the downtown loop, short
A decent run. Kept running a few times when I wanted to stop and walk. Stopped to walk a few times when I probably could have kept running. I feel pretty good considering I ran the 1/2 marathon this week too.
After I finished running, I worked on my homework assignment: a braided essay.
It Starts with a Step
It starts with a step. The heel touches down. The weight rolls forward, onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off. The body shifts. The arms swing as the legs reverse. Step. Step. Step.
When running, my body is a marvelous, wonderful machine, enabling me to move without stopping for miles, even with my creaky knees and my wide, misshapen feet. So strong and graceful and efficient! But it’s also a temperamental machine, breaking down and preventing movement, forcing me to stop doing what I want to do. So fragile and frightening! I revere and fear my body. It is a mystery, a part of me that isn’t quite part of me. Separate. Unknowable. Unpredictable. Able to turn on me with little warning.
Last April, having repeatedly rubbed against a bone spur in my knee during my daily runs and the extended walks I was taking with my dog, a few of my tendons became inflamed, making my knee swell and become so stiff that it couldn’t or wouldn’t bend. Almost immediately, I forgot how to walk. Or, more precisely, my right leg forgot how to walk.
How does one walk? Can you describe the process? I couldn’t and didn’t want to. It was only a year later, when trying to write about my injury and think about future injuries that I decided to do some research and uncover the mechanics behind the magic of moving.
The biomechanics of a step involves two phases: the stance phase and the swing phase. The stance phase has five parts: 1. The heel strike, when the heel first touches the ground; 2. The early flatfoot, from when the foot is flat until the body’s center of gravity passes over that foot; 3. The late flatfoot, when the body is past the center of gravity and the heel is beginning to lift; 4. The heel rise, when the heel rises off the ground and 5. The toe off, when the toe lifts off the ground.
The heel strikes on the ground, not out at the plate or because of unjust working conditions.
Early flatfoot, a police officer with a morning shift.
Late flatfoot, another officer, working the night shift.
The heel rise. Apparently I was wrong about why the heel was striking. It is because of unjust working conditions. She and other locomotion workers are refusing to lift anything off the ground until their demands are met, namely adequate health care. They are rising up!
The toe off. Management is becoming increasingly irritated by the peaceful strikers. All mechanical operations have been shut down. How can the toe be lifted off the ground when the heel won’t do her job? The early and late flatfoots, who have both finished their shifts, are called in to force the heel and her compatriots to submit. Neither of them are happy about it. They’re tired and want to go bed. Besides, they agree with the heel and are angry with management.
The sensation of not knowing how to walk is strange and unsettling. I don’t usually think about how to walk. I just expect my body to do it. In fact, the less I think about it, the better. When I pay attention to my gait, I become self-conscious. My arms awkwardly swing. My legs almost trip over themselves. I feel like a fool. Does my body think about walking? As they prepare to move, do my calves ruminate, or just follow orders?
My right leg didn’t hurt, but it wouldn’t bend. I could manage to limp down the street, a block or two, but that was all. After weeks of barely walking and no running, I finally went to a doctor and discovered that I had a bone spur in my knee and that tendons were rubbing on it, causing a lot of inflammation. I needed to get the swelling in my knee down with a lot of ibuprofen and ice packs and figure out how to walk again with some physical therapy.
When I started my research, I was overwhelmed by all of the technical jargon used to describe the different bones and muscles and ligaments and joints involved in the process of walking. Words I couldn’t pronounce. Processes I couldn’t understand. But, I took a deep breath and eventually made some sense of it. Then I went out for a walk and tried to isolate the movements and the muscles in the body as I propelled forward, shifting legs and hips and swinging arms for balance. It was difficult. At what point were the semitendinosus and semimembranosus rotating in, while the biceps femoris was rotating out? I couldn’t determine.
During the heel strike/early flat foot phase the anterior compartment muscles work to gently lower the foot onto the ground. The anterior compartment muscles are the tibialis anterior muscle, the extensor hallicus longus, and the extensor digitorum longus. During the late flatfoot to heel rise phase the posterior compartment muscles control the body so it doesn’t fall forward. The posterior compartment muscles are the gastrocnemius, the soleum and the plantaris.
During the strike, the heel is confronted by some well-meaning but naive co-workers who are urging her to reconsider her tactics. “Why not ask nicely?” the tibialis anterior muscle suggests. “Yes!” agree the extensor hallicus longus and the extensor digitorum longus, “if we take a gentle approach and try to reason with them, management is sure to see that we deserve better!”
Listening in on their conversation, early flatfoot rolls her eyes and can be heard to mutter dismissively to late flatfoot, “yeah right.”
The heel refuses to listen to the anterior compartment muscles. “We will strike!” she declares. She is joined by many others, including the posterior compartment muscles. The gastrocnemius and the soleum help by reassuring the crowd of striking workers and the plantaris delivers the strikers’ demands to management.
Since my injury, and now as I’m training for my first marathon, I’m paying attention to my body. Studying my different bones and muscles and joints and how they function. Listening to my breathing. Not ignoring my hamstring when it aches or my shoulder when it stiffens. Icing my knee. And, I’m spending more time marveling at how complex and intricate I am. So many wonderful parts working together, not always in complete harmony, but well enough to keep us moving on the path, at least most of the time.
The physical therapist told me to do some exercises for strengthening the muscles in my right leg, like one-legged squats and an odd-looking walk in which I raised my knee up to my chest, balancing on one leg like a flamingo and then straightened the bent leg in front of me while slowing lowering it. This, she said, was to re-train my leg on how to walk. I did it for a few weeks. By the end of May I was walking almost normally. And soon after, running. Now, a year later, my knee hurts occasionally and sometimes it clicks, but I haven’t had any major problems walking.
In studying locomotion and how it works, I’ve come to a realization: I can try to understand it. I can break it down and reduce it to phases and muscles and minute movements. But I’ll never take away its magic. And I don’t want to. How extraordinary ordinary movement is! Never something to take for granted or to fear! Walking is magic. The body is magic. I am magic. All the complicated elements that are nearly invisible but work—or sometimes don’t work—together for me to walk. Magic. I don’t always remember this, but I’m trying.
The swing phase has three parts. The early swing after the toe is off the ground and just until it is next to the opposite foot, The mid swing, when the swinging foot passes by the opposite foot, And the late swing, which lasts from the end of mid swing until another heel strike.
The strike is working! Management has reluctantly agreed to the demands and a tentative agreement has been reached. It is uncertain if it will, in the long run, be satisfactory, but for now, locomotion will recommence. Relieved to start moving again, the dorsiflexors of the left ankle joint initiate the swing phase. Slowly and steadily the feet trade off steps. One heel strikes, one foot is flat, one toe lifts off. The other heel strikes, the other foot is flat, the other toe lifts off. Step. Step. Step. Locomotion.