AN ELEGY FOR RUNNING

The Last Run

The last time I went on a serious run was January 5, 2016. I ran 7.09 miles, interspersed with a few walk breaks. It must’ve been outdoors, because I got the mileage down to the hundredths, only possible with my trusty Garmin running watch. With the exception of a quarter-mile here and there, I have not run since.

Awakening the Athlete Within

I had never been athletic as a child or teen, something typically precluded when you are overweight or, by the time I graduated high school, morbidly obese. Weight loss followed, a significant one of over 100 lbs., which I largely kept off save for a couple of episodes (the start of graduate school and the year before my tenure review). By “largely” keeping it off, I mean within 20 pounds—not bad for starting at 254 lbs.

In my sort-of-young adulthood, walking became exercise for me. I’d dieted the weight off, but I never incorporated exercise and some of the weight crept back a bit. Walking was a joy—fitness plus “me” time (though I don’t know if “me” time had been invented yet). This was good.

Some time during graduate school, I started powerwalking the neighborhoods and hills of Newark, Delaware (yes, I was a Fighting Blue Hen), also adopting the now-excoriated low fat diet. I dropped weight and became, for the first time in my life, gorgeous (I’d been cute before, but for a couple of years, I daresay I was marginally stunning). Curvaceous, long red hair (thank you, L’Oreal!), combined with a pretty face (yeah, I heard that one when I was obese). For someone who once had an English teacher tell her to “get off your considerable rear”, this newfound conventional attractiveness was like candy (Three Musketeers, because I was following low-fat). I was even stopped on the street once, with a young man telling me that I was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen (and then he drove off). I felt feminine as well as feminist. Heaven!

Armed (and legged) with a new-born body, I decided it was time to ramp things up in the exercise department. I was going to RUN. Starting small (a block here and there), I eventually built up to running my very first 5K, the 28th Annual Turkey Trot in November of 2001. I ran slowly (I have always run slowly), but I was hooked.

Fast forward about nine months—while finishing my dissertation, I moved to Iowa City to teach for a year on contract at the University of Iowa. By October, I’d run my second 5K. And in the spring of 2003, my third. And in July of 2003, my fourth. Then a move to take a job at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Welcome to Indiana

Muncie is very, very flat. While that sounds like an advantage to a runner, Iowa City was full of small hills and I’d become quite proficient running UP the hills (I’d even overtake other runners during a race). I missed the topography, but kept up with my running.

On May 1, 2004, I ran in the Burris 75th Anniversary 5k (Burris was 75, not the race). It was cold and miserable, with a steady rain. I slogged through and somehow wound up winning my age group. I got a trophy!

Let me put that victory in a little perspective. The weather kept the turnout low (and many people who’d signed up failed to show up). I finished behind a 66-year old man. The person who was third in my age group WALKED. To me it mattered little. Formerly morbidly obese and completely unathletic Petra now had an athletic trophy to put on her shelf.

So, I continued running and one day that summer, I ran five miles. Five whole miles! I’d never done that in a single session before! Emboldened by my rising confidence, I went to the website of the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon and registered for the 2005 race. As soon as I entered my credit card number on the website and clicked Send, I said to myself “my god what have I done”.  This was a 13.1 mile race and I’d only run 5 miles. Once. Well, I knew I had time to train and that’s just what I did.

For those of you unfamiliar with this race, the Mini (as it’s endearingly called locally) is the nation’s largest half-marathon, with 35,000 participants. It’s a spectacle—TV coverage, residents cheering on the runners, bands and other entertainers. To me, it seemed magical.

The First One

About a week or so before the race, my hip started hurting me. This worried me, but I decided to run what I could and walk what I couldn’t. I got to Indy at about 6:15 in the morning and miraculously found a parking space about a block or two from the start. I was chilly and nervous, but those nerves were ones of excitement mixed with a little fear. Being a back-of-the-pack runner, my cohort started about 20-25 minutes after the elite runners (read: Kenyans).  But start we (and I) did.

Within the first mile of the race, I found a twenty-dollar bill (surely a good omen!) and as I continued to run, my hip stopped hurting. I ran and ran and ran, eventually crossing the finish line. Perhaps one of the proudest moments in my life was when a race volunteer placed a finisher’s medal on my neck after completing the race. I felt prouder than when I received my Ph.D.

Since Then

Since that first Mini, I ran ten more (for eleven total), the Fort 4 Fitness half in Fort Wayne, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, the Urban Bourbon in Louisville, Kentucky, and even an unofficial one on the elevated track at Ball Gym on the BSU camous (158 laps, in case you’re interested).

Back to January 2016—my foot started bothering me again (this was a couple of weeks after my last run—winters were more typically spent on the rowing machine at home). After the foot wasn’t healing, I made an appointment with my podiatrist. He diagnosed a stress fracture and I had to refrain from running or any other exercise putting extra pressure on that foot (I was cleared for walking, albeit in one of those ugly shoes). He pointed out that because I have a bunion, my foot was unstable and further fractures were likely. Indeed, I’d already had several bone bruises in the same spot.

After my fracture healed, I walked more and tried some very minor running breaks in between walking. By the summer, I was cycling, a fitness activity more conducive to working out sans injury. While I thought my running days were over, I harbored a secret hope that one day I would run another half-marathon. However, that was not to be.

Last week, I saw my podiatrist again, because I’d been having some discomfort in a different part of the same previously injured foot. Then I asked about bunion surgery. My mother had it done decades earlier and she remembered it being fairly benign. However, the good doctor showed me the xrays and noted that any surgery performed on my foot would be complicated—cutting a wedge and lengthening a metatarsal, cutting another wedge in a different metatarsal, and putting a plate in my ankle to give me an arch. And then he recommended against surgery unless my foot problems were severely impacting the quality of my life. I knew then I’d never do any serious running again.

Epilogue

I miss running. Cycling is fun, indeed I’ve improved and today I even went on a 30-mile ride, despite not having trained outdoors for some time (it IS winter, although we had a remarkably warm—66°F—day). But while I’m excited to mark my progression into higher mileage, I don’t get the exact same satisfaction cycling as I do running. So goodbye running. I loved you.