There was a time after becoming an above-knee amputee when I wanted to run a marathon. I didn’t particularly enjoy running, nor was I especially good at it. I just wanted to be one of the only above-knee amputees in the U.S. who could say, “I finished a marathon.” (Back in the late 90’s, there were precious few AK’s running 5k’s leg-over-leg, much less marathons. So my vague aspiration was actually less about the marathon, and more about being “remarkable”. For more on this topic, see my discussions of limb loss and ego.)
Over the years, however, that desire faded. When I now read tales of amputee athletes completing New York, Chicago, DC, or London, I don’t feel pangs of regret. I consider those people a closely related but alien race. They look and act like the rest of us, but there’s something fundamentally different about them that I don’t quite understand and never will.
Having safely banished delusions of distance grandeur from my head over the last decade, I didn’t start using the word “marathon” in my vocabulary again until the middle of last year. As I ramped up mentally to begin running regularly for the first time since the late 90’s, I set my sights on a half marathon in August. Unlike 26.2 miles, a half marathon, I said to myself, is really just two 10k races back to back, plus a few hundred yards more. The distance seemed achievable to me, without requiring the level of sacrifice in both time and energy that a full marathon demanded.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned that setting one race, one event as a goal around which to organize my active life no longer works for me. The “one event” approach has numerous drawbacks, chief among them:
- all incremental progress gets measured against the ultimate goal, robbing me of the ability to enjoy tiny “wins” because even though they represent progress, they’re not enough progress when the race is only X days away and I only covered Y miles in Z minutes;
- any setback has the potential to become catastrophic, so even minor injuries that put me on the shelf for a few days get magnified in the one event approach, adding pressure and draining enjoyment;
- the one event approach encourages lots of measurement to document progress, including (in no particular order), heart rate, minutes per mile, interval workouts (which require you to measure both distance and time repeatedly in the course of one session), a process that boils performance down to a few numbers at the expense of the effort and time devoted to the act of running.
As a result, I scrapped stopwatches, heart rate monitors, and anything else that could give me information about my performance. My approach to the activity of running became minimalist to the extreme. Without any external indicators to validate what I was doing, the only decision to make was, “How far am I going to run today?”
I found this enormously liberating. My focus today isn’t on whether I’m running faster or slower today than I was last week or last month. I only listen to my breath, hear my footsteps against the pavement, and monitor how I feel (“tightness in right shoulder, drop arms slightly”; “right foot having some pain – make sure to land on forefoot and glide”). In this greatly simplified world, running has become a meditative experience.
Which brings me to yesterday.
I’ve previously talked about how weekends are when I go out for my “long run.” My last and longest long run was a little over a month ago when I logged 8 miles. Over the last few weeks, feeling the aftereffects of that effort, I limited myself to 6-7 mile runs on the weekend, while upping my weekday runs to 5 miles.
But week before last, I got knocked on my butt a little bit by a serious cold, preventing me from getting out and logging my normal mileage. As I eased back into a more regular pattern this past week, I started slowly with 3 miles on Monday, and then upped it to a 5 miler on Wednesday. What I couldn’t believe, after having taken a few days off, was how strong I felt both days. Having unintentionally given my body some time to heal, a lot of the nagging pains that I had been feeling every step of every run were now gone.
Armed with this temporary feeling of invincibility, I decided the time was ripe for a new long run distance: 9 miles. It seemed appropriate because it was the same day as the New York City Marathon. And so, while 45,000 people stood on the Verrazano Bridge waiting to run across all 5 boroughs, I left my house alone hoping to conquer a little more than 1/3rd of a marathon.
As I’ve become more able to run longer distances, I’ve created several loops for myself in the area around my home. I’ve got a 1.5-mile loop (the original training loop from back in the days when running was more an abstract concept than an actual physical activity), a 2-mile loop (much better than 1.5 because 2 is a whole number that you can say with only mild embarrassment when asked how far you run), and a 3-mile loop (minimally acceptable distance to hold yourself out to the public as a runner). Longer distances simply become combos of these shorter routes.
With the wise words of my prosthetist, a man who has completed two marathons without ever completing a training run longer than 15 miles, rattling around my head – “Start slow and ease off from there” – I finished the first 3-mile loop breathing easily. The second loop went by just as smoothly, along with a thankfully distracting wildlife sighting as a deer bounded through the woods to my right parallel to me – and needless to say, much faster – as I approached mile 6.
This is where things began to get interesting.
I got about halfway through the third 3-mile loop and still felt really good. Keeping a nice steady pace, I wasn’t breathing too hard, the fit of my leg inside my prosthetic socket still felt great, and the rest of my body seemed to still be working normally. “What would happen,” I asked myself, “if I added another loop after this one? If I do another 3 miles, I’ll be at 12. And if I finish 12, then I’ll find some way to get to 13+. And if I do that, I’ll have run a half-marathon the same day as the NYC Marathon. I’ll have finished a distance that I set as a goal last year when I started thinking about running again. And even better, I’ll have something to write about for the blog post I have to publish tomorrow.” [Yes, I will admit it here and now: virtually every post I write gets done at the last possible minute, either extremely late Sunday night, or very early Monday morning. And as of 7:45 AM yesterday morning, I had no idea what I was going to write about today.]
It was also at this time that I started to ask myself how safe it was for me to keep running in light of the fact that my entire pre-run intake had consisted of (a) 3/4ths of a banana, and (b) one kids’ Capri-Sun fruit punch. I don’t know a lot about proper hydration and protein intake while running, because I never run distances that require me to think about it. But as I continued to put one foot in front of the other, the thought occurred to me that the body that was working so well at this exact moment could decide to rebel against me violently at any time.
I considered whether stopping back at my house after mile 9, grabbing a water, and continuing back out to the street, might make sense. I decided ultimately to see how I felt when I got to that point. I feared that leaving the road and entering my house would effectively end my quest, as I’d lose the mental momentum I’d gained so steadily over the previous 9 miles. On the bright side, this game of “should I stop or shouldn’t I?” carried me through another 1/2 mile.
I finished mile 9. My house was 50 yards away, an ample supply of liquids within. I kept running.
As I worked my way through mile 10, I needed to make another decision. The difference between the 3-mile loop and the 1.5 mile loop is whether I make a right or left turn at roughly the 1.3 mile mark. The left takes me away from my house. Did I want to tackle a full 3 miles, or did I want to knock off a series of 1.5 milers instead? The former meant that when (if) I finished it, I’d have 12 in the books. On the other hand, because I was running alone and didn’t know if I’d have any serious problems that would require me to somehow get back to my house in less than ideal circumstances – cut to image of me crawling on the blacktop in an incoherent, heatstroke-induced haze – I opted for the latter approach, as the 1.5-mile loop would keep me much closer to my house in the event of Something Bad.
Miles 9-10.5 flew by. No problems. Passed my house for the 4th time and started the climb up the long, gradual hill that’s the first .3 miles of every loop I run. I focused on relaxing my upper body, as my shoulder muscles on my right side were starting to ache and clench. Ran past the tall man taking a walk and the three people and dog 5o yards ahead of him. Ran past the husband and wife I know who were walking their black lab – hey, why wasn’t he running NYC? He’s done the marathon before – and completed the second 1.5 mile loop. Twelve miles finished.
Past my house for the fifth time. Up the hill. Right turn onto gravel road. Right turn onto gradual hill that I run hard during my 5 milers. Not today. Nice and easy to the tree on the left, then the gradual downhill that wraps around to the right turn. Up the last hill – a short but steep 50 yards – just keep those feet moving. Right at the stop sign. Now the straightaway, counting off the mailboxes till the road ends. Right turn onto my street. Past the house that’s under construction (still) and, according to the sign in the front yard advertising the service, getting custom closets installed. Down the final hill. Enter driveway. Stop.
Walk up the driveway and all my muscles simultaneously start hurting. A lot. Feel chills. Get inside house and stagger to fridge. Down a Snapple (last one). Ask my son to get me a bottled water. Only lemon-flavored left. Practically choke on the aftertaste. Leg muscles feel as if they’re contracting and wrapping themselves around the bone in tight knots. Experience wave of nausea. Walk upstairs and turn on bath. Notice for the first time steady, hard ache in right foot. Collapse into bath while continuing to drink water from bottle and refilling from faucet.
Experience headache for the rest of the day. Go to bed with low-grade fever. Take Motrin. Fever goes away.
I woke up this morning feeling halfway decent. General muscle soreness in my back and legs, but nothing severe. Right foot still hurts a bit, but that seems to be the only major issue I have, 24 hours after finishing 13.5.
I have to say a few thank you’s, as accomplishments like this never happen alone. First, to Tim, Mike, Chris, and the whole crew at Prosthetic Innovations, you guys are the best. I don’t know how you make a running socket that allows someone to lose 20+ pounds while experiencing no breakdown, blisters, or any of the other myriad issues that used to plague me when I ran, but you guys did it. Just to be clear on the magnitude of their accomplishment, Dear Readers, I haven’t had any adjustments to this socket since I began running five months and 20+ pounds ago. To finish 13.5 miles yesterday, remove the prosthesis, and have a limb that looks the same as it did before I started is something I can’t place a value on. Thanks to you guys, I was then able to put on my regular prosthesis, drive up to see family in Westchester, and spend part of the afternoon walking across school fields and playgrounds without any issue. Not being a cripple after running a half plus is a fantastic and unexpected bonus. Great job, PI team!
Also – and I’m going to be deliberately vague here in the interest of not falling into the realm of explicit product endorsement (see the “about” section of less is more) – thanks to all of those I work with who create products and focus their activities and efforts on allowing individuals with limb loss to live full and complete lives. While the exploits of high-profile athletes show what’s possible at the extremes, the real impact of the work you do is in improving the mobility of the “average amputee” – middle-aged, previously-overweight 40-somethings like me. I’m proud to work with all of you!
Thanks also to Cara, Max, Jackson, and Caroline, for encouraging me to drag my sorry butt out onto the streets and making a big deal out of the fact that I do so. Your support means more than I can say.
Finally, thanks to all of you who read less is more. Your feedback, interest, and support mean much more to me than the words I write will probably ever mean to you. I joke that this blog is cheaper than therapy for me, but the impact it has had on my life and the amount of joy I derive from it isn’t easy to put in words. One of the primary drivers that got me from mile 9 through mile 13.5 yesterday was the thought that I’d be able to write about it and share it with all of you today. So, in the end, I look at my completion of this one-time personal goal as the ultimate less is more team effort. I couldn’t have done it without you.