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Steve Nelson: Slow and Steady We Lose the Race, but a New Hip Buys Time

There’s nothing quite like a loud crashing noise to rouse one quickly from a deep sleep. Adrenaline is much more efficient than caffeine.

Several nights ago I bolted upright in response to a sound I’d never before heard. Thunderous, but the sky was clear. A tour of the house revealed nothing. Then I realized it might be the stone retaining wall in front of the house. Or perhaps better called the “not retaining” wall. A section of the 4-foot-high wall had collapsed onto the patio stones beneath.

The wall had been under incessant pressure for years. Of uncertain age, it had no drainage or other hedge against endless cycles of frost, thaw and rain. Small shifts had become significant bulges and the collapse was inevitable.

These kinds of nature-induced changes are fascinating. From day to day or month to month the movement is imperceptible to the human eye. I’ve looked at the wall week after week for years, never able to identify a change and yet ... there it was, on the ground.

Just like my hip, I thought.

For some 50 years I’ve used and abused my body. Name the endurance sport and I’ve done and overdone it. Other than the physiological changes from intentional training, or periods of relative sloth, nothing changed much over time. A run or bike workout from one day to the next, or even one year to the next, differed little in pace or comfort.

It is rather like Zeno’s paradox of Achilles racing a tortoise. If Achilles gives the tortoise a head start of 100 meters, Achilles will quickly reach the tortoise’s starting point. But the tortoise will have moved some distance, albeit short, in the meantime. Achilles then will reach that new point but, alas, the tortoise will have moved again. The logical analysis is that there will always be some distance, however microscopic, between the position reached by Achilles, previously occupied by the tortoise, and the new position of the tortoise. By this analysis, the tortoise is never caught.

Of course we are the tortoise, and the paradox is an illusion, for we will all be caught by the relentless march of time. Like the stone wall, my hip changed imperceptibly over time, despite my world-class capacity for self-delusion. Just a year ago I was frolicking at Zealand Falls in the White Mountains. Last November I had a delightful 5-mile run on the New York City Marathon course, feeling much better than when I actually ran the New York City Marathon in 1978.

By January I couldn’t walk up a single flight of stairs without leading with my “good” leg. The hip collapse was not as loud as the wall, but just as catastrophic. The imperceptible day-to-day changes left bone rubbing bone and all the willpower in the world wouldn’t allow me a jog to the corner.

We can’t beat time, but we can buy time. Fortunately, medical advances make hip replacements a relatively simple procedure. Mine was on Feb. 22. I have a new titanium implant with a ceramic ball and polyethylene liner instead of cartilage. My surgeon is among a growing number who see no reason for limitations. I missed only two days of work, was cycling indoors on day four post-surgery, did some careful mountain biking at week five and can now do anything. Conservative doctors may still advise against running or other high-impact activities. My surgeon thinks that’s silly. (And it’s why I picked him.) My hip will last longer than I will. When I expressed worry about crashing on a mountain bike and breaking my hip he said, “Yes, you might break your hip, but it’s more likely you’d break your other one.” That’s my kind of doctor!

We’re going to rebuild the retaining wall so that it retains again. It will probably cost about the same as the hip replacement surgery, but won’t be covered by Aetna.

Life goes on, and death is the only escape from the incessant ravages of time. I don’t mean that in a maudlin way. One benefit of being on last few laps around the track is the ability to make a list of things you’ll never have to do or buy again. I’ve already bought my last roof and a couple of indestructible Adirondack chairs made of recycled plastic. It’s actually kind of fun to look at every acquisition and wonder if it might make it to the end. Every year the list grows.

Add a new hip and a well-constructed retaining wall and I’ll call it a pretty good year!

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.