The Last Battle

Don Hankins/Flickr
Don Hankins/Flickr

“If one could run without getting tired,” writes C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle, “I don’t think one would often want to do anything else.” Yes, C. S. Lewis, curmudgeonly mathematician, extols running. He’s right—nothing else is like it. So when my physical therapist told me running was out for me, I recoiled. “Wait,” I thought. “What? No more running?”

It was my spine, the therapist explained.

I had gone to him after two months of persistent back pain. Curiously, almost as soon as I made the appointment, I found that the pain began to let up, and so I went with a sense of optimism. I expected the physical therapist would suggest some back exercises, advise me to buy new running shoes, and tell me to beware of bending to pick up a box, but basically congratulate me on a good start to full recovery. Then I would resume running just like before, because nothing was really wrong, or I wouldn’t already be seeing improvement. A little scoliosis, okay, I know that’s true. Some bone spurs, revealed by an x-ray. Discs that are not exactly what or where they should be. All of that I could understand. Even that, because of my makeup, I absorb the impact of running unequally, aggravating my spine with each foot strike. So I’d run a little slower, I’d stay off mountainsides. But give up running? Altogether? That was impossible. I told the therapist I was signed up for a race in three days.

The therapist said he understood how I was feeling. But I couldn’t run the race. I didn’t want to risk a fracture and find myself in a wheelchair, did I?

I had no words. Running was everything. I felt as if he’d told me I needed to quit breathing to not die.

“Look,” he told me, as he stepped away a few feet, turned sideways, then hunched his back and slumped one shoulder while twisting and raising the other at the same time. He seemed to have shrunk six inches. His neck stuck forward, his back curved, his pelvis protruded. The transformation was from an upright 45-year-old into an ageless little gnome. He turned to face me. “I’m exaggerating a little,” he said, “but this is you.” I gulped. “Running,” he repeated, “is out.”

Did he really mean that? Not only that I was risking a spinal injury, but that I was misshapen? The shame. Had he said, “This will be you,” I’d have been more likely to listen to his advice. But his message was that it was already too late to save myself. Why sacrifice to save instead that twisted shrunken being? I could see no sense in that. I’m sure I blushed, sitting in my underclothes.

Worse than the shame, though, was the thought of telling my running partner that he would be on his own from now on. Running can be done alone, but it’s a great deal easier in company.

The good news, my therapist went on, was that there was something to replace running. La marcha nórdica, Nordic walking. It was a new sport, lots of people were doing it. It would be ideal for me.

That good news didn’t seem so good to me. It seemed irrelevant. But when I relayed my therapist’s suggestion to my running partner, he was enraged. Twenty years ago, he reminded me, he had gone to the doctor because of a back injury at work. The doctor confirmed that his back was a mess. Three herniated discs. No more running. Gardening, too, was out. Nothing more strenuous than slow walking. “I can’t run, I can’t work in the garden,” he echoed to his doctor. “That’s right,” the doctor said. “Can I work?” asked my friend. A doctor forbidding work for a work-related injury would mean sick leave. If he couldn’t return, it would mean early retirement at full salary, plus compensation. The doctor looked up. “Oh yes, you can work.” My friend repeated to me what he hadn’t bothered to tell the doctor: if he could work, he could run. Had he instead followed the doctor’s advice, he added, he would by now be in a wheelchair. Then he named a friend of ours who had been a great runner, winning countless races and setting regional records. “Twenty-five years ago, doctors told her to quit or she’d end up paraplegic. Instead, she’s still running.”

“Well,” I said.

My partner and I had scheduled a run for after my appointment that afternoon. I hated to disappoint. I put on my running clothes and then ran as slowly as I ever have, barely faster than a walk. It was laughable, though neither of us was laughing.

If you want to change your habits, change your friends. I couldn’t do that—to either of us. I ran the race three days later and finished second in my category, ran another two the following weekend. I am still running. The physical therapist had told me not to tell him if I continued to run, so didn’t: I canceled the follow-up appointment because I hate to disappoint. Plus, I would be too busy, running. Trying to outrun my bad back.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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