Tuesday, October 17, 2017

After the Fall

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 2007.)

THE BOSTON MARATHON is the Olympic Trials of the less-than-elite. You must run a fast marathon before you can run “The Marathon” (that’s how Bostonians think of it, as if no other marathon counted). You have to qualify far ahead of this race itself, and this can happen as long as 19 months earlier.

This means you’re still only halfway to Boston when you better the required time. After you get in, life still has plenty of time to block you from getting there. Consider all that happened in one year to a runner friend from my hometown.

One minute Sandy Itzkowitz looked up a clear road stretching far into a future filled with exciting possibilities. The next instant an unseen obstacle crashed her hopes and dreams.

Sandy was a special-education teacher in Eugene, Oregon. She also was a dancer and a walker-turned-runner-turned-marathoner and ultrarunner.

In winter, before running her first marathon at Napa Valley, she trained with the team that I coached. She came within two minutes of qualifying for Boston, without knowing the time she needed to run for her age, then 52.

Sandy began training for a late-summer 50K, which she finished. Three weeks later she called me on the eve of the Portland Marathon.

“I hear there are still a few spots available for tomorrow’s marathon,” she said. “Do you think I should run it?”

My answer was evasive: “You’ve certainly done the long runs. You decide if you’re recovered enough from the 50K.”

She said she was. The team DVD from that marathon opens with her photo, lighting up the gloomy early morning with her smile while standing with the starting line in the background.

Sandy ran 3:59 that day, punching her ticket to Boston and now knowing what a big deal that is. This was one of her proudest days ever.

Her worst came two weekends later, when her life and plans changed in seconds. She was riding her bicycle in midday light, in clear weather and with no traffic threatening her. No one witnessed what happened, but apparently Sandy hit a pothole, flew over the handlebars and landed head-first.

The results of such collisions are often catastrophic, especially when the rider risks going unhelmeted. Sandy’s helmet sacrificed itself in the fall, or we might be talking about her in the past tense.

Her first memory after the accident was waking up on the road, looking into a woman’s face. By comforting coincidence this first person on the scene was another runner who had trained with Sandy.

Sarah McCarthy, who’d also qualified for Boston two weeks earlier, now happened to be walking in the area. Sandy’s first words: “You look like an angel.”

The first medical report, which flashed quickly among Sandy’s circles of friends, sounded grim. She could feel almost nothing from the neck down.

The news improved, slightly, in the first few days. Her spine hadn’t been damaged, and surgery had eased pressure on it. Some feeling had returned, but doctors warned that they might not know for months how quickly or how far she could climb back.

Sandy started climbing – with strength, stamina and spirit that amazed the therapists who dealt with such cases all the time. She graduated quickly from the ICU, to her own hospital room, to the rehab wing.

I visited her there on the sixth day after the accident, taking along my handicapped daughter Leslie as a stand-in for Sandy’s students (who hadn’t yet been able to see her). Her room was empty.

A nurse told us, “She’s in the dining room having her first meal there.” We found her sitting at a table in a wheelchair, her back and neck so stiffly braced that she couldn’t turn to see us.

Other than the brace, the only visible sign of an injury was a scraped cheek. She looked tired and red-eyed, but her smile was sincere and serene.

We’d been warned not to wear Sandy out, to stay no more than 15 minutes. Lifting the fork to her mouth appeared to be more tiring than talking with us, so we overstayed the limit.

“My fingers still tingle,” she said. “It’s as if they fell asleep and are just starting to wake up.” She added that some feeling had also returned to her legs, but little ability to move them on demand.

That day she’d been placed on the parallel bars and told to take as many steps as she could manage. “I made six,” she said. “It was the happiest day of my life.”

Sandy knew then that she hadn’t lost everything. At first Sandy measured her progress in steps, then in feet, then in laps around the hallways. Little more than a month after the accident she moved back home, in time for Thanksgiving.

TWO MONTHS post-crash I greeted her at a year-end holiday party. She walked in unassisted by a person or a cane, and wore only a soft neck brace for support.

She still couldn’t drive, but reported walking to the bus stop alone and riding to therapy sessions. These were her training now, but she was advancing toward more familiar ground.

“I just received the best news,” said Sandy as that year ended. “My doctor told me I could soon start taking my first running steps.”

Life had dealt her a big detour. Now she was working her away slowly around this obstacle. Maybe she wouldn’t get as far as Boston, but she was going in the right direction again.

Photo: Sandy Itzokowitz climbed back well from her serious bike accident.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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