It was 10 days after spinal surgery when Van Hartman first ventured outside his Savoy home for a walk. He went from his front porch to the mailbox and back, and felt “pretty shaky.”
“It blew me away that I’d gone from marathons to stepping off the front porch of my house being a challenge,” Hartman said.
He’d been a runner for 30 years, starting in the late 1970s when, as he wrote on his blog, “short shorts, tall socks and long hair were the style and the first running boom was just getting started.” 
Several years ago, though, he began having back pain after long or fast runs. And while training for the half-marathon at the first Illinois Marathon in 2009, he sometimes would limp for several days after a run. He thought the pain in his hip might be bursitis.
During the half-marathon, the pain was intense enough that he had to slow his pace, and he could barely walk the next day.
He did some physical therapy, but it wasn’t until later that he learned what was causing the pain. Hartman told his doctor about the pain in his hip and lower back and the problems he’d been having with his balance. After a number of tests in the fall of 2010, including X-rays and an MRI, the doctor told him a vertebra in his lower back was collapsed and was pinching and damaging his nerves.
The condition was likely caused by an adjoining vertebra that didn’t develop properly before birth. Running probably helped, Hartman was told, because staying fit and active delayed the worsening of his condition.
Surgery was a last resort for Hartman. He went back to physical therapy. He tried reclining upside down on an inversion table, and he saw a chiropractor. He continued running, although fewer miles than before, and he alternated running with cycling.
Eventually, though, running, cycling, swimming and the elliptical machine all hurt. Hartman ended his last run, in March 2011, after 1 1/2 miles and limped home. He went to walking as his only form of exercise.
After several months, it was apparent physical therapy wasn’t working, so Hartman finally talked to his doctor about surgery. He asked if he’d ever be able to run again. His doctor said he would, in six months, if Hartman did everything he was supposed to do.
“I’ve always been the kind of person to try to make the best of what I’ve got,” Hartman said. “I got so much more motivated when (the doctor) told me when he was done, I’d be able to run again.”
On Dec. 2, 2011, the surgeon removed his L5 disc and put in a bone graft, along with titanium rods and screws to stabilize the area while the graft healed. After returning home from the hospital, Hartman began walking circles through his living and dining rooms. He eventually ventured outside to his mailbox, and then to the neighbor’s driveway. He increased the distance he walked, house by house.
Hartman was in a back brace and was using a walker. He soon wore out the treads on the walker and began using Nordic walking poles instead.
Hartman is a manager and buyer at Body n’ Sole Sports in Savoy, and he hoped to make an appearance at the store’s annual New Year’s Eve run. He made it to the run and walked a half-mile.
Although his ultimate goal was to run again, Hartman set an interim goal of walking the 10K at this spring’s Illinois Marathon. He used to run the 10K distance in less than 32 minutes. His goal for the Illinois Marathon 10K was to finish in less than two hours and before the first marathon runner, so he could see the winner cross the finish line. (The 10K started 35 minutes after the marathon.)
He knew there were several 2:15 marathoners in the race and calculated he’d have to walk a 15 minute-per-mile pace — faster than he’d been doing. Plus, he’d been on his feet for two days, working for Body n’ Sole at the marathon expo.
“I had to use a lot of upper body strength, a lot of arms to keep me going,” he said. “With a mile to go, I was ready to be done with it. I was just exhausted.”
He finished his 10K in 1:42 and crossed the line a couple of minutes before the marathon winner.
“I’m done with walking 10Ks. I’m going to move on to running 10Ks,” he said.
Hartman has been cleared by his doctor to run, but he hasn’t tried it yet.
“I’m a little nervous about it,” he said. “It will be a big moment. You just don’t know (how it will go) until you do it.”
He’s been working on leg strength and core fitness in physical therapy, and he wants to get a little stronger before attempting a treadmill run in the next couple of weeks. He’s also had numbness along his right quadricep and calf and on the top of his foot.
“I have a hard time raising my foot up still,” he said. “That’s something that’s going to have to improve before I can run safely.”
When he does start running, Hartman said, he’ll go slow, alternating short distances of running with walking.
“Walking is still going to be a big, big part of my routine for a long time,” he said, adding he plans to use the elliptical machine and water running. He’s also going to work on his running form.
His short-term goal is to run a 5K. But Hartman also says he has “unfinished business” — an Ironman race.
He’s raced half Ironmans, but a full Ironman “is one thing I’ve left off my athletic challenges.
“Whether it remains unfinished or not, I don’t know,” he said, adding that once he starts running again, he’ll know if it still causes pain or if he’ll be able to go on to pursue his goals.
“Everybody always has something to shoot for. It’s nice to challenge yourself,” Hartman said. “Even just getting back to doing a short triathlon might be good.”
Van Hartman blogged about his recovery from spinal surgery on the Body n’ Sole Sports website. He said he began blogging to provide information about his recovery to others facing spinal surgery and to motivate them to be active. His posts, titled “Fusion to 5K,” can be found at http://blog.bodynsolesports.com/author/van/ .
Photos: Top: Van Hartman at Body n' Sole Sports in Savoy. Photo by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette.
Middle: An X-ray of the titanium rods and screws stabilizing the vertebrae in Van Hartman's back. He had surgery on Dec. 2, 2011, to fuse a vertebrae that had collapsed and was pinching and damaging nerves. Photo provided by Van Hartman.
Bottom: Van Hartman of Savoy walks the Illinois Marathon 10K on April 28, 2012, almost five months after he had surgery to fuse a vertebrae in his back. Photo provided by Van Hartman.