by Dante Zappala

Thursday morning felt like Christmas. I woke up with eager anticipation, curious about what Santa had left me. The first step out of bed would tell me if I’d been gifted a BB gun or a stocking full of coal.

The night before, I did my first track workout in six weeks. It was my second run of the day, giving me a total of 12 miles. It marked five straight days of running. I was either going to be surprisingly free of pain in my back or I was going to discover I had screwed myself up all over again.

In my case, it wasn’t exactly a straw that broke the camel’s back. It may have been a paint brush bristle. Or maybe it was that extra mile. Something destroyed my spine in a way I have never experienced. It came at a time when I was in a peak training period of mileage and intensity while also doing a renovation project that required heavy lifting and body contortions. My body was weak and vulnerable, which is always when bad things happen.

For weeks, I could not take a first step without significant pain. I saw doctors, got acupuncture, and started physical therapy. I went from wanting to run again to simply wanting to walk.

Not running for a few weeks was illuminating. I realized how spiteful and jealous I am at heart. Every time I would see a person running, my first instinct was to curse them for their good fortune.

When they removed one lane barrier from the pool at Fitlife, it opened up another 50 square feet for me to do my Aqua Jogging, effectively doubling the amount of room I had to roam. I imagined this is what Magellan must have felt like with nothing but open seas ahead of him.

I fully restored my glycogen supplies, which erased the constant state of light-headedness I had taken to be normal. Slowly, I became a civilian again. The urges to run subsided. My metabolism slowed down and my standing heart rate went up. I gained a few pounds. I became rather normal.

I had been training for the New York City Marathon. I was invited to run and compete in the elite Masters field; a perfect confluence of hitting 40 and being in the best running shape of my life. In my exuberance, I did a double one day that included 13 miles at marathon pace in the morning and five more at night. All told, with warm-ups and cool downs, it was a 27 mile day. In between I painted a few rooms and afterwards I put on dress shoes and went to a party. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end.

I drafted an email to withdraw from the marathon. I rewrote it a hundred times but ultimately, I never had the heart to send it. I finally contacted the person up there who was setting me up and told him of my situation. He said if I could run half of it, it would be worth my while. The wheels were already in motion, after all.

That’s what brought me to this test run on the track, which was certainly premature in the recovery stage. I wanted to know how out of shape I was. And I still wanted to run in New York, though it was only four days away.

The question is why. I broke myself getting ready for the race. I might break myself again just so I can drop out of it halfway. Part of it was being star struck. I got a spreadsheet that outlined the elite runners’ fluid tables where each athlete has his own bottle every 5k. I was assigned to table 3, along with Gebre Gebremariam, who won the event in 2010.

Another part is fear. The opportunity might never present itself again, I’ve told myself. But I got myself into this by thinking and training like I belonged there. And those guys would never race a marathon in the condition I’m in. They’d be looking ahead.

In reality, if I continue to train smart and make a point to take care of myself henceforth, I’ll have the opportunity again.

Still, I enter the weekend without a plan. I’m going to NYC. I’m going to the technical meeting to get my bib and meet some of my running idols, people like Wilson Kipsang, Meb Keflezigh and Lelisa Desisa. I’ll line up behind these guys as they toe the line. They’ll be off like feathers shot out of a cannon while I try to settle into whatever pace and whatever distance I can handle.

I should take hold of my fate and be smart. I shouldn’t run the whole race. I should listen to my physical therapist and do my core exercises and stretch more to avoid this happening again. I shouldn’t kill myself by taking on construction jobs on the side that add another 40 hours a week of work to my routine.

I should stop believing in Santa Claus. But letting go of that belief means I should know what is going to happen with the first step of each day. That causes a pain I’m not ready to deal with.