Running again -- and loving it - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Running again -- and loving it


This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of THE ROADRUNNER, monthly magazine of the Memphis Runners Track Club. Joe will discuss this article and other thoughts on running on RUNNERS EDGE with Tom Webb at 6 o’clock Sunday evening, July 23 on SPORTS 56 WHBQ Radio

It was my 58th birthday, Saturday, September 21, 2013. I decided to treat myself to an exercise trifecta: cycle from our Midtown home to Harbortown, run along the banks of the Mississippi River at Greenbelt Park and finally, lift some weights at the Rhodes College gym on the bicycle ride back toward home. Our sons, Joseph and Matthew, were planning to have birthday cake and ice cream with their aging Baby Boomer parent late that afternoon. Good plan. But birthday boy took a very different journey that sunny September day. 

I felt the bicycle seat jiggle rounding a corner, joining westbound traffic on Jackson Avenue. I had loaned the bike to a handyman that week and suddenly remembered that he had said, “Your seat needs tightening.” What happened next took place in the space of about 3 seconds. The seat fell off. When you think about your anatomy and the bicycle seat post where your hind quarters no longer have a resting place, perhaps you can understand why I turned around to see what happened. At that critical moment, I turned my right foot inward and it got caught in the front wheel spokes. My right ankle did a 360 degree turn. I watched it happen. It was bad. I crashed. Paramedics were called.

This electronic town crier was splayed out on a stretch of Jackson Ave. sidewalk, his right foot pointing in an unnatural direction in the gutter. A paramedic said, “Mr. Birch, I’m giving you morphine now.” I objected, certain the medic was overreacting. The professional ignored his patient’s protests and jabbed a shot of morphine into my right arm. As the Emergency Medical Technicians were loading this reporter into their ambulance, I asked, “You guys like the media, right?” They laughed.

The morphine had begun to work! I’m blessed to know Dr. Terry Canale, the former Chief of Staff of Campbell Clinic, the world’s leading center of orthopedic excellence based right here in Memphis. I called Dr. Canale from the ambulance. He generously dropped whatever he was doing and met us at Methodist University Hospital’s ER. Dr. Canale and another physician righted my leg after they hit me with not one or two but three shots of propofal, a powerful pain killer. I know this because our sons had arrived at the ER by then and they have recounted the tale of how I jerked when the leg was righted and then placed in a full-length cast. Turns out I had shattered multiple bones in my right ankle. A few days later, a brilliant young surgeon named Dr. Benjamin J. Grear, put my ankle back together again, implanting an erector set of screws and plates. “What was plan B?” I asked Dr. Grear. “Amputation,” the good doctor replied with that clinical, matter of fact, I’m-not-kidding look on his face. The technical name for the procedure is “open reduction internal fixation” to stabilize fractures in my malleolus and talus bones. The metal plate and multiple screws were inserted to stabilize the bones and promote the healing process. Infected tissue was removed. My running career had come to an inglorious end. Dr. Grear said that he doubted I would ever run again.

Running was my main mode of exercise. I did my best thinking on long runs and generally went for a least a 3 miler about five times a week. Losing my running ability rocked my metabolism and blew my mind. While I’ve tried to adjust to other modes of exercise, none has proven as effective bodily, mentally and spiritually as a run to the river and back. I am the son of a star 1940s high school half miler for the Teaneck, NJ Highwaymen who went to Villanova to run for Coach James F. (Jumbo) Elliott who led the Wildcats to eight National Collegiate team championships.

My Dad was not an elite but he did run Cross Country for Jumbo before injury sidelined him. My point is running is in the family DNA. I’ve inherited a magnificent race walking trophy from my paternal grandfather, a three-foot tall statue of Mercury that James P. Birch (1889-1966) won by placing third in the amateur division in a race walk from New York City Hall to Coney Island in 1914. While the speed gene skipped a generation, I was bitten by the running bug and have promoted races on a weekly basis on WMC Action News 5, hoisting race shirts for the camera and posting running events on Facebook and Twitter.

For the 21st time, I have the honor of serving as race director for the Gibson Guitar 5K for St. Patrick Community Outreach, Inc. Funds raised from our 7 p.m., June 10 run starting on Beale Street feeds hungry children and families and fuels the Green Machine Mobile Food Market, a rolling farmers’ market that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, and other foods at cost at so-called “food deserts” around Memphis. Learn more at I still emcee my event and many other races. I have literally ached driving to running events, pained that I can no longer participate even as a slow poke. But now there’s hope! My wife Robyn encouraged me to ask Dr. Grear if the ankle had healed sufficiently to remove the erector set. On December 20th last year, we returned to Campbell Clinic yet again to have all the hardware taken out. Dr. Grear said I could try to run on a cushioned running track like the one at Rhodes. Ever so gently. I have taken my first baby strides toward a return to running. I ran a 220. No problem. Tried a 440 and then a half mile. I made it a mile with my son Matthew on the track the other day. While pounding the pavement in a 5K is not what the doctor ordered, just being able to run a little once again has enlivened my steps and brought joy to my heart.

Hope to see your stride crossing the finish line at the Gibson Guitar 5K on June 10!   

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