For a week I’ve been introducing progressively more challenging cardio machines toward the goal of running again. I’ve done as the concussion specialist instructed; first the exercise bike, then the elliptical, finally the treadmill. If I could do each for 20 minutes at a 120 bpm heart rate, he said it would be safe to try running again.
I would actually rather gouge my own eyes out than use any of that equipment, but I suck it up. If I’m afraid enough to go to a doctor, I’m afraid enough to comply with his instructions.
I had to test the bike twice; the first time I got anxious and started crying for no reason I understood. A few days I was exhausted or headachey and needed to rest. Today I finally test the treadmill. I drive to UNC Wellness Center, and phrases of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” ring through my mind;
“Your faith was strong, but you needed proof,
You saw her bathing on the roof,
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you,
She tied you to the kitchen chair,
She broke your throne and she cut your hair,
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah,
I walk in and up the stairs in my road running Vivos, last worn to run the NYC Marathon in November. A brisk walk around the track confirms that there is not a treadmill up here where it’s quiet. I’m pretty sure I will lose my shit if people are walking back and forth behind me on the treadmill; hyper-vigilance is tricky that way. But this is what’s standing between me and running, so I stalk across the main floor looking for a machine that might be tucked in some corner. Sure enough, in the quieter room to the side are a couple treadmills out in front of an unoccupied row of machines. I ought to be able to make this work.
I figure out how to set a timer and a heart rate monitor on the unfamiliar machine, and it starts slow. Annoyingly slow. I roll my eyes and jab at the plus sign until I’m moving at an acceptable pace. My heart rate reads 140 and the belt on the machine slows down. My pace is over 13 minutes per mile. I clench my teeth and groan with indignation. I’m heel striking. I hate this thing.
Three TVs line the wall in front of me; Rudy Giuliani, Judge Judy, and some house show. There are trees out the window, but I see the words “restraining order” on the closed captioning in the middle screen, which my gaze keeps wandering back to. I roll my eyes again. It’s been 6 minutes, and I’m still easily breathing through my nose. I’m not cursing the remaining 14 minutes with quite the vehemence the previous equipment inspired. I can do this. I look at a spot on the wall to check my vision; normal.
When I used the exercise bike and the elliptical, I felt bored and irritated. The movements were awkward–especially the bike. The treadmill isn’t a trail, it isn’t the track or the rutted, maniacally steep incline where I run hills. Nevertheless, my body is doing the thing it’s missed and it goes like a machine. I feel the familiar pull; faster. I hear the machine sounds and the thudding of my heels hitting the belt. I can do this all day long.
The timer counts down and the belt slows. The machine indicates I need a five minute walking cool down after 20 minutes at the pace I might run carrying another person. The machine is wrong. I step off and feel briefly disoriented. There’s a moment of worry, but I’m certain it’s from moving off the belt. I go upstairs and walk a couple laps around the track; and then I begin to run. It’s good, easy, and I cruise into a faster pace. I stop at a lap.
When I’ve finished and showered, I close my locker. I remember coming into this place for the first time on crutches. I had to sit to change my clothes. This may be my last time here; I pick up my purse and leave without looking back.
In the car, I think about when I can go to the trail. I think about Greg McMillan’s training plan for athletes recovering from injury and how I’ll spend the next two training cycles doing no track work, no hill repeats, no Saturday morning long run. My weekly mileage is unlikely to add up to even twenty. But I’ll be running. Before I put the car in reverse I start the Pentatonix’ version of Hallelujah, and I sing along. Juxtaposed against their smooth, studio-recorded harmony my voice is raw and full of emotion. I high belt the chorus with tears streaming down my cheeks, and then I don’t sound nice at all, but I get it out;
“I used to live alone before I knew you,
And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
And love is not a victory march,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah,
Well maybe there’s a god above,
But all I’ve ever learned from love,
Was how to shoot [at] somebody who outdrew you,
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night,
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,
I will run on Saturday morning; it’s something.