I have an extensive workout playlist, three times as long as the longest time I’ve ever worked out. I fiddle with it constantly, trying to figure out if Eminem follow or precede Rihanna and if Peter Gabriel would be offended by opening for Air Supply. There are a lot of songs about hot girls on it, a lot of Nicki Minaj, a lot of songs about steep climbs. There are a lot of songs I’m pretty sure are about blowjobs. There’s a lot of EDM.
I could have burned like Pompeii
Lived in the ruins of me
I was so bruised and bandaged
My turn to do some damage
I start with the playlist because that’s where the race starts. And because without it, without something trivial and dumb and cheesy to focus on this year while I waited eight months to be able to run again, I’m pretty sure I would have gone all the way crazy.
By the time my back went out in February I was already worn down to a nub.
In November, Kick and I started getting sick. Off and on sick: She’d have a cold, and then I’d have a cold, so one of us was always miserable and couldn’t breathe. Up until that point, my almost-2-year-old had been a sweet, easygoing baby; in an instant she became 30 pounds of toddler anger and nonstop running nose. One of us was always up all night and the other one was always pissed about it the next day.
I took her to urgent care and her pediatrician. I didn’t go to the doctor. I didn’t have time: I was working two jobs, two part-time jobs that, cobbled together, added up to a decent salary. One job, I’d gotten relatively recently and enjoyed quite a lot. Another I’d worked at for nearly a decade, that paid really badly but that I thought maybe I could love.
I said to the latter’s powers that be, hey, been at this for a while now, would really like to have some security and a raise. (It had been eight years without one.) They put me off, and after months of footsie and amid growing resentment on both sides I said look, I’m 40, I gotta quit screwing around and feed the baby (and her college fund). Do this or I’ll walk.
I’m a grown-up. If I said that, I had to be prepared for the answer to be, “We’ll miss you.”
“We’ll miss you,” they said.
I was prepared, but it burned, all the same.
The same week, the VERY SAME WEEK in November that I got the miss-you e-mail, I quit an organization I’d loved for 20 years. I helped build it with my hands and with time I couldn’t afford to give and money that wasn’t mine to spend, and I loved it like a person. It was tough to love, always, because nobody knows how hard organizing is and everybody thinks they can do it better and everybody tells you so all the time, but I told myself the hard parts didn’t matter. And then, suddenly, they did.
And because it was never about me, because I said that all the time, because nobody owes me shit and my feelings aren’t important in the face of what that organization tries to do, the minute I found myself making it about what I wanted I quit.
I culled social media. I stayed away from gatherings. It was the best, best thing for them, and for me.
It felt like an amputation. Feels.
The holidays came and went. Kick’s cold went away. Mine didn’t. I developed a deep, dry cough that shook my entire body. But I kept telling myself, I was working. My husband was working. We had a roof over our heads and our families were with us. We were all alive, and together, and once things got warmer it would all be okay.
I repeated it to myself, over and over, with each new work or home crisis. It would all be okay.
Then in February I wound up in the hospital.
If this was a movie about an athlete, this would be the part that gets condensed down to 30 seconds, at the end of which she’d be strong and hard and perfectly tanned. This would be the part where the soundtrack becomes super-important, but this part would be quick.
Victory’s within the mile
Almost there, don’t give up now
Only thing that’s on my mind
Is who’s gonna run this town tonight
I actually really hate working out. I need the music to think about because the runner’s high, that chemical rush you get when you feel like you can run straight through a wall? In years and years of running I’ve felt it exactly twice. I need songs about moving your body like a cyclone and having parties at rich dudes’ houses to get me past the feeling that this is all useless and I should just quit.
After the back injury I spent 10 weeks in physical therapy. My right hip and pelvis were incorrectly aligned, and likely had been that way since my 2014 c-section. I’d either torn or severely pulled several muscles, and once that went away, the sciatic nerve pain showed up, arcing down my right leg. It took me six ibuprofen every single morning to get the pain down to manageable enough levels that I could go to work.
I’ve always thought of myself as healthy. I’ve never been skinny or pretty, but I thought of myself as tough. As strong, and capable of recovery. If nothing else, I can take a punch. Knock me down, I get back up, and eventually I will get back up one more time than you can knock me down.
Now I could barely get up. I couldn’t pick up my daughter, who grew angrier and angrier with her cranky, frequently incapacitated mother. She didn’t understand the distance I was putting between us. She woke in the middle of the night demanding milk, as she hadn’t in months, and lifting her in my arms for comfort hurt so much my vision blurred.
The physical therapist said I had a good prognosis. He kept telling me I wasn’t overweight, though I didn’t ask him about weight, except to ask if there was something I should be eating, like if I eat spinach will I grow a new damn spine and right hip? I wasn’t thinking about my weight then. I was thinking about being able to move without excruciating pain.
“Do you see a lot of athletes in here, sports injuries and stuff?” We’d been talking about hockey.
He lifted my right knee, told me to lean into the pushback. “I never see anybody healthy here.”
I wasn’t thinking about my weight and I gained 15 pounds during those ten weeks. I was drinking too much wine and eating too much junk and not bothering to cook. I was working two jobs, still, having promised the We’ll Miss You people I would finish up a project in return for a bonus. I was scrambling every second from the moment I got up until the moment I read myself to sleep and sometimes sleep didn’t come until midnight. I was drinking too much coffee in the mornings and late into the afternoons, and making peanut butter sandwiches at midnight.
I didn’t feel like myself in my head, and now when I looked in the mirror I didn’t look like myself either. Nothing fit. Everything I owned was worn and tight, and I couldn’t afford to replace it.
I theorized that Kick was going through a sleep regression. My husband and I were arguing a lot. Family and friends had their own problems, much worse than mine, and I felt like I wasn’t there for them. The house was always a disaster.
There wasn’t a level on which I felt I was succeeding.
“You’re not overweight,” the therapist said. “Most of the people I see here, by the time they get to me they’re 400 pounds and have breathing problems.”
We talked about running and he seemed optimistic. He thought I would get back pretty quickly to where I’d been before.
I had no idea where that was.
When I signed up for this 5K I was icing my right hip after every walk of more than 5 minutes. I walked on a treadmill for three months, working my way from a painful few steps to 10 minutes, then 20, then 25. It hurt like hell.
In May I was put on a 20-day course of anthrax-level antibiotics for a sinus and chest infection that caused the cough that caused the back injury, and that finally knocked out the constant illnesses. I’m religiously careful about picking Kick up, though sometimes I can’t resist. Her cold vanished in the spring, and she became my happy baby again, sleeping soundly and eager to play.
I finished my work, collected my bonus, disconnected that e-mail account from my phone and went on to jobs that paid decently and treated me well. I cut back on the wine and ate salad and cleaned my house. I ran not to the point of pain but to have something to concentrate on that wasn’t work or childcare or anything but me. I got new clothes that fit. I think I’ve lost a little weight, but I also don’t care about that as much as I care about feeling healthy again. Feeling strong.
The race started well. It was a cool, clear morning and there was Katy Perry at the starting line. At about mile 2 my back locked up. I felt the muscles clench and though my lungs were burning and my right knee ached and I was getting a side stitch I could have run through all of that, but with my back I take no chances now. I slowed to a walk, then ran again, then walked some more.
Gray-haired grandparents passed me. People pushing jogging strollers full of what looked like half a dozen middle schoolers passed me. I looked for Kick and Mr. A and didn’t see them. The run was a charity event for the local zoo and I’m pretty sure at one point an actual tortoise blew by me like I was standing still. I crossed the finish line at something like 40 minutes out. It wasn’t the victorious moment I dreamed of.
I crossed that finish line, though. I’ll cross another, and another, and eventually it will hurt less and feel better. I keep telling myself that, because what’s the alternative? I’m still broken. And everything that happened this year was either waiting right there for me to take it back up again, or following me close behind.
The physical therapist was wrong. I’m not back to where I was before I got hurt, and to be honest I’m not sure where I am right now. But I know I won’t be staying here. The music’s still playing and that means I have farther to go.
You and me we’re goin’ nowhere slowly
And we’ve gotta get away from the past
There’s nothin’ wrong with goin’ nowhere, baby
But we should be goin’ nowhere fast