The Upside of Loss: A Runner Learns to Make Peace with a New Reality



The author and her husband after running a 10k.

By Alison Bell

I have been a runner since I was 18. Before that, I got my exercise fix through sports. From age 10 on, there wasn’t a team sport I didn’t like. I played on the girls’ junior high softball, basketball, and volleyball teams. I competed in junior tennis. In high school I was an outside hitter on the volleyball team and half of the number one double’s badminton team (yes, it used to be an offered sport). In college, I played varsity soccer, volleyball, and badminton.

I started running as a way to stay in shape in-between seasons, and it quickly turned into an obsession. After figuring out the perfect match of pace and distance, I settled into running six miles a day. I kept up this pattern for the next several decades. Nothing felt right until I finished my daily run. Running siphoned off my blue devils, righted some unnamed wrong that was resurrected each day and needed constant slaying. After my run, I felt renewed, purified. The impatient, imperfect part of me was buried, under layers of sweat and sunscreen, at least until the next morning.

I knew I was hooked on running, but as far as addictions went, it seemed harmless, if not virtuous. I took pride knowing that you could drop me anywhere, any time, and I could run for some six-plus miles with the best of them. Should there be a disaster that required me to get out of town quickly, I could make it to the hills with just my Sauconys and my steady runner’s heart. I was strong. I was independent.

About three years ago, my right foot started to hurt. At night, I couldn’t sleep. I imagined a small, mean child pummeling the top of my foot with a hammer. I finally had an X-ray and was told I suffered from severe arthritis on the mid-bone of my foot, probably from years of twisted ankles, which I was prone to. I was told to run as pain allowed.

After some tears, I decided to ignore the pain, which tended to only kick in the last mile or so of a run. So I ran on my bum foot another few years until nine months ago, when my left foot started to hurt in the exact same place. I went back to the same doctor, who proclaimed I had matching arthritis on my left foot.

Maybe it was the double diagnosis or maybe my feet just finally caught up with me because soon afterwards when I went out for a run, my feet refused to comply. They wouldn’t bend, the bottoms felt inflamed with a plantar fasciitis-like stiffness and pain, and every step was agony. To add insult to injury, my right knee throbbed. After consulting with a knee doctor, who warned me to stop running just for the sake of my knees, I went cold turkey. This meant giving up my daily fix, and also a twice-a-week ritual with one of my best friends, Maureen, with whom I had shared early morning Tuesday and Thursday runs for the last 20 years.

You would think my feet would thank me, but instead they got worse. They stiffened up in the morning, at night, every time I sat down. They were erratic, with minds of their own. They would shoot up with pain one minute, then the next, settle down and behave like perfectly reasonable appendages.

I was on the verge of becoming both a cripple and the cranky, insufferable person I’d been avoiding all my life.

I decided to see if new forms of exercise might save me. I’d always used Stairmasters as a last-ditch substitute for running, but I took to the elliptical machine in earnest, clocking in an hour a day. I began lifting weights more diligently to beef up my puny arms. I committed to yoga, where I learned I had a rotten core and couldn’t balance, which gave me new goals to shoot for. (My tree pose is still a wreck, but I kill the downward facing dog.) I started spinning. I bought a bike. I swam laps at the Rose Bowl. I started…. sigh … walking.

My feet haven’t exactly gotten better, but they haven’t gotten worse, and my mood has definitely improved. Today I feel in better overall shape than I did a year ago, and in fact I might even say that since I stopped running, I am in the best shape of my life.

As we hurl ourselves unwittingly into another year, it makes me think that the New Year is a time to re-evaluate old habits. Sometimes we have to say goodbye to even the healthy ones. Change is hard, especially when mixed with physical pain or the psychic agony of letting go of something you love. But sometimes it can lead to undiscovered potential or benefits. I am using muscles I didn’t know I had, and can’t help but think my knees and other joints will thank me one day for saving them the trauma of extra miles spent pounding the pavement.

They say that dreams of flying are one of the most common we can have. Flying expresses our desire to be free of confines, to soar to new heights, figuratively and literally. Now I dream not of flying, but of running. In my dreams, my feet carry me swiftly over forest paths littered with leaves, only the sound of my breath keeping me company. I am fast, pain-free, as light of heart as of body.

Turns out, the runner in me isn’t completely gone yet.

Alison Bell is the director of communications and social media at Hillsides.

One Comment on “The Upside of Loss: A Runner Learns to Make Peace with a New Reality

  1. Thank you for sharing. Life’s challenges change, if we change with it we have a much better chance at joy. Congratulations on your change, and the new joy you have found!

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