Goodbye Sweet Path


In 2016, I had back surgery. This was a time of transition and stress and so much happened, and I barely recorded any of it. It was the last time our country seemed somewhat normal. We moved into a new home. I was at the apex of my professional life, soon to take a tumble. It was the last time I spoke to someone who inspired me to better understand what this is all for. It was the year when I had to reckon with a dying parent and wrestle with helping family and friends navigate the loss of someone so beloved who had been such a tormenting personal presence and not having a soul in the world to unload that burden upon.

The back surgery was a success, however. For a time, I was unable to walk more than a few feet. At one point, a doctor had diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. Everything was painful. Sleeping was painful. Drinking was painful. Self-loathing, which I had become good at and typically resulted in modest relief, was painful (which is probably for the best). Surprisingly, a second opinion led to a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed a birth abnormality - an extra, poorly-formed vertebra - and just like magic (MODERN MEDICINE), I was scientifically rebuilt and placed back into service.

As 2016 transformed into 2017, life in general started falling apart. Looking back in my meager archives, I didn't write much during the time from 2016 - 2018, but they were damned near insufferable years,, save for one redeeming thread. Running.

The surgery had been a resounding success, to an extent I hadn't yet realized. When my life crumbled, I found refuge in running. At first, as a way to spend time with my daughter, but later as a remedy all its own. I had run before, of course, as years of journal entries can attest. But never like this. By 2019, I was running non-stop. EXCEL SPREADSHEET LEVELS OF RUNNING. I 'ran the year' in 2020. In 2021, I got it in my head that I had to run at least 200 miles per month, and ended the year having compiled over 2400 miles. 

It had obviously grown to unhealthy, compulsive levels. But at the end of every day, for any perceived slight or disappointment or fear, there were 5-6 miles and 30-45 minutes of escape. And I felt fast. The miles felt so easy and light. 

And then I felt a tweak. 

Back pain has a particular signature, and for a long time, I waved it away as normal wear and tear. And, for the last year, I've moderated my running, added some helpful stretches, and at least this year, given up alcohol for the most part. But a few weeks ago, I found myself in the familiar, constant pain that plagued me in 2016. I took about ten days off, which was a remarkable accomplishment on its own. The pain was gone, and yesterday I laced up my shoes and went for an easy 5 k.

And then I felt a tweak.

There really isn't any doubt that running is not going to get easier at this point, and my back just wasn't made for that kind of impact. 

On my way home, I couldn't help think that this is the last time I will ever run, and it was overwhelming and emotional and it was like saying goodbye to someone you'll never see again and cannot live without. 

I have a stationary bike and one of those stair climber things. But it's not the same, physically or emotionally. I live in such a perfect place to be outside. Running in the fading light, along marbled trails, hair wet from cold mist, the smell of winter cedar, the sounds of nuthatches and song sparrows, all ideal conditions for a sentimental escape from the hard days ahead. 

Maybe I'll try again in a week.


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