The Penguin Chronicles

Playing Hurt

There are still times when I am startled by the depth of my ignorance. As I've gotten older, I've learned better how to stand on the edge of the abyss without falling in. But not this time.

Like so many others of my generation, I was brought up with the Gipper. The images of heroes in my head were big and strong and invincible. They were the never say die, John Wayne characters who fought on no matter what. And I believed in them.

Playing hurt was a badge of courage. It was what you did. Even as children we took the first bullet and kept going. We'd fall to the ground only to bounce back up. It was all a part of the game.

I took that unfortunate mentality into my running. Pain? No problem. Sure it hurts, but I can take it. I'll limp, I'll crawl, I'll drag myself through. I was still playing John Wayne, if you can imagine John Wayne in motion control cowboy boots.

My ignorance might have meant the end of my running.

You see, my knee hurt. Sometimes it hurt a little. Sometimes it hurt a lot. But it always hurt. When it hurt to run fast, I ran more slowly. When it hurt to run slowly, I picked up the pace. I took longer strides and shorter strides. I bought air and gel and grid. It still hurt.

I would run fewer miles but bicycle more. I would bicycle fewer miles but run more. I would get on the stairmaster or rowing machine. I would walk. But I wouldn't acknowledge the pain.

I needed to win one for the Gipper. I needed to get out there and run through the pain--as though by enduring it I could somehow bring it under control. By not conceding to the ever increasing stiffness and soreness I believed that I was conquering the pain.

I learned I was wrong.

You don't conquer pain. You don't control pain. You don't even negotiate a peaceful settlement with pain. You only delay the inevitable. All your strength and courage and determination and tenacity will not carry you one more step once the pain takes over.

I didn't know that. I didn't know that I was little by little destroying a part of my body. I didn't know that I was committing a kind of kinesthetic suicide. No...I was playing hurt. I was abiding by the rule that says you never give up and never give in.

The soft tissue on the inside of my knee was so inflamed that it was actually rubbing against the bone. Now, that kind of permanent inflammation doesn't happen overnight. Oh have to work pretty hard to get to that level of damage. You have to be a special kind of stupid. And I was.

I ignored all the signs. When the pain of running got too bad at mile twelve of a marathon, I walked the last 14.2 miles. When a month later--after running a half marathon--I could barely get into the car, I told myself it was because of the cold.

Then... a month after that, when at mile fifteen of another marathon I actually had to quit, I was shocked! SHOCKED! But not shocked enough to get help. Not shocked enough to actually believe that the pain would win. Not yet shocked enough to give in.

Only when the pain got so severe that I couldn't even sit did I finally seek professional help. I say that not with pride but with astonishment. There is no pride in that level of ignorance.

And then, sitting on the sidelines of the sport that meant so much to me I was forced to rely on the skill and experience of people I din't know to guide me back.

I am embarrassed by my ignorance and feeling guilty about hurting a body that was just beginning to be my friend. After years of hurting my body with alcohol and tobacco, hurting my spirit with hours of meaningless work, and hurting my soul by ignoring the love that was there in front of me, I discovered that I am still very good at hurting myself.

And yet, I have never felt more like a runner than I did then. Not because of the pain, but because I knew that I would never be this stupid again. I knew that this wass a lesson that I would only have to learn once.

Waddle on, friends.


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