I ran my first half marathon this year. Sure, thousands of people do it every weekend, but it wasn’t so long ago that I could barely walk.
Halfway through my sixth season of marching band, I was 20 years old and plagued by chronic pain. I had malaligned kneecaps aggravated by years of dance, soccer, and marching band. The doctor fitted me with a hulking Forrest Gump knee brace that blistered my bare skin and boiled my covered leg in the Texas sun. He told me to take it easy, recommended expensive physical therapy, and asked me to come back in a few weeks if it didn’t improve so he could inject horror movie syringes in under the kneecap or cut my leg open to dig around in the cartilage a bit.
Fortunately for squeamish me the brace helped a bit, though I suffered from painful flare-ups that forced me to wear the brace a few times a month and kept me away from exercise, too afraid to worsen the pain.
Unable to dance, walk, bike, or even swim without achey snap, crackle, popping knees, my weight soon made things worse. I’d tried every non-weight-bearing exercise I could find but still suffered just by bending my knee. As a poor college student, I had little choice but to deal with it.
I happened to join a women’s walking club in 2009 and fell prey to peer pressure within the group to register for a 10K race that fall. It was far enough away that most of us figured we could learn to run during the summer.
I scoured the Web for running programs and advice, finally settling on “Day 1: Run as far as you can. Day 2: Repeat.” I wasn’t fast, and I did take a lot of walking breaks, but I ran nearly every day. I ran!
I ran the 10K and beat my time goal by 15 minutes to finish in just over an hour. I ran three more 10Ks and two 5Ks that fall and even a mud run 5K obstacle course this spring. Again I fell victim to peer pressure to up the ante and run a half marathon this spring. May 1 would be the day, with lots of great Beltaine energy to help me.
It was awful. Hail threatened; organizers stopped us twice during the race to wait out the storm, eventually shortened the end of the course by a half mile, and asked participants to quit and take shelter. 40 mph winds buffeted our faces in the first 5 miles and the concrete course beat my body to a pulp. Not a single barefoot, dirt path training mile I had logged mattered that day as my joints howled, my feet blistered, burst, and bled, and a half-dozen pacers passed me with smiles on their faces.
Whether your body is or isn’t capable of doing the thing never matters because it’s true what they say: Distance running is all a mind game.
I hurt and I cried freely, but I finished. I could scarcely move in the next week, but I finished and I wore my race t-shirt and medal proudly. And I’m ashamed to say I’m thinking of doing it again before the year is out.
And a marathon in 2012.
Because as miserable as I was in those few hours, I’ve been free of knee pain in the last two years, and I never want to suffer that depressing lack of mobility—both physically and emotionally crippling—for as long as I live.