Excerpted from WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”. Author Randy Robertson describes the WOODEN & ME has an inspiring combination of Tuesdays With Morrie and Chicken Soup for the Soul”. For information on pre-ordering WOODEN & ME, please visit: Kickstarter/Wooden & Me
When I returned home from the hospital following disk fusion surgery in 2003, even walking a few steps was excruciating. It wasn’t my braced neck that caused me to wince, it was my hip; specifically the spot on my right pelvis where a bone graft was removed to surgically insert between my fifth and sixth vertebrae.
Before I was rear-ended while waiting at a red light by a drunk driver flying an estimated 65 mph on a city street, I had completed a large handful of marathons, including the Los Angeles Marathon in 2002. I was training for L.A. again that upcoming March, but that was not to be. Running 26.2 miles was now a laughable notion.
Indeed, a month after my surgery I remember making the short walk to our mailbox with my teenage daughter Dallas escorting me, lest I need someone to lean on. As we slowly made our way back up the driveway, which I should point out is sloped less than some putting greens, I said to her in total seriousness as my right hip throbbed in pain: “Geez, this is pretty steep.”
After a two-beat pause, we both laughed at the absurdity of it. I had played intercollegiate tennis, once run a sub-three-hour marathon, and only a few months previously had clocked three hours, twenty-nine minutes in a marathon on an unseasonably hot day in San Diego. And now a gently inclined driveway felt like Heartbreak Hill at mile twenty-one of the famed Boston Marathon course. I had long dreamed of running Boston, but that was now about the furthest thing from my mind. At this moment, with a limp in my shuffled step and a soft collar brace around my neck, I could not even imagine jogging around the block again.
But once more Coach John Wooden’s wisdom buoyed my spirits and gave me perspective: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” If I could not run, I could walk – a little more, and a little less timidly, each day.
Too, I recalled a quote from Frederick Douglass that Coach had once recited to me: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I struggled on daily and gradually made progress as the pain in my hip slowly subsided, then disappeared.
More importantly, the bone graft between my vertebrae fused successfully and my neurosurgeon – a marathoner himself, who understood how much I missed running – finally gave me the green light to lace up my training shoes. That very day, July 7, 2003 – a date I recall as surely as my wedding anniversary – when I returned from my doctor’s appointment, I went on my first run in more than five months. Three gingerly slow wonderful miles; an old friend back in my life again.
As I write this nearly a full decade later, I have run at least three miles every single day since. That is 3,614 consecutive days as of my 53rd birthday (on May 27, 2013) with an average distance of 8.6 miles per run. I did not intend to become a “Streaker,” that being the popular term for those who dedicatedly (“stubbornly” is the word my wife Lisa uses) run every day for years on end. As many a person caught red-handed in a love affair or addiction – and a running streak is no doubt a little of both – has guiltily explained: “It just happened.”
This is not to say Lisa is not correct about my stubbornness playing a role in The Streak. Like a U.S. postman, I have not been detoured by rain, nor sleet nor snow. I have run through injury and illness; through plantar fasciitis and after late-night ambulance ride to the Emergency Room with a gallbladder attack.
Too, I have run at all hours insane and inconvenient to accommodate family plans, work schedules, time zones and even the International Date Line. Hopping off a plane in London I kept The Streak alive by running three miles through the airport terminal at 11 p.m., causing one Englishman to holler: “Hey bloke, you must be a Yank because you’re bloody crazy.”
At last count I have run more marathons post neck surgery – eight, including the Boston Marathon in 2009 – than before it. And, excluding my very first marathon at age twenty-two when I broke three hours by clocking a 2:58, my fastest times have come after the car crash, including a post-college PR (Personal Record) of 3:11 at age forty-nine. Yes, things do turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do. While I do not have control over the constant pain in my neck, left shoulder, left hand and fingers resulting from permanent nerve damage despite the largely successful neurosurgery, I can control my decision to go for a run – just as Coach Wooden dedicated himself to taking a daily walk following the heart attack he suffered at age sixty-two. Moreover, the endorphins released during exercise seem to lessen my chronic neck pain. Furthermore, eight or twelve miles running is like a pleasant meditation session.
Sometimes when fatigue and pain mount during a long run or race, I reach down and touch my right hipbone. Rather, I use my right index and middle fingers to feel the deep, smooth groove along the sharp iliac crest where some bone is missing as a result of my graft surgery and disc fusion. As I do this I often think of the small silver cross Coach Wooden always carried on his person and one of his favored poems, “The Cross In My Pocket.” Specifically these lines: It reminds me, too, to be thankful / for my blessings day by day.
I gain further motivation from these wise words of Coach Wooden: “There is a choice you have to make in everything you do. And you must always keep in mind, the choices you make – make you.”
I make the choice to be a runner each day.
Woody Woodburn is a national award-winning newspaper columnist and a Jim Murray Memorial Foundation Journalists Hall of Fame inductee. His work has appeared in The Best American Sports Writing anthology and he also co-authored “Raising Your Child To Be A Champion In Athletics, Arts and Academics.” He can be reached at WoodyWriter@gmail.com or through his website www.WoodyWoodburn.com.