Slowing down, seeing more

April 10, 2011|By Mike McGrew

Four miles, four times a week. For almost 40 years, I was hooked on the exhilaration, perspiration and relaxation of running. Despite knee and gout flare-ups that repeatedly suspended my regimen, I'd always return to the trail ASAP.

Then, several summers ago, I severed my hamstring water-skiing after an extra-long run and hobbled through autumn. I was just beginning to jog that winter when I was diagnosed with three abdominal aneurysms. Following stent implantation surgery, I spent another six months champing at the bit.

I was cleared to walk as much as I wanted and pushed myself vigorously. In three months, I worked up to three much slower miles, five times a week. Surely this was just a prelude to running again, I thought, longing for the day I could sweat like a horse again.

I slowly attempted to jog but soon underwent another unexpected surgery to remove two clots from my leg. The surgeon pronounced my fate: No more running! The risks just weren't worth it. Resentful and defeated, I bid goodbye to my running high.

A month into my spring recovery, I began experimenting with a new regimen — alternating walking with elliptical work. Fortunately, the elliptical elicited more perspiration, as did power walking during the day. I posted faster times and longer distances, but it still didn't feel right.

I used to make fun of races on TV involving "professional" walkers sporting tight shorts, swishing their hips and flailing their appendages. "You'll never see me doing that!" I'd tell my wife.

Fortunately, I learned that I don't need to shake and shimmy to walk swiftly. I just quickly pick up my 6-foot-5 guy stride with a bit of arm action. I now walk in most any weather, at any time, on any course. I'm far from pretty lumbering along park trails, but that's perfectly fine. I wasn't a pretty runner either.

Over time, my attitude toward and awareness during power walks expanded, and my longing for a sweaty run slowly dissipated. In fact, I have discovered many unexpected advantages from walking.

While I'll never match my running speed, I am able to maintain 15-minute miles while happily musing, meditating or appreciating changes in weather and nature too subtle to be discerned at a faster pace. I'm also more aware of animals and children frolicking in the park. I now reflect on my work, my writing and my personal relationships more than I did as a runner.

Walking has many conveniences, too. No changing into running apparel, waiting for meals to digest, or (usually) showering afterward is required. There is much less chance of stumbling, and consequently less need to monitor the ground. More time to enjoy the environment, converse by phone, or even communicate directly with my wife, who occasionally joins me halfway.

Today, I worry much less about muscle pulls, knee swelling, shin splints and swollen ankles. It's much easier for me to stretch and recover. I'm also more comfortable during winter in my waterproof boots and parka than I ever was in Nike gear.

Plus, now that I've built up my speed, I feel more refreshed afterward than I ever anticipated. Granted, it's not a dripping runner's high — but it is a revitalizing sense of calm and connectedness to the natural world and my own inner state.

Sometimes, it's even more. This winter, I enjoyed a four-mile hike in a blizzard that I would never have been able to complete while running. I felt truly exhilarated as lightning lit my path and snow pummeled me during the bizarre storm.

Maybe my stage in life also influences my appraisal of walking. I now tune in to the environment more intensely. I notice the sun and moon and sky and better appreciate simple things like sunsets, flowers and breezes.

As a grandfather, I've forsaken the frenetic pace I maintained when I experienced heavier family and work demands. I'm also increasingly conscious of my limitations and the long-term wear and tear that accompanies repetitive pavement pounding.

Fortunately, my transformation into a walker has resulted in no weight or cholesterol gains, knee or ankle sprains — and, critically, no further clots or aneurysms. I thus feel able to maintain my current regimen indefinitely and much more regularly.

My runs are done, and I'm finally OK with that. In fact, I invite all the able-bodied to join me as spring springs itself forth.

Long live the walk!

Mike McGrew is a school psychologist from Carroll County. His e-mail is mcgrewclark@hotmail.com.

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