feb 22/REST

I tweaked or strained or something my calf muscle when I unwisely ran after experiencing a bad cramp early Sunday morning. So now I’m resting for the rest of the week and trying to get over myself and my fears about pain and injury. I’ve turned to what often helps: writing and wondering and spending some time getting acquainted with my pain.


For future Sara who will want to remember these details, and present Sara who doesn’t want to forget them and anyone else who wants to witness a Sara who is trying to be more open (and less) guarded about what she’s thinking/feeling:

Early Sunday morning, while I was sleeping, I got a leg cramp (a charley horse, as we called it when I was kid) in my right leg. A sudden burst of intense pain that woke me up. I stood and shook my leg and thought my shaking had stopped the cramp from even happening. A few hours later, when I woke up, my calf was sore but Scott and I were scheduled to do our weekly run and I wanted to make sure I got in my miles, so I ran anyway, almost 6 miles. No pain! The next day, I ran another 5 miles and felt mostly fine. But then, sitting at my desk, writing my log entry for feb 19, my leg suddenly felt strange — a constricting? contracting? cramping? of the muscle (or tendon?) at the bottom of my calf, near the heel. No sharp pain, just a flare of heat that burned for a few seconds then stopped when I shook out my leg. To me, it felt like a cramp just about to happen — that moment right before it tightens, just before the pain hits — slams into you? takes your breath away? seizes you? For the rest of the day, I was unsettled. The flares kept coming, not all the time, but throughout the day. By the evening, I was very anxious; the flares were coming every few minutes. For a couple of hours I sat on my bed and made note of each instance:

a quick flare of pain — not sharp — above my ankle/lower calf that goes away when I move my leg/shake my foot
6:22 (after bending my leg, then crossing it over and on top of my other foot
7:09 (only after bending my leg, raising my knee up for a minute
7:12 another slight flare of pain, the need to shake my leg
7:20 another very mild, slight flare – not pain, almost like a contraction or brief tightening
7:33 a brief construction — slight pain — after I walked downstairs and back up and stood for a minute
7:40 another quick flare
7:43 brief flare
7:49 — a very brief flare
7:52 — another slight constriction
7:59 — a little flare

notes from 20 feb 2024

Then I had dinner and a shot of bourbon and watched old episodes of Seinfeld with Scott and (mostly) forgot about it. Since then, I’ve been trying to be careful with my calf — no running for the rest of this week, or at least until Saturday or Sunday. My calf still feels strange sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. Also: stiff, tight, unsettled. Went for a short walk with Delia and Scott yesterday and it felt like it wasn’t quite firing. A fear simmering somewhere within: will it happen again? do I have a calf tear? is something even worse about to happen?


I am deeply afraid of these calf cramps. I even wrote about that fear way back on February 16, 2017:

At the end of a 2 mile swim, back and forth across Lake Nokomis, I placed my right foot down in the shallow water and experienced a charley horse from hell. My right calf knotted up so painfully that I began to yell out. I dropped down in the water, trying not to panic, and frantically shook my leg, hoping to loosen the knot. It didn’t take that long to loosen it, but long enough to disorient me so much that I dropped (and lost) my favorite goggles, long enough to make my calf ache for weeks and not feel quite right for a year and long enough to make me feel perpetually terrified of my calf and the excruciating pain it could cause.

That calf pain still haunts me. I’m not really sure how much pain I can take; I did give birth to both of my kids without any drugs so I must be able to tolerate a reasonable amount. But I’m scared of that pain. The threat of it often hovers there, subtly shaping my workouts. Whenever my calf feels strange, during a swim across the lake or while doing a hard run, I wonder, is it coming for me again?

Why am I so afraid of these cramps? With this first one, in 2017, I became afraid (still am, a little) that I would cramp up in the middle of lake and not be able to shake it off; I’d have to endure terrible pain as I swam across, or I wouldn’t be able to swim, and would struggle to stay afloat. I think it’s about the loss of control — being possessed by something that I can’t do anything about — and it’s about that particular type of pain — so sharp and blunt and arresting. Give me the dull ache and tightness of hip pain over calf pain every time! Give me the uncertainty and confusion and unreadable books of gradual vision loss — isn’t that strange?


When I was a kid — probably 5th grade — we lived in a DC suburb. I remember going to the Smithsonian and seeing an exhibit on pain. I have an image of one of my older sisters leaning over a glass display case reading something about the history of pain. I also remember being struck by her interest in this topic, wondering why. Looked it up: 1983 / Pain and Its Relief / National Museum of American History – oh, how I loved visiting that museum almost every weekend!


The only excruciating pain I recall experiencing as a kid were the terrible stomach cramps I would get when I was 11 or 12 — I hadn’t started my period yet. Such agonizing knots of pain, crashing into me, wave after wave. I would lie on my top bunk bed, staring at the ceiling, and just try to endure them for however long they lasted — hours? How often did they happen, and for how many years? When I told my mom about them, she said something about how these “twists in the intestines” run in our family. Am I remembering that right?

Oh — and the ear infections from swimming. In the middle of the night, I’d leave my bedroom and pace the house, wanting nothing but this horrible ache in the side of my head to stop. Or how my teeth would ache after a teeth cleaning at a rare visit to the dentist. I would wish I could record that pain, be able to feel it anytime I wanted to skip brushing my teeth.


Dance with the pain 

That last one is something I describe a lot. What does that even mean?
It means to greet the pain or discomfort like an old friend. Know that it’s always there waiting for you. If you accept it, and envision yourself enjoying its company, it’s much more manageable.

from a race recap at the Chicago Marathon — @emmajanelbates

from a log entry 27 oct 2023: Being content with the doubt and greeting pain as an old friend. Accepting doubt and being content with it I think I can do, but befriending pain? I’ve been trying to work on that as part of this larger writing/living/moving project. The pain I’m thinking of is the pain in my knees or my back or my hips, but it’s also other, deeper pains: the pain of aging, loved ones dying, living within a body that doesn’t work as well. Not sure if I’d call it a friend yet, more like an acquaintance, a familiar. I think it’s possible, but what does enjoying the company of pain look like, outside of the model of sadomasochism?


I’ve read/heard it enough times that I can’t remember where or when: the difference between a great runner and a good runner is the ability to endure pain. I don’t want to be a great runner, but I’d like to develop a better relationship to pain. I’d like to find more ways to endure it, to live with it. In middle school and high school, I read several memoirs from people enduring extreme conditions and surviving, mostly political prisoners in China and Russia, who were locked up in small cells alone for years. Almost 40 years later, I can’t remember the specifics of what they suffered or how they survived, I only remember my fascination with these accounts. Now I like following the races and stories of ultra marathoners and long course triathletes. Athletes who spend more time than many deep in the pain cave. One of my favorites is Courtney Dauwalter. She frequently talks about embracing the pain cave:

Is that what it means to dance with/befriend your pain?

I’m not sure how I feel about embracing the pain cave or pushing yourself to the limits in order to enter it. I admire it, and her, and I’m also disturbed by the accounts of pushing yourself so much — regularly hallucinating, temporarily losing all vision, falling on a rock and gushing blood but not stopping (read this, Inside the Pain Cave, for more). Is it too much for a body? Even as I wonder this, I know that I tend toward the opposite end: too cautious, too guarded, unwilling to push myself to the limit if the limit is uncomfortable.


Discussing Dauwalter with Scott, he mentioned that there are different types of pain — some of it we just need to get over and endure, and some a warning to be careful! or stop! before we do real damage. My problem: I’m often thinking that the pain is always a warning of something bad about to happen.


I am uncomfortable writing about pain because my pain seems so insignificant compared to other people living with chronic pain.


Growing up, my family didn’t discuss pain: you were supposed to suffer in silence. I feel compelled (called? driven?) to make visible my pain, to recognize how it is part of me, to share it with others, to normalize vulnerability.


It is difficult to witness other people’s pain. Last night, someone delivering food fell off a step on our block and twisted? sprained? her ankle. She lay on the ground, wailing in pain, her sobs echoing down the street for several minutes as we waited for an ambulance to arrive.

Will this thoughts about pain turn into something bigger? Who know, but I’d like to spend some more time with them. I just discovered a book by one of my favorite poets, Lisa Olstein: Pain Studies. Checked it out of the library! Also, I should reread Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale.” And, I want to put these 2024 thoughts in conversation with what I wrote about pain in 2017: 18 august 2017