that by looking at actual data, I’m certain I’m right. The other 2%? Those are the Impossibly Happy – people who climb out of bed saying to themselves, “Today is going to be even better than yesterday!” with smiles on their faces, who thank the Good Lord they got eaten alive by mosquitoes last night because their involuntary blood donation helped one of God’s creatures prolong their useless, parasitic lifespan, and who greet non-running peers who blearily sleepwalk through every morning with the phrase, “Looks like you have a bad case of the Mondays!” (broad smile permanently plastered across their face). I can honestly say that I want to murder each and every one of these people, especially the “case of the Mondays” set, for whom I have mentally devised pre-kill agonies worthy of the Seven Circles of Hell.
Running is just an awful activity. As the pavement rises up to traumatize my spine, I have never – not even once – had the following thought: “God, I’m so happy to be doing this.” Activities that make me happier than running include: changing the cats’ litter box; listening to my kids fight in the back of the car; and submitting to the obligatory TSA pat-down.
It’s a painfully limited and practical world. No higher thoughts occur in it. I measure my running existence in mailboxes and telephone poles. Less than 30 seconds after commencing this soul-crushing, body-destroying activity, I will myself forward by focusing on the next mailbox and trying to get there without throwing up. Or the next telephone pole. Or the next small animal carcass that has been ground into the blacktop by a more sensible and efficient mechanism for navigating a road. (A grim reminder, by the way, of what happens to you if you try to run on pavement.)
But, on the other hand, after I’m done running, I feel great. Real runners claim it’s the endorphins pumping through your blood, but they’re wrong. It’s the sheer relief of no longer running that makes you feel so good, the freedom from the pain you voluntarily subjected yourself to. (See, Carlin, George, for analogous analysis: “Swimming isn’t a sport; swimming is a way to keep from drowning!”)
I never played tennis competitively. However, at one point in my life, I lived on the campus of a private school in Connecticut. As a result, I had unfettered access to tennis courts any time I wanted to hear that satisfying “pock” of green rubberized fuzz hitting string. And so, when friends came over to my house, we would grab some old wood rackets that my father had from his college years and knock the ball around.
When you’re in 7th grade, a tennis court is big. You have to run madly all over the place all the time. It’s great fun and I could generally give my tennis-playing friends a decent time of it simply because I was reasonably coordinated and in good shape.
I’m now 42, and the tennis court looks much smaller to me. In fact, as I watch tennis on TV and then go on a court myself, I marvel at how small it actually is and how big professional tennis players make it look due to their otherworldly accuracy and power.
I stood on a tennis court this past Friday. I held a racket in my hand. Balls were hit towards me. But it was not tennis.
Tennis is a game of explosive starts and stops. Those explosions can occur in any direction. Left, right, front, back – in the course of just one point, you often have to move to all four poles of the compass. And while I’m an adept prosthetic user, I can’t do this like a person with two legs can.
Lateral movement, in particular, is especially elusive. Balls hit at medium speed ten feet to my right or left suddenly might as well be a mile away. By the time I get there and try to set up to hit the return, the ball has already bounced past me, bounced an additional three times, gotten stuck against the chain link fence 20 feet behind the baseline, been retrieved by the guy in the next court over, and tossed back to my playing partner on the other side of the net.
I found that the only way to mitigate the lateral limitations now imposed on me was to never hit a backhand, but rather, to switch the racket from left to right hand, always hitting forehands. This increased my range by a good, oh, six feet. Which would be fantastic if a tennis court was only 15 feet wide, as it would make a sizeable dent in the total area I have to cover. Unfortunately, a regulation court is nearly three times that width, and the extra range I get is more than offset by the weakness and inaccuracy of my wrong-handed return. Envision, if you will, a scarecrow placed in the center of the court, rackets in both outstretched hands. That’s basically me. Today. That, my dear friends, is not tennis.
“If you really like tennis, why not wear a running leg?” some of you might ask? Good question. The answer is that while a running leg will enhance my mobility, it will also decrease my stability. Running legs rest on the razor’s edge separating ease of knee bend from knee collapse. In order to preserve energy when running, the prosthetic knee needs to bend easily and quickly. So they’re aligned in a way that gives you just enough stability to stay upright when running in a straight line, but that’s about it.
If you ran hard for three steps on a running leg, suddenly stopped, planted, and tried to strike a moving ball, the knee would buckle immediately and violently, leaving you swinging the racket as your face strikes the concrete. You would get to more balls, but you’d also suffer broken ribs, concussions, and a variety of other injuries not normally associated with tennis. On the flip side, as a spectator, this would be rather entertaining to watch, I think. Not unlike seeing stock cars disintegrate as they flip and spin into walls at high speeds.
Every year my wife’s family has an annual party/volleyball tournament. The entire afternoon consists of middle-aged and older adults unsuccessfully trying to hold their ground against the 13 to 35 set. The Biblical phrase, “the spirit is [ ] willing but the flesh is weak” best describes this annual exercise.
There was a time when I was one of the crown jewels of this tiny firmament. On our decidedly non-regulation net, I was capable of blocking opponent’s shots at net level and dropping nice little dinks strategically into open spaces. I was the guy that people wanted on their team.
But every year since my accident, the reminder of what was leaves the reality of what is sucking wind on the sidelines. Much like tennis, volleyball requires movement in all directions. The presence of teammates means that the total area you have to cover is much smaller than that on a tennis court. But – and this is a big “but” – volleyball also requires you to jump. A lot.
For those of you who have never tried jumping while wearing an above-knee prosthesis, allow me to put it in perspective. Imagine putting your entire leg into a restrictive brace. The brace prevents your ankle from flexing at all, meaning you can’t explode off your toes. The knee will bend, but you can’t actively straighten it – it’s a one-way system. Only gravity will straighten the knee for you. Add 5-7 pounds of dead weight to the brace. Now jump. As you can hopefully surmise from this little exercise, you now have one leg doing the work of two. It is, in corporate-speak, “suboptimal.”
Moreover, while you can still dive to save balls, you’re basically limited to those directly in front of you, or those hit to your sound side. (Diving to the same side as your above-knee prosthesis doesn’t really work, primarily because you get no active push from the prosthesis.) So you can’t really move backwards at all, you can’t move to your prosthetic side effectively, and you have a comparatively reduced radius of movement forward and towards your sound limb. Your are, roughly speaking, half a player.
So, you stand on the court hoping that the spherical finds its way directly to you, and otherwise spinning in semicircles watching more skilled and mobile individuals play the game and try to cover the space that is technically yours. It is this frustrating cycle that led to the following dialogue in my head Saturday morning:
“Should I play or not? Absolutely I should. I can contribute something of value out there, can’t I? Well, except for balls hit to my left. Or over my head. Or more than 4 feet in front of me.
Jesus, I really shouldn’t play.
Why get all hot and sweaty to be a pale imitation of myself. But on the other hand, if I don’t play, then the kids at the party will think that people with one leg can’t play volleyball, and what kind of message would that send? I need to play to uphold the honor of the entire above-knee amputee community.
But, that’s such a heavy burden to bear. What if I play badly? Isn’t that worse than not playing at all? If I don’t play, the Tribal Elders will still tell their kids that a great [- please, it’s a relative term here -] volleyball player once resided in that bag of bones. However, if I do play and I suck, then these kids will tell their friends that they know a guy with one leg, and he’s terrible at volleyball. And they’ll tell their friends. Between Facebook and texting, pretty soon 70% of all Americans under the age of 16 will know that amputation is an athletic death sentence. And none of them will ever want to be an amputee like me. [Because kids, you know, want to lose their limbs so they can be like the 42 year-old has-been.]
They may even ostracize me and my one-legged kin. Soon there will be riots, they’ll be parading amputees through the streets in cages on the backs of pickup trucks, onlookers hurling tennis balls and volleyballs at the helpless cripples inside. If I play badly, it may actually lead to the extinction of all amputees in the United States in an explosion of hatred.
But if I don’t play . . .”
While this reveals a frighteningly overinflated opinion of my impact on able-bodied individuals’ views of amputees, it has led me to hedge my bets by playing in some years, and not playing in others. And when I play, I immediately hate myself for the bumbling, sessile liability that I have become. When I don’t play, I immediately hate myself for not getting out there and being a bumbling, sessile liability. I now live in volleyball purgatory.
So what pearls of wisdom can we salvage from my twisted and damaged psyche?
Let me answer by diverting to a conversation I once had with a bilateral amputee who had lost his legs in a train accident. Lee was an excellent hockey player before his amputations. And afterwards, he told me that he knew he could get back up on ice skates again and navigate his way around a rink. But, Lee continued, he refused to do it because he knew what it was like to really play hockey, and he would never be able to fully replicate the activity that he knew and loved.
I instantly understood what he meant.
I could no longer plant my left leg on the ground and lean into the strike of a soccer ball, sending it precisely where I wanted it to go. I could no longer rotate my hips and drive a baseball with authority into the outfield. Sure, I could still get on a soccer pitch or baseball field and engage in these activities. But I couldn’t perform them the way I was supposed to. I would have to modify, accommodate and concede.
And as I looked at Lee as he said this, I remember not only his words but the look on his face. I wouldn’t characterize it as sadness. Rather, I would describe it as . . . resignation. My takeaway from that conversation, a conclusion strengthened by my experience with tennis and volleyball is this: some post-amputation activities you can willingly modify without incurring psychic trauma; but others – often those that you love the most – are an all-or-nothing proposition. You do them the way you always did, or you don’t do them at all.
And that brings me back to where I started: running. I hate it. I did it this morning as the sun was just breaking over the horizon on a beautiful summer day here in the Northeast. As I descended into my personal Hell, I saw two rabbits dart away from me. I heard some kind of large bird in the thick forest growth to my left, startled by my footsteps, bolt deeper into the woods. Beautiful summer flowers welcomed me on both sides as I ran down the mild decline in the middle of my route.
And I couldn’t care less about any of those things. They don’t make the run better, faster, or more fun. They merely distract me from the next mailbox, the next telephone pole, the next chipmunk or squirrel that lies flattened on the asphalt. As I slogged through my neighborhood, I never thought, even for an instant, “I’m so glad I’m doing this.” It wasn’t more than 100 yards after starting that I wanted it to be over.
But I still do it, because when I run I look like – if you ignore the aesthetic aspect of my left leg – every other runner out there. And it feels something like regular running too. It hurts, I sweat a lot, and when I’m done I want to puke. That’s how I always felt when I ran with two legs, like I wanted to die. It doesn’t change, whether you’re wearing a prosthesis or not.
This is the only reason that I keep coming back to running, no matter what my age. It’s like having two legs again, which makes me feel good. And no, you grinning-Clif-Bar-eating-Nike + iPod-using-super-fit runners – that’s not the endorphins talking.
So I churn through my grim task and finish. And shower. And get dressed. And as I type these final words on this gorgeous Monday morning, I feel great. Because I did something that, despite the odd-looking accoutrement I require to do it, looks and feels the same now as it did when I was 17. One leg in front of the other. Over. And over. And over. Thirty yards to the next mailbox. Done. Twenty yards to the next telephone pole. Done. It doesn’t feel all that different. It still feels awful. And . . . normal.