Bruce Bennett: On the day he decided to pay a man to cut off his leg with a power saw, Tom White woke up with a powerful yearning to run. It was last October, early morning. The girls were still asleep. White rolled over and found an empty bed. His wife, Tammy, had already pulled on her shoes and set off on a five-mile run on the streets of Buena Vista, Colorado. Without him. Again.
The Whites are well-known in Buena Vista, a farm town on the sunny central Colorado plain between the Arkansas River and the 14,000-foot Collegiate Peaks. Tom, a 47-year-old country doctor, has delivered many of the kids in town. He's a trim, compact fellow with an unflaggingly sunny outlook-kind of a one-man optimist's club. It's not uncommon for a woman to stop him in the produce section of the City Market, put his hand on her pregnant belly, and ask, "Is that a contraction?" Tammy, 46, is a physical therapist whose patients sometimes drop by the family's house on Main Street for treatment right there in the living room. The sight of Tom and Tammy running together was a part of daily life in Buena Vista. Tom was a nationally ranked cross-country runner in college, and Tammy completed a marathon about once a month. For ten years they'd paced each other along the river trails and up the high ridges outside of town. But by early 2007, the townsfolk didn't see Dr. Tom running so much anymore. A degenerative condition in his left leg, the result of a motorcycle accident in his 20s, was giving him pain. That summer the pain worsened. By autumn, Tammy was running alone. For Tom, the injury was more than a disappointment. It was maddening. Running was an integral part of his life, his identity, it was how he moved when he felt most completely himself. And it had been taken away from him once before, after the crash. He'd spent years teaching himself how to run on a badly wounded leg. Now he was losing it all over again.
Full story at RunnersWorld.com: click.
I first read "Life and Limb" the summer after I graduated from college, when I got my copy of Best American Sportswriting 2009. I'm sure I'd read great writing before and I know I've read great writing since, but this is one of the first stories I remember finishing and feeling in awe of what someone could do simply with words on a page. I've written all my life, even when I didn't want to admit it to anyone, especially myself. But it was around my senior year and then that first year after I graduated, while I wrote my first book, that I realized something: Stories are all that matter, yes, but the way we phrase the words that tell that story can elevate it from something we experience to something ... else. Something I can't really articulate right now. Probably because it's 1:07 a.m. and I've been up since 5:45. And because apparently it was prom night here in Toronto, and there are a million chimpanzees whooping through the hotel disguised as high schoolers.
"Life and Limb" has stuck with me ever since I first read it. I think about it often. I re-read it today on my flight from Greenville to Charlotte. I dog-eared a few pages. Underlined a few things. Got compelled to write some fiction. (Nope, not telling what about.) Basically just fellt your good old-fashioned inspiration. Felt proud to have carried this book with me all these years, my notes in it growing like any good and passionate student.
Then I got distracted by Lord only knows what and tucked the book into the back pocket of the chair in front of me and by the time I realized that I'd left it there I was on another plane, halfway to Toronto.
P.S. Had another thought and totally lost it. Damn Canadian teenagers, eh.