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

Sat, 18 Nov 2006 05:59:45 -0500

Bump in the Road


Life happens while we're making plans to do something else. One minute she looked up a clear road stretching far into a future filled with exciting possibilities. The next instant an unseen obstacle crashed her hopes and dreams.

Sandy Itzkowitz is a special-education teacher in Eugene, Oregon. She's also a dancer and a walker-turned-runner-turned-marathoner and ultrarunner.

Last winter, before running her first marathon at Napa Valley, she trained with the team that I coach. She came within two minutes of qualifying for Boston, without knowing the time she needed to run for her age (52).

I saw little of Sandy after that. She was training for a 50K, which she finished in September.

Three weeks later she called me on the eve of the Portland Marathon. "I hear there are still a few spots available for tomorrow's marathon," she said. "Do you think I should run it?"

My answer was evasive. "You've certainly done the long runs. You decide if you're recovered enough from the 50K."

She said she was. The team DVD from the marathon opens with her photo, lighting up the gloomy early morning with her smile before the start.

Sandy ran 3:59 that day, punching her ticket to Boston and now knowing what a big deal that is. This was one of her proudest days.

Her worst came 13 days later, when her life and plans changed in an instant. She went for a bike ride. The day was bright, the road seemed clear, and no cars threatened her.

No one knows exactly what happened. Apparently she hit a pothole, flew over the handlebars and landed on her head (helmeted, or we might be talking about her in the past tense).

She woke up on the road, looking into a woman's face. "You look like an angel," she said. It happened to be another runner from our team, another recent Boston qualifier named Sarah McCarthy, who was walking in the area.

The first medical report sounded grim. Sandy could feel nothing from the chest down.

The news improved, some, in the first few days. Her spine hadn't been damaged, and surgery had relieved the pressure from it. Some feeling had returned, but doctors warned that they might not know for months how far back she could climb.

Sandy started climbing -- with strength, stamina and spirit that amazed the therapists who deal with such cases all the time. She graduated quickly from the ICU, to her own hospital room, to the rehab wing.

I visited her there on the sixth day after the accident, taking along my handicapped daughter Leslie as a stand-in for Sandy's students (who hadn't yet been able to see her). Her room was empty.

A nurse told us, "She's in the dining room having her first meal there." We found her sitting at a table in a wheelchair, her back and neck so stiffly braced that she couldn't turn to see us.

Other than the brace, the only visible sign of an injury was an abraded cheek. She looked tired and red-eyed, but her smile was sincere and serene.

We'd been warned not to wear Sandy out, to stay no more than 15 minutes. Lifting the fork to her mouth appeared to be more tiring than talking with us, so we overstayed the limit.

"My fingers still tingle," she said. "It's as if they fell asleep and are just starting to wake up." She added that some feeling had also returned to her legs.

That day she'd been placed on the parallel bars and told to take as many steps as she could manage. "I made six," she said. "It was the happiest day of my life."

Sandy knew then that she hadn't lost everything. As Leslie and I were leaving her that evening, her parting comment was, "I WILL run Boston, but in 2008 instead of next spring."

Life had dealt her a big detour. Now she had started working her away around this obstacle and back in the direction of her original destination.


At first Sandy measured her progress in steps, then in feet, then in laps around the hallways. As I post this page, five weeks after the accident, she still was a long way from taking her next running step.

But she could walk unsupported, go up and down steps, and visit a warm-water swimming pool. She moved back home from the hospital in time for Thanksgiving.
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