Tuesday, June 05, 2012

I run because I can..

Years ago, I had the great fortune to work briefly with an Olympic development coach. Tom Dowling was a mysterious, enigmatic character who first expressed interest in me via handwritten notes he passed me after a few of my races in high school.

No one took an interest in me the way Tom did. He seemed to see something in me that no one else did. Maybe it was talent. Maybe it was potential. Maybe it was passion. I'm guessing it was a little of all of the aforementioned.

My time with Tom was all too brief as my family moved across the country six months after I met him. But, one of the things that Tom said to me stuck with me LONG after I had ceased to run competitively. Tom simply said, 'Matt, I think you'd be a great marathoner some day.'

At the time he delivered this message, I couldn't have been more than 16 years old. I had run as much as ten miles, but no more than this. The idea of covering 26.2 miles was staggering, let alone the idea of being great at it.

Years passed and my love affair with running waned following high school. After graduating from college, I found myself a bit confused about what the next step was for me. As had been the case in high school, running became a refuge of sorts.

I had no illusions about running competitively, I merely got out on the road and logged a few miles to clear my head, manage stress, and perhaps find some clarity of purpose. Memories of Tom started bubbling to the surface and his idea that I'd be a great marathoner kept coming up.

I started thinking more and more about the distance that had allegedly killed Phidippides. Eventually, I started doing longer runs. I had covered nearly 20 miles once in high school. I'd also been pretty resistant to injuries in high school only suffering a sprained ankle during a trail run once. Maybe running a marathon wasn't so far fetched of an idea.

But, it had been seven years since I had run 20 miles. It had also been nearly seven years since I'd done any kind of substantive, regular running. My body let me know in no uncertain terms that things were different. Things had changed.

A few weeks before taper I sustained a complete compression fracture of the left femoral head. Pins were inserted into my hip to stabilize the fracture. If the fracture displaced, I'd likely contract avascular necrosis and the hip would die. I'd have to have hip replacement surgery for the rest of my life if this happened.

This stark message from my body put everything in perspective. My new goal was to not contract avascular necrosis. Screw the marathon. If I was lucky, maybe I'd be able to run again. I had always taken for granted my ability to run. Now, for the first time in my life I was reminded that my ability to do it at all was a gift.

Several months passed and the pain from my fracture and the subsequent surgery gradually waned. Walking became less painful and fleeting thoughts of running again entered my mind. Would I be able to run again? Had this gift been taken from me permanently? There was only one way to find out.

I laced up my shoes and walked to Golden Gate Park. For the first time in months, I attempted to run. I felt awkward and stiff, but there was no pain to speak of as I ran through the park. My plan was to simply to cover a single mile. I listened intently to the messages my body was sending me for any sign of distress or pain.

Before I knew it, I had covered nearly a mile. Without warning, my eyes started welling up and I found myself choking back a sob with the realization that a gift I had taken for granted was still there. I would run again. How far or how fast, I had no idea. But, running would be a part of my life a bit longer.

12+ years later, running is still with me. I've gone further and faster than I ever imagined possible. I still have many running goals, but the biggest is simply to continue doing it as long as possible. At the end of the day, I run because I can....

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