“Holy… effing… shit,” I said to Dr. Jay, my long-time chiropractor (and now, savior), “I wish I could explain to you the type of relief I’m feeling right now.” I lay there, face down, breathing alleviated breaths that seemed to crescendo into sweeter, livelier respirations of victory. Finally. Everything made sense. Sort of.
“Yeah, even your ribs were all out of whack.” he said.
Ribs? Back? But my problem is ITBS… or so I thought.
In fact, the last three weeks have been as frustrating as they have been debilitating. Laid up from my DNF at the Des Plaines River Trail 50 from what was most certainly IT band syndrome, I have spent the last 20-some days scouring the internet for anti-ITBS clues, searching frantically from one runner injury forum to the next, soliciting advice from anyone with any inkling of authority, even if his handle is RUNNERSLAVE69.
I bought a $15 compression wrap that would be better used as a headband. I endured three intense ART sessions. I rolled and stretched my IT band so much that I feel like I should be an inch or two taller.
But none of it seemed to do anything to help, which led to repeatedly asking myself: WHY? WHY ME?
My hip flexors are super strong! My gluteus medius could be used as an anatomy classroom specimen! My quads are about as muscular as one could ever expect them to be! SO WHY ME? WHY NOW? DON’T YOU KNOW I HAVE A MARATHON TO RUN IN 9 1/2 WEEKS?
It wasn’t until I was on the phone with my dad, complaining to him as best I could without turning into a complete baby, explaining how I went from being uber tough BQ runner to debilitated hobby jogger who couldn’t run 4 miles without a flaring IT band leaving him hobbled, depressed and defeated.
“First I throw out my back on the ab roller,” I told him, “then my knee locks up from ITBS, and then, because I was so frustrated with not being able to train, I went straight to the heavy bag without wrapping my hands and now I’m pretty sure I have a broken wrist.”
(Luckily, I don’t actually have a broken wrist. Just a sore wrist. A very, very sore wrist.)
“Wait, what did you say about your back?” Dad asked.
“I threw it out on the ab roller. The Monday before my DNF actually.”
“Maybe that and your IT band are related.”
DING DING DING!
Why didn’t I ever think of that? I should have known that. I should have known that!
“Oh yes, the two are definitely related.” said Dr. Jay. “When you strained your back, all the muscles around it tightened, pulling inwards, which pulled your hip upwards, rotating it into an abnormal position.”
With the rotated hip, the IT band got off track, and voila, after a few gentle miles I wanted to saw my own leg off. Thankfully, I won’t need to saw my own leg off.
In fact, Doc says after another adjustment or two, I should be back to normal. Seven to ten days should do it, which is fantastic news for humanity, considering I’ve been a moody bear without my regular training regimen to keep me centered.
But just in case I have any lingering ITB issues, I did buy some KT tape. I plan to start using it immediately, which finally offers me a legitimate excuse to experiment with shaving my legs.
When I close my eyes and venture back to the happy place of my youth, I am always outside. I’m exploring. I’m looking under rocks and following creeks and rallying my sisters to follow my lead.
Back then I knew, just as I know now, that there is something inherently special about doing something I’ve never done before. There’s something intoxicating about going someplace I’ve never been, about stepping out on that ledge to see the world from an entirely different point of view.
Running fits that natural call for adventure like no other activity, and the ultra distances set the stage for bigger, better and bolder treks. I’ve run miles and miles through enchanted forests. I’ve explored old farm roads, scaled mountainous switchbacks, cruised barren beaches and plucked through quiescent cityscapes. I’m a runner. I know no other purer form of joy.
And I like to cover distances on foot.
So on Friday, August 31st, at 1o p.m., I left my home on the south side of Chicago and ran. I ran with no other purpose but to explore, to have fun, to revel in the level of fitness I have that allows me to keep going and going and going. I ran north on Halsted, then east on Roosevelt. I shot up Michigan Avenue, taking in the lights, the sounds, the plumes of cigarette smoke from jetlagged tourists.
I turned left on Chicago Avenue, then right on Clark. I zoomed by Old Town, passed through Lincoln Park. I ran further north through Wrigleyville, marveling at the level of insecurity of the drunken hooligans giving me a hard time for my choice of activity for a Friday night. “It’s Friday night, dude, running is not necessary.”… “Run Forest Run!”… “What are you doing, dude? You’re crazy!”…
I just kept… running.
I ran by Wrigley Field, touched the Ernie Banks statue for good luck. I ran by my old house in Buena Park. The lights were off. Nobody home.
I passed the old Jewel I used to frequent, the liquor store where I used to buy my booze — both distant reminders that I didn’t always have super powers.
Heading west on Montrose I ran by the Brown Line station and the Starbucks and the Mexican restaurant where I tasted the best chorizo burrito I’ve ever had.
When I got to Lincoln I went back south. I looked at my watch. I picked up the pace.
At 1 a.m. I was to meet my friend, Siamak, just outside The Second City at North and Wells, so I sped up so I wouldn’t miss him. As I navigated my way through the pockets of drunken crowds along the way I noticed the stillness in the air, that it hadn’t rained as previously forecasted, that the blue moon hanging high above was blanketed by a beautifully savage cloud system.
“Jeff!” yelled Siamak.
We were both right on time. Early, actually.
Giddy as only adults who aren’t afraid to unleash their inner exploratory children can be, we caught each other up. We explained to one another how we got where we were, what sights we’d seen, what cat-calls we’d received. And then we kept running.
With CVS, Starbucks and multiple Walgreens as our “aid stations”, we were never without fuel. We ran south down LaSalle, through the Gold Coast and by the Viagra Triangle. We stopped and salivated at the Rolls Royce dealership, imagining what we’d look like tooling around town in a chrome colored $400k power machine. I got a tour of Siamak’s personal architectural projects further dotting the downtown area and soon we found ourselves running through the Loop — a Chitown staple — at its quietest and spookiest of hours.
By the time the bars were letting out we were all the way back south, heading west on Roosevelt, then south on Halsted. We ran through UIC, glided through Pilsen, then took a left on Archer, following the Chicago Marathon course all the way into Chinatown. Even with all the lights off and no patrons to speak of, Chinatown’s smells (the good, the bad and the rancid) still permeated the summer air.
Making our way through old Chinatown, we followed Wentworth all the way to 35th, tagging our second baseball stadium of the journey. “Do you realize how much of the city we’ve covered tonight?” I asked Siamak, still unable to fully conceive the relative distance compiled in my now very tired, achy feet.
“Yeah, this is really the existential run,” he replied. “I love it. The run is whatever we want it to be.”
When we hit Halsted from 35th, we headed back north, passing my house. And even though it was right there, calling my name with a warm shower and soft bed, we kept going.
And going, and going, and going.
We crossed the Chicago River (for the fifth time) and soon found ourselves at Randolph, where we turned west to explore the stillness of endless restaurant supply chains. At Ogden, having just run by a brewery whose massive casks seemed to beg me to drink from them, Siamak showed me another architectural project of his and then somehow I was ranting about Michael Jordan.
At Grand we headed back east, moving slowly with short walk breaks interspersed to mix up the otherwise steady 10-minute-miling. By 4:30 a.m., we reached Grand and Wells, where we would separate for the last hour and a half — giving us each time to decompress, to go back and find ourselves through the grandness of our night. With 34 miles in the bank, we fist-bumped and went our separate ways.
I headed further east until I got to State Street, then went south. I played with my speed. Slowing down. Speeding up. Quicker turnover. Elongated strides.
I knew that if I could get to Roosevelt by 5 a.m., then I could hit the Lakefront Path at Museum Campus and end my night with a familiar 5-mile stretch that I could probably do in my sleep. I almost did do it in my sleep!
At 5 a.m. on the dot I was standing outside the Shedd Aquarium, trying not to yawn. I took some caffeinated GU and stopped to stretch. I said “hello” and “good morning” to the handful of runners and bikers out early to train, then I put my head down and trucked.
Of course, I made sure to stop outside Soldier Field, to pay homage to DA BEARS and revel in the reality that in one evening alone I visited Wrigley Field, Sox Park AND Soldier Field! Not only that, but as I continued south on the Lakefront Path, a hint of sun peeking up over the black horizon, I realized that in this one run alone I pieced together most of my favorite landmarks Chicago has to offer.
In one epic, adventurous evening, I experienced my city like I’ve never experienced it before.
I hit the homestretch of 31st street — head down, speeding west.
When I got a block from my house the clocked turned to 6 a.m. The Chinese ladies were in McGuane Park waving their flags in rhythm. The sky was a gentle blue.
42 miles were in my feet.
I did it. I lived the adventure.
And it was simply awesome.
During U.S. Olympian Aly Raisman’s gold medal floor routine, NBC commentator Tim Daggett mentioned her unique ability to view the nervous energy associated with such daring gymnastics (something most of us call “pressure” or “anxiety”) into something much more performance enhancing. He called it “excitement”.
What a novel yet extraordinarily simple idea!
Embrace the nervousness, the anxiety, the pressure and transform it into something positive. Use it as a springboard for optimal performance. Face it. Take it. And run with it.
Digging deeper, I know that, for me, most of that pre-race energy comes from knowing the type of pain that will be involved. If you have ever raced a race, I mean, really put yourself out there, leaving nothing behind, then you know the type of pain I am talking about. It’s the type of pain dictated by the central governor, that annoyingly present theoretic portion of the brain that says, “Stop! Are you crazy? This is unnecessary!”
It’s also the type of pain that, when challenged and overridden, leads to bouts of ecstasy. That’s one of the reasons why I love racing. I love pushing myself beyond what I think I can do. Even in failure, I am guaranteed to experience something most people never will, a satisfying feat all by itself.
Overriding the central governor, attempting to accomplish extraordinary goals, I remind myself of Dave Terry’s wisdom as told by Scott Jurek: “Not all pain is significant.”
And just in case you don’t believe that, consider the fact that Jurek won the 2007 Hardrock 100 on a severely sprained ankle, or that Thomas Voeckler’s captivating Stage 10 victory at the 2012 Tour de France — the one that had him making all sorts of uncomfortable faces towards the end — was done despite a bum knee.
I know a thing or two about pain myself. Just look at my face as I crossed the finish line during my current marathon PR. That was a painful race, no doubt. But the pain has long subsided and all that is left is the purest joy I have ever come to know.
“Okay, that’s it,” said Alex, a young female tattoo artist in my neighborhood, “we’re all done.”
Wearily, I lifted my head from its face down position on the table, looked at her with disconcerting eyes and said, “What? Really?”
“Yeah. All done.”
I wanted to cry.
But I didn’t, because there were people around: Fong, the tattoo shop owner; his wife at the front desk; Eddy, the tattooist from Pamplona; and a bevy of cute Chinese girls giggling nervously about getting inked in uncomfortable places.
When I stood up from the table and saw my new arm for the first time — an arm that took 5 continuous hours of hardcore tattooing, after several weeks of artistic brainstorming and dedicated organic design, I had the same feeling I get after finishing a hard marathon or ultra distance race: complete ecstasy. And exhaustion.
(click to enlarge)
That actually happened? It did happen. And it hurt. A lot!
So how did I do it? How did I endure such consistent agony, minute by minute, for five hours? I conceited to the pain. I knew it was going to hurt. I welcomed the hurt. Physically, yes, I squeezed the shit out of a now bounceless tennis ball and I grit my teeth, taking deep, controlled breaths over and over again. But in my mind — where the real pain was festering — I acknowledged the discomfort, accepted it for what it was and invested in the idea that it wouldn’t last forever — that the fruits of such endurance would be so sweet for so long that it was absolutely worth it, an ideology in which I am well versed.
My exploration into the world of meditation has been aided by my passion for long distance running. I have been very open here about how the rhythm of the run puts my anxieties to rest, how it puts me in touch with my emotions, with my core self. Through it I have learned compassion. I have learned patience. And I have learned to be at peace.
By acknowledging the pain and suffering of my physical self, allowing it to draw my focus, I consciously decided to let it be. The 5-hour tattoo session with Alex was a monumental back and forth test of my ability to endure. There were times when my mind championed the physical discomfort — where a conversation with someone or the blasting musical force coming from my Audio Technicas was able to distract me from the agony. I closed my eyes and went somewhere else — somewhere far, far away: the volcanic mounds of Las Canarias, the shambled rocks of the Wild Wall, Santa Monica Beach at sunset.
To my surprise, those places appeared in my mind as real as I wanted them to be.
I found them through suffering.
It may sound silly, but I don’t care: when I toe up to the line of a race, I cease to be Jeff Lung, writer, hobby jogger, baseball fanatic.
Instead, I become A WARRIOR. A real, live warrior.
I push myself to the limits, to see what I am capable of, and I never take for granted the circumstances that led to my own self discovery.
Every race is a new challenge, a new journey, a new exploration of the guts and sinew and brains that make me who I am.
Sometimes it hurts, no doubt about that. But it will always feel good for so long after, forever and ever.
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If you’re in the Chi and looking for a good place to get a tattoo, check out Tattoo Union on Halsted. You won’t be disappointed!