The Joy of Really Good Grass

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You’re probably thinking this is an article about marijuana. It isn’t.

Three months ago, I decided to give my favorite passion another try. Running has always been a big part of my life. Since my childhood, I could escape life by taking off and running. It allowed my mind to relax and helped release much needed endorphins to balance my depressed brain. It was as if my body knew exactly what it needed and the easiest way to get it.

I ran for the first forty-nine years of my life when an accident on my bicycle ended up robbing me of running. After five years of grueling physical therapy, I accepted my fate and decided my running days were over. Then, four and a half years later, when I was cleared for full activity after surgery on my lower back, my surgeon suggested the unthinkable. “I think you should back off the bicycling and give running a try.”

Not sure what I just heard was true, I asked him to repeat himself. He did and went on to say to go easy and try sticking to dirt or grass surfaces as much as possible.

Slowly, and I do mean slowly, I resumed running on the dirt track and its surrounding grass at the park around the corner from where I live. A neighbor of mine who was part of a walking group nicknamed me, Bunny, because she said I was like the Energizer Bunny and just kept going and going.

As my running mojo returned, I could not help but test my limits to find out what I could do compared to my competitive days in my 20’s and 30’s. I was elated when I ran a 6:40 mile on my 60th birthday and a few days later followed that up with a leisurely two hour run. Then two weeks later, a pulled hamstring forced me to stop running. It was back to cycling since that sport relies more on your quads and much less on the hamstrings. Since that time, I have gone back and forth between the two while also struggling to find a form of aerobic exercise I can enjoy that doesn’t kill my neck and trigger the pain that goes with it.

It was strongly suggested to me I stop running and stick to bicycling by the pain clinic, so I put away my running shoes and focused my time and waning energy on cycling. As I did, I concluded cycling was not doing me any good. My neck position was always in an ill-advised forward leaning position, and I noticed my hands quickly became numb while riding, often to the point where I had trouble shifting gears and braking. I also figured I was more likely to be left paralyzed by one nasty spill or unaware driver, so I put away my bike.

I have my share of exercise equipment at home and decided I would use some other devices. It didn’t take long for me to realize using my stationary bike was just as numbing for my hands so I switched to a low end rowing machine. Rowing did not bother my hands because my neck was in an upright position, however, it failed to provide me with the aerobic workout I desired.

A mile from my home is an indoor pool run by the local recreation department. I began considering swimming laps, but had to think long and hard about doing so. It would mean starting from scratch and being careful not to injure either one of my twice surgically repaired shoulders. It also meant I would need to rely on the use of a snorkel to keep my neck in a neutral position and figuring out what sort of goggles work best. Eventually, I realized I was not ready to become the next Mark Spitz (if you are younger than 55, Google him).

In mid-January I made the decision I was going to resume running, only it was going to be different this time. Just before the pandemic shut down everything, I purchased a treadmill and used it quite a bit. However, I stopped last spring because I was tired of dealing with an increasingly stiff and wobbly knee after I ran.

I was going to return to road running and take pleasure in the feeling of the ground beneath my feet and the effort required to maintain a steady pace. I carefully laid out a plan and began with five minute runs in the predawn winter. Mostly, I did not want to shock my quads by doing too much too soon. After a couple of runs I bumped up my time to ten minutes. I found by running every third day I gave myself enough time to recover and was able to make steady improvement. After two months, I was running for forty minutes and incorporating a one-third of a mile hill into some of my runs.

The steady gains were nice to see, however, I realized I was nothing more than a plodder who was nowhere near ready to open my gate and push the pace now and then. When I hit the fifty-minute mark, something strange happened. My quads suddenly rejected the notion of running. Why would they suddenly turn into bags of concrete, making each run an exercise of discomfort?  What was going on?

The solution was grass.

The park around the corner from where I live has been shut down while undergoing a renovation. The next park nearest me is only three-quarters of a mile away but the grass is full of what I call ankle breakers. It requires constant vigilance which makes enjoying a run difficult.  After some quick math, I determined the headquarters of the recreation department is about a mile and a half away. I decided I would run from my home and around a few other neighborhoods near the park while the night sky lightened up enough to where I could turn off the blinking finger lights I use and see what was in front of me without trouble.

I then continued my run on the well-groomed grass that surrounds the park offices. A quick check of my stopwatch told me one lap was five minutes. After three laps, I returned to the road and headed home. I found my quad discomfort disappeared enough that two days later I enjoyed a 30-minute session on my treadmill. Two days later, my run had me doing twenty minutes on the grass and no quad pain. Still, I was plodding away but now able to run three days a week..

Then a funny thing happened the other morning. I became a kid again. My morning run began as usual while I had a goal of five laps on the grass plus increasing my running time to 55 minutes. Once on the grass, I immediately noticed my knee lift was higher and my stride length was longer. I decided to go for it and began throwing in surges of a couple hundred yards with short recoveries. My five-minute laps were now down to 4:30. I was breathing harder and enjoying that same feeling inside me I had as a kid in elementary school when I would convince my teacher to let me run laps instead of participating in the class PE activity.

The hard efforts felt like medicine and the recovery periods were quick while I churned out laps. At the 49-minute mark, I made myself step off the grass and onto the street to head toward home. Five and a half laps on the grass were followed by six minutes of slow easy running and a ten minute walk.

During my walk home, I couldn’t help feeling the joy of a run that brought back to me the wonderful feeling that a good batch of grass always provided me. Maybe it was only a one-time thing. Maybe it will become my weekly Saturday run. Maybe I pull my hamstring and my running comes to a stop. It doesn’t matter because on this one day, I was able to enjoy the feeling I used to take for granted when I was in my running prime. I was a deer running through the trees and one with nature. I was as man was meant to be, free to feel the natural earth beneath his feet while the cool morning air was uninterrupted by the modern day sounds and smells of mankind. I was at home.

Whenever I hear a conversation where people are sharing what their favorite flowers are or their favorite scents, my mind always turns to the smell of grass. When I die, I do not want flowers to honor my life. Just bring some grass. It’s all I need to be happy.