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.

Podium Finishes

Last week was not the best one for me.  One of our dogs got ill and a visit to the vet revealed he had a very nasty form of cancer, hemangiosarcoma.  I spent the week taking him to vet appointments and keeping a close eye on him at home, never leaving him alone.  I didn’t get much sleep and didn’t have time to exercise since I was completely focused on him.  I was so stunned by how quickly things unraveled that I couldn’t eat. The story did not have a happy ending.  We ended up losing him.  He was only 6 1/2 years old – way too early to leave us.  It may seem swift but that is how hemangiosarcoma goes.  I hate that disease.

Dillon - a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier doing what came naturally, agility

Dillon – a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier doing what came naturally, agility

I needed to find a way to cheer up.  Running has always been a good way for me to deal with stress and depression.  Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness.  I was very depressed about losing a much-loved part of our family.  I needed a shot of endorphins.  I knew that running would be the best anti-depressant that I could take.  I found a 5k and entered it.

On Sunday I headed to the race knowing that it would be a small one.  Only 95 people had registered for the event.  That made me a bit sad because, like all the other races I run, this one was to benefit a charity.  Fewer runners meant fewer proceeds for the charity.

As I drove there, it occurred to me with a field that small, I might have a shot at a placement.  Let’s be honest.  I may not be among the last finishers of a race but I certainly am not out in the front.  Small races are my only opportunity to be on the podium.

The Wall Street Journal had an article back in June 2007 about “How to Win a Marathon.”  Apparently there are people who are so focused on winning that they will search for obscure races and triathlons, analyze the results, and enter the ones that give them the best chances at winning.  The race results are usually good indicators of what to expect the next time since some athletes come back the following year to do the same event.  Coolrunning.com and Athlinks.com are two web sites that list race results.  Athlinks also has the ability to search other athletes in a particular age group and geographic area to find out who the competition is and compare/analyze race performances.  It all sounds like a lot of work to me and I am not really that competitive.  But for anyone who is, the resources are there to pick races with winning in mind.

The race I ran on Sunday was so small that the timing was done by a stop watch.  The real serious runners headed up front for the start.  There were a bunch of little kids in a pack behind them.  When the horn sounded, they all took off.  The kids were running as fast as they could.  The winner in each category got a pie and these kids had pie on their minds.

The odds were stacked against me.  In addition to barely sleeping or eating and having no exercise for a week, I showed up to the race without my Garmin.  Coach Jenny Hadfield recommends ditching the technology and running by how you feel.  On Sunday I had no choice.

I took off a bit too fast and had to rein myself in by the time we hit the first mile. The lack of sleep and poor diet came back to haunt me.  I tried focusing on a runner in front of me that seemed to be keeping a good pace.  Since the race was a butterfly course (out and back one direction and then out and back the other), I was able to see the other runners and gauge where I was in relation to the leaders.  I didn’t see anyone I thought was as old as me.  I pushed myself as hard as I could.  I had hope.

When I finished the race, I decided to wait for the awards, just in case I won something (they wouldn’t be mailing pies out to the winners).  As expected, the hotly contested 19-and under category was won by an 11-year old with a time of 21:29, only 3 minutes behind the 53-year old guy who won the race.  Apparently, pie is one heck of a motivator!  But much to his mother’s disappointment, he traded his pie in for a Dunkin Donuts hat (the second place prize).

When they got to my category, I held my breath.  I had my eyes on a Scottish Apple with Whiskey Plumped Raisins pie.  Alas, I came in second.  It was a Dunkin Donuts hat for me.

Second Place -

Second Place – America runs on Dunkin 😉

As I headed back to the car, I noticed my heart did not feel so heavy.  My steps had a bit more bounce in them.  The endorphins had kicked in.   My beloved dog was still gone but I had a clearer head to come to terms with his passing.  Time will heal the rest of my sadness.