Three years I have been deciding. Deciding if I want to believe the doctors, deciding if the pain is in my head, deciding what treatments to pursue, and deciding over and over again. All these decisions lead to dead ends. I am left with no more then I had at the start. My body has been compromising and compensating, and over time my mind has adopted the practice. My life now reflects this process of deterioration, I am a shell of my former self. This is my last futile attempt at deciding. Today on a dreary Sunday I have decided to take my life back and no longer let the pain get the better of me.
I was a lifelong athlete, I ended my college lacrosse career without ever enduring any major injuries. I joined the United States Army National Guard after college graduation as an officer candidate, and served two years before my life was changed forever.
I had never liked running. Basic training changed that rather quickly. By the end of the 65 days of basic I had trimmed 2 entire minutes off my two mile time. While at home between training sessions I started trail running. I don’t know if I can classify a bike path and stretches of beach as trail running but that was the closest thing Down in south jersey. It became a uphoric release, even the dull process of getting ready to run gave me a rush. Even now I still can’t describe the anticipation as I stepped out into the brisk salty October wind that first night. That anticipation would never die down inside me, only grow more with the years without running. When I look back now it seems those months of running were a dream. Ten miles then felt like a warm up and now I could barely last ten minutes. I know by now you are waiting for me to describe a dramatic event ending in a traumatic injury, however, there was no singular event.
My running group had signed up for a 26.2 trail run up the treacherous terrain of New York’s Bear Mountain that year. My monthly officer training was becoming physically intense, matching up perfectly with my running routine. My individual times were improving dramatically that month. I had just ran my first ever half marathon, not in an actual race, just by myself on a random Tuesday in January at midnight. I had managed nine minutes a mile through the whole run. The end of that week I had army training and was looking forward to showing up my all male class (I was the only female left out of 30 who never made it past the first 2 weeks of the 18 month program). As the weekend approached I felt that I was in the best shape of my life, nothing seemed to bring me down, not even the snowy three hour drive to my base in central PA. The first night was uneventful, the overall vibe of my class and our commanding officers reflected the impending doom that the 0500 hour of the next morning held. I think back to that night as I lay alone in my room tossing on my cot, and I can still feel the change happen. It was if the world began spinning the opposite way, and for me it had.
A ruck for our training purpose was a 7 mile trek in full battle gear up the mountain ridge of the east part of Harrisburg. My biggest complaint about being a 5’3 115lb female in the army is not that we are expected to do the same tasks as a 6’2 260lb male, but the fact that my equipment is made to fit the latter. Obviously I did not voice this opinion, but it would prove to be the reason for the end of my career in the army and the end of my ability to run. 0430 we were all dressed and standing in formation sweating under our gear and equipment despite the frosty below freezing January temperature. They weighed each of our ruck sacks (large back pack) making sure the required 50lbs were reached. We then all attempted to pick up the ruck sacks and place it on our backs. This task was difficult for me not because of the weight but because of my oversized Kevlar vest. Finally I was able to maneuver the excess material from the vest and get the pack on. I began to tighten the strap that went around my waist, the strap that would protect the back from injury. The ruck was clearly made for a much broader individual with a wider waist. The tightest I could pull it through was still pretty loose. One of the commanding officers said it was the most important part of the ruck sack, it had to be tight, so he offered to pull the strap tighter. He managed to get it a little bit tighter and proceeded to tighten the shoulder straps which clearly were too big as well. And then BAM! The shoulder strap resisted his tugging and snapped right off of an army issued ruck. Unsure of what to do and with the march now starting the commanding officers instructed me to start the ruck. I held the strap tightly with both hands as I marched down the mountain, struggling to hold my rifle and strap at the same time. Two miles in and my right hand had begun to blister, finally after three miles the officer humvee rolled up beside me. My left side of my lower back was aching from the weight being proportioned to that side, my right hamstring was also beginning to nag with a deep dull pain. Relieved I stumbled over preparing to take off my pack and throw the new one on. The officer stopped me before I could take it off, informing me that the storage barrack was closed until 0900 and there was no way to get me a new pack. He pulled out 550 cord and duct tape, the rigging process took him well over 40 minutes. Now well behind my peers, ill-equipped, and dangerously behind on time I would have to literally will myself to finish the ruck. The required time was 3 hours to complete the 7 miles, which I calculated I would need to run the remaining 2 miles if I wanted to finish. My shoulder strap had loosened again, the duct tape hanging off, unfortunately unable to hold the weight. I could see the training sergeant making his way downhill toward me, blistered and sore I started running at him. I could see that he was upset about my situation as he made his way down, yet as he watched me run those 60 yards, the pity in his eyes turned to admiration. “Steel! Are you planning to run the last leg of this ruck? ” he asked as I reached him. “Officer candidate Steel yes sergeant!” I began running another stretch this time uphill my back screaming from my efforts. “Steel, even with running this you will be cutting the mark close, are you aware of that? Do you still wish to continue? ” he attempted to reason with me walking on my right side. “Officer candidate Steel will make the mark sergeant!” I yelled with weaning energy. I ran the remaining 2 miles and made the 3hr mark by 16 seconds. Deciding to run…
Being proud and never badly injured before, I perceived my back and leg pain as just soreness. Once home I did some yoga and stretching, feeling decent I was ready to resume marathon training. I remember the “bridge run” as if I had run it this morning. My running group wanted to fit in a 13 mile run that week as our long run. However, living below sea level is not the ideal place to train for a high altitude trail run. We decided we wanted to have our running route include the connecting three island bridges. We mapped out a course that would take us over and back over all three bridges for a total of 13.4 miles. Factoring in all of our work schedules and the time needed for the run we came to the conclusion that 3am was the only time to fit it in. This time was still going to cut it close for my early morning waitress shift. Honestly the first few steps foreshadowed the entire run for me. My back was so tight that I could feel my hips being pulled forward, that dull hamstring pain that had not subsided since it started during the ruck became increasingly sharper. The 13.4 miles were tortuous. I finished the run went to work and completed my day hobbling around with intense soreness. I woke up the next day feeling refreshed, the pain was a distant memory. My running group had scheduled a light 5 mile run to loosen up our bodies. I began the run in high spirits, the end of the first mile would be my last for 4 months. I felt both legs tighten, I couldn’t get in stride, as I started to walk the pain filled my body causing me to limp home without my group.
The doctor said it was a hamstring strain, that was the first of many diagnoses. After 4 months of physical therapy I was still unable to run without pain. I completed my last ruck for the army a ten mile ruck with a pack that did not have a broken strap. Despite not having trained for 4 months my pride got the best of me in New York and I ran the marathon (I will write about this in another entry). The pain increased, disk and nerve issues were found through tests, and according to the best back doctor in south jersey I would never run or do anything physical for that matter again without pain. The treatment he suggested would be back surgery. At 25 that was a little too much to handle. Eventually my injury prevented me from commissioning, and since there was no way to prove the ruck incident was the origin of my injury I was honorably discharged but with out medical assistance. After multiple different treatments, thousands of dollars spent, twenty pounds gained, and 3 years without running a single mile I am in the same pain to the same degree as I was that morning after the ruck.
Today I have decided. I will not let this pain control me. I will not get surgery. I am deciding to live better. I am deciding to run…