When I was 19, I could barely walk without limping, and usually did, after my sixth and final season of marching band, combined with previous years of soccer and bad luck in my musculoskeletal development that led to crooked, inflamed, creaky knees. My doctor prescribed physical therapy I couldn't afford and recommended in horrifying and graphic detail the steroid shots that could be injected beneath the kneecap and further surgical procedures if necessary. I was sent home with a thick, hot, heavy, ill-fitting knee brace that nonetheless eased my joint pain and made it easier to walk, no matter the buckets I sweat beneath it, my skin chafing and blistering all Texas-summer long. The doctor had pointed out the muscle in need of strengthening to support smoother knee movement, and I managed on my own to replicate the exercises needed for it, primarily by using an elliptical machine in reverse. Luckily I had a membership to the glorious campus recreation center.
The impact of running and the popping of bending and flexing my knees in the pool or on a bike hurt too much to pursue. But I managed to get myself walking at least, with manageable pain most days, and wore the brace to mitigate frequent flare-ups every few weeks, resigning myself to early arthritis and praying for technological advances to give me magical robot knees someday.
In 2010, I joined the Hash House Harriers, a self-styled drinking club with a running problem, while I lived in South Korea and walked the trails with the women of the group, glad for the chance to socialize. It wasn't long before model-esque marathon runner Countess—tall, slender, and always smiling—cajoled a few of us into registering for a 10K race, and much of our group peer-pressured one another into joining. The date was far enough out to reasonably train, and we began running together, sharing our progress, and providing support and words of encouragement for each other. I was lucky enough to live near a lovely dirt trail, which made it a lot easier to run than on pavement or through traffic along short blocks without sidewalks. My doctor would have balked, I'm sure.
I had a chance to run an untimed 5K across the mud flats of Boryeoung at the Mud Festival that summer but had to plan on sitting it out since slipping on a wet marble staircase and twisting my ankle. I couldn't stand to just watch and did it anyway in sock feet so as not to lose my sneakers to the sucking muck. I couldn't run, especially under the hot coastal sun, but I walked and skipped, jumped, splashed, and giggled maniacally in the biggest puddles. It must have taken 50 minutes or more, but I sure as hell earned my finisher's medal. And I was desperately grateful for the chance to float off my feet with the cool water soothing my ankle as a balm when I swam later at the beach.
A few months later the race took place near the DMZ, on roads that wound through golden farmland betwixt stunning navy mountains on a cool, foggy morning with water on the ground and in the air from a previous rain. I ran alone, my pace too different from any of my friends', and we all completed it, high-fiving as we passed each other at the turnaround and waiting at the finish line to cheer, more than one crossing with tears in her eyes.
That Christmas I received a pair of Vibram toe shoes and waited impatiently for weeks for the ice to melt from the sidewalks and my dirt trail so I could safely run again. The trail was about 3 miles with a half mile extension from it, and one day I thought to myself, What the hey? and decided to try a second lap. I started slow and made a point of giving myself permission to walk most of it if I needed to . . . but I didn't. I ran the whole 7 quite comfortably and began doing it more frequently, eventually running a half marathon May 2011.
And I've been free of knee pain for years since I started using the Vibrams, excepting after races on pavement, which always enrage my knees and hips. These days I sign up for more mud runs than road races. The obstacles range from simple to tough and are difficult to train for, always presenting an enjoyable and exhausting challenge come race day. I never dreamed I'd be a runner.