Living the Vicarious Life

“You’re getting the hip done”? The question came from an older, rounder gentleman standing at the check-in desk of the Vincera Institute Surgery Center. He had noted the white box next to me containing the hip brace I would wear post-surgery.

My comfy hip brace.

I nodded in response. “Oh. That’s awful. It hurts and takes forever to rehab from”. I looked away back at the morning news on the lobby television. “Thanks”, I thought “Just the kind of encouraging words I want to hear moments before heading into surgery”. When I chose to have both the pelvic floor surgery to repair the core muscle injury and the hip labrum repair I knew that I’d be out of commission for a while and living life through the eyes of others, but this older dude’s condemnation of my chosen path to recovery was not what I had in mind.

As I waited, I thought about how even now good friends were enjoying the cool, clear morning with a run along the Chester Valley Trail. I had seen the invitation the night before but knew were I’d be early this morning. We have a regular group that meets to run most mornings but especially on Friday morning. These folks have become some of my very best friends and I look forward to Friday more than any other day, not for the conventional reasons but for the opportunity to spend time running the trail with these tremendous people. We talk about running. We talk about life, anything about life. I’m closer to them then almost anyone I’ve ever known.

Fall on the Chester Valley Trail.

Elsewhere, I have other friends who, at this early hour, were probably just settling in to a tree stand in hopes that the cool October morning would inspire a big buck to be up and on the move. Other than a fisherman and Phillies fan, I can remember being a hunter before anything else. A cold, fall morning like this either drives me into the woods or makes me sit longing for days when I didn’t have other obligations.

My favorite view in the fall.

I had waffled a long time about doing the surgery. It was going to be an enormous out-of–pocket cost. I spent many days trying to decide if I was ready to permanently step away from being a really active person. With the injuries, I couldn’t run fast or far or bike for a long time, or even swim comfortably but could still do enough to keep in shape. Tasks like mowing the lawn and certainly shoveling #@#@$^%! snow were aggravating at best (from a pain level . . not just in the ordinary way). I had completed my Newfoundland moose hunt and while my 20 miles of running per week along with riding had me in good shape, walking the bogs in hunting gear was also aggravating.

Meanwhile, a subtle change happened to me in my running groups. Instead of a participant I felt more like a guest. This was not because of their behavior. My running friends are the best and never offered anything other than encouragement. So help me a few of them even offered to contribute to a crowd funding effort for my surgery. Did I mention they are the greatest people? But in my mind I felt like I didn’t belong because throughout the summer and fall everyone but me was an active member of the running or triathlon community.

Just some of the greatest friends a person could have.

Tina Devlin and Bill Mullan knocked out a great Ironman 70.3 Augusta.

Tina and Bill rocked Augusta 70.3

Most of the group ran the inaugural Downingtown loop marathon. There Kim Griffin banged out her first marathon, Claire Cunningham her first 50K, and others had great days. I couldn’t even bring myself to go and cheer them on knowing I might never run further than 7 miles again. I was too busy being the honored guest at my own pity party.

As race season has progressed I watched as Keith Straw and Andres Hernandez continued to perform the super-human: completing marathons nearly every week as training runs for miscellaneous 100 mile events. I watched as Karen Dunn knocked it out of the park at the Wineglass marathon. I watch as Jamie Hassert, Mike Armstrong, and Mike and Lauren Tecce burned up the Chicago marathon. And I empathized with Nobu Shan as he dealt with yet another BQ attempt at an abnormally hot, summer-like Steamtown marathon. (Note to Self: Never, ever sign up for the same race as Nobu).

Nobu. He doesn’t look tired yet.

Each week I listened eagerly as tales of the race were told. From a non-runner’s perspective running must seem pretty boring, but all racers know there are a thousand stories between the start and finish line. This is true whether it is a 5K, marathon, long-course triathlon, or something longer. There are moments of tears, laughter, and triumph in every event. These are the things we live for and stories we tell and re-tell for years.

Claire rockin’ 50K

As I experienced my first fall racing season through the eyes of others, I realized I couldn’t not try to fix this. I’m 51 years old. To some of my friends that probably sounds as old as Methuselah but it is a long way from the front porch rocking chair. Bud Thunberg, my Father In Law, pointed out to me one afternoon that there will be plenty of aches and pains I can’t do anything about as I get older. “This is only money. If you can fix the problem, do it.”

So here I am. One week post-op still watching my friends continue through race season. I’m also following my hunting friends through texts, phone calls, and social media posts as hunting season rolls along and the white tailed deer rut begins to peak. Watching the woods come to life from an autumn deer stand is humbling and fulfilling. Upon settling into a quiet stand, the hunter hears the last scufflings of the night creatures as they hurry to bed before the rising sun. Then it gets quiet until the day creatures come to life. The silence is occasionally broken by the crunch, crunch, crunch of a crepuscular deer as it wanders by, still too dark to be in danger. The birds start chirping and calling first, then the squirrels begin rustling in the treetops before running to and fro on their daily errands. Between the birds, rodents, and falling leaves and nuts, the sound of the fall woods is a symphony, the daily rhythm of life over which the waiting hunter strains to hear the telltale sound of deer hooves in dry leaves.

I have a young friend named Andy Angiulo. Andy very much reminds me of me when I was younger. Most days he can be found hunting or fishing. He is the eternal optimist, always believing he will be successful in field and stream and he very often is. He has found early season success with bow and gun this year and, while I have yet to be with him when he has scored with his bow, he tells a great story and I remember back to when I took my very first deer. I was on cloud nine for days. I still get excited all these years and a couple hundred deer later, but Andy’s enthusiasm is contagious. Enjoying his days afield remotely have been a blessing knowing it will be some time before I can get out there again.

Meanwhile, I’ve let my best friend down. My buddy Joe Brletich whom I’ve hunted with for 30 years with finally drew a coveted Pennsylvania elk tag. Yes, Pennsylvania has a legitimate, huntable population of elk.

Pennsylvania Elk

The herd is centered in Benezette, PA. Elk are big animals and the Pennsylvania Game Commission has a delicate balancing act to maintain a viable herd without the big, hungry deer becoming a costly nuisance to local farmers. To do this, a few tags are issued via a lottery every year. Joe finally drew a cow elk tag for 2017. The moment he texted to say he drew a tag I jumped and said “I’ll go with you”. Elk are big animals. The hunting is in a remote part of the state. I was looking forward to going and helping him find an elk, and get it packed out of the woods. My plan to participate came crashing down when I decided to get the hip labrum repaired as well as the pelvic floor repair. As the older, inconsiderate gentleman at Vincera pointed out, rehab takes forever, or at least longer than elk season lasts. Joe’s elk hunt is next weekend. I will likely still be on crutches and not allowed to yet put much more than 50% body weight on my left hip. This is not especially conducive to elk hunting.

Joe and I (and Layla) after a successful bird shoot.

Now Joe is about the nicest person you’d ever meet. Things like this seem to bounce off him and he keeps rolling. I know he was looking forward to having me along, and he’d never tell me he was mad at me for not going. (I don’t think he is, but I’m sure he is disappointed.) We’ve shared dozens of adventures together and I was looking forward to another. As it is, he’ll have to experience his elk hunt by himself. This makes me tremendously sad, but I am hoping it goes well and he can find an elk somewhere that it is not too hard to recover.

The short term will have me doing rehab daily (twice daily in fact) and focusing on healing, and then growing strength in my repaired hip and groin. I am focused on coming back healthier and stronger. There will be lots of races in the future and many more hunting seasons. But for now, I’ll continue to watch and live vicariously through my friends.

Keith pacing the 3:35 group at the Atlantic City Marathon


  1. You didn’t let me down…..I’m not mad. I would lie if I said I wasn’t disappointed, but the reason I am disappointed is because it is always more fun to share the adventure, especially with someone who has shared so many adventures. I’m not worried about dealing with or handling a big animal, we’ve gotten them out before – besides, I was in the kitchen eating a second breakfast 70 minutes after putting a 900 lb moose down, including a 20 minute car ride. Oh wait……We had an incredible retriever with a finely tuned method for that.

    There is no such thing as a “bad hunting trip”. There might be bad guides, bad weather (all we have to do is show up and the temps are 30 degrees above usual for that time of year), bad moon, bad acorn crops, etc. But all hunting trips have a story whether an animal is killed or not. There is always something new to see in the woods, something new to experience, and unexpected things that make you smile when they happen – because you know that 99.9% of the people in this world for all of eternity will NEVER see what you just saw.

    I have been waiting since the beginning of elk hunting in PA to have this opportunity – Elk are my “ultimate deer” and I may pee myself when I get to drop the trigger on my rifle with a cow elk in the crosshairs, I’ve been looking forward to this hunt for many years. I will still be able to share the adventure. My brother Jim (who is also broken) will be “tagging along” for the first 3 days of the 6 day hunt and he will be running a digital video camera, so with any luck – you and others can still enjoy the experience!! AND…..There will still be future opportunities to hunt together – I’m a bit more resilient than one might think…..

    Get healthy – adventure of all kinds awaits!!

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