End of the Run


So for the past couple of months my lower back has really been bothering me. I’ve tried different things (new running shoes, old running shoes, time off, chiropractor, etc), and nothing much worked. Finally, I went to a specialist, who took XRays and had me undergo an MRI.

Last week, she gave me some bad news. Namely, I’m fucked.

I have a bulging disc in my back, as well as deterioration between the discs. Both come with punishment and age (I just turned 40). The doctor told me there different approaches—physical therapy, spinal fusion (she didn’t say this with any enthusiasm), more rest. “The truth is,” she said, “that the best thing to do is stop running and find different sports. It’s abusing your body.” I, of course, countered with the requisite BUT—”But … I’m running the Marine Corps Marathon in three months …”

“You are the only one who can determine what you want to do,” she said. “What sort of pain are you willing to live with?”

The next night, I went out for a six-mile run. The pain shot into my back and down my left leg. Each step was brutal. After about a mile, I stopped, turned and walked home. I’m pretty sure my life as a runner has ended.


I’ll write that again: I’m pretty sure my life as a runner has ended.

I am devastated. Beyond devastated. The other day a friend said, “You seem to be taking this well”—only I’m not. I’m heartbroken and crushed and, athletically, lost. I ran my first 10k 32 years ago, as a second grader at Lakeview Elementary School in Mahopac, N.Y. It was a race around Lake Mahopac—the town’s four elementary schools allowed any student (age 8 or older) to participate. In hindsight it’s a bonkers idea (300 elementary schoolers dashing around a lake), but I caught the fever. Over the ensuing decade I must have participated in, oh, 300 races. This was back in the day of 5 milers and 10ks and half marathons galore, and I became a regular member of the circuit. Once, Pete Warner, a co-worker of my mother’s, asked if I had any interest in doing two races in a single day. Did I! It was fantastic.

The road race circuit became my home; almost like a second family. There was always the same group of 10 or 11 kids fighting for age-group trophies (I landed my share), and I loved chatting about Nike’s new so-and-so shoe of that horrible hill between miles four and five. By the time I reached Mahopac High School, I was all about the sport. I ran both track and cross country, and as a senior was rated the second best 1,600-meter runner in all of Putnam County (I say “all of Putnam County” with great sarcasm. There was Carmel’s Mike Barrett, who went on to run at East Carolina; there were my teammates, the excellent Daiji Takamori and Craig Vanderoef; and there was, well, me).

Even though I was a 4:59 miler, I dreamed of running in college. I wrote letters to dozens of Division I coaches, bragging about placing X in X and Y in Y. Deep down, I probably knew I was, at best, a mid-level NAIA scrub. But I had dreams, and those dreams were glorious ones. Of course, no coach of any wisdom would write me back … save for one. Jim Fischer, longtime University of Delaware guru, told me if I showed up in Newark, Delaware, there’d be a spot for me. “OK,” I said. “I’m there.”

I’ll never forget my first day of school, freshman year. We all met in the dingy Delaware Field House, and after Coach offered a few words, Bryan Lennon, a senior captain, asked if anyone wanted to go out for a “short run.” Fuuuuuuck. It was brutal. Up and down and all around; a crisp pace few—if any—of my high school teammates could have kept with. I did absolutely everything to hang on; to pass the illusion that I was DI caliber. It was, in fact, the story of my cross country and track seasons. Fighting to hang on, placing last, second to last, third to last … and loving every single minute. I even earned a legitimate Division I letter in track—placing third in the 3,000 against Lehigh (there were, ahem, three of us in the race. A runner who came in top 5 got a letter).

Rosters were reduced the following year, and I had no shot. Not a problem. I ran my first New York City Marathon as a college sophomore—then, through the years—ran 10 more. I PRed in Chicago, at 3:11, and was thrilled. I also ran ones in Huntsville and Philly (awful) and Lake Rockland, N.Y. On and on.

And now, it seems, I’m done.

Spin class starts at 8 …


18 thoughts on “End of the Run”

  1. I write about running and just wrapped up a project for a specialist who focuses only on spines. A few thoughts:

    1. Highly recommend the physical therapy approach, for the obvious reasons that spinal fusion is expensive and could require a longer recovery period. And avoiding surgery first is always a good idea. PT is boring, but so is spin class.

    2. I have a bad hip and shoulder problem that I have “fixed” by weight lifting for 30 minutes twice a week. I just had a session with a new sports massage therapist who said my shoulder was “basically healed.” My hip doesn’t hurt anymore, either.

    3. I have a friend who has the same problem you have – he’s a photographer and hurt his back lugging equipment. He has been doing PT and lifting and water jogging (you need a special belt to do this – it gives you the cardio without the weighted stress on your back). It’s helped him get back to it. He just ran a 15k trail race a few weeks ago.

    I’ve interviewed a lot of sports medicine doctors (and worked for a practice before I became a freelance writer). Many are quick to write off what PT and strength training can do. I don’t think it’s worth giving up yet. Give your nerves and the swelling and inflammation time to relax and calm down. Do the PT. And then give it another go when you’re ready.

    When my shoulder was at its worst, I couldn’t let anyone touch it without searing pain. I have 100% range of motion now. I quit training for the 2009 NJ Marathon because of my hip. I’m at about 90% ability and pain free.

    You obviously love running. I write all this out because I don’t want you to give up just yet.

  2. 45 years 1 day and 9 hours ago I had just graduated from high school and was preparing to play college football, two more weeks of work and off to camp… the driver of the truck I was riding on decided it was time for morning break and headed to the restaurant…. we turned the corner, I waved at our fullback who was mixing cement in his efforts to be camp ready… the next thing I saw was the priest standing next to my parents in the hospital. The neurosurgeon said “you’re lucky to be alive and no you can’t play ball” The former part of that sentence is how I predicated the rest of my life. Enjoy what you have!

  3. Hang in there, neighbor. Those who cannot do, coach, and live off the successes of those they inspire. You’ve got a lot to share.

  4. Sorry to hear, Jeff, but, why not try the physical therapy before hanging up the sneakers?

    I’ve heard great things about the Marine Corps Marathon and I get the whole “But I’m signed up for…”. Some PT might help you lessen the pain and get through the race more comfortably and then you can decide afterward whether to find a different sport or focus on shorter races. Or maybe a month or so off (w/PT) would really help. Might screw you for the marathon but let you keep going in the long term.

    And I don’t mean to disparage your doctor at all, but get a second opinion from a sports medicine doctor who is a runner, and who would probably be more open to the idea of a treatment that doesn’t involve stopping running. I deferred from my third marathon in March due to shinsplints and some varicose vein problems now and I really regret not trying harder to find a way to get through the race.

    Good luck!

  5. And I died at Philly (2011) too. Only a few minutes slower than my first marathon, but so much more grueling. (I’m a terrible marathoner, though, for what it’s worth.)

  6. Read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. He had similar injury issues that led to writing the book and figuring out a way to run again. Had a huge impact on me.

  7. Well, look on the bright side. A lot of us had a coach and a program take the ball away from us at 21 or 22 and tell us fun time was over. You got a whole other athletic lifetime out of the sport.

    If your back will take a bicycle you have a neat sport to shunt over too.

  8. That sucks man. I remember those Lake Mahopac races. Crazy to think of 300 kids running on 6N with no shoulder. But once you got to North Lake Blvd, there is no better place to run.
    Can you still bike or walk? (speed walk I mean)
    My dad had to give up running because of his knees but he still does a brisk morning walk everyday. I’m sure you enjoy the solitude and taking everything in as you go. Hopefully you can still achieve that with biking or walking.

  9. Stephen in NW Ohio

    This is truly saddening news. While I’ve never met you and do not share the same enthusiasm for the sport as you do, it is always terrible to be told that one cannot do what one loves anymore. I’m sorry that you received such crappy news.

  10. I’m certainly not in a position to argue with your doctor; however, I’m currently 46 and was told more or less the exact same thing for the exact same reasons as you about two years ago. I listened, for a while, but I really wasn’t ready to accept that. I did a lot to strengthen my core, and was able to run a marathon (very slowly) last fall. The speed had nothing to do w/my back – I’m just slow. Honestly, my back’s been better the last two years than it had been for the previous decade.

  11. I guess you will have to find something else to be arrogant and snooty about then. I saw a man run with no legs. I was thinking of the pain and suffering his rehab must have been while reading your retirement speech. It is a true shame when a mediocre hobby runner of your caliber is forced to hang em up for good. Running will surely fall apart now in your absence. Stay strong though, I’m sure your minor injury has a high survival rate, and with the miracles of modern medicine who knows?

  12. I agree with the PT approach. What do you have to lose except the pain?

    I gave up running 2 years ago. I was never as serious as you but a tricky left Achilles tendon has me being very careful with my approach to fitness. I grew up swimming and have never found anything that gave me the same sense of solitude and oneness with myself other than running.

    I have found that I love P90X (for God knows what reason) and other similar all-body fitness routines I can do alone. But it’s not the same since I’m confined to the house.

    Good luck!

  13. Jeff Sorry to hear about your lower back. I’ve been running for close to 40 years, and I had my first setback last year with a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis. I sat out most of the year, and tried various things, including PT, orthotics etc., to no avail. What ended up working for me was rest, minimal footwear, and running more on my toes than my heels. I hope you hang in there. Good luck

  14. For me it was giving up basketball at 40 or so. Man, I miss the competition, even half-court pickup stuff. Good luck finding something that fills that empty space. There are lots of options.

  15. Really sorry to hear about your back.
    I used to run, walk, hike a lot.
    Then at age 27 came a back injury and back spasms.
    On my 28th birthday I wondered where that spare tire came from.
    I struggled with the back issue for about 3 years.
    I learned that to not run meant no pain.
    My body changed. Instead of a 34 waist I’ve got a 42 waist. Instead of running I can lift lots of weight, and I can carry it quite away.
    The Doctor isn’t too worried about my weight because most is muscle. I can hike again, I just don’t run.
    To make a long story short; expect this to change your body, just don’t become a vegetable. Exercise in ways that won’t hurt you.
    Hard to give up what you love.

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