July 21st, 2011



My track coach was one of those terrifying people who was always telling you to “run through the pain.” This was the late 90’s, when “No Fear” T-shirts and Nike slogans had taken over and people became fond of sayings like “Pain is weakness leaving the body” and “Second Place is the First Loser,” and no one was more fond of these sayings than high school track coaches, who regularly dispensed any wisdom that would keep us running—anything to keep us moving forward.

And I had never been particularly athletic, although the pain inflicted on my body during track practice was nothing compared to the pain of trying out for another sports team—soccer or basketball or lacrosse—and not making it. Or the pain of making it and feeling alone because you were not really friends with any of the girls on those teams. Knowing that no one wanted to pass you the ball because you were awkward and clingy and all your clothes were from Marshalls. But anyone who wanted to be on the track team could be on the track team and the only requirement was that you not stop running.

Looking back, I realize that I was a terrible runner because I was afraid of the gun. I would be crouched in the starting position, one knee bent, the tips of my fingers bearing my weight on the clay-colored polyurethane surface of the track. If you are a good runner or a competitive person, the anticipation of the gunshot should fire you up—there should be an eagerness in your muscles, each of them anxious to fling you forward like a rubber band at the sound of the shot, your body flying around the track like a test tube in a centrifuge. This is never what I felt. Each time I crouched, waiting for the gun and each time the thoughts that ran through my head were, “It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be really loud and where the hell is it? Why the hell haven’t they shot the gun already?” And my heart would begin pounding and immediately I would think something like, “Why am I doing this? Maybe I should join the Drama club,” and suddenly the gun would go off, reverberating through my ears, and I would think, “Shit!” and start running.

When you are actually running is maybe the least stressful part of being at a track meet. You are not quivering, waiting for a gunshot. You are not sitting alone on the bleachers reading a book, wishing you were sitting with the large group of girls on the side lawn who are all talking and sharing water bottles. You are not last-minute studying for a test you are almost positive you will fail, poring over your poorly-taken notes that you have thrown into your bookbag and dragged to the track meet. You are running, which is the only part of track I ever loved. You are running and the people in the bleachers, whoever they are, are all screaming. And most of them are probably not screaming for you, but it doesn’t matter, really. Screaming is screaming and the sound of people screaming energizes you. And your coach, wherever the hell he is, is yelling at each of his runners to run through the pain.

You are running through it as best you can. And you don’t know at the time that the pain is nothing compared to the types of pain you’ll encounter in your future—you have decades ahead of you in which you will be rejected by people you care for and will not be chosen for things that you have set your heart on. You will be lonely at times, which is incredibly painful. Nobody really tells you that—I’m not sure why. You will lose people you love and hurt so badly you will wish you had some sort of physical pain—a severed arm—so that people could see how much you are suffering. The pain of running is nothing compared to those things, but it is pain and you cannot stop running because of it.

My least favorite event in track and field is the 400 meters because it is too long to sprint but too short to be a long distance run. You pound the track for 300 meters, pulling yourself through the ether with everything you have in you until you have nothing left and have an additional 100 meters between you and the finish line. And for that 100 meters it is not so much up to you as it is up to your legs which will either collapse beneath you like coiled rope or will somehow ferry you down the final stretch. And so now, after telling you that that is my least favorite event, I will tell you that the event that I like LESS than the 400 meters is the 600 meters, which is one of the events during winter track.

You join winter track for one of two reasons: either you are a promising track and field star (this in no way applied to me) or you want to play a winter sport and are terrible at basketball. Or maybe, more than your wanting to play a winter sport, you are joining it because you want to do something and you have no idea what you are good at yet. You want to be a part of a group and have no idea what group will take you in. That is another type of pain that you have identified and are running through until you can figure out how to make it go away. You are not really good at anything. You know that you do not want to go home every day after school and sit on your bed reading The World According to Garp over and over again. You cannot join the chess team because you are mediocre at chess. You cannot join the math club because you are horrific at math. All high school clubs seem to have been designed for people who are either brilliant or athletic.

You crouch for the 600 meters, your fingers pushing against the firmer floor of the indoor, winter track. You wait for the gun—the stupid gun that you hate because almost nothing in life begins that abruptly—and you are running. You are pulling yourself forward with the muscles in your legs and you feel a little flicker of something in your hip that you have never felt before. You are running through the pain because that is what your coach has asked of you so at least you can do that. You will never be the fastest or jump the highest or astound anyone with amazing feats of endurance, but the running through the pain thing you can do. It will not prepare you for success, necessarily, but it will prepare you for life.

You feel the flutter again but you are 400 meters through and throwing yourself forward with any remaining energy and that is when suddenly you feel something snap. And I don’t mean that in a figurative way, in that you felt something inside you snap and suddenly you realized your innate self-worth. You feel something inside you snap—something physically snaps-- and suddenly you are filled with the worst pain you have felt in your life. It is not the pain of running, it is the pain of something going horribly, horribly wrong. You note that for some reason you can no longer move your right leg. But everyone is screaming and you are supposed to keep running, so you throw your left leg forward and drag your right leg behind you, repeating this motion several times. Everyone who was not already ahead of you has now lapped you and you are thinking, “Run through the pain, dammit!” So you are tossing out your left leg, dragging your limp right leg as if it were a large animal you had killed and were bringing back to camp. Also, tears are streaming down your face because you have never felt anything this painful. And it is at that point that two seniors run off the sidelines and grab you—and say, “Are you ok? What happened? What are you doing?” They put their necks underneath each of your arms and help to carry you off to the sidelines.

The doctor will tell you later that it is an avulsion fracture—a break that occurs when a fragment of bone tears away from the main mass of bone—in this case in your hip. The bone pulled apart at the tendon, due to a muscular contraction that was stronger that the forces holding the bone together.

There are certain types of pain you should run through and certain types you should not and it will almost always be up to you to decide which is which. You will have to interpret when to stop and when you should keep going. If you are tired, keep running. If part of your bone breaks off, you should usually stop. And if you are going through the most common sort of pain found in high schools—the pain of not really feeling like you belong anywhere—then you should definitely not stop. Keep going at all costs and do not stop moving until you have found a group where you do not seem so completely out of place. Do not sit and rest somewhere where you are fundamentally unhappy and where you have nothing to offer.

After the diagnosis I lay in bed, resting the fracture for a full week and then spent the next few weeks on crutches. The doctor told me there was no way the break would be healed in time for me to join the track team again in the spring. I nodded and thanked him for his advice. That spring, after ascertaining that it did not involve a starting gun, I joined the Drama Club. I remained in the club for the final two years of high school. It was very enjoyable.