What? It’s December? What happened to 2018? Travel, lots of writing projects (but apparently not blog writing projects!), travel, photography, and doing just about anything to get out of cleaning the house have kept me busy and mostly out of trouble. Oh, and I have returned in full force to the thing that keeps my endorphins flowing and my happy meter in high gear: Road races. Fifteen races for the comeback kid this year! Not bad for someone who was once told in a bad physical therapy session in 2016 that I was old, had arthritis (later proven not to be true by my surgeon), and was going to be sore. I was sore alright—at the idiot man who based his PT diagnosis on my age (61 at the time), and probably the fact that I’m not a skinny runner. Instead of slapping him upside the head, something my father would have recommended, I reported him instead for his ageism and stupidism remarks.
It’s been a long road (pun intended) since the initial injury in October 2015, the FINALLY-THE-CORRECT-DIAGNOSIS in early 2017, and leg surgery in April of 2017 for a acetabular labral tear and other disgusting business happening in my leg. After a long recovery, which included my husband bringing me fresh hot tea since I couldn’t carry anything while using crutches, refusing to take pain pills (isn’t that what beer is for?), lots of whining about NOT BEING ABLE TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS AND WALKING OUTSIDE OR EVEN DOWN THE HALL WITHOUT GOING CLUMP, CLUMP, CLUMP, I finally dropped the crutches for a walking stick. My physical therapy sessions in Traverse City were marvelous, and the PTs there thought my previous PT guy (another town, another system) was just as horrible as I thought he was.
The day my PT told me to “start walking on the roads” was a blissful day. I celebrated by walking a mile. Pain free. In September of 2017, I walked a 5K in Marquette, Michigan (GO TO THE UP OR GO HOME!), and the Turkey Trot in Traverse City in November. It felt good to be back, and I was ready to bring it on in 2018. To quote Big Joe Turner, “Flip, flop, fly, I don’t care if I die” during a road race.
I have been participating in road races for about thirty years, so I have learned a thing or two. The races in 2018 have reminded me of everything I love about training and road racing to what really, really irritates me. In the past three years, I have discovered that people cheat during road races. I had read about this happening in big road races where prize money is at stake, but local races? Seriously? For a plaque or an extra medal? Why do people cut part of the race or run when they are supposed to walk? I don’t get it.
I have also learned that technology is better. I am currently deeply infatuated with my Fitbit. Move it! I enjoy studying my stats on my computer after a race. As for foot-stomping music, I still listen to my cracked and ancient iPod. (Dear Apple, please make them again). I have moved on from Adidas shoes, then Nike, to a deep love affair with Brooks running shoes. However, I haven’t really cruised back into the running lane yet: I’ve turned into “Melissa-Aggressive Power Walker.”
On October 27th, the weather for the Mackinac Island Turtle Race consisted of high winds, rain, and cold temps. During a stretch of the race up in the interior of the island where horse poop is usually the worst obstacle, I passed a group of men running/walking in front of me. Since power walking requires PUMPING MY ARMS (hey, I studied videos on technique), and walking FAST with a specific roll of the hips, I had to get around Curly, Larry, and Moe. Curly shouted out, “Look out for her. She’s an aggressive walker.” Larry and Moe concurred, and they all moved over. Curly then told me that I could hurt someone. I looked back at dear Curly and said, “I haven’t hurt anyone—yet.” I never saw them again during the race. Who knew that intimidating other racers could be so simple? Perhaps a shirt with MAPW (Melissa—Aggressive Power Walker) would provide a cautionary warning? For the record, I ended up second in my age group for the race, and I aggressively held up my plaque for all to see. Not bad for an old lady, eh?
I had lots of other successes this year. Some races don’t have split categories, so I competed with runners while I power walked. During quite a few races, I passed runners. Aggressively. Despite clearly defined rules about cheaters, some people do it anyway. I guess those signed wavers don’t mean a thing! Some races now require walkers to have a bib with a number and a bib that says “Walker.” Or some bibs combine both sets of information. At the beginning of the Turtle, the announcer went on for about 5 minutes explaining to people why they should not cheat if they are walkers. How sad is that? And why are these people cheating? A recent article in Runner’s World declares “Over 250 Runners Were Caught Cheating at Shenzhen Half Marathon” by cutting the course. What the hell? Since I switched from running to power walking, I have been amazed by the number of so-called-walkers RUNNING during the race.
During the Elk Rapids Harbor Run in August this year, I sent a message after the race to the race officials. I inquired as to whether or not they had a policy against cheaters—in other words, so-called walkers running the race. Their response? “How did I know?” Seriously. Well, race officials, I’m not stupid, and if you look at the videos of the finish line area (I really just wanted to see how crappy I looked), you will see that people who were supposed to be walking were running. My first clue to the fact that some people might be cheating or cutting or whatever was the fact that a child barely out of diapers, listed as a walker (DUH), beat me. Now that is some fast-power walker! Future Olympian! I was kind of slow that day because of the heat (13:15 pace for the 5k), but I still thought I should have been faster than a youngster barely out of the crib. And the woman I encouraged towards the end of the race because I thought she was SUPPOSED TO BE RUNNING, well, she really had signed up as a walker. Thank goodness I beat her sorry-ass-cheating legs.
During the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race this year, cheaters ran rampant. Seriously! They were supposed to be walkers, and it clearly said so on their bibs. A woman about my age was pretty worked up about a cheater she had confronted about cheating early on in the race! And then we saw another one! One of the young gals clearly cheating throughout the race ended up winning second place in her age group. I hope she feels good about the plaque she received.
When I used to run races, I never gave a thought to the fact that there were cheaters on the race course. As soon as I started power walking (while injured in 2016—yes, that’s stupid), I realized that not everyone feels as if they have to follow the rules of the sport. I don’t get it, but I guess I should understand it at this point in my life. Win at any cost—isn’t that how it goes now? I would rather be second to last in a race (like the Higgins Lake Sunrise 10K this year). At the Shanty-to-Shorts race this year in Bellaire, although I walked with runners and was 109th out of 118 participants, I managed to power walk myself to a first-place spot in my age group. Apparently, the runners in my age group had decided to skip the race or do the 10K! Thank you! I love the jam prize.
Since I feel as if I am somewhat of an expert on road races, I have decided to create a list of rules for future or current road racers to follow. Please let me know if there are other rules I should add.
Rules for Road Races
Never wear the race shirt during the day of the race. (All races)
If you aren’t participating in the race, do not stand in line for the port-a-pot five minutes before race time. (All races)
Start where you are supposed to start. Please note the large PACE signs now used at most races. Example: If you are a power walker, you go to the rear of the line where the walkers are located. Walkers are very cool people and love to chat. At least the non-cheating ones. For runners, if you are ten-minute miler, you do not line up with the seven-minute milers. Ask my son what he thinks about this. Or not. (All races)
Start in the back if you have a stroller. (All races)
Don’t walk or run three and four abreast while people are trying to pass you. You have put another brick in the people wall for me to get around you. (All races)
Don’t talk about food. Yes, this is a personal pet peeve of mine. While you are discussing how you can’t wait to eat a big greasy hamburger after the race, all I can think about is beer. Talk about beer. (All races)
Don’t walk backwards into me while you search for your friend. If you can see me, I can see you. I am not invisible! (Mac Island Turtle)
Learn how to grab, fold, and sip from your cups at the water/Gatorade stops. Do not come to a dead stop while I power walk my way through. (All races)
If you insist on pushing your child in a stroller during a road race with freezing-ass temps, please do something when your child is screaming for almost a mile. Leave the kid home? (Turkey Trot)
If you must force your dog to run or walk with you during a freezing-ass road race with salted roads, slush, and ice, please do not act surprised when your dog wants to drop out after the first mile. “Come on, Bowzer, only two more miles to go.” (Turkey Trot)
If you feel compelled to touch my butt during a road race because you like my water bottle on a belt, please DO NOT DO THIS EVER. (Years ago, while I was running a race in Flint.)
Do not cheat. Ever. (All races)
And of course, for training walks or during road races, if you are driving a car, you do not need to run over a person on the roads. Put down your cell phone! Pay attention. Just ask my friend Taylor what “Melissa—The Aggressive Power Walker” might scream at you on the road if you cannot move your stupid SUV over while we are out walking. Even your side mirrors could kill me. CAN YOU HEAR ME SWEARING AT YOU? Oh, yes, you slammed on the brakes, but did not come back to confront us.
I love training and participating in road races. Highlights for me this year include power walking the 5-miler Winterlaufe in Frankenmuth on February 2nd, and bringing home a 3rd-place (age group) cowbell. More cowbell! I also am extremely happy that I completed the trio of races on Mackinac Island this year: the Lilac Festival in June (3rd place in age group), Mac Island 8-miler in September (2nd in age group), and the Turtle in October (2nd in age group). I love pushing myself in a competition to see what I can accomplish with this body and these fairly old bones. Road races are mostly about the mental game of pushing yourself to go forward. I have learned to have a pretty convincing argument with myself about mile 5 or 7 if the conditions are rough, and my legs and arms have morphed into one of those giant inflatable advertising people you see outside offering deals on greasy pizza.
Road races also give me the chance to meet new people and hear their stories. Yes, I talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. I love encouraging people along the way and thanking the volunteers. I love the camaraderie after the race especially with my son. Plus, I get to hear his stories! As a bonus, my husband often comes with us, so we have fun while we travel to and from the races.
To round out the year, I recently walked the Jingle Bell Run/Walk in Midland with my good friend Julie. Although it was just a mile, it felt so good to be participating in a race with Julie again. We used to run road races together, so this event meant a lot to me. Plus, we both got to have our pictures taken with Santa. Did you know that the real Santa was in Midland at the race on November 29th for Julie’s birthday? Just saying. I told Santa I loved him, and I meant it.
I have already signed up for two races next year. I’m going to be an even leaner and meaner power-walker. Maybe I’ll give up cookies and beer. Or not. Maybe I will run a race with no split categories, or even sign up to run a race. I’m not sure. I’m really out of the running loop. After all, now that I have become an aggressive power walker, I’m kind of stoked about that moniker. I’m happy to be out on the roads at the ripe-old age of 63, looking for birds, especially raptors, not feeling any pain in my leg, and breathing in that fabulous Michigan air.
First of all, no matter how many people have joked about it over the years, Gregg Allman did not write “Melissa” about me. In my bluesy, sultry-voiced, still-developing-mind, I imagined that if he had only known me, he would most certainly have written the song about me. Having one’s name associated with a highly popular song is sort of like telling people you are from Kansas. You wait for the chuckle and the inevitable comeback: “Did you know Dorothy?” from the The Wizard of Oz. Or better yet, was I actually Dorothy in disguise? Hilarious! As the character Cher would have said in Clueless, “As if!” I decided I should stop wearing pigtails for the rest of my life, and that my gingham dress had to go. I haven’t quite given up the red shoes yet. I do believe that if I create the right playlist for myself, I can become anyone I want to be. After all, we have had the power all along to let music guide us down whatever long and winding road we choose to take.
Even if I had stumbled across a yellow brick road, I can’t imagine life as a gal named Dorothy. What must she go through to have a name so associated with a fictional character? I have loved my name all of my life, and I thanked my mother a few times during my terrible teens for bestowing it on me. According to my mother, I was named after a relative who was born in the 1800s. It was as if my mother had been waiting all of her life to name someone Melissa. Luckily, I came into her life before our dog Stinker. I doubt if even Gregg Allman could have come up with lyrics for that name.
According to Gregg Allman’s memoir, he was searching for a name to use in a song he was working on, and he heard a woman calling for “Melissa” in a grocery store. In my young and very fertile imagination, I imagined it was me. One problem though: I had never been to Florida, which is where Allman was when he heard a woman calling for a young girl in a grocery store.
When I was in high school, my head inflated with a music-filtered ego, I imagined a cute teenaged boy with long dark hair and deep brown eyes, essentially George Harrison’s look-alike, strumming his guitar, and singing to me. The room would be dark. He would stare into my eyes. After he was through, he would lean forward and tell me how beautiful I was. That actually happened to me once at a party, only at the end of the song, the young guitar player asked if I liked the way he played the song. I said yes, and then we stared at each other, clueless as to what was supposed to happen next. Unfortunately, romantic fantasies do not always end well.
My love affair with the late Tom Petty’s music grew out of listening to his songs and realizing how perfect some of them were for my running playlist. In the 80s, I used a Sony Walkman with cassettes in them and in the 90s, I had a portable CD player to listen to tunes. Listening to the same CD for a six-mile run made me slightly crazy. Around 2010, I received an Apple iPod Nano that turned my life around. Playlists! A device I could stick in my pocket! Of course, Apple has now discontinued the iPod Nano, and, naturally, I dropped mine the other day. The face cracked, but it still works. Kind of like me. I’m not ready to switch to my phone for a playlist or whatever new thing Apple is selling for my playlist, because it won’t fit into the pocket of my workout pants. As Tom Petty sings, “I Won’t Back Down” until I don’t have a choice. I’m very stubborn, and I thank my late father for that distinctive trait.
I have only recently returned to walking on the roads with a definite pep to my step since my surgery in April to fix an acetabular labral tear in my right leg. My surgeon wants me to hold off on running until April 2018. I am being very patient and listening to my doctor on this one. I recently graduated from physical therapy, and I will miss those weekly trips to Traverse City where I drove the back roads and enjoyed checking out the animals at the beefalo farm on Fletcher Road, slowing down while passing the sheep farm on Boardman Road, and avoiding deer making bad decisions all along the way. In the past six months, I have seen eagles, hawks, and a sheriff stopping speeders in front of me (whew!) on a routine basis. My music playlists have all been extremely helpful in getting me pumped up for physical therapy. As the Allman Brothers sing, “I’m just looking for some good clean fun.” And there is no place like the physical therapist’s fun house to experience that good-time feeling.
On Labor Day weekend, I listened to Tom Petty’s song “U Get Me High” on my playlist as I walked the 5K along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan, during the weekend’s races. My son ran the half-marathon, and he had been competing in road races all year. This was the first race I was able to participate in since November of 2016. I had asked my physical therapist, Josh, to write a note giving me permission, so that my family would believe that I had healed enough to walk in a road race. Yes, walk, not run. I was thrilled to be out in the rain and wind, inhaling the air and being part of a group of people who loved road races. I wondered what some of their stories were as I walked along, singing to the songs on my playlist. After the race was over, I enjoyed a beer with my son and husband at Blackrocks Brewery, and I could not erase the happy grin on my face as we sat in the bar. I am now gearing up to walk the Turkey Trot in Traverse City on Thanksgiving Day. I walked in the Turkey Trot last year, but I was in a lot of pain. Did I mention that I am stubborn, and I should not have been participating? This year, I am ready to walk pain-free. I no longer need a note from my physical therapist.
During all of my travels over the years, either walking on the road or driving, I have realized that depending on radio stations, including the multiple offerings on Sirius, or listening to my CDs does not always fit my mood. My trusty little iPod with its randomly named playlists (Walking, Training, Marquette) works perfectly in the car or when I am out walking on the road. When my friend Susan and I took a road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer, I created a playlist with songs I knew would remind us of our high school days, and other songs I knew would make us feel the happiness groove as we worked our way along Lake Superior’s shoreline taking photos and collecting rocks. Although my right leg was far from healed, I could move around enough to get where I needed to go. Music and great friends have always been my inspiration to move.
I know that as time moves forward, my leg will continue to heal, and I will participate in more road races. As far as my photography goes, I can now bend low enough to the ground to shoot photos I could not take for a long time. I can also climb steps now, so that will open up another vantage point for me. When my husband and I were at Tahquamenon Falls a few months ago, I ventured down the 94 steps to the brink of the falls to shoot photos, and then climbed back up. My heart was racing, but I don’t know if it is because I was woefully out of shape, or had a super adrenalin rush. After all, as Tom Petty sings: “It was a beautiful day. The sun beat down. I had the radio on. I was driving…runnin’ down a dream.” It might have been a small goal, but in my last three visits to Tahquamenon Falls, I had only stared at those steps as if they were lined with rattlesnakes. Someday, I kept reminding myself. That day arrived.
In Gregg Allman’s last CD, he covers an old Willie Dixon song with great poignancy. Gregg passed away on May 27th this year. The lyrics to the song are words I wish we could all live by: “I live the life I love, and I love the life I live.” Life is full of challenges, and some days are really, really tough. The death of someone you love, cancer, a brain tumor, and a broken heart are just a few of the things that can knock us down. Music, even if we have to seek it out, can lift us up again. I hope your playlists inspire you as much as mine do, and I hope you never hesitate to update your playlist if it isn’t helping you get your groove on.
“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.
Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” popped into my head the minute I figured out that I was no longer able to heal myself. In October of 2015, I made the mistake of stepping awkwardly off of a friend’s porch as I turned to wave goodbye. The minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I had injured my body. I didn’t fall. Perhaps I should have. Despite the obvious pain in my leg, hip, thigh, quad, hamstring, screaming muscles, and pride, I figured I would rest a few days, stretch more, and get over it. For the next few months, I alternated walking and running. I knew my gait was wrong. Occasionally on hills, my right leg collapsed. I was in running denial. After a fairly decent four-mile run on January 23rd, my body suddenly seized up like a broken corkscrew. After a series of x-rays showed that my spine was fine, my doctor informed me that I would have to have physical therapy. I headed home and sang to myself: “Poor, poor, pitiful me.”
This wouldn’t be my first dance with physical therapy. About twelve years ago, I hurt my back shoveling snow and had to go to PT for six weeks and attend back school. During the first week of intense pain caused by a bulging disc, I was in a Vicodin-induced euphoric stage. I liked it a little too much. After being stretched out on a rack-like bed, learning exercises that would help me get stronger, and finding out ways to rake leaves and shovel snow without hurting my back, I finally recovered. I no longer wanted to sleep on the floor. I could drive a stick shift again without wincing as I changed gears. Spring came. Birds sang. I could run again. And then one day I found out I could not float through the air. Hadn’t my mother always warned me to watch where I was going? Although I didn’t fall, the minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I was in trouble. Ouch.
In early February, my doctor listened to me recite my excuses for not coming in four months earlier. She didn’t even roll her eyes at me. After listening to me whine for a few minutes, she gave me a prescription for Cyclobenzaprine and Naproxen to help with the pain. I took the Naproxen for four days, before I decided to quit. All I could think about was drinking Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle. I didn’t even try the other drug. I wanted to embrace my pain. The following week I headed to my PT assessment, and I was told me that I would run again, but I had four weeks of PT to look forward to. My iliotibial band was a mess. Let the exercises begin.
As part of my daily routine, I work out twice-daily to strengthen my core, hips, hamstrings, quads, and thighs. I work out the elliptical trainer. I walk slowly. After almost four weeks of physical therapy at a facility in Houghton Lake, I have developed a love-hate relationship with my physical therapist. When I told her I was going to write about her for my blog, I asked her if I should use an alias for her name since she obviously was the Sweeney Todd of the PT world. She laughed and said I could call her Debbie.
Debbie, despite being a wonderful PT, introduced me to the world of the Graston Technique®. This particular use of stainless steel instruments used to break up scar tissue is guaranteed to locate your sore spots and make you sit up, see stars, and wish you had been smarter a long time ago. With apologies to Bryan Adams, “it cuts like a knife.” My Graston tool looks like a very large knife. The tool leaves bruises. Debbie promises me that she is breaking down the knots in my iliotibial band. These unwanted knots formed in my muscles while I was stupidly trying to heal myself. They are nasty. They hurt. They are the three stooges of my nightmares, and I can feel them when I try and massage them on a regular routine. I think of beer. I think of chocolate. I think of swimming in the ocean with sharks. Poor, poor pitiful me.
A few days after I started PT and was firmly entrenched in my pitiful mood, I went to the Winterläufe race in Frankenmuth with my son. I had signed up for the race, but since I had zero chance of running or walking the 8k race, I decided to go along and cheer on my son and take pictures. This was a new experience for me. I am not used to the sidelines during road races. Matt placed third in his age group and won a cowbell. I have never wanted a cowbell so much in my life. I now stare at people running on the roads with envy and despair.
On March 1st, the folks at PT will assess my body to see if I need more PT, or if I can work out on my own. Last week, I asked Debbie if I could at least walk the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race, and she, in turn, asked me if I could walk without being competitive. Umm, sure, I said. I can teach my body to stroll. I told her I had walked 2.5 miles on the road recently and had walked fifteen-minute miles, and it seemed really slow. I even made a playlist that has more mellow songs on it. Debbie didn’t seem convinced that I could participate in a race and take it easy.
I guess my stubbornness and my inability to be patient got the better of me this time. I miss swearing at inattentive drivers on the road. I miss the endorphin rush that kicks in when I run. Instead, I work out inside and dream about the day I can run again. I do my exercise routine while I listen to the blues. I think about what that first run is going to be like when I get the go ahead. I will pretend that Debbie is chasing me with the Graston tool.