My last run

Here’s a picture of my last run.

I don’t mean last as in most recent. I mean last in my lifetime. What I thought was a groin pull a few years ago turns out to have been hip osteoarthritis.

So that sucks. It isn’t life-threatening. I am OK and will be better. It’s not breast cancer, or macular degeneration, or any number of worse things that friends and family have suffered through. I get that. But it’s going to be a hell of an adjustment for me. I’m an active person. I was always planning to be that guy who does mini-triathlons into his 80s. Turns out that wasn’t in the cards.

There’s a tendency to blame yourself. If only I hadn’t been a runner all those years. Or maybe if I hadn’t been a gymnast before that, and landed hard a bunch of times. But the orthopedic surgeon who will repair me, at some point, said no. It’s not your fault. Plenty of people run in their 80s. Some gene now being expressed says you’re not one of them.

I guess the strangest part of the experience is that I never located the problem in my hip. Or, actually, in both of them. Hip osteoarthritis can manifest as groin pain, so that’s what I told myself was happening — and only on the right side. Yeah, it shouldn’t go on for 3 years. Yeah, your quads shouldn’t hurt like hell after a run or a long hike. Yeah, you shouldn’t dramatically lose range of motion in your legs. Yeah, it shouldn’t keep you up at night.

But the brain is powerful. It enabled me to believe, for several years, that this was just one of those soft-tissue injuries I’ve worked through in the past. With stretching, and the right kind of exercise, I’d get through it, just like I always have.

Then I went to see Luann’s physical therapist and he leveled with me. This was 99% certain to be osteoarthritis. There was no other explanation for my symptoms. I feel bad for the PT because I went kinda ballistic on him. I knew he was right, and I started cursing like a sailor because I knew what it meant.

And suddenly things felt different. I began to visualize what was going on in my joints, and my subjective experience began to shift. A week later the orthopedic surgeon showed me the X-rays and that really clinched it. The balls in both of my ball-and-socket joints are deformed, it’ll get worse until I cry uncle and replace them. I’m feeling that now in a way I was denying for years.

The good news is that we live in a time when that’s possible. And that hips are way easier than knees. (Luann already replaced one, may face another.) And that we have health insurance. And that we’ve moved to a place where cycling — my best exercise at this point — is a year-round activity.

I don’t know if I’ll pull the trigger in a year, or two, or five. I’m guessing not longer than that. I took a 2-hour hike yesterday and I’m really feeling it today. That’ll only get worse. When they fix me I should be fine doing things like that.

But no more running, ever. I’ll adjust. But it’s hard to let go. And it’s hard to explain to Tuck. We brought him home in 2009, he was our first dog ever, and he got the job because he was the best of his siblings at running alongside me. Now he looks at me and wonders why we don’t do that anymore. Sorry, pal. Really wish we could.

17 Comments

  1. Wow. I can’t imagine losing running. I am sorry you have to. I hope that you find a much joy in cycling and that you can do so well into your 80’s

    Good luck

  2. Oh Jon, I’m so sorry. I know running was a big part of your life. I’m thinking back on all the times you were waiting for your knee/leg/something to heal so you could get back to running. Not just waiting, but trying to figure out what you *could* do. In addition to cycling, I assume that swimming is still OK? I miss you, brother.

  3. For years the big diseases of aging were cardiovascular, primarily coronary artery disease. Men (especially) died suddenly or were disabled. At the funeral, people whispered, “It was his heart.” Today, not so much. Diet, drugs and demonizing smokes have made a difference.

    Today I know more and more people who have a bad orthopedic gene or break something big when they trip over a throw rug. The good news is that the wondrous mechanics of orthopedic surgery and artificial joints can fix a lot of things. The most frequent comment I hear after surgery is, “I wish I’d had this done years ago.”

    If I had to give up running I think I’d try swimming.

  4. So sorry to hear it, Jon. I hope that your surgery (when you’re ready) goes well, and that cycling and hiking continue to be something that you can enjoy. I understand how much running meant to you, though, so I can empathize. I’m hoping it never happens to me, but I’ve started looking at cycling myself as an alternative activity, just in case.

  5. Hi Jon: I was in a similar situation about 10 years ago, and gave up hiking due to the pain. One of my friends talked me into doing a hip resurfacing instead of a THR (Total Hip Replacement). The results have been spectacular: I hike wherever I want, play handball (in Petaluma) and ride in Sonoma County bike events every year. The last time I had any pain was the night before surgery. I was 60 when I had the surgery, and am now 68. I know others who are running post surgery without pain. Since we live in fairly close proximity, I would be happy to meet you in person and give you the long story. My surgeon: Dr. Harlan Amstutz. His organization:
    http://http://www.jri-docs.com/hip-resurfacing-replacement/hip-resurfacing/

    1. “I know others who are running post surgery without pain.” Really? Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that. The first guy I saw seemed quite certain that’s not an option in my case, but this is certainly the kind of decision that will benefit from more data. Thanks!

  6. Sorry to hear that Jon. My mom, grandmother, and father all had the same thing. They all got hip replacements. It literally changed their lives. I remember when I was in high school my mom could hardly walk around. I thought of her as old and decrepit. (she was much younger than I am now. :) ) Now she’s 85 and walks 2 miles three times a week. So…

    1. Thanks Phil. Time to quit whining and celebrate the miracle of 21st-century technology!

      (You’re roughly my age I think. You’re mom’s been going 30 years on the same hardware?)

  7. Jon – the technology is so much better than it was 20, even 10 years ago. I first started looking at it when I got interested in a company called Biomet, which built replacement joints. But yeah, if you heal well and stay active, you’ll likely get decades out of this thing.

    Don’t be surprised (or abuse the PT) if healing/re-strengthening takes longer than you think it will or than the doc tells you it will. As an athletic guy, you’re much more aware of your body than most people are, and you’ll be able to feel “not all the way back yet” much more acutely than most. (I remember not feeling like I was even on both sides for a year after arthroscopic knee surgery.) But it helps to focus on what you can do throughout rehab and see it as an opportunity to become fit in ways you haven’t been before. When I had a mystery back injury 15 years or so ago, and couldn’t run for a couple of years or lift weights, I wound up doing a lot of yoga and then — magic — pilates. There’s no way I’d have tried that before, but it radically changed my sense of my own body and how I defined “fit”, also helped the back problem a lot. Same thing happened 20 years before that, when I went through my last growth spurt while running a lot on concrete in old 80s-tech shoes, and gave myself stress fractures. I wound up teaching aerobics because it was one of the few places where I could jump around — the aerobics rooms in those days had wrestling-mat floors. And after I had a kid, and couldn’t leave the house to exercise because I had no money for non-work-related childcare, I got some of those P90X videos and found out that I could in fact have serious upper-body strength.

    At this point I run a lot less than I used to, and my pace has dropped, too. I haven’t raced in a couple of years. And I bike less, even though I used to be a big bike commuter; I know my eyes and reflexes aren’t what they used to be, and that it’s a bad delusion, the feeling you get on a bike that you’re 14 — I don’t want a broken collarbone out of it, or a broken wrist. I’ll be 50 in a few years, and my goal is, I suppose, fluidity and strength for as long as I can have them. Easy and strong motion in whatever direction I want to move, enjoyment of motion, fitness and stamina. While none of that sounds terribly exciting, I’ve also more or less forgotten what it’s like to go around with chronic injuries.

    Good luck with the surgery — you’ll delight the surgeons, they love healthy patients. And, though I’m sorry about what it sounds like you’ve left behind, I hope this new phase of your life turns out to be interesting and enjoyable.

    1. Thanks Amy. It’s funny how things come around. I was never a runner until I quit gymnastics, which was my passion in high school and halfway through college until I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a student and an NCAA athlete both and chose the former. When I left the sport I asked a grad student who’d been on the team a few years before what it felt like to be an ex-gymnast. He said: “Imagine you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts.” Which got my attention, because everything did hurt. On the flip side, though, my first role model for lifelong fitness was this guy: https://blog.jonudell.net/2015/03/15/remembering-bob-stout/. Among others he showed me that strength and fluidity are possible at all ages. And you remind me that what I neglected in pursuit of distance-running endorphins is available to rediscover.

  8. This brought tears to my eyes. Some one gave me the link to your post because I am going through the same thing. I am an otherwise very healthy 32 year old female. I had hip surgery last year for FAI and a labral tear and was told I could get back to running. My goal at that time was a particular half marathon and given the surgery I actually did well. I was so hopeful. But the pain in my other hip was awful, nagging. I had the same surgery and expected the same outcome and “okay” from the doctor to run. Last Monday he told me the arthritis was so bad in less than 10 years I’m looking at a hip replacement. My husband and I are PTs. I know what this means. I held it together in his office and absolutely lost it once I got to my car.
    I sobbed all night. Running is my life, my outlet. I had so many goals. I’ve only done one marathon for God’s sake. But I also told my surgeon I had already signed up for my favorite half marathon (yes at my 6 week post-op visit! Haha) he said make that your retirement run. So that’s what I will do. Right now I can’t even start training. Not till week 12. But your last run makes me sad and it makes me smile. I know at 32 years old a hip replacement is inevitable. But I also know given what I do for a living I do NOT want one at 40. Thank you SO much for sharing this. I really felt like I was the only one going through this. My friends don’t understand my obsession with running as it is. The “I told you so” comments have already started.

    I wish you the best. I’ve been Aqua jogging. It’s kicking my butt. :)
    Best wishes,
    Daphne in Georgia

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