I hear you’re embarking on a running career tomorrow. And I hear you’re a skeptic. I thought it might be useful to write this up. (Edit: Whoa! It’s longer than I thought it’d be!)
I was also pretty skeptical when I started running. I was no athlete. In high school, I thought the days we had to run a mile in gym class equated to corporal punishment.
At the time I started running, I was living in Fresno. I had nothing resembling an “exercise routine.” I would on occasion find myself in the tiny “gym” in my apartment complex, pushing some machine back and forth for half-an-hour until I felt I’d filled a quota. And I was perfectly satisfied with this.
What I wasn’t satisfied with was my iPod. Poynter had given it to me as a parting gift when I left the Institute for Fresno the previous summer. And as delighted as I was with the thing, I hadn’t found any good time to use it. My ride to work was too short; I needed my ears free for the workday; and I usually ate lunch with friends from the paper.
One beautiful fall afternoon, I happened to arrive home early from work to find my iPod staring at me, guilting me out over not enjoying the gorgeous weather. I decided to create an iTunes playlist including some of my favorite weather-appropriate songs, and load the playlist onto the iPod. I figured I’d go outside and walk, but the blocks immediately surrounding my North Fresno apartment complex weren’t the most soul-stirring things. A sudden impulse presented itself: why not jog for a spell? Moving faster, I’d see a bit more of the neighborhood, and possibly discover some previously unseen scenery. No obvious counterarguments presented themselves, so I strapped on the closest running-shoe equivalents I could find in my closet, booted up the iPod, and stepped out.
I made a few key promises to myself as I walked out of the gates of the complex. I recommend these to you:
1) Go slower than you think you should. I had no interest in setting speed records, and I wasn’t really even all that concerned about elevating my heart rate.
2) Turn back when you know you’ve got more than half your energy left. I figured I’d probably jog about 10-15 minutes, and that I could always walk if I overestimated my stamina.
So I started my trot. Nothing magical happened, but the music paired with the scenery was pretty nice. And when I got back home, I wasn’t all that tired. It was pleasant, in its way.
So I went back out, the morning after next – a tiny bit farther, a tiny bit faster. The early morning adrenaline was a treat, and I found myself starting to love the way the pace let you appreciate the scenery – more varied than a walk, more unhurried than a bike ride. And my music mix was the *best.* So I went out again.
Before I realized what was happening, I *loved* running. I craved it. I couldn’t do enough of it. There was always one gorgeous instant when I’d pass over railroad tracks and a grove of walnut trees, typically shrouded in an early-morning fog. (This was where the grove used to be; it’s since given way to development.)
By the time I got to Minneapolis – a runner’s paradise – there was little more miraculous to me than an early morning run around a beautiful lake. Soon, I was going on 6-mile runs, three times a week. I didn’t even need the music anymore. It’s impossible to describe how peaceful it is to run around a frozen lake before dawn, warmed by your own breath inside a balaclava, all the sound in the air absorbed by the snow around you, the white ground glowing beneath a dark sky.
How I stopped running
The only trouble was my knees. I went to the running store and got fitted for new shoes. Turned out I over-pronated, and needed motion control shoes, which seemed to fix the problem for a while. But as I increased my distance, and started thinking about running the Twin Cities Marathon, I started doing physical therapy for the knee. That resulted in several rounds of orthotics to “fix” my flat, over-pronating feet, as well as daily stretches and strength exercises to correct my IT band syndrome. The orthotics got me through the marathon mostly intact, and then I gave my legs a break for a month or so.
The problems started up again as soon as I returned to the trails. I moved from physical therapists to orthopedic specialists to podiatrists. My orthopedic therapist told me to try to alter my stride. You’re slamming on your heels, he’d say. Try landing on the balls of your feet. I tried following his advice, and hurt myself more. It was completely unintuitive.
This continued as I moved to Missouri and started training again for another marathon. As I piled on orthotics, knee, heel and back problems gave way to shin splints, but I kept going, until one calamitous 20-mile-run that ended at mile 18, with me basically limping back home. For weeks, I couldn’t take a step without pain. I went to the doctor, who confirmed via x-ray that I’d given myself a hairline stress fracture.
At his insistence, I stayed well off the trails for several months. When I felt healed – I could bounce back and forth from leg to leg without pain – I gave it another try. But the moment my body sensed I intended to run, it sent instant throbs of pain up and down my leg. I could jump, I could dance, I could walk … but I could. Not. Run. It was torture. Every six or so weeks, I’d lace up and try again; not even a single stride in, my body would tell me it had different ideas. I switched shoes. Nothing. I was exercising and stretching like crazy. No help.
How I kept running
I was, of course, furiously Googling for miracle cures this entire time. It was around 2008, and in forum after online forum, I saw people citing barefoot running with helping them overcome injury. I read up on it quite a bit (Daniel Lieberman’s name came up all the time), and figured it’d be my last shot. No more orthotics, no more physical therapy, I’d go completely the other direction, and if it didn’t work, I’d give up running and take up swimming or biking. I ordered a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, eagerly awaited their arrival, and when they arrived, I wore them around the house for a few days to get used to them.
Then I bit the bullet.
It was the first run I’d had in about 8 months without any pain. Afterwards, there was soreness in the soles of my feet and in my underused calves. But I was able to go out again, again with no trouble. Small distances at first – one block, then two, then a mile. I worked my way back up to three miles bit by bit. And I felt no pain.
I ran in the FiveFingers for months. My stride had instantly, effortlessly changed from the moment I started using them. Having clomped my heels into the ground for years, I was suddenly lightfooted and stealthy. And uninjured.
Having successfully changed my stride, I switched back to shoes, and started going half-marathon distances again. I moved to DC, and started running with a terrific group of folks. I was out on roads and trails for more than a year before I gradually succumbed to injury again (this time it was the heel that did me in). Again, I was off the road for months. Again, every time I tried lacing up and going out, I’d be in pain almost instantly. So once again, I bought myself another pair of FiveFingers, and had my first pain-free run.
I’ve learned my lesson: No more running shoes. And who knows? I could be injured again, even in my beloved FiveFingers. I might not have been born to run at all. But I will for as long as I can, even on the DC sidewalks, pestered by stoplights block after block. For the music*, for the company, for the railroad tracks, for the rain, for snow-blanket silence.
Anyway, enjoy. Here’s to running together sometime.