Running is what got me to quit smoking. So when the prosthetist at Albany Prosthetics said, “I’m surprised you can even walk on these things,” referring to my feet, my whole body tensed. He shook his head when I asked him if the UCBL foot braces that I had just been prescribed would keep me running until I was an old lady. “You’re not going to be walking at all by the time you’re fifty.”
Dr. Dave had been much more optimistic.
I had started smoking when I was sixteen, Pall Malls. Later, Marlboro Golds. I was no fan of John Wayne, but was irrationally proud when I learned I smoked almost as much as he did. Over four packs a day for me, five for him.
I discovered running in 1982 when I was thirty-four. The company I worked for arranged free memberships at the new gym in town and thinking that might be better than going to the tavern after work, I joined. After I lifted weights, I ran around and around the little track that circled the weight room and finally worked up to twenty-two laps, which equaled a mile. You would have thought I had just gotten a big promotion along with a nice fat raise. Not long afterwards, I read it should be nearly impossible to run a mile if you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Your lungs just wouldn’t have the air capacity. That got me wondering how far I could run if I quit smoking.
I decided I would run a marathon.
I had been the kind of smoker whose need for nicotine woke me up several times during the night. Mornings, I lit a cigarette before I switched my alarm clock off. Smoking wasn’t so much a craving as a necessity. Like I was going to literally die if I didn’t have a cigarette. And it wasn’t so much a relief when I took that first long drag and filled my lungs with Marlboro’s warmth, as it was being able to simply function.
I went cold turkey. My lungs felt forlorn and bereft—hollow, like nothing could ever fill them again. My head pounded with headaches worse than hangovers. Dizzy. My mind went fuzzy. Exhausted, but unable to sleep. Instead, I stared into the darkness and pondered whether I really wanted to live if I could never smoke again. My bones ached. I was nauseous. Tears hovered at the edge of my eyelids. I avoided my co-workers and people in general, afraid I might bite somebody.
The gym was the only place where I had never smoked because it wasn’t allowed. So during my lunch hour I pushed myself through a workout. Then, after working late, I went back to the gym. As soon as I got home, I fell into bed.
Every night I told myself that if I felt this bad by the next night, I would start smoking again. Then after a few weeks, I gave myself another week of it. Then a month. Then two months. Three. After a year I could finally say I had quit smoking instead of I’m trying to quit.
I started running outside instead of around that little track. Two miles a day. Three miles. Five miles. It’s not like I thought, “I can run five miles, so I can end world hunger,” but my confidence did increase along with my mileage. I had control over my life because I had control over my body. I was powerful. And even though I didn’t think about them during a run, problems resolved themselves or at least seemed more manageable by the time I was done.
As my running shoes beat a steady rhythm on the asphalt, my lungs expanded and contracted. In wind or calm, rain or clear, frosty cold or sweltering heat, it was just me and the elements. It felt like I had discovered what humans were designed for.
Injuries began: sometimes dramatic, like a pulled groin muscle, cracked shin bone, or torn hamstring, and sometimes vague like the chronically inflamed tarsal tunnel in both feet.
I’d work up to thirty-five or forty miles a week, then get an injury. I’d make myself crazy wondering if this was a real injury and I was being sensible for laying off, or was I just being lazy? What if I could never run again? I’d ice six times a day, take a lot of aspirin, and the injury gradually healed. I’d start running again and get back up to thirty-five or forty miles a week. Then another injury.
If I lived in prehistoric times, my clan would have left me behind because I couldn’t have kept up with them. A saber tooth tiger would have eaten me.
Every time I had an injury, the doctor said I just wasn’t built for running—my feet were too flat. But it seemed to me that technology should be able to fix that. After all, people with artificial legs ran, and I just had flat feet. And that’s what brought me to see Dr. Dave, an orthopedist at a sports medicine clinic in Albany. I insisted that not running was not going to be an option.
After I worked with his physical therapist for a few weeks, Dr. Dave prescribed the UCBLs. Using a plastic model of a foot, he explained that the ligaments—running from where my arches should be, up and around my calves, and then attaching to my shins—were wearing down. Running may have speeded up the deterioration, but didn’t cause it. Eventually, probably before I turned fifty, my ankles would drop to the ground, flipping the bottom of my feet sideways, and UCBLs would be too late. Then I would require leg braces to my knees.
He said the UCBLs would change my biomechanics. Everything starts with the feet and lines up from there. All my joints would realign—knees, hips, spine, shoulders. It would take months to adjust to them.
He apologized when he said most people found they could not run in UCBLs. He did, however, have a patient who had run marathons in them.
I decided I would be like that person.
If you google “UCBL”—which wasn’t possible in 1989 when I got mine—you will learn it is a “rigid, plastic shoe insert for stabilizing a flexible foot deformity.” UCBL stands for University of California Biomechanics Laboratory, who designed it in 1967. If you keep googling, you will eventually come to grotesque pictures of feet too twisted for UCBLs to do any good.
Though I guess “deformity” could describe anything that’s not normal, my feet had never been called deformed before. It seems a bit harsh.
Most of the articles refer to UCBLs as “braces” rather than orthotics. I had often thought there needed to be another word for orthotics. If I mentioned to someone I couldn’t wear most shoes because of my orthotics, they typically replied, “Sure you can. I wear orthotics too and they just slip right in.” Then they’d show me a pliable little thing that looked like it was made of something you could buy in a craft store.
My UCBLs are a rigid white plastic material that makes me think of the Storm Troopers in Star Wars. The brace starts at the ball of my foot, just behind my toes. It curls around my foot like an ugly slipper, curving over the top of my foot almost an inch at the ball, higher as it approaches my heel. From there, it completely encases my heel—holding it in a vertical position—stopping just short of my ankle. In most of my shoes, the brace peeks out over the top.
The prosthetist at Albany Prosthetics said they last forever and will float, should I ever be swept out to sea. I don’t know why he thought it was important to tell me that.
I wondered if I had made my feet worse, even before the running, because when I was a child, I cheated on the foot exercises our doctor prescribed. Fingertips on the dresser for balance, I was to stretch up on my tiptoes, hold, then roll down to my heels and hold. Repeat until twenty. Then, still standing, roll my feet from side to side twenty times. Sitting on my bed, pick up marbles with my toes —twenty times each foot. The exercises from start to finish couldn’t have taken a full five minutes, but it seemed like forever and most nights I told Mother I had done them when I hadn’t.
When I told Mother about my UCBL’s, she worried she had caused my extreme flat feet because in the 1950s she let me stand on the shoe store’s fluoroscope X-ray machine for as long as I wanted. Watching my green x-rayed toes wiggle while mother confirmed the shoes fit made suffering through new saddle oxfords almost worth it.
Dr. Dave reassured me that neither would have made a difference, though the fluoroscope was a terrible idea in general.
“You are just tired,” Mother always said when I was little and my legs hurt. I tried to ignore the dull ache that my feet and legs always turned into at night. My legs don’t hurt. My legs don’t hurt. Some nights I’d lie on my stomach and kick my feet against the bed until I fell asleep from exhaustion.
In childhood photographs, instead of my shins running vertically to my feet from my knees, they angle away from each other, my feet rolling inward, my inside ankles reaching for the ground. My knees look almost knock-kneed. I was sentenced to wearing sensible shoes like saddle oxfords, though they didn’t make my feet and legs any straighter. As a teenager, I wore Capezio flats to school because all the other girls did. My feet would have wept, had they been able.
My older sister Gracie has flat feet too and when I told her about my UCBLs, she said her feet were fine. That when she was in junior high, she trained her arches to stay up so she would look nice in Capezio shoes. I don’t see how that’s even possible. How do you teach non-existent arches to arch?
I was forty-two when I was put in my UCBLs. After a couple of months wearing them, for the first time in my life my legs didn’t ache at night. The absence of pain was so startling that it seemed to be a category of pain all its own.
But in the beginning, my feet resisted when I crammed them into the UCBLs. They swelled up like a horse does when you first tighten his girth. You have to walk him around for a few minutes so he’ll relax and let the air out, then you can pull the girth up snug. My feet were like that.
I kept veering off to the left and losing my balance. One of my co-workers asked if I would always walk like Frankenstein’s monster. I didn’t see how I was ever going to be able to run in them.
Then I remembered the book my cousin Jack Heggie had written—Running with the Whole Body, based on the Feldenkrais theory of movement. I walked for miles every day, paying attention only to my hips and shoulders. Noticing how my right hip moved forward when my left shoulder did. My left hip with my right shoulder. Thinking about my shoulders—forward and back, forward and back. My hips— forward and back, forward and back.
Within the month I was walking pretty much like I always had. Not long after that I was running again.
Now, it’s hard to walk without them. If I wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I have to concentrate on walking in a straight line. And I’ve had no injuries since I’ve been in my UCBLs.
Well, except those the braces themselves caused. My feet have to remain upright. There is no give in my braces for any nuanced movement. If I’m hiking on a trail, down the street, across a lawn, in my house, I have to pay attention where I put my feet.
I completed Trail’s End Marathon in Seaside, Oregon on February 23, 1991. Four hours, forty-three minutes, fifty-three seconds. It had taken me eight years and four months to get to the starting line.
The night before the marathon, my friend Cynthia asked if I would be disappointed if I wasn’t able to finish. That possibility hadn’t even occurred to me. Even if I had to drag myself over the finish line on my belly I was going to finish. I hoped to run the entire distance, and I wanted to do it in under five hours, but my number one goal was to finish. Period.
The “wall” I had read about was real: from miles eighteen to twenty-two I went into a dark, barren place devoid of any hope or reason or sense of purpose. Every square inch of my body hurt: calves, knees, thighs, hips, back, shoulders, arms, fingers, the top of my head where my hair was pulled into a ponytail. My feet threatened to explode.
Then, at about mile twenty-two, I realized I really was going to finish, and I was going to do it running. Chris, a woman I met at the start, caught up with me and we ran the last few miles together. We looped our arms around one another’s shoulders and crossed the finish line side by side.
In spite of all the Vaseline slathered on my feet before the run, they had bled through my shoes. My feet were so swollen I had to pry them out of my UCBLs. After my shower, I gently rubbed my feet. “Look what you did!” I said to them. “You ran a marathon!”
Dr. Dave was right—UCBLs are hard to run in. I kept it up for a couple of years after my marathon, but the pounding my feet took inside my braces got to be too much. Running started to seem like a mean thing to do to them. Now I’m a power walker. It’s not as good as running, but my feet are happier.
I know each of our body parts is but a piece of our whole, and none have independent thought or will. Still, my feet seem particularly faithful and strong and determined. Like if they were people instead of feet, and your plane went down in the Andes and you had to hike days and days to get back to civilization, you would want them with you.
Yet when they are bare, my feet look pale and feeble, like subterranean creatures who have never seen daylight. The only time my feet are naked is when I’m taking a shower. They are never without socks, even when I go to bed, because they need to be ready to slip into my shoes where my braces live.
The tops of both feet are red where my shoelaces crisscross. On my left foot, there is a large bunion. My mother had one just like it on both her feet, except they got so big they shoved her big toes clear underneath the others. My braces will prevent this from happening to me. The braces have worn grooves into my feet, outlining themselves.
My feet are relieved when I pull their socks on and slip them back into their shoes. Now they feel safe again. Secure in their own magnificence.
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