I started running because I discovered I could.
I was maybe fifteen the first time I blew out one of my knees. I don’t remember doing anything in particular that time, but I got a prescription for some anti-inflammatory horse-pills and was told to change how I walked so as to balance out the strength of the muscles in my legs.
Three years later, I was sitting down on the bus with my girlfriend, I felt something go pop in my right knee, and I screamed. She looked at me, understandably, as if I was insane, but torn cartilage hurts. This time I ended up with several months of physical therapy and a cane.
In the fall of 2004, I was kneeling down to pick up a foam ball when I felt that telltale pop again, this time in my left knee. I could neither bend nor straighten it fully, and without health insurance it took almost two months to get the treatment I needed. I was lucky to be able to get a meniscal repair surgery through Medi-Cal. I was luckier still that when they sewed up my cartilage, it took. The success rate is only about 50%. I had about another two months of PT and crutches from there, and three months more with a cane.
You can imagine why I might have become reluctant about an activity like running.
This year, especially over the summer, hiking and backpacking and the occasional use of hamster machines at the gym had gotten my legs into reasonably good shape, but I’d still yet to venture onto the treadmill, let alone the track. Then came the day when I discovered I could.
I discovered I could run on the evening of Friday, September 4th, when I locked my keys in my car a mile and a half from home. In lieu of calling a locksmith, paying about $70, and possibly damaging the car, I decided to run home to grab the spare key before anyone unsavory might notice the keys were left in the car (in plain sight) and find that rarest of grails, a blunt object.
Fortunately, if disconcertingly, I was able to break into the house through a window without much trouble or causing any damage, although it was a royal pain keeping one hand free to toss the cats back inside while I climbed through. I also remained blissfully unarrested, but then I was under the age of sixty, not particularly cranky, and white.
Before heading back out, I changed my sweat-soaked shirt and sucked down a glass of water, my delight in that my gym bag and running shoes were still in the trunk of the car, and my deep joy that the return trip would be uphill most of the way.
Then something amazing happened: I did it. I might have been slow as shit, but I ran all the way back without stopping (except for one red light). And it didn’t even hurt.
When I talked to my doctor about it, she told me that running is far more of a concern for people who have ACL tears than meniscus injuries, so long as we still have cartilage. Build up slowly, she said, and ice my knees afterward if they get sore, but don’t sweat it too much. Except, you know, for the sweat.
Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the trails in the woods around Lake Chabot. It’s hilly, which makes things a bit harder, but it’s quiet, it’s shady, and every now and then I stumble on a family of deer, or a rabbit, or pack of grazing goats.
Yesterday, I ran four and a half miles at the Hayward Shoreline, a strange landscape of serene salt marshes, high tension power lines, and unspoiled views of the San Francisco Bay. Charging into a brackish headwind while my feet got heavier and heavier, all I had to do — all I could do — was breathe, and keep on moving.
Which is pretty much all I ever do, anyway.