(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
December 2000. As the old century ended, I thought I’d solved the running puzzle at last. My measure of success is no longer times posted or distances run, but health maintained, and in 1999 no injury or illness interrupted my running in the slightest.
The year 2000 served as a reminder that we never have everything figured out. We either repeat old mistakes or make new ones. The only records I set were for days of running missed entirely and others stopped short.
A mysterious illness was to blame. I still don’t know exactly what it was, and for want of a better name I’ll call it “flu.”
It never made me down-in-bed ill, but its low-grade fever dampened interest in exercising or eating. These symptoms recurred every other week for nearly two months, reducing running from little to none.
The illness left only my imagination active: Could this be chronic-fatigue syndrome that has wrecked many a running life? Or might it be something far more dreaded?
A series of doctor visits told me only what I did not have, which can be comforting in itself. The tests ruled out the worst prospects.
With never a specific diagnosis or any special treatment, the illness vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived. Now that it’s gone and I’ve learned to run again, I see that the downtime wasn’t all bad. It prompted me to look at what went wrong, and it reminded me not to take trouble-free running for granted.
A long-lasting injury or illness can be good for any runner. The longer the layoff – as in weeks, months or even a year or more – the better the lessons about what running really means to you.
Your illness or injury was probably no accident. I see now that my “flu” was likely an after-effect of an unplanned marathon, run with too little training in advance and too short a recovery period afterward. These combined shocks ran me down and allowed a virus to invade.
This latest episode is no more than a bump in the road compared to my worst scare. It came as a heel injury (caused by racing too often) that didn’t allow a pain-free step for almost a year.
Finally I surrendered to surgery. My is-this-the-end fears didn’t start to subside until the first runs after the operation went better than expected.
The repaired foot let me return to racing but never again with the old intensity and frequency. I wouldn’t, and still won’t, train or race so hard and fast that it puts the more important runs at risk.
As you come out of a dark spell and begin to run again, you see what means the most in your running. This is not finishing a marathon or taking the long runs that lead up to one, nor shorter races or training fast to prepare for them.
What you missed most during the downtime was getting out for your daily runs. You promise yourself not to get greedy again anytime soon. To keep that vow, you need long memory that won’t let you forget how bad your last forced “vacation” felt.
I don’t wish for anything bad to happen to anyone. But it happens to most of us eventually, no matter how careful we might be.
When it does, remember that a career-threatening injury or illness can be good for you. You don’t fully appreciate running – I’d go so far as to say you don’t truly become a runner – until you’ve almost had it taken away.
2018 Update. No forced layoff in later years has approached the one recounted here. The lessons learned 18 years ago have lasted.
[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]