Thursday, 3 September 2009

Return to the physiotherapist

I have been reading The Body Broken by Lynne Greenberg, a fellow Milton scholar. This is not a book about Milton, but a memoir about pain. Having recovered, with miraculous speed, from serious injuries sustained in a car crash when she was 18, nearly two decades later her body began to disintegrate, to un-heal. I remember meeting her between these two episodes, on a paddle steamer in Beaufort, South Carolina. That was before I became a runner, and before she fell apart. Her reflections are harrowing, and reading them has chastened me: I'm not going to write about my self-inflicted injury in terms of pain again, because it's just not up to it.

What I do need to write about is age and recovery. I also need to apologise for my last, out-of-character post, which has received more complaints than any previous post has received compliments. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I won’t do it again. Instead, I’m going to reflect upon my shortcomings.

Among the expressions of goodwill I received when news of my Decline and Fall spread was the following from Edward Jones, another Miltonist, and the fastest academic I have the pleasure to know (2:40 in Boston):

"Unfortunately the kind of injury you have combined with your personality do not match up well. The injury usually wins in the end by both chastening and not forgiving the personality. It is surely no comfort for you to know nor me to remember the decade of injuries I experienced from my early thirties to my early forties--except in one respect. After adjusting in my early forties in little ways (not beating myself up with speed, allowing ample recovery between quality workouts [4 days between them], and alternating shoes [3-4 pairs]), I have run 335 days a year since then. Last year I had a pr in terms of miles logged.

"You still have good years ahead and opportunities for better marathon times, but over forty runners must manipulate their bodies in ever so subtle ways in order to balance wear and tear with slowly decreasing VO2 max. I wish you good fortune with all of that."

So there’s my future: a Manichean struggle between a failing body and a raging struggle to outwit the inevitable. Lengthening times (race times, that is), shortening hamstrings. I hear the Raven look at my limp organs, and say: pathetic.

The physiotherapist took me seriously the second time. I explained that I'd found it hard to run. She nodded with her usual lack of concern. She goes through it again. “So how long do you run each day.” Last time she evidently switched off somewhere around “It depends …”

So I try to be more succinct. “My shortest run is eleven kilometres. My longest run is 37 kilometres.”

She looks confused. “In one go?”

Now I have her. “Yes.” She blinks twice before asking:

“Ok. Did you bring shorts?”

I still hadn’t brought shorts. I explained I was wearing decent underwear, without adding that my underwear is a lot more decent than my running shorts, even those pairs that are not torn, and certainly more decent than my Skins.

She begins to massage my leg, and this time there is plenty of pain. There is also a big bruise. She looks for some cause other than the injury, but there is none. She’s impressed.

I go out running every other day. It’s slow and I don’t enjoy it. I can’t understand why at first, but it begins to become apparent. One of the reasons I used to enjoy running was because it felt natural. I was good at it, and developed nice, efficient form. These days it’s all a struggle, and with concentration and effort I can run slowly. My footplant is quiet, at least, but I can feel the decline in efficiency that comes with a loss of core strength. I used to enjoy running because I was good; and I’m no longer good.

The next visit to the physio, I’m barely through the door before she says, “Could you get undressed please.” She massages the offending leg once again. It troubles her that I still don’t have much flexibility. Of course it’s not news to me. I’ve been like this for months, and have grown grimly accustomed to it. I’m just not getting any better. Is it because I’m not diligent enough in doing my prescribed stretches?

You see, I’m beginning to worry that it’s in my head. Perhaps running was just like this when I started five years ago, and I’ve forgotten that it involves struggle. Perhaps I am no longer motivated. Perhaps the weakness is in my mind. What’s injured is character. I re-read Edward’s email and think: do I really have the strength and resolve to go through that? Do I need to adjust to my age? Is mind or body inadequate here? Are they racing each other, to see which will give up first? Running used to be my struggle against adversity, an encounter with the non-rhetorical, the immiscibility of the physical world.

I think of John Milton writing glibly (in Greek) in the visitors books of European friends: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” I try to think of ways that through my weakness I will be made more perfect in my strength. I hear an empty conch. Next weekend is the Berlin marathon, which I was scheduled to run. I’ll go anyway. And over my shoulder I hear the Raven look at my legs and say … pathetic.


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