I’ve been running for 40 years, and during that time I’ve completed 463 races (still counting) while earning numerous age group awards, so I’ve had a pretty satisfying career. I’ve also been writing this column since 1999. And I’m still running (sort of), an active member of the Oak Park Runners and the Oak-William Runners (the OWies).
But I recently turned 74, I have an arthritic knee, and my running is a pathetic remnant of what it once was. Frankly, it’s not that fun anymore, and I feel like something of a fraud writing a column on running. So, time to quit.
But I’ve also learned a few things during all these years, so now is my opportunity to pass on some dubious wisdom in case anyone is interested.
Firstly, running is the best no-frills sport I know of, and being a regular runner is a healthy lifestyle. For anyone who has attended class reunions after 15 years or more, notice those former high school or college sports stars that are now overweight and out of shape. Their “games” are over, but we runners are still active, fit, and pretty healthy. Games versus lifestyle. And our road races have age groups, so runners actually look forward to getting older, entering new age groups where we are at the younger end of a new pack. You can keep running and racing for most of your life.
Secondly, running does not cause arthritis. Okay, so what about me? When I was a kid I had knee surgery to remove a bone fragment, and I remember the surgeon saying I might get arthritis in “later life.” He was right. So runners with an old knee injury may eventually incur arthritis. But according to study results I’ve seen, running likely holds off arthritis. And I’m still running, even with some knee pain. My knee doc, a sports medicine rehab specialist, says, “So you’ve got arthritis – keep running.” It hurts, but not so that I’m limping, and I’m running about 10 slow miles a week. Arthritic joints work better when they’re used.
Thirdly, injuries happen. But orthopedic surgery should be your last option. Often, time and rest are best; then try massage therapy, physical therapy and a sports medicine doc before considering surgery. As for meniscus repair, be very cautious. Before I got smart, I developed a slightly torn meniscus in the bad knee that was painful. I was told that surgery was the only solution. The internal video showed the surgeon carving a huge chunk of my medial meniscus – way too much – and my knee was never the same. I have since learned that many meniscus tears can improve over time — without surgery. Rough edges can smooth over, and after weeks or a few months you’re okay. Wish I knew that in 2003.
Fourth, there is no magic in marathons (some of my friends seriously disagree). But over the years I have seen many over-use injuries as runners start increasing to marathon miles. Sure, do a few marathons if you have to, but your fitness is just as good if you’re training for half marathons, with a lot less risk of injury. After putting in all that marathon preparation, it can be a hot race day, so months of training end in frustration. And marathons beat you up, requiring recovery afterwards. Yes, I’ve run a couple, and never felt all that much satisfaction (but I admit Marathon Week in Chicago can be pretty exciting).
Finally, races provide initiative to work harder and improve. It’s nice to finish ahead of others, but it’s also a matter of self-improvement. Also, accumulating those race t-shirts mark you as a true runner and athlete. So racing should be a regular part of running.
And I’ll still be around, but as more of a creaky veteran than a hard-eyed competitor. But if anything significant regarding running pops up in the future, maybe I’ll still offer a few more words of wisdom.