It finally happened. A doctor told me to stop running.
I’ve been running for 37 years, since I slinked back into my parent’s home after three years as a nightclub musician. I don’t remember why I started; I just remember that I ran around the block and limped back wheezing. I kept at it, six blocks, eight, a half mile, a mile, two miles. Within a year I was running around the hills of Yakima, Washington.
Running is the perfect exercise for me. I’m built for it, small-framed. It doesn’t depend on a schedule or a building or a club membership or a partner/competitor. I just lace on my shoes and run. It gets me outside, and I go wherever I want, whenever I want.
I’ve run in a few races; the Tacoma Narrows; the San Francisco Bay to Breakers (where I finished in the top three percent); the Spokane Bloomsday. But running for me was never about competition. It was about exhilaration. I have never felt so well or so utterly alive as during and after a run. It has something to do with endorphins, the “runner’s high.” There is nothing that can lift me out of a black mood more reliably than a good run. Running keeps me fit, so I can help neighbors move and do whatever else I ask my body to do. It keeps my blood sugar, my blood pressure, and my weight down. At my last biometric screening, the nurse said, “You’re going to live forever!”
Lately I’ve been running trails near my house with my two dogs. I’ve lived in this little valley for more than a decade, and just this last summer I found another trail not a quarter mile from home. Sometimes I run through residential neighborhoods, sometimes through parks, sometimes along country roads.
A little over two years ago I started running in Vibram five-finger shoes, otherwise known as barefoot or minimal runners. I like running with these best of all. I can feel the road or the trail. The only problem is that my toes freeze when they get wet at temperatures below 50 degrees.
Sometime over the last decade, I can’t remember when exactly, my big toe on my right foot began to ache, just a little. I ignored it, and fiddled with my shoes, with over-the-counter orthotics. Running both seemed to aggravate and relieve it. It would ache at the beginning of my run, but feel great by the end. I figured life was a race to see how long I could keep running before my toe wore out. I never mentioned it to my physician; it seemed trivial, and I suspected that any physician who looked at it would tell me to stop running.
For a slightly longer period, I have also had toenail fungus. (I think I know where I picked it up, in a slimy steam room in Juneau, but that’s another story.) Two weeks ago I saw my GP for a physical. I mentioned my toenail fungus. The fungus has survived the standard medical procedure and everything else I could throw at it. The good doc referred me to a podiatrist I’d seen before.
The day before I saw the podiatrist, I ran about six miles in my “five fingers.” My feet were a little achey. The bad knuckle on my left big toe was swollen and the skin was red. Before treating my toenails with a nifty laser gun, he pointed at the swollen knuckle and said, “That’s arthritis. You should have that checked out.” Of course I knew it was arthritis already. My wife’s a nurse, and that makes me an expert. So I reluctantly made an appointment.
The nice young lady that took my vitals and x-rays was just getting over a bout with bronchitis. I used to get bronchitis before I started running. As she was crawling around on the floor positioning my feet for the x-rays, I pointed out to her, paraphrasing a famous book title, that everything she needed for life she learned in kindergarten. She laughed and coughed.
The good doctor, and he really is a very good doctor, solemnly pointed out the bone spurs, the misshapen bones, and the utter lack of cartilage in the joint. He said I should start with orthotics, that if that didn’t work it would be a clean-out operation, and if that didn’t work it would be a fusion operation. He also said I should stop running.
So what is the difference between my toe the day before and the day after the podiatrist examination? A diagnosis. I have believed for a very long time that far from promoting life and health, too often a diagnosis kills. One of my neighbors was struggling with a recurring sinus problem. He was getting polyps. The doctors would remove them, he’d feel better for awhile, but they’d come back. He called in about his next appointment and the scheduling person told him, “You don’t have to come in. You have cancer.” That night he dressed up, walked out into the woods behind his house, and shot himself to death. The diagnosis killed him.
A few years after I started running, I worked for a few days picking fruit in an orchard. My back started aching and spasming. I saw a specialist, a very smart, older man who had worked at the Mayo clinic. After examining me, he said, “You know, we could spend thousands of dollars investigating whatever it is that is making your back ache, and we would wind up telling you you have a problem you have to live with. So why not just tell you that now? You have a problem you have to live with.” I liked that. I can live with a problem, I can do things about it. It is not a diagnosis. A diagnosis controls, limits, and restricts. It is subject to medication and surgery. Ick.
So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to try out the orthotics. I’ll refrain from running through most of the winter. It’s too wet anyway, and I never run much in the winter here. I’ll buy an elliptical machine for cardio workouts. My wife wants one, and I’ll reluctantly use it, preferably during football games on TV. And I’ll let the doc examine the toe again in a few months. Then I’ll ask him to tell me how I can minimize damage to the toe when I resume running. After all, I have what, 20 years max left running? I don’t know any octogenarian runners. My toe will probably fall apart, but at least I’ll be happy.