Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 17 Nov 2002 21:23:05 -0500

To Hell and Back


A longtime runner's deepest fear is that an injury will end all running forever. Over the past year Tim Zbikowski descended into that hell. He chose not to accept that destination as final.

Tim began racing in high school, and continued at the University of Minnesota and well beyond. By his late 40s a hip joint had worn down to the point where he couldn't run without pain. He would need hip-replacement surgery someday if he was to have any active years ahead.

Tim didn't ask or expect me to tell his story. He told it to me as therapy, then agreed to let me share it "if it will help others with similar conditions."

"I finally had to bite the bullet this past week and go ahead with a total hip replacement," he told me in August. He trained for the operation as if it were a big race, including crutch-walking practice.

"I went into this in the best condition I could. My weight at age 50 was down to two pounds over my college racing weight, I was eating properly, and running and biking as much as my hip would allow."

He ran two miles the morning of surgery. I can say, from once running the day of foot surgery, that he didn't do this just to help himself relax. It was also a good-bye (and maybe good riddance) to part of himself, and a good-bye for now (if not forever) to running.

Four tales from the hospital tell that the staff wasn't dealing with a typical patient:

-- "I was given a pen to mark an 'X' on the hip for replacement. For good measure I also used the pen to write on my right hip in large block letters 'NOT THIS ONE!' "

-- "They intended to place me on a roller bed and wheel me to the operating room. I asked if it was okay to walk instead. The nurse said, 'Sure, but in 25 years I've never seen anyone walk to a hip-replacement operating room.' "

-- "I asked the surgeon to see the removed bone. He showed it to me, described the deep grove I had worn in it and said there was almost no cartilage remaining. Seems I wore it out as much as reasonably possible prior to the surgery."

-- "When I began physical therapy the next day, the nurses lifted my leg out of the bed. They kept asking if I was in pain, and my reply was, 'No worse than before the surgery.' "

By the end of that same week Tim felt good enough to attend an alumni race at his old high school. He felt "excited and hopeful there would be short runs in my future."

That future came sooner than he could have hoped. Less than three months post-op, he wasn't just running but racing.

He wrote to tell me, "I competed in a 5K cross-country race that ranks as one of my most satisfying in a 35-year running career.

"Prior to the race I'd run a total of 32 miles since my operation in August. To be safe and ease a bit of impact on my new hip, I ran with ski poles on the frosty, hilly course. For a mental boost, I pitched the ski poles the last 150 yards and sprinted to the finish."

The time of 25 minutes may have been his slowest ever. But times had taken on a whole new meaning.

Tim's letter ended with, "I love this sport!" You never love it more than after you almost lose it.

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