Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Un-runner

When I was a child, a series of commercials for 7-Up, the Un-Cola, ran. The slogan was hyphenated. Even at a young age, I thought that was important. I remember the smooth-voiced, white Panama-hat-wearing pitchman repeating it as a mantra: 7-Up. It's the Un-Cola. I remember a cascade of clear liquid filling a wine glass of ice cubes. I remember the sound, the  fizzle. 7-Up. The Un-Cola.

Un- does not mean non-. A nonmember is in a different class, entirely, than a member. Un- suggests productive difference. Untied means freedom. Uninhibited means the same. Unfettered, unapproachable, unambiguouos, unhouseled (Shakespeare's words filter through my mind constantly, unleashing a string of associations). The Un-Cola was a soda pop unlike all regular ones; it was touted as something so different that it had a purpose. Now I understand that purpose was marketing for profit; then, I was just taken in by the image, the texture of sound, the promise of utter liberation.

For almost 4 months now, I have been an un-runner. This is not the same as a nonrunner, someone automatically excluded from the category. A nonrunner is someone not interested now--perhaps ever--in running. A nonrunner, we can assume, disdains running in any form. Non suggests "against." Suggests "Not me," or "Not in my lifetime." Whereas an un-runner is someone in the same class as runners who is simply different. A runner who has undergone a sea change.

Ah, Melville. We owe so much to the earnest man who gave us Ishmael, Quequeeg, the Great White Whale, the Quest. Monomania.

I have been a runner since 1994, and I have not been on a run since August 17. It is now September 23 (more than a month, in case you're calculating). I can be precise because that's precisely the point: my life has played out, in some ways, on my schedule of runs. On August 17, I guiltily tread along for 2 1/2 miles, in pain most of the time, but triumphant: I could still do it! I had been hobbling along for 3 months, running sporadically, often in significant pain. I intended to establish something.

I did. I established that I am not a doctor, don't act like one, don't have the knowledge of one. The doctor, in his infinite wisdom, assured me that at some point I wouldn't be an un-runner. But that was after the 3 months I pushed myself to run, when I didn't know what was wrong with me, when the rhythmic striking of each foot on the ground translated to a rhythmic demonstration of a drumming technique on my Achilles' tendon. No pain, no gain? I had believed that religiously. But it hurt, and I was getting nowhere.

I didn't understand, entirely, the mechanics of ankles, but I did understand pain. And embraced it.

The doctor was a "specialist." If I ran the world, he would have been the person I would have seen first, since I knew that what was wrong with me had special privilege and status (in my mind) because I qualified as a "serious" runner (think longevity). That meant regular workouts, over a period of--let me count--yes, 17 years. But, I had to wait to see him until my insurance approved; that meant a 15-second visit with a General Practitioner who knew nothing about me or any kind of foot ailment. And then a 6-week wait.

Perhaps I am warped for paying special attention to the specialist's nurse, who effectively told me that 1) running had already done irreparable damage to my body, and 2) that I needed to do whatever the doctor said (and he would likely say that I should STOP, for good). She was cheerful, in a Nurse Ratchet kind of way. When I refused to get on the scale, as I often do in doctors' offices, she sniffed. "OK, but if you have to have surgery, then I will weigh you. Surgery patients need to have anesthetic, and we need to know how much to give."

I stood for a brief second, transfixed. She was so dedicated. But perhaps to the wrong cause. I was nowhere near the sad predicament of a person who needed surgery.

I was not wooed by her sympathetic manner, or by her certainty that the doctor would take a hard line and forbid me the life I once took for granted. He didn't, in fact. But he did tell me to "take it easy" for a month. I knew what that meant. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Home treatment. No running. Ibuprofen every 4 hours and exercises explained to me on sheets of Xeroxed paper.

I am nothing if not faithful. I have complied with this routine for some 4 weeks. I get up in the morning, down my calcium/Vitamin D supplement and 3 Ibuprofen, then lace up my shoes and stretch my tendons and other lower-leg muscles. All day, in intervals, I shake 3 brick-red ibuprofen into my hand and swallow them.

I have not gone for a real run for a month (I want to name the gap in weeks, but it will be too depressing). Instead, against all advice from prosaic nurses, I walk. But it is not the same.

And that is my real lesson from this experience. Sure, people have to admit their physical limitations. I have worn reading glasses for 5 years; at first I resisted, but now I can read menus and books without holding them at arms' length and squinting. But walking? Really?

It is not the same. That is why I have to define it as a transitional form of exercise. My legs stride along, my forehead drips sweat, my arms swing, crooked, in time with my steps. But a real workout?

Not a chance.

Today it was rainy and blustery, so I did my distance on my treadmill. A treadmill--any kind of stationary exercise-- is misleading. One feels as if one is moving along. But obviously, one is not.

I am on a quest to remove the Un- from my identity. I have to succumb to being an un-runner for now; my left heel, my arch, and the ball of that foot ache with a regular, throbbing insistence. I wince along, a gait that belongs to infirm individuals, or those who don't know enough to do right.

I hope for another chance to fly along, feet touching ground lightly then leaving the earth, briefly, only to touch down again. I count myself, still, in the class of runners. I own 3 good pairs of running shoes, and I plan to buy more. So what if I happen to be on hiatus?

I look a little different, forging a way along the route where I still notice runners, unencumbered by injury or limitation, whom I waved to before. Now I merely nod, scrappy, mincing along the path. Why does no one send out a courtesy message as they pass me? On your left, I used to call as I skirted the slow, the awkward, the merely lazy.

We don't notify those whom we cannot see. I remain invisible to most of those I identified with before. The others? They don't know me either. I am unknowable. An un-runner. Unidentifiable. Unreliable. Unused to this hard vision of compromise.

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