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Chapter 7: Progress and Setback

As I started to feel my body change from slovenly overweight and out of shape, to a more acceptable version of myself, my wife experienced quite the opposite. An accomplished college athlete, having played both Division I volleyball and softball, she had spent the past several years participating in numerous tennis leagues, clinics and tournaments. She had recently moved up from a 3.5 United States Tennis rating to a 4.0.

One season, she notched a 7-1 record for her team. She did not necessarily have the absolute best strokes of her peers, but she outran them all, running them ragged across the court. And when she stepped up to the net to slam her overhead volleys, she did so with a ferocity and intimidation factor that nearly caused her opponents to scurry off the court. She had a reputation as a feared “spiker” of the tennis ball.

But, her 2016 season had screeched to a virtual halt by the time I launched my mission to elevate my fitness. It started with some back pain that she played through for weeks. Eventually, her back hurt so much that she couldn’t sit on the couch and watch TV without feeling extreme tightening. She continued to play through the pain until the numbness kicked in. She would wake up in the mornings and eventually in the middle of the night with tingling in her thigh, or along the back of her knees. The numbness moved down her leg and often settled into her feet and toes.

She cut back her tennis days from three to two to one and eventually had to find subs to fill all her spots. She just couldn’t play through the pain any longer. She also couldn’t find a comfortable position for her body. She couldn’t sit without tightening up. She couldn’t stand without her back seizing on her. She couldn’t find relief laying down either as the numbness took hold of her in virtually every position.

She tried over the counter pain relief medicines, but they didn’t help. She couldn’t relax, which meant she couldn’t sleep. This made her more and more tired and thus, more irritated, frustrated and confused. She had a problem that exceeded the common solution.

I continued my active fitness routine, running late into the night. Often, as I slipped back into the house, I’d find her sitting rigidly at the kitchen table on her e-mail well past midnight.

She’d sometimes ask how I ran. But the more time that went by, the less interest she showed in my journey as she embarked on her own to deal with what turned out to be a serious health concern.

I felt selfish for the hour every other night or so that I stole from her and the family to tend to my own personal objectives, especially since it seemed that each step forward I experienced was matched equally with another step backward by her.

Doctor visits and consultations generally confounded the problem more than helped as several of the initial doctors she visited provided conflicting diagnoses and theories. The first set of X-Rays didn’t help either. Not until one of the doctors ordered an MRI did we come to learn that she had a herniated disk in her lower back.

At least we understood the problem. But we still didn’t know what to do to fix it. Physiologists that she consulted suggested a shot in the back might alleviate her pain. Surgeons recommended surgery. Both options frightened her – for good reason. The thought of doctors messing around near the vital nerves that run up and down the spine is not a prospect to take lightly.

I tried to encourage her through the frustration and anxiety she felt. But she didn’t need encouragement. She needed answers and I had none.

Along the way, I tried to squeeze in the occasional four-mile run here and there. But I always felt a little like a heel for abandoning her for an hour between say, 9-10pm while she dealt with the boys’ homework and bedtime routine. I tried to skew my runs earlier in the evening, but that schedule ran afoul against dinner time. I tried to wait for her to doze at night. But most nights, she stayed up well past two am like an angry insomniac unable to comfortably sit, lay or stand and forced to wander aimlessly through the halls as the constant motion provided the only respite for her pain.

I dropped from running 4-5 nights per week to running only 2-3 nights. My total miles per month went down and with it, my motivation and confidence in my objective wavered as well. The nights that I did run, returning past midnight, sweat-drenched and out of breath from some four or five-mile dash only served to highlight the difference in our physical conditions, a comparison not lost on either of us.

One night, my wife managed to fall asleep at 10:00pm in the bedroom. Excitedly, I quickly dressed in my sweats and running shoes and hit the pavement. With the reduced number of free evenings that I found to run, I changed strategies and started trying to dramatically increase my pace. Instead of finishing five miles in 35 minutes, I aimed to break 32.

On this night, I ripped off one of the fastest five-mile dashes yet. I pushed myself from end to end. My legs screamed at me. My lungs burned. All my muscles ached. I could feel the sweat pour. I could visualize the metabolism occurring in my tightening stomach. I knew my opportunities to run were fading and I wanted to make the most of this one.

As I reached the top of the hill in the middle of town and glanced to the left at the return route home, I eyed the option to stay straight, run down to the shore and add another several miles to my total distance. I vowed to make that run some time before the tournament. I figured it would be at least 7-8 miles, maybe even more depending on how far south I swung. But, knowing my wife lay tenuously asleep in her aggravated condition, I took the left and ran straight home.

I smiled to myself as I entered the house, drenched in sweat, heaving in the cold heavy air. I made the slightest of noise entering the front door. A rattling sound and a click of the lock woke my wife from a deep sleep.

In hindsight, I’m sure she would have awoken had I gone to bed with her two hours earlier. I don’t believe she was really asleep that soundly. Or if she were, her discomfort would have caused her to stir sometime in the early morning anyway. Even when she did fall asleep, she only stayed asleep for a few hours before the pain needled her awake.

But on this night, she heard the door as she awoke. And as she reached the top of the stairs, her first sight was of me stripping down in the front downstairs hallway, out of my sweatpants and running shoes with my wet hair and deep breathing. And then, I made a horrible mistake.

“Look how flat my stomach is now,” I said with the tone-deafness of a narcissist. “I ran hard tonight.”

She glared at me from the darkness at the top of the stairs.

“How is your back?” I continued as if an afterthought, following my own glee at my newfound fitness. “Did you get a decent couple hours of sleep?”

It was moments like this that I dug huge holes for myself with my wife. Of course, she answered as anyone in her condition would answer.

“Well, I was sleeping fine until you slammed the front door and woke me up,” she said. “But just as long as you can go run so hard and get a nice flat stomach, I guess that’s all that matters to you.”

I apologized for both waking her up and for blabbing on about my own fitness accomplishments in the wake of her physical difficulties. I had done this before, sometimes marveling at my 20 to 30-pound weight loss and other times almost boasting of the numerous inches I had lost from my waist.

“I don’t need to hear how wonderful you are doing with your weight loss progress,” she told me some time later. “Don’t you think I would like to be able to even take a walk, or sit in comfort to watch TV? Or maybe I could just get a decent night’s sleep – never mind playing tennis again? And you’re all – ‘Look at me, I’ve lost 100 pounds. I can run 50 miles in 20 minutes …’. It’s just a little insensitive, don’t you think?”

We agreed that I would not run at night if she managed to fall asleep so that I would not disrupt her precious few hours of rest. And, I made a mental note, despite my own excitement at my progress, to bottle my commentary in her presence as she obviously could not appreciate my good fortune in contrast to her terrible situation.

I’d love to say that I conducted research, spoke to doctors and specialists and led her through her troubles. Honestly, I had taken a new job within the year and the added responsibilities and pressure to deliver on my expanded expectations created considerable stress. It was all I could do to stay on top of my professional commitments, perform the meager responsibilities I had at home including making dinner, cleaning the kitchen and running the evening’s errands and still squeeze in the occasional 4-5 mile run to maintain my downward trend in body mass and my upward trend in running speed and distance.

I found myself skipping breakfast daily and eating lunch only occasionally to make up for the reduction in opportunities to hit the road.

With all that focus occupied in those areas, as well as my general ineptitude in managing medical concerns, my wife conducted all her own research, spoke with many of her friends and escorted herself to doctor after doctor seeking the answers she needed for herself.

When she thought about it, I’m sure she resented that I couldn’t just handle her health quest for her. But honestly, even if I had quit my job to do nothing but this, I still would not have done it as effectively as her. She just understands the medical world, the insurance plans, the best and worst medical organizations and how and when to seek alternate opinions so much better than I do.

Her options seemed bleak. And finding a doctor to provide a definitive path for her proved difficult.

As I moved forward, she fell back. As I gained strength, endurance and elevated fitness, she deteriorated. As I got IN shape, she dropped OUT of shape. We just seemed to be moving in opposite directions both physically as well as emotionally.

My focus and progress gave me self-satisfaction and made me happy. And by contrast, she experienced frustration, pain and disappointment.

She continued to question the wisdom of spending money to travel to Iowa for a wrestling tournament. She wondered out loud why I cared so much about getting back on the mat. What did I have to prove, she asked me. Why was it so important to me? Why was it more important for me to go running at night than to get a good night’s sleep, or to spend that extra time helping her around the house.

To date, the outbursts came in small doses. But I could feel the electricity in the air like the tingling of the skin before a summer thunder storm. The confrontation was coming. She was going to blow soon. And when she did, she could put an end to the whole project, just like that. She had that much power in the relationship. And if she really lost it, I’d have to decide whether to fight and lose or give up to maintain peace. Either way, when the storm hit, I’d lose and probably have to give up the Headlock I had made with myself.

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