How My Desire to Run Again Pushed Me to Walk

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I run because during that one brief interval, in a hectic world filled with responsibilities and worries, running turns off my thinking brain and allows it to roam free and float in the moment. When I run alone, as I mostly do (or did, and hope to again), I prefer to run the same route, because that way I’m familiar with every random tree root, metal grate and trail segment prone to mud or puddles, so I don’t have to think about being careful. At what pace? No idea and it doesn’t matter.

In that mental state, I absorb the world I too often forget — whether the beauty of the Capitol and the majesty of the Hudson River, or the smaller things, like the tinkling of the tacky carousel in front of the Smithsonian. And problems are solved seemingly out-of-the blue. The perfect sentence to start an article I’ve been struggling with. A birthday gift for a friend who has everything. How to resolve a sibling conflict. When I finish the three to four miles, I feel physically tired but emotionally energized — excited about plans now waiting to be activated.

The need to recapture that emotional sustenance running provides is what’s motivated me through months of tedious physical therapy and rehab.

Physical rehab from a head injury is the opposite of running’s mental freedom. You have to think every single time you plant your foot to walk and consciously strategize how to avoid a small root or rock on a sidewalk. Turn your head to observe the scenery, and it throws you off-balance.

You concentrate on each muscle group so that it learns to move properly again. It involves tens of thousands of repetitions to teach your brain a simple movement, and there are hundreds of muscles that need to relearn their proper roles. Even a walk along the beach isn’t freeing — it involves hard work and concentration: heel strike first, then roll to the ball of the foot. Pay attention to hip muscles and adjust to stabilize for the tilt of the sand and the tiny push of an arriving wavelet.

The good news is that the brain is miraculously pliable, often able to rewire its damaged circuits through intensive training — an ability called “neuroplasticity.” The bad news is that it’s a slow learner, nerves grow at 1 millimeter a day, and the brain takes time to search for workarounds to those circuits irreparably damaged. So healing can take years. My progress is slow but palpable, and I can’t know when or if it will stop.

Today, with care, I can walk (if a tiny bit awkwardly) at a normal speed. I can swim, drive and cook dinner. I can navigate stairs without clutching the banister. Most patients my age might be content. Not me. Being able to run again is my Mt. Everest. (And to all the doctors who’ve discouraged my running: Studies in the last decade have shown that running may actually be beneficial to knees, maybe even preventing degenerative arthritis.)