A Runner's View of the Elliptical

I haven't really told the story of my running over the last couple of years, and that's because there's no running story to tell. The story is of an achilles tendon on my right heel that over the course of 6 years and 15,000 or so miles of running and racing [and generally feeling FREE] through achilles tendonitis/tendinosis/bursitis/haglunds deformity (it felt alright after it warmed up, for the most part!), the achilles decided really that enough was enough. I couldn't run without limping, and when I ran, I got these sharp pains that felt like the tendon was tearing, one strand at a time. Which, turns out, it was.

I got an MRI. The Dx was rupture/necrosis/general death of achilles tendon over about 1.5 inches or so. Kind of like the achilles tendon equivalent of a frayed rope.

I had surgery. They cut out the necrotic inch-and-a-half and then took my flexor hallus longus (which apparently is not all that useful,  or at least much less useful than an achilles tendon, though now I can't flex my big toe) and somehow used it to rebuild an achilles tendon on my right side. This was last June.

The first three months, I was in a cast, then a boot and spent a lot of time on the couch. I watched the Sopranos from Episode 1 all the way through. Spoiler: therapy doesn't do the trick with mobsters, or maybe with anyone.

After three months or so, my wound finally healed up enough and everything was strong enough to start limping around in shoes. Now, finally, after another 3 months and a startling amount of rehab, I can hammer out an hour on the elliptical, which I do more or less daily. This brings me to my point: the elliptical.

It turns out that there are a number of people who are elliptical users. Instead of running or cycling or hiking, their exercise of choice is the elliptical. I must have known this subconsciously because otherwise why would there be so many elliptical machines in the gym? But now that I am one of the daily elliptical users, this fact has slowly worked itself into my mind through experience. As you are a runner, you also may not know this fact, or like me, find it difficult to accept.

I ruminate on this fact while I am on the elliptical. Why are these people here with me? There are definitely benefits to the elliptical, and all of the benefits of the elliptical boil down to one thing. The elliptical is predictable. It does the same thing, every day.  You show up, the elliptical is there, you get on it, set it up, plug in the earphones, turn the channel to what you want to see, grasp the handles, place feet on the foot-thingies and it's like you enter a soft tunnel of exercise that is there waiting for you every day. Nothing is too jarring. Nothing really hurts. The heartrate rises, but not too high. The muscles work, but they don't get sore. The joints bend and flex, but they don't pound. It's sustainable, predictable, always there -- really like nothing else in the world.

It's got to be really freaking healthy. No one ever necrotized their achilles on an elliptical, that's for sure. That's because the elliptical was designed for the body, which is very strange and soul-sucking if you think about it (and especially if you think about it on the elliptical.) It's actually the inverse of activity -- to be active is to move your body over and through terrain. We use our body to play in, with, through, and against our environment. The body is a partner with the environment, and really it only comes into its own through a type of oppositional relationship with the environment. This is why, for example, runners love hills.

Meb, undermining my thesis on the ElliptiGO.
The elliptical is very strange because being built for the body, it undoes the whole notion of the body actually doing something. It takes an object, namely flesh and arms and legs and pulsing heart, and straps it to a machine that imitates movement. Yes, the blood still flows. Yes, the muscles contract and expand. Yes, the heart rate can be monitored and seen to rise to 120, 130, 140, etc., but despite all of that, what happens? Nothing.

The elliptical is exercise purified, or health purified. It's exercise for its own sake. Seems to me, though, that unlike something like Beauty or The Grand Canyon or an April Butterfly, exercise doesn't really justify itself. The elliptical is like the bodily form of narcissism -- it's like a weird body-mirror through which the body relates only to itself, and gets caught up in its own gaze.

I mean, certainly it is better than sitting on the couch. I am so happy that I can do it, and every now and then, I can even conjure up a faded image of how it felt to be running when I was fit. There is part of it though that feels too much like the rest of this strange modern life, where humans have finally figured out how to turn the environment into a thing that exists for them, rather than something they live in and through. Running was one way I escaped that.

All of this is to say that the elliptical people will remain strangers to me. I am all for predictability, but give me the predictable routine of the runner -- the routine that gets me out the door, in the wind, to feel habitually the sting of rain, the jarring of asphalt, the wild whirl of the sky, the horizon that draws the eye outward, so that we feel small and simultaneously real and in the world, and the world also feels a bit like it is inside of us.

Maybe this spring, pending the slow return of life to my heel. In the meantime, the rest of you have to carry the torch of the body's utility, perhaps this weekend on a quiet run as snow falls, and you leave traces that fill in behind you while everyone else stays inside, their warmth not quite of their own making.


  1. I've looked at getting one of those 'bikes' but... the price is just a little over the top!

  2. I have a great friend from Ithaca who had to resort to an ElliptiGo during rehab.. but Adam goes to a run whenever his hamstring feels good. I'll strap on some snowshoes for you this weekend - feel better soon!

  3. Try Stairclimber? Also pretty predictable, but HR gets higher, and you get to use different muscle groups then in Elliptical. here is to healing!

  4. I loved this post! You captured the emotions around the elliptical perfectly (actually I feel this way about treadmill running too, or any cardio machine in the gym). I hope your heel allows you to run soon!

  5. A good fallback. Nothing more nothing less.

  6. This is a good one Jeff. Loved the second to last paragraph of course. And you make the elliptical sound just plain gross. :)

  7. its about rehab or cross training. its a tool to use to help yourself when running is not there.

  8. I just read this. Those last three paragraphs....Oh my. I so hope you can run again soon!

  9. Wow! I am amazed to read the content here on this site, i will come back for future posts. Also check out this cool similar site i found recently. runnium


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