All I can say in my defense is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. A bunch of arms-chair jocks getting together the Sunday afternoon before the Super Bowl for a little flag football. How could I resist? Sure, it had been decades since I last played football, but I'm an active kinda guy. I jog almost every day, I go to the weight room a few times a week, and occasionally ride my bike. I'm in better shape than your average middle-ager. Even my kids tell me I'm "well preserved for my age."
When I arrived at the high school field the game was already in progress, so I jumped in without warming up, and after a few plays up and down the field, Steve, the quarterback, threw me the ball. I had to stretch out a little to catch it but got my hands on it and ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Simple.
It was so simple it's hard to believe those pros get paid so much money to do this. If I had weighed another 100 pounds back when I was in my prime, who knows which NFL team I'd be associated with today? Or how many concussions I’d have?
Anyhow, as I was jogging back to the huddle, I felt something funny in my right leg, as if maybe I stretched my hamstring a bit too much. Oh well, can't stop now, I'm having too much fun. I had noticed I could out-run the secondary, so while in the huddle watching Steve draw complicated diagrams in the dirt, I finally said, sounding a bit too impatient, "Just throw it in the end zone and I'll catch it."
Hey, I wonder if Jerry Rice ever said that to Joe Montana?
Steve stopped, looked at me and said, "Okay” ... but his eyes seemed to say, “Okay, asshole, but you better not miss.”
As soon as I sprinted away from the line of scrimmage, I felt my right hamstring knot up, but I had to catch the football, so I kept going. I got in the clear, turned around and there was the ball. I caught it and scored my second TD. No problem. Well, except for the now even tighter knot in my hamstring. Someone decided it was halftime, so I limped away. I thought it was a cramp and that the tightness would go away, but it didn't.
The next morning, I could hardly get out of bed. I iced it, took some ibuprofen, and went to work. By Wednesday the sore muscles were gone, but the tight knot was still there. It still hurt when I walked, and no way could I run. I could barely bend over and touch my knee! I knew I had done some damage, but how much?
My running partner and Ukiah High School running coach Jerry Drew suggested I see Doug Howard, the trainer over at Mendocino College. Doug listened to my symptoms and said I had the classic sprinters injury--a pulled hamstring. Distance runners, he explained, push more with their leg muscles, which builds up the quads, whereas sprinters pull more because their legs are moving faster and their bodies have to catch up, which puts a greater strain on the hamstrings.
He told me to rest it for a week, ice it three times a day, and stretch easy afterward. Then we got down on the gym floor and went through some basic stretches.
I told him I already started lap swimming but had occasional jolts of pain from kicking. Doug said the pool was a real good idea, "but don't lock your knee when you kick, it puts stress on your hamstring. And you can run in the pool, but you probably need three to six weeks before you can go back to running.”
"Three to six weeks?!" I repeated, as if it just dawned on me how serious this "cramp" was.
"You don't want to re-injure it and you go back to square one," Doug cautioned.
I knew he was right, and I told him that it really started from stretching my left Achilles tendon at the World Veteran Games last summer. Instead of resting after the Games, I proceeded to pile on more mileage to get ready for a series of fall races. Without realizing it I must have been favoring my left Achilles, which put a strain on my right leg. That same area tightened up when I tried to out-kick a teammate in the last two hundred yards of the Clarksburg 30K last November.
Doug agreed with my assessment and said that compensation injuries are often worse than the original ones. I thanked him for his help, and walked slowly all the way across the gym floor before he asked, with a hint of a smile in his voice, "How old are you now?"
I stopped and turned to look at him. The lights were off, and the gym's natural lighting was dim, shadowing his figure, but our voices carried almost as if we were standing next to each other. "I'll be 46 this year," I said, unable to see his reaction. Did he guess I was that old? Does he think I'm well preserved for my age? Obviously not, as my body is starting to self-destruct.
I told him the more competitive runners like me probably race too much without backing off enough, but it's tough taking days off when you’re setting PRs (personal records) into your forties. Maybe I’m hooked like a heroin addict on that daily shot of endorphins?
I heard him chuckle, and I added, “I've noticed the fast-growing sport of triathlons is mainly supported by injured runners who started biking and swimming as substitutes for running. They call it "cross training."
He agreed, I said I’d be in touch, and left.
Doug was the right person to talk to, as he's probably seen more sports-related injuries than a clinic full of doctors, and no doubt his cure-and-prevention methods are state-of-the-art, but I felt I needed something besides ice and stretching to hurry the healing process.
Does this Hurt?
It just so happens that my girlfriend, Susan Park, used to work for Dr. Grace Lui, the distinguished acupuncturist in Ukiah, when Dr. Lui worked out of The City of Ten Thousand Buddhists in Talmage. She reminded me what Dr. Lui always said when you hurt yourself, "Hurry, come in, get needles."
Most people get desperate when they get sick or injured, and I'm one of them. In fact, I actually got acupuncture once before back in '81 when I had a nagging sore knee. And it was from Dr. Lui in her Talmage office when Susan was working as her assistant.
I remember the female assistant entering the room to remove the needles stuck in my exposed butt and down my right leg to the ankle. When she was done, she gently pulled my underpants over my exposed butt cheeks and told me in her soft voice to relax for a few minutes, and then I could go. I never saw her face, but only recently found out it was her who removed those needles. Isn't that romantic?
I stopped in after work for an appointment. Her secretary started leafing through the appointment calendar, making me realize I'd be half-way healed by the time there was an opening. Luckily, another customer overheard my dilemma and said she just came in to cancel her appointment.
Before I knew it, I was ushered into a little room and told to strip to my underwear, get in bed, and relax. As I was lying there, I heard the wail of a dentist's drill. Sure enough, Dr. Lui shared the building with a dentist, and the sound was coming through the ceiling vent. Did you ever try relaxing while waiting to be poked with needles while listening to the shrilling (not to be confused with thrilling) sound of a dentist's drill?
Dr. Lui came in and held my arm by the wrist, feeling my pulse for what seemed like a long time, while reading my medical history. Then she got up and walked to the other side of the bed and held my other wrist, as if my pulse might be different on that side. She finally said, "Forty-three. Heart very slow. Have much energy?"
"Yes, but I run, and that lowers my resting pulse," I said, wondering why I was explaining this to a doctor. But she replied, as if she did not understand what I said, "Most people seventy." She seemed concerned, as if something were wrong with me.
"In the morning when I first wake up it's under forty," I told her, not to shock her, but I felt she should know.
"How long you been running?" She wondered, as if I was the first patient, she ever had who was a runner.
"Twelve years," I admitted.
"How long heart so slow?"
"Gee, at least ten years."
"Have had medical check-up?" She made "check-up" sound like hiccup.
"Not for years ... maybe five or closer to ten, I don't remember." I really could not remember how long it had been. Was I making the classic Jim Fixx mistake of believing that running was a cure-all?
Remember Jim Fixx, author of the popular Complete Book of Running? As most runners know, and even non-runners who use it for an excuse to stay on the couch, Fixx died on his daily run, partly because he did not follow his own advice.
“Don't need medical check-up because you run, yes?" She asked, not as if she agreed with that philosophy, but wondered if maybe that is what I thought, misguided as I seemed to be.
“Well, I don't have health insurance," I admitted, hoping she would give me a cut-rate fee for her services. “I haven't been sick," I lied. I didn't mean to lie, it's just that when I'm feeling good, I tend to forget that I was sick.
She nodded, "Uh-huh," sounding like the psychiatrist to his patient stretched out on the couch whining about his pathetic life. "Uh-huh ... I see ... Uh-huh ... ."
She told me to rest and left the room. When she finally returned to insert the needles, she made me lie on my stomach. I was relaxed, considering that someone was sticking needles in my backside. At least the drilling next door had stopped. I wanted to believe the brochure I read in the lobby comparing the needle pricks to mosquito bites, although I really hate mosquito bites!
Just then she stuck one behind my right knee that felt more like a wasp sting! “AHHHHH!!!” I yelled, making us both laugh. She finally pulled it out because it hurt too much. Then, with my jockeys pulled down exposing my butt, and maybe ten needles sticking in from elbow to heel, she said, just before leaving the room, "Now we let your energy work for you."
I was lying there staring at a small needle sticking in the bend of my left elbow, wondering how the ancient Chinese could make such delicate instruments, and finally concluded that maybe the needles weren't all that delicate in the old days.
Dr. Lui returned twice to twirl each needle, asking with each twirl, "Feel this? Feel this? Feel this?"
When I would respond with a jolt, she would chuckle softly. It was a compassionate enough chuckle, yet it reminded me of that game kids play when they try to test your pain threshold, "Does this hurt? Does this hurt? Does this hurt?"
Dr. Lui's assistant removed the needles, pulled up my jockeys, and covered me with a light blanket, saying, "Rest for ten minutes and then you may get dressed and go."
When I walked back into the waiting room and told the receptionist I had to go to my truck to get my checkbook, she looked at me shrewdly, wondering if I was really planning to return or just going to split without paying my bill. But I returned, wrote a forty-five-dollar check, and left feeling much better. In fact, there was hardly any pain, and I could almost touch my right toe for the first time since Sunday.
Postscript: I was the sports editor for the Willits News in the early 90s, which included a weekly column. My column would run on Friday in the Willits News, and the following Wednesday it would appear in the Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA), a weekly out of Anderson Valley, proclaiming itself AMERICA’S LAST NEWSPAPER, which may end up being true, as it’s still going strong in 2020, and most people get their news on-line these days.
Editor Bruce Anderson liked my sports articles and stole them every week, which I considered a compliment, but my editor, Lillian Brown, said to me one day, “Jim, we’re paying you and you’re also selling your work to the AVA. That must stop.”
I explained that he simply steals them on Friday and publishes them the following Wednesday. She apologized and found another reason not to like Bruce Anderson and his “Fanning the Flames of Discontent” weekly newspaper.
(This piece was first published in the Willits News on February 9, 1990 and in the AVA February 21, twelve days later.)