Just Say No to No

Recently my husband handed me an issue of Sports Illustrated, pointed to one article and said “read this.” The article was about Jeff Glasbrenner. When Jeff was 8 years old, he lost his right leg below the knee in a farming accident. He spent 47 grueling days in the hospital during which he had 14 surgeries, developed gangrene, and twice was resuscitated when his heart stopped. I cringe at the thought of how scary this was for a young boy. When he was finally discharged, his doctors sent him home with a list of activities that he must never attempt including swimming, biking, and playing any kind of sports. He was basically told “you can’t be a kid anymore.” For years Jeff followed his doctors’ instructions but he longed to be involved.

When Jeff went away to college, he met another student, Troy Sachs, from Australia who had his leg amputated below the knee when he was 2 1/2 years old. Troy was a world-class wheelchair basketball player. The next day Troy had Jeff out on the basketball court. While Jeff had natural ability, it took time for him to fully develop his skills. Jeff went from working the scoring table at his sister’s basketball games to playing the game he dreamed of.

Jeff went on to become a professional wheelchair basketball player. A couple of years later he was invited to participate in a 200-mile charity bike ride from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Despite having never used a hand-crank bike, Jeff enthusiastically agreed. From there he moved to a regular road bike, to swimming and running, and then completing Ironman Triathlons (25 total, in case you are counting).

Jeff and his wife have two children, one of whom, Grace, has a genetic disorder that causes her to have seizures. Through a program for people with physical disabilities, Grace tried rock climbing. They noticed that she never had a seizure while she was on the wall. Jeff got involved in rock climbing too and that led to him becoming a mountaineer, climbing mountains in North America, South America, and finally the biggest one of them all, Mt. Everest.

Although he spent years sitting on the sidelines because doctors had told him he shouldn’t be physically active, Jeff got the courage to toss that advice aside and pursue an active life. It has taken him to the top of the highest mountain in the world.

I love Jeff’s story. After reading about Jeff’s experience, I could understand a how he felt. I was training for my fourth marathon when I first began experiencing extreme neuropathy and muscle spasms so severe I could not walk. When I finally received my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis (TM), my doctor was skeptical about my ability to run again. His words planted seeds of doubt in my brain and made me hesitant to put on my shoes and run. I was fortunate. I was not wheelchair bound but I was still afraid.  At my lowest point I was encouraged by Auntie C. who told me “Transverse Myelitis does not define you. You don’t need to have it control your life.” It was just the kick in the pants I needed to get focused again.

“No” was never a word I accepted lightly when I was growing up. (Sorry for all that aggravation, Mom.) It just meant I had to work harder to make whatever I wanted happen. I decided to try running again. Through the help of my running coach Leanne, I slowly built up my strength. I went from being the slowest runner in her class to running with the front of the pack. With Leanne’s help I got stronger than ever. Since my diagnosis over 6 years ago, I have finished 10 marathons and 48 half marathons plus completed the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.

I have some thoughts from my experience and from reading about Jeff. First, doctors can provide information on challenges that I may face. But the only one who can say how physical activity is making me feel is me. Doctors aren’t inside my skin. I have always told my neurologist, Dr. T., we have a partnership in my health. He is another member of Team Funatical Runner. My responsibility is to give him feedback on how I feel. His job is to monitor how I am doing. According to one study of TM patients, exercise promotes functional recovery. Running has helped keep me healthier, even Dr. T. will agree with that.

Second, it is my responsibility to manage any challenges that I encounter such as having a risk mitigation plan for running in the heat and dealing with fatigue. Through trial and error, I have pretty much mastered these. When I told Dr. T. about my plan to run Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon, he yelled at me “your organs will shut down and you could die.” But I planned for my challenges and I did just fine.

Finally, the benefits to my mental health from being physically active are immeasurable. Running gives me a sense of personal accomplishment. When life gets overwhelming, I can always go for a run to put things back into perspective. I might not be the fastest runner out there but I still am able to finish a marathon.

Jeff could have sat back and continued to watch life go by. But he chose to jump in and live it. He started doing all the things his doctors took off the table for him when he was 8 years old. His life is richer because he did.  I thought my TM diagnosis was the end of my running career. A bump in the road maybe but not a brick wall. I didn’t allow someone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do.  Like Jeff, it was really up to me to figure out what I was capable of.  Looking back over the last few years, I can say I am glad I didn’t let “No” stop me.

No, I’m never giving up and I would have to say Jeff isn’t either.

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I’m Back

It has been awhile since I last posted on my blog.  Recovering from my broken toe has taken longer and been more difficult than I expected.  The last 2 months have not been filled with adventure or running.  I have been on a detour along my running journey that I never want to take again.

When I broke my toe in early July, I expected after 5 or 6 weeks of rest I would be able to ride a bike or swim.  I was totally unprepared when, at my 4-week check-up, the doctor told me there were really two fractures in my toe, the second a lengthwise crack down the bone.  He was concerned that the bone would pull apart if I flexed my foot as I might while biking or swimming.  He told me that I had to continue resting my toe for 4 more weeks.

I needed some sort of physical activity for my physical and mental health.  I kept asking the doctor to suggest some activity that I could do, some way to keep moving.  My doctor just shook his head and said “sorry, I can’t let you do anything.”  I cried as he delivered the news.  After I left his office, I sat in the parking lot in my car and cried some more.  I had been a good patient for 4 weeks.  I had stayed off my foot.  I took extra calcium and Vitamin D.  I had done every thing I was told to do and it did not seem fair that I had to wait another 4 weeks until I could resume my active life.  I have to be honest.  I was depressed.

My enthusiasm for writing my blog took a big hit too.  I tried to rally and write about the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.  As is the case with every Olympics, there were stories that fascinated me and I had wanted to write about them.  Stories like Usain Bolt’s triple-triple (3 gold medals in 3 straight Olympic Games) and Mo Farah’s double-double.  Mo’s gold in the men’s 10,000 meter race was even more astounding considering he fell about halfway through the race.  (I wish I could learn his secret of falling and springing back up to finish a race.)   Or the collision of Abbey D’Agostino (USA) and Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) half way through a qualifying heat for the women’s 5000 meter race and how Abbey and Nikki helped each other to get back up and finish the race – they personified true sportsmanship.  Or that among the competitors in the women’s marathon were two sets of twins and one set of triplets.  Or that the Belgium team in the Men’s 4×400 relay race included 3 brothers – Kevin, Jonathan, and Dylan Borlee.  (It was a family affair for the Borlee’s – their sister Olivia competed in the Women’s 200 meter race.)  No matter how many times I sat down to write I just couldn’t get motivated.  If I couldn’t run, I couldn’t write about it.

I tried to think of activities I could do that would not aggravate my broken toe.  I had spent the first 4 weeks of recuperation reading and finished 9 books.  I couldn’t imagine reading anymore. I didn’t want to watch movies. I wanted to be moving. I tried to think of any activity I could do to keep my body from turning into a blob.  The only activity that I could think of was Pilates.  I signed up for private lessons 3 times a week.  The instructor listened to me explain all my physical limitations from my arm with its limited range of motion to my healing toe.  She was confident despite these challenges, I could still get a work-out.  Since I started taking Pilates, I can tell that I have gotten stronger.  If there can be a silver lining to my broken toe, it is that I discovered how  Pilates can improve my running – a stronger core and more flexible hips.  Pilates classes saved me from total despair.

Last week I was finally given the ok to resume exercising.  I started riding my bike and walking on my treadmill.   I even pushed things a bit and did a short run this week.  After 8 weeks of inactivity, my body isn’t the same as it was before my fall.  I feel like I am starting all over from square one.   But the ability to get moving again has turned my frowny face into a smiling one.  I am a living example of the positive effects of exercise on one’s mental health.

I did learn a few things during this ordeal.  I got a deeper appreciation of how much I value the ability to move.  It is a gift.  While I was unable to run for only 8 weeks, there are people who are permanently unable to move including those with more serious cases of Transverse Myelitis, MS, ALS, or spinal cord injuries.  I am fortunate to be able to lace up my shoes again to run.

I also learned how important it is to have multiple hobbies or interests.  Running is my only hobby.  When I was unable to run, I had nothing other than reading to keep me occupied.  Reading is extremely important but it was not enough to sustain me.  I need to develop other interests so my life doesn’t come to a screeching halt when I can’t run.

Despite my latest injury, I still have my goals of completing each of the 6 Major Marathons (only 3 left to run) and a full or half marathon in each of the 50 states (17 states to go).   It just might take me a bit longer to finish them.  I learned that it is all part of my running journey.

Rediscovering My Passion

Passion is a word we frequently hear when people talk about their professional work or their hobbies.  Their passion motivates them to work hard and pursue their goals. Being driven by one’s passion can lead to amazing achievements but it also can lead to burn-out.  In order to stay motivated, we need to ensure our passions do not dominate our lives to the point of being detrimental.  I have learned this with my passion for running.

A couple weeks ago I came home from my last half marathon really tired.  Perhaps it was Transverse Myelitis (TM) reminding me that it rules a big part of my life.  Or maybe it was the fact that I had run a lot of races in a short span of time.  I wasn’t tired of racing – I had fun traveling to races over the last few months. I was just physically tired.  Either way, I knew I needed some R&R.

As my massage therapist, Jen, worked on my sore muscles, I explained to her that I was taking a breather from running.  Jen knows me too well.  With a raised eyebrow she asked me when I last ran.  “Oh, two days ago I ran 6 miles and I plan to run a 4-mile race on Saturday night” I replied.  She laughed, “That’s not a breather.  That is just a breath!  You need a real break.”  Score one Jen.

When I ran that 4-mile race, it was very hot.  TM doesn’t like heat and my legs felt like lead weights.  During the whole race, I was questioning why I was running.  This was stupid.  I could be home in the air conditioning, watching tv.  As soon as I finished the race, I grabbed a bottle of water and headed home.  Later that night when I pulled up the race results, I discovered I had come in first in my age group – that never happens.  The first time I win my age group and I hadn’t even stayed for the awards ceremony!

On my training schedule for the next week, my running coach planned a week of R&R.  She only included activities like stretching, yoga, getting a pedicure, and walking the dogs.  I hadn’t taken time off from running since I broke my arm over 18 months ago.  It was strange not getting up early 3 times a week to head out for a run.   I didn’t think about my next race.  I couldn’t get my brain focused to write my Funatical Runner blog.  On the positive side, I didn’t have piles of soggy running gear waiting to be washed.  Sleeping in felt pretty good too.

I started to wonder if I really wanted to keep running. It didn’t help that I read an article by Daniel Engber, a columnist for “Slate”, on why he thinks running is a “risky, fruitless hobby.”  According to Daniel, runners could spend time doing so many other more useful things in the hours they would have spent on “worthless locomotion”.  Instead of spending hours training, he suggested runners could do things like learn a new skill to start a new career or perform a community service.  He introduced the idea of the “Anti-Marathon” – getting runners to focus on activities with “better and more lasting” use.

I have to admit.  I gave some thought to what Daniel wrote.  Perhaps he was right.  The world was my oyster – I could do anything.  I could learn to paint or take up photography.  I could do things where I didn’t physically hurt when I was done.  I started asking people to suggest new hobbies.  I got plenty of suggestions but nothing really interested me.

One day as I was driving I heard the song “I Lived” by One Republic.  I included their video for that song in an earlier post.  Hearing that song made me remember why I run.  It may be work to train for a race but it is exhilarating to cross a finish line. Yes, I could have traveled as a tourist to Berlin, Tokyo, London, Utah, Vermont, or the many other places I have gone for races.  But experiencing these places as part of a race is different than strolling through them on a sightseeing tour.  I see them with a totally different set of eyes.  More importantly, running is keeping me healthy.

Back out on the trail for a run

Back out on the trail for a Sunday morning run

I started running again this week.  It was still hot but I found ways to stay cool as I ran 11 miles the other day.  I felt energized at the end.  The way it should be.

Whatever your passion may be, it is healthy to step back and take a break.  It will give you an opportunity to remember what got you started in the first place. More importantly, a break will prevent you from getting to the point where your passion causes suffering instead of joy.  By stepping away, though briefly, I was able to remember why running is my passion.

Excuses

Warning:  This week’s post is R rated.

Don't think my strength training coach will let me off easy

Don’t think my strength training coach will let me off easy

A few years ago I was in a running group.  Our coach was an Australian woman who had completed multiple Ironman competitions.  Nothing stopped her.  My doctor wasn’t real keen on my running but more than anything I wanted to get back out on the trail and run.  My running coach was the one who helped get me running again after my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis.

The running group was very interesting because among the 7 people in the group, we had 5 runners with health issues.  There was me with Transverse Myelitis and episodes of paralysis when I went to run; a person with an auto-immune liver issue who may need a liver transplant in the future; a person with Celiac disease; a person who had been battling Lyme disease since 2008; and another who had a brain aneurysm in her brain stem in 2009.  Every one of us had a pretty good excuse to say “I quit” and stay home.  Yet each of us was out there, giving our ailments the middle finger.  I would argue that being active was helping each of us stay alive.   Being around others with health issues also kept me motivated to keep going.  If they could do all this running, then I sure could too.  We did tease our coach who carried a cell phone for emergencies to remember to dial “911”, not “000” (the emergency number in Australia), if something bad happened to us during a run.

Rogue Running gave me this shirt to remind me - JFR

Rogue Running gave me this shirt to remind me – JFR

Rogue Running, the awesome running store in Austin that I wrote about last month, has a great catch phrase.  JFR, Just F%#@ing Run.  When I heard that catch phrase, I immediately understood what it meant.  It harkens back to that running group a few years ago.  There was plenty of opportunity to throw out an excuse to not meet up for the group run.  But we didn’t.  We sucked it up and went out for our run.  We just f%#@ing ran.

Excuses don’t just have to be physical aliments.  They are anything that keeps you from lacing up your shoes – a bad day at work, being too tired, it is too cold (or too hot), it’s raining, whatever it is that stops you from getting out there.  Just don’t give in.  Sometimes a good run will cure whatever is bothering you anyway and afterwards you will wonder why you were reluctant to go.

I remember when I was a little kid, my excuse for anything I didn’t want to do was “I can’t.”  That is about the laziest excuse one can have.  My mother’s response was always the same: “Can’t never did a thing in its life.”  I won’t let “can’t” stop me anymore.

So if you were looking for an excuse not be active – remember you don’t have to run, walking or biking are fine too – it had better be a really good one.  Because if the motley crew that was my running group can get out there, everyone else should too.

Runner’s World had an interesting essay on Rogue Running’s JFR catch phrase.  It hits pretty much every excuse someone could have.  Maybe you’ll recognize a few of yours in there.  

If you live in the Austin area or even if you are just visiting, stop in Rogue Running.  I have seen plenty of running stores all over the country during the course of my travels.  This is by far one of my favorites.  And if you can’t get to Austin, you can always travel with Rogue Expeditions on one of their “run-centric vacations” to places like Morocco, Kenya, Patagonia, Lake Tahoe, and Bend, Oregon.  Their trips accommodate runners of all levels and enable you to truly experience each destination.  Sounds like an exciting adventure to me!

Osteoblasting

My friend, Patsy, is a cyclist and has been since she was in high school.  One night over dinner in Montana, we were talking about the Tour de France and the workout that the cyclists get when they are competing.  Patsy mentioned that the bone density of professional cyclists is continually measured because cyclists can lose bone mass over the course of a season.  She noted that swimmers have the same issue.  I was surprised to hear this and decided that I needed to do some research to learn more.

I started with an Internet search and found many articles and studies about swimmers, cyclists, and even kayakers having lower bone mineral density (BMD).  BMD indicates risk for bone fractures by measuring how much mineral (e.g., calcium) you have in your bones.  There are several ways to measure BMD.  A DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) scan is the most common and measures specific areas of the body – spine, hips, and forearm.   The scan results will indicate if your bones have sub-normal bone density (osteopenia) or if you have deterioration of the bone tissue (osteoporosis).   Studies have been done of cyclists and swimmers where their BMDs were compared before and after their competitive seasons.  In the studies I read, there was a decrease in BMDs in both cyclists and swimmers between those two points in time.

I know many people who are dedicated cyclists or Master’s swimmers.  It was hard to think that by being so intensely active in their sport of choice, they could actually be hurting themselves.  Physical activity is suppose to keep you healthy.  But the scientific evidence clearly shows that too much time in the water or on the bicycle seat can be harmful.

My husband can’t run due to an issue with his knee.  He likes to ride a bike and has even completed a Century Ride (100 miles).   His first question when we started talking about this was “why is cycling bad for my bones?”

This week while Jessica, my physical therapist, worked on my arm, I asked her to explain why cycling and swimming would lead to lower BMD.  Jessica put it in very basic terms for me.  She explained that there are three primary types of bone cells – osteoblasts, osteoclasts, and osteocytes.  In order to build up bones, our bodies need osteoblasts.  Osteoblasts are bone cells that create  the framework for new bones (or bone remodeling as she put it).  Stress on the skeleton from weight-bearing exercise increases the workload on the bones and triggers osteoblastic activity or the remodeling process.  Osteocytes are mature bone cells that originate from osteoblasts.  Osteoclasts are cells that break down the bone.  Reduced workload on the skeleton from things like prolonged bed rest and some medications will increase the osteoclastic activity and lower bone density.  And yes, prolonged sitting is bad for bone health.

Swimming is a great exercise to build and maintain muscles and improve flexibility and balance.  Jessica says that she recommends swimming for her patients that have arthritis and have to avoid high impact activities.  But swimming doesn’t put stress on the skeleton because of the buoyancy of the water.  It is almost like an anti-gravity exercise.  Therefore, swimming doesn’t trigger osteoblastic activity.  (As a side note, astronauts in space lose BMD, indicating that we need the stress of gravity on our bodies.)

Cyclists are sitting on a seat when riding and likewise cycling doesn’t trigger osteoblastic activity (though standing up on the pedals may make it a modest weight-bearing exercise).  The same is true for kayakers who are seated when they are paddling.  No weight-bearing exercise there.  Elliptical trainers are popular in the gym but according to the Mayo Clinic, they are not helpful for improving bone health.  Ellipticals provide great cardiovascular exercise but not weight-bearing exercise.  According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, weight-bearing exercise is any activity you have to do on your feet like running, walking, climbing stairs, racquet sports like tennis, and strength training.

So what is a swimmer or cyclist to do?

Building bones during the 2015 Tokyo Marathon

Building bones during the 2015 Tokyo Marathon

We need to have a variety of exercise activities.  Replace some of those swimming or cycling days with running or strength training exercises.    I am a runner but my coach mixes up my training activities.  I only run three times a week.  The other days I ride a recumbent exercise bike or do strength training exercises.   And I try to squeeze in a daily stretching routine.  I have always believed that too much of anything is bad.  This is true with exercise.  We need to have a balance of exercises – cardiovascular, weight-bearing, strength training, stretching and flexibility.

This weekend I will be out on the trail for my long run, “osteoblasting” my way through 18 miles.  I will be thinking about all those strong leg bones I will be building up as I run.