by Rick Chambers
“True wisdom comes from pain.” That’s
a song lyric, or a line from a quote-of-the-day calendar. We read it, perhaps nod in uncomfortable accord, and then let the
sentiment slip away, for we would rather gain wisdom by other means.
Yet life often reveals the harsh reality of that
statement. Pain comes as a raging storm, thundering with fear and despair. If we hold on, if we persevere, then wisdom gently
follows as sunlight peeking from the clearing clouds, casting a stunning rainbow at the retreating tempest.
When I stepped into the predawn silence of March
9, 2004, neither torrent nor sunshine was evident. There was only the frigid air and a faint haze blurring the winter stars
overhead. Still, a spring-like energy coursed through my body as I trotted down the driveway and onto the street for a warm-up
jog. Within a short distance, that energy lifted me to a solid, comfortable run.
my training is on the upswing at last, I thought. Having been a runner for nearly a quarter-century, with many miles and
races pounded into my feet, the last four years had proven frustrating. It began with my second-ever marathon—18 years
after my first—in which I improved my time yet fell 12 minutes shy of qualifying for the legendary Boston Marathon.
I’d struggled with a kind of malaise ever since—lethargic morning runs and a constant weariness spiked by the
stresses of a high-pressure job.
But by 2004, I was feeling better, stronger, and
more confident as a runner. Maybe I still had a shot at that dream trip to Boston. I was already mapping out my strategy,
gradually ramping up my training for a qualifying race in the fall, then joining the marathon masses at the starting line
in the quaint New England town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the following spring. I could picture the crisp Patriots’
Day morning, the growing excitement of the noodle-thin runners, the welcome release of the start, the screaming girls at Wellesley
College, the brutal hills at Newton, that last turn to the finish on Boylston Street.
But first there was this run—a quick, three-mile
I glided along the abandoned streets, my steps light
and rapid, my breathing steady, my heart pounding partly from the effort and partly from a deep, satisfying joy. Already I
could tell this would be one of those magical runs.
Near the one-mile mark, the course took a turn into
an unlit linear park that twisted DNA-like alongside a gurgling creek. Light snow on the asphalt pathway swirled around my
feet with each floating step. It was a glorious morning, and I picked up the pace.
What would soon happen didn’t come without
warning. About half a mile into the park, my right foot slipped on a patch of black ice hidden beneath the snow dust. I tottered
but stayed upright, stepping quickly off the trail to gain better traction. Relieved, I jogged slowly for a moment, studying
the pathway ahead. It appeared ice-free, though still thinly layered in pristine snow. I returned to the trail, tested its
safety with a few strides, and felt reassured. The black ice had been an anomaly.
My pace quickened again. As I passed beneath a long
archway of trees, my mind raced ahead gleefully to the warm months and all the running that lay before me.
And then my left foot slipped.
There was no way I could stay on my feet this time.
I twisted in the air, hoping to minimize any damage the coming impact would cause. Despite that effort, my left leg ended
up tucked beneath me as I landed. Hard.
Something inside my leg exploded.
Raw screams ripped the darkness, shattering
the silence over and over again. It took a few moments before I realized those screams of agony were my own.
My head cleared as the pain in my leg dulled to
a fierce, persistent throbbing. I found myself on my back, clutching my left knee to my chest. Gingerly, and a bit fearfully,
I stretched out my leg, letting my heel rest on the asphalt. I might as well have dropped it on a bed of nails. I gasped in
pain and hugged my knee again.
want to look at my leg. Besides, it was probably just a twisted ankle. A couple of days off, maybe some icing, and everything
would be fine. I’d be back to running, back on the training schedule, back on the road to Boston—as long as I
look. You really, really, don’t want to look.
I saw my left foot pointed inward at an unnatural
angle. Dumbfounded, I tried to straighten it. It remained unmoved. For a bizarre moment, I marveled as my brain barked orders
but my foot paid no attention.
I couldn’t deny the truth any longer. This
was no twisted ankle. I had broken my leg.
This meant deep trouble. I was on one of the lesser-used
stretches of the park at an early hour in the dead of winter. It could be some time, perhaps hours, before someone came along.
With a raspy voice, I called out for help, but there was no one to hear.
I was on my own.
Walking was clearly out of the question, and the
nearest exit was a gated service drive nearly a quarter of a mile away. How was I going to get out of the park?
I paused long enough for a simple, desperate prayer,
counting on God to fill in the blanks as He invariably does. Then I looked around for anything that would improve my plight.
After thrashing about in some frost-stiffened undergrowth, I found a stick to serve as a crutch. It wasn’t very sturdy,
but it would have to do.
Standing was a slow, painful and terrifying exercise.
I carefully avoided putting pressure on my injured leg, but just being upright heightened the pain. I could feel the foot
and ankle swell, straining against my shoe. Balanced between my good foot and the wobbly stick, I took the tiniest step forward.
To my relief, everything held.
I tried it again. Still good. Once more. OK. It
was very slow going, but each teetering step brought me a few inches closer to salvation.
So intent was I on my escape plan that I forgot
one crucial variable: the black ice lurking beneath the snow.
My makeshift crutch, bearing almost all of my weight,
suddenly found a third patch of ice. The stick leaped completely from my grasp, and I fell to the pavement once again.
Right on top of my broken leg.
The screams this prompted were animal-like, full
of sheer agony, fear and fury. Later I would learn that the two falls collectively snapped my tibia in two places and shattered
my fibula, the long outer bone of my left leg. As far as my skeletal structure was concerned, my foot was flying solo.
And I was still stuck in the middle of the
Exhausted, fighting the pain, I turned to the one
option left. Rolling over onto my hands and knees, elevating my lower leg to keep the injured foot from dragging, I began
to crawl. My hands grew wet and numb as I pulled myself through the light snow. I crossed a small bridge and continued along
the winding path, passing the time by calling out “Help!” and “Fire!” and all the exclamations that
are supposed to summon rescue. But again, there was no one to hear.
At last I reached the service drive and its gated
entrance. A narrow dirt passage near the creek snaked around the gate. I carefully crawled through the dirt, very near the
bubbling water, and continued the slow, hand-over-kneecap journey up the service drive to the empty street.
Now I was fairly close to home, but my cold, stiff
hands and battered knees would take me no further. Instead, I lay at the side of the road and waited for a car to come by.
Because of the early hour, the wait was eternal. At last, three motorists came along and stopped to assist. One had a cell
phone, which I used to call my wife and ask if she wouldn’t mind too much giving me a lift to the hospital.
The next few hours were a jumble of pain and resignation.
This injury was beyond the healing of cast, crutches and rest. Surgery was necessary, and even that would have to wait a week
until the swelling subsided. Then two titanium plates and a dozen screws were added to my body, holding my broken bones together
as they mended and then encompassed the metal for eternity.
But that was just the beginning. There were
multiple casts, months of sleeping in a bed in my living room, being helped each morning with baths and dressing. I returned
to work three weeks after the accident, coming home each night worn out, my ankle swollen and throbbing. Crutches were my
constant companion for more than 12 weeks, and a stylish cane carried me a few weeks more. Physical therapy moved with frustrating
slowness from pool to workout room, an intense and tiring four months.
Through it all I struggled with a profound
sense of grief. I’d lost something incredibly precious. How many of life’s fears, unknowns and disappointments
had I reasoned through in miles upon countless miles of running? How could I face that life without the smooth cadence, the
steady breathing, the miles passing beneath my running feet?
As it turned out, the prognosis wasn’t
quite that bad. My doctor promised I would run again. But my long-distance days were over. No lengthy trail runs on hot summer
days. No training logs filled with hundreds upon hundreds of miles and memories. No Boston Marathon.
And yet there was a lesson to be learned.
The blessing hadn’t been taken away; it was merely being transformed. The storm had passed, and even now wisdom was
beginning to peek from behind the clouds.
Four months after the accident, I ran for
the first time—three pool lengths in chest-deep water, harnessed to my physical therapist. As a smile slowly crept across
my face, I saw a glimmer of that sunlight, a hint of a colorful glow. But I wouldn’t know the wisdom in all its glory
until much later.
That time came on another cold winter morning.
In ominously silent darkness, I walked alone from my home to that same service drive at the edge of the linear park. I slipped
around the gate, grateful for the good-natured greeting of the creek below. With some trepidation, I slowly retraced the path
that I’d crawled exactly one year earlier. Within minutes, I was at the scene of the accident.
For a third time, I fell—this time on
purpose, and to my knees. I thanked God for the years I had spent as a distance runner, and for allowing me to continue to
run. I thanked Him for healing my body. And I thanked Him for the wisdom I’d gained. My running had been about reaching
a mythical goal. Now it was a way to celebrate life and health, of simply being.
I stood and glanced upward at the same fuzzy stars
that had watched me suffer a year before. Then I began to run.
I passed over the small bridge, following the winding
path with increasing confidence and rising speed. Sweeping past the service drive, I continued on—through the cathedral
of trees, onto the street at the trailhead, then arcing back toward home, finishing that long-delayed three-mile run, my heart
and my life awash in a dazzling rainbow.
Rick Chambers is an award-winning writer, communications
professional and former journalist. A native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, he is the author of the science fiction novel Radiance,
as well as three novelettes and many published short stories, including several that have won awards. He also wrote two episodes
of the online series “Chronicles” and an episode, now in pre-production, for the highly acclaimed online series
“Star Trek Phase II.”