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(1st of three parts)


"Let's always remember that new challenges await and that we can constantly reinvent our lives."
~ Virginia ultra runner Amy Brown

Amy's optimistic comment at the end of a recent post to the ultra list resonated with me. I saved it in my "Motivational Sayings" file, knowing that it would be appropriate for this entry.

I've often mentioned the importance of being able to successfully adapt to changing circumstances in our lives. How quickly, intelligently, and gracefully we can do that can make the difference between misery and a more rewarding, happy life.

"Reinvention" is another way of explaining this process: finding new purpose, focus, and momentum to reach our goals, whatever they may be -- a new job or a different career, better health, an early retirement, financial freedom -- fill in your own blanks with the things that are important to you. 

Ideally this is a continual pursuit of personal growth and fulfillment, not just a reaction to the obstacles that get thrown in our path.

This is the current "reinvention" I'm working on:


For me, running has been so much more than a past-time for the last 30+ years. It's even been more than a passion; it's been my lifestyle and a large part of my identity for a long, long time.

During that time much of my life has revolved around running in one way or another -- how I arranged my schedule, what I ate, how much sleep I got, where I lived and traveled, who many of my friends were, even what medical care I received.

I not only ran to stay fit, I also stayed fit so I could run.

My career always came before running. At least I had that priority right. But when I had the opportunity to retire at 50, marry a man with whom I had more in common, and live my dream of traveling around the country to run and race while I was still young enough to do it (sort of), I reinvented myself big-time.

View toward Oscar's Pass from Grant-Swamp Pass on the Hardrock 100 course (7-24-09)

I've often wondered how and when my running "career" would end. I wasn't planning on finding out so soon, though.

I had hoped to continue running until my dying day (assuming my dying day is in my 90s or 100s, not any time soon!). Like most folks in their 20s and 30s, I used to feel somewhat invincible. For the last couple of decades, however, I've realized that just one accident or serious illness could curtail my running (or life) at any second and I tried to appreciate each run, knowing it could be my last one.

That's been particularly true the last couple of years, since first learning about the deterioration in my knees.

Until then it was hard to think of very many situations short of death that would "kill" my running. I've thought of an answer to almost any catastrophe that could occur -- anything to continue enjoying my passion. For example, I figured that I'd keep running even if one of my legs needed to be amputated. I know of several amputees who've overcome serious accidents and run trail ultras. If they could rise above such trauma and continue running, why not me?

Below-the-knee amputee Amy Palmiera-Winters ran 130.4 miles
at Run to the Future 24-hour race on January 1 (first overall).

I've prided myself on my good health and excellent fitness level the last thirty years. I worked hard for that but also had a lot of fun along the way. I knew I had a couple of genetic risks for things that could curtail the running part of my life but it was still a shock in September, 2007 when I learned that my running days would be coming to an end much sooner than I'd hoped -- not because of an accident or Alzheimer's Disease or breast cancer or a heart attack, but because my knee cartilage was just about gone.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot you can do about that even in 2010, at least to be able to continue doing ultra-distance walking or running.

I've adapted my running gradually since then by reducing my mileage, increasing the proportion of miles I walk versus miles I run, avoiding gnarly trails and steep down hills, strengthening my knees with weights, and doing more cycling to reduce the stress on my knees. I ran my last ultra in September, right before beginning Orthovisc injections in both knees.

To my immense relief, the Orthovisc has worked quite well so far.  Time will tell how long the injections last -- six months is average, and there is apparently no limit medically to the number of times I can get injections. It remains to be seen how often my insurance company will subsidize it!

Now what? Do everything possible to continue this running lifestyle, or adapt in some other way?


Despite the initial success of the injections and the encouragement of optimistic, equally-addicted running friends that I can continue running with repeated doses of Orthovisc and/or eventual knee replacements . . . my research, sports orthopedists, and gut tell me that's not in my best interest.

As Dr. Johnson clearly explained in September, the purpose of the Orthovisc injections is to delay the need for knee surgery, not allow me to continue running (or even walking) long distances.

I'd much rather be able to enjoy walking shorter distances for as many years as possible than continue running or walking too much now, hastening the need for knee surgery.

Colorado Trail segment between Molas and Rolling passes near Silverton, CO  (7-1-09)

There is one intermediate option between visco-supplementation (like Orthovisc and Synvisc) that is still relatively experimental ACI, which stands for Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation. It involves removing a little bit of cartilage from a patient's knee or another joint, growing more of it over several weeks in a lab, and injecting it into the knee joint, where hopefully it will continue to grow and cushion the knee.

The procedure gained some publicity after 41-year-old Olympic triple silver medal swimmer Dara Torres had it done in one knee with minimal cartilage; she couldn't even swim like she wanted to because of the pain in her knee.

I first heard about her story on a CBS news broadcast and got optimistic that maybe someday I can have similar surgery done if my insurance will pay a significant portion of it (Dara's procedure cost about $60,000 for ONE knee, and I've got TWO bad ones!).

This article on the CBS website describes the surgery as "radical" but it sounds a lot less radical to me than total knee replacements!! According to the article, there is a more advanced procedure undergoing trials now that is less invasive and has a shorter recovery time.

Jim relaxes in the Upper Ice Lake Basin near Silverton, CO. 
There are no roads up there, so I may never see it again.  (7-6-09)

I'm not pinning all my hopes on having this type of procedure done. According to the research I've done so far with doctors and on the internet, my knees are likely beyond repair in this way because too much cartilage has already been lost. Here is one articulate explanation about the difficulty of repairing cartilage damage.

Modern knee replacements are becoming commonplace (all those Baby Boomers and their parents!) and allow most recipients to resume normal activities. However, even the artificial knees that are designed for athletes don't last very many years with heavy continued use like running. I don't relish the idea of knee surgery every time my future synthetic knees wear out from going too many miles on them.

Until and unless these devices significantly improve, or new scientific advances to grow/replace cartilage become more effective, affordable, and possible for my advanced knee deterioration, I choose to adapt by becoming a walker/hiker for as many years as that is feasible.

No roads up here, either:  snow cornice on Rolling Mtn. Pass in the San Juans.
The Colorado Trail is under several feet of snow here.  It eventually melted.  (7-1-09)

And I've come to accept that even walking long enough to produce the endorphins I crave, and the fitness level I desire, may not be possible after I get my knees replaced. If some technology is developed that allows me to run again, I'll certainly consider it but I'm not holding my breath.

I have a life to live in the meantime!


One of the traits that running has helped me hone is adapting quickly to changing circumstances.

No one can successfully complete long-distance training runs and events without adapting to a plethora of variables that can occur during hours or days on the road or trail. This applies to any sport where athletes compete over long periods of time and distance -- marathons, ultra marathons, adventure runs, cycling events, snowshoeing and skiing races, etc. -- in venues ranging from deserts to mountains to jungles to the Arctic tundra.

Just getting to the starting line of such strenuous events is fraught with pitfalls: injuries, illnesses, time to train properly, level of fitness and training at the time of the race, family or work glitches that end up taking precedence, race cancellations or modifications, travel delays, and more.

Storms can roll in fast at high altitudes (Segment 25, Colorado Trail, 7-26-09)

On race day these competitors face more variables: heat/cold, rain/snow, gale-force winds, lightning, forest fires, condition of trails, unexpected course reroutes, getting off-course, time cut-offs at aid stations, altitude problems, adjusting electrolytes and calories, dehydration, over-hydration, GI problems, blisters, fatigue, pain, animal encounters, poisonous plants, and a myriad of other obstacles that can change from hour to hour and place to place.

Those variables require constant adjustments during long training runs and races. If endurance athletes don't learn to do this successfully they not only might DNF (did not finish), they can even die from something like heat exhaustion, hypothermia, HAPE, HACE, hyponatremia, serious injury, and other catastrophes.

Although I had several brushes with death when running/hiking, namely lightning strikes on various exposed mountain ridges and flooded stream crossings, my closest encounter with death or serious injury during any athletic endeavor came during last August's bike crash during an innocuous ride on a fairly smooth dirt road. I still have no clue what caused that wreck.

Another summer storm in the Rockies (Segment 25,  Colorado Trail, 7-29-09)

Life is full of ironies. It doesn't take a risky adventure to cause serious injury or death.

Learning to be flexible and to adapt to circumstances are obviously very useful skills to have in all areas of life, not just running. And those traits will serve me well now that I'm faced with the adjustments I have to make in a life without running.

No, giving up running is not a matter of life and death but the loss of something or someone you love with all your heart can cause serious psychological problems and even premature death if a person isn't able to adequately adapt to the loss and move forward with renewed hope and purpose.

Fortunately, I have many other interests -- physical as well as cerebral -- to keep me busy and I plan to develop some new ones, too. None of them are likely to replace all the benefits I got from running, but they will keep me relatively fit and sane for the Next Third.


Hopefully, the next 40% since I still have the goal of living to 100 . . .

Summer comes late in the San Juan high country. 
This little lake is in the basin below Rolling Mountain Pass. (7-1-09)

Here's the math:

  • I focused on my education, career, and family life in my first thirty years: the First Third.
  • I largely focused on running the next thirty years -- the Second Third -- not to the detriment of my career, but to the detriment of my last marriage. It ended in an amicable divorce and my   rewarding marriage to Jim.

What about the next thirty or forty years? That's the Next Third.

What is my focus now? How will I "reinvent" myself?

That's one of the things I'm working on now. Only time will tell if I develop another life passion, athletic or otherwise, that will consume me in my remaining years as wholly as running did. I'm not sure I've got the energy for something that intense any more! What's important to me is that I continue to seek a variety of interesting challenges for the rest of my life so my mind and body don't vegetate.

I'm still me. My basic life goals remain the same; they just don't include me running any more.


How long I stay involved on the periphery of the sport of ultra running primarily depends on how long Jim continues running races or being interested in volunteering at them. We've been so preoccupied with other things in recent months that he's starting to lose focus on his own lengthy running "career."

Umstead 100 is one of the races that really knows how to treat its runners
AND volunteers well.  (Sue at timing table, center, 4-4-09)

In addition to the modifications I've already made to my running, there are some other signs that I'm weaning myself away from the sport.

For example, I've already begun to lose interest in reading the internet ultra list, to which I've subscribed for 12-13 years. Until my self-revelation in December that it was a relief to not "have to" train and race any more, I read almost every post to the list about training tips, race reports, shoes and other gear, "bios" of new subscribers, recovery from injuries, and many other relevant (and irrelevant but interesting) topics.

The ultra list was a source of education and entertainment for me for many years. Now I skip entire threads and read only those of special interest. I still read most of what our friends and other favorite people write, regardless of the topic, but now many more posts get deleted than read. (Jim's always been able to do this!)

I still look forward to receiving UltraRunning magazine, though. And I'm not ready to throw out all the running memorabilia I wrote about in a previous entry -- running logs, books and old magazines, the more meaningful awards and shirts, pre-digital photos, etc. I'll be selective when we return to Virginia and start weeding through our possessions in preparation to putting our house up for sale. Some things I'm just not ready to part with yet.

I'll still crew for Jim at ultras, support our ultra running friends, and volunteer at some races. When the time comes that Jim either cannot or chooses not to run ultras any more, we'll have to decide about our level of involvement.

What a great crew of volunteers we had at Hardrock in 2007
when Jim (far right) captained the Cunningham Aid Station.  (7-13-07)

Some "retired" ultra runners become race directors and/or active volunteers at races. We have absolutely no desire to direct a race, especially if we're full-timing in our RV. Continued volunteering will interest us only if we're able to see enough friends at events to make it rewarding. Sure, we can make new friends but it's more fun to support the ones with whom we already share some history. As our ultra running friends also age and become less active in the sport, we're already seeing fewer familiar faces at some races (particularly those under 100 miles) and more new ones. It's just not the same level of camaraderie.

At the other extreme, many former ultra runners either become deeply involved in other activities or can't bear to be around the sport any more and just fade from the scene. The rest of us are left to wonder, "Whatever happened to so-and-so?"

Time will tell how Jim and I eventually adapt to a life with no more running in it -- remain on the periphery or fade into obscurity . . .

Continued in part 2:  mindful awareness

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil