08/24/2011 07:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What I Talk About When I Don't Talk About Running

Janet Turley is running the ING-New York City Marathon on November 6, 2011.


It was sometime when the needle stuck in my metatarsal joint, filling it with cortisone, that I blurted "maybe I should pick another sport." It's week two of marathon training, and I've been instructed not to do the thing I need to do: run. The chronic foot condition that I thought had healed with winter rest returned because of cheap, uncushioned flip-flops from Old Navy. Take those upon New York City's concrete and I'm back to footsoaks, injections, Arnica Gel, prescription anti-inflammatories... everything short of voodoo.

Eight months after the first treatment, the syringe is emptying itself once again into my foot. And it hurts. The injection's inchoate bruise will make my limp even more pronounced over the next few days. Just a couple of weeks before, I was halfway through the Queens Half Marathon on a sweltering Saturday morning when I noticed the pain return. Three days later, it was unbearable within three miles.

I choose running because it seemed so easy and freeing -- all it requires is a good pair of running shoes. But that initial rationale was negated when I began needing a good podiatrist and custom orthotics. The pricetag keeps climbing to align what God hath made crooked.

Some bodies are meant to run long distances, some are better suited for TV marathons. In my twisted thinking, the more ailments I have, the more self-righteous I feel running this grueling distance. The race is handicapped and instead of weights in a saddle blanket to slow me down, I have injuries.

Those conformation-blessed bodies and their sub-three marathon times - they seem to have it easy. They run, crosstrain, run more and get faster. Their bodies can handle the increasing stress. Goals are set and attained, then set even higher. Their drive and physical ability work together to push one another. They stride like gazelles, body mechanics at its most efficient and graceful. A ballet for those who can't do anything but move one direction.

Then there's me. I got a busted foot and two eroding knees. I antagonize these issues by pounding the pavement for over four hours. Top that, gazelles! Hardly ever airborne, I run like gravity is using excessive force. So maybe I need the social compensation. I can't drop impressive race times into a conversation but I can list my physical problems like reading my bragging rights.

I've had over two weeks of rest and telling a runner to "take it easy" is blasphemy. Instead of hitting the city road where the sky is the literal limit, I have to confine myself to the gym, strengthening and stretching while surrounded by walls and machines. Though I have no problem spending four hours on a long run, I never have the patience to finish a 45-minute elliptical workout. I need to go from Point A to B; to see the objects ahead become the scene around. The treadmill makes me a rat on a wheel.

A week before last year's NYC marathon, I came down with severe bronchitis. Before that, I had wondered if I had any business doing this race, if it made any sense at all to run such a distance with fellow overachieving pain addicts. Alas, all race-induced anxiety and doubts vanished when I realized that five months of training were about to be awash due to microscopic bad luck. Then my attitude morphed from tentative to defiant. "Screw you body, I'm doing this." Not a trace of nervousness remained the day of the race, just pure excitement for me and my fellow racers.

One of the reasons I love running is that though I'm surrounded by others, I'm competing against myself. But my main rival is becoming my ability. Shuffling through last year's NYC marathon with all the pageantry and glory, and potentially having to forego it this year, is like going to the big party once and then having the door slammed in your face.

But I like adversity. I rarely value something that doesn't require some sort of struggle, whether intellectual or physical. I like proving people and situations wrong when told I can't do something. It's the residual "you can't tell me what to do" rebel yell from my teenage years. Instead, now it's my body -- that Judas -- I can't flee. Me telling me what I can't do. Matter over mind.

The thing I love to do is taking itself away from me. This lover has gone from physically abusive to emotionally.

As Haruki Murakami wrote in "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." On marathon day, 46,000 other runners and I help reshape this city physically and emotionally. The overwhelming fatigue, nausea and aches are a self-sacrifice to create a 26-mile party. It's the only painful experience I work at and hope will return. And it's becoming a greater possibility that I may not again be treated to it.

I'll suffer the needle in my foot. Bring on the pain.