Thursday, October 6, 2011

Run for Your Life

I am no athlete.

There are only two sports in which I have ever competed, and both of these were in middle school. The first, oddly, was girls' wrestling, which I was actually quite good at.

The second was track and field. I was, in middle school and in high school, exactly the kind of PE student that teachers hate. I walked around the track, rather than ran, was totally indifferent to competition, acted half-asleep on the fringe of every game, and managed to wear a skirt nearly every day to P.E., resulting in my "having to" sit out.

But I loved the 100 yard dash. Just for that few seconds of time, I had wings.

Distance running for me, made me feel like an anemic elephant, wearing leg weights and a tight strap around the chest, but sprinting felt like I had become one with the wind. There was no real pain involved because the run was too short, and, afterward the rushing blood pumping through my system was an opiate.

I never made the transition to real runner, but I never completely got over that feeling.

During my adult life, I have often had a gym membership and enjoyed using a tread mill (to walk or do run-walk intervals) and lifting weights. It stuck in my craw that I couldn't run distances, and so I tried it again in my mid-twenties, chasing that runner's high and sense of personal victory. My chest heaving with strain and a burning, searing pain tormenting my leg muscles, I ultimately worked up to, at most, a mile. My knees hurt like hell, so I hired a personal trainer to help me figure out how to fix whatever was causing the problem. She had me do ridiculous amounts of quad exercises, but the knee pain didn't improve. I crapped out. I hate suffering. I just won't sustain it for very long if I see any out.

For a few years, I was in the habit of getting up early every morning to do Pilates or cardio kickboxing with a DVD before showering for work. This impressed lots of non-exercisers since I was, at that moment, the "good girl" that they could not relate to, but, for myself, I was busy envying the women who run.

In Los Alamos, running is the thing to do if you want an in with a wide social network of women. They kept showing up on my Facebook page, beaming in cool pink technical t-shirts and glowing, apparently, with the deep satisfaction of not being me, a person who could NOT run.

As I was busy exercising and being envious, my work-out regimen hit a major roadblock. I developed severe seasonal allergies and spent the next two years having an almost continual sinus infection with associated asthma attacks. I had asthma symptoms in the cold air, wherever there were pollens, wherever there were chemicals, if I exerted myself and, sometimes, for no apparent reason.

It was nice to finally have an asthma diagnosis to explain, at least in part, my life-long cough and hatred of extended cardiovascular exertion, but every time I got a bit well and attempted to develop an exercise routine, I would get yet another sinus infection or asthma flare and get benched again due to feeling like utter crap. Finally, I decided that sanity in this case would take the form of waiting to see if my conditions would improve, over time and with treatment, enough to establish an exercise routine and stick with it.

After two years of allergy shots and lots of albuterol, things improved.

So in the late winter of 2010, I took a leap of faith and started trying to learn to really run. I had a wonderfully patient friend, Shana, who ran, and she helped me to take baby steps toward becoming a runner. The most surprising thing I learned from running with her was that I was trying to run too fast. (Don't laugh. It was too fast for ME.) If I could tamp down my body's overwhelming desire to run something closer to a sprint (well, maybe the sprint run by an especially speedy tortoise), I learned I could maintain a run for some period of time.

Ultimately, with practice, I could do it for a 5K distance. That meant I could actually run with other women, which gave me the benefit of an expanded social life along with my exercise. I even ran two 5K races, where I worked hard enough to feel afterward that I might throw up. (The split was just a bit over a ten minute mile, which is laughable to a competitive runner, but hugely cool for me.)

Being able to do that felt like an enormous improvement on the lazy mid-schooler who walked stubbornly around the track.

Then, close to the holiday season of that first running year, as the bitter cold of winter set in, I started having increasing pain in my joints. The pain spread into my muscles. And so on.

I was in pain every day for a good long time. On top of that, the cold was really fucking with my asthma, as improved as it was. I felt defeated. I had migraines a lot, and all sorts of other pains, and running just hurt.

Even with all that pain, I really did not want to walk away from what felt like this huge triumph over the past, this feeling of having wings.

Ultimately, the rheumatologist I saw said that I should stop running, at least until we knew what was wrong with me. I admit that I felt some relief just being able to say I had to stop for a while, as it sort of implied that I might be able to start again later, and I was sick and tired of bailing on running dates and wondering if I should have pushed myself and gone.

No matter what, I had been feeling screwed. If I ran and had to keep stopping to walk, I felt like the biggest wuss in the group, and also like I was holding everyone else back. If I toughed it out and kept up, sometimes it would work out, and other times I would face the rest of my day in a haze of exhaustion with shooting pain in all my joints. If I canceled, I felt like a flake. Everyone was nice to me, but I still felt like I was always doing the wrong thing.

Last April, a neurologist prescribed a drug for me, Amytriptaline, to treat what he called "neurologic pain" in the form of both migraines and myalgia (muscle pain). He was the first person to say with confidence that he knew what was wrong with me, and thought he could help me. After countless previous doctor's visits, yielding nothing but more referrals, it felt like a life preserver was finally thrown out.

And the drug started to work.

It would not be an understatement to say that I feel like taking it gave me my life back. This sounds ridiculous because I currently suffer migraines on approximately half the days of any given month, but the muscle pain, exhaustion, and mental fogginess that had reduced my life to an attempt to survive every day faded away.

By the start of this summer, I was ready to try and run again.

Working back from the ground up after a break of several months has been a trial by fire for me mentally. I have to confront the ground that I have lost, the distances that were once easy and now were way too long, and the fact that I have to stop and walk or fall back and quit early when others run on.

All of this, inside my head, is difficult to face. I have tried running alone, with my dog and a Garmin to help pace me, and I have learned to almost enjoy it, but I always end up running faster than I can sustain, and I crap out easier without the social pressure to keep on. I have put running in my calendar in several places every week, but I always find it hard to keep on track. An existence punctuated by frequent bouts of migraine pain and exhaustion, and lots of regular responsibilities does not facilitate fitness integrity, it seems.

It's frustrating and satisfying by turns. I love when I can suddenly see the ground I have taken. I hate when all I can feel is the discomfort and strain.

As much as I want to be well enough to do this, one thing I know now is true is that I am not yet well enough to do it the way I want to. I want to be able to run a steady pace 5K with relative ease, to keep up with the group, to be 100% reliable for being at all my runs every week.

Right now, I just can't get there. And I can't figure out if my problem is at least partially mental, or whether it really is too hard to run four times a week, and do Pilates three times, while working and having fifteen migraines a month. When I read this back to myself, it sounds like a lot of feeling sorry for myself, but there it is. That's what I feel.

Maybe only another person who suffers from a chronic painful condition can really understand the mental battle that gets fought here. I am trying to prove to myself that my disorder can't make me give up what I love in my life. Simultaneously, I am too tired of pain to fight with my body all the time and make it do what it doesn't want to do with consistency.

I don't have an answer. Today, I almost feel like giving up again, since after this last bout of severe migraines, I can't seem to get my energy back. All I want to do once I get home from work is sleep, despite getting seven to eight hours in bed every night.

One part of me says that this is just how I feel this week and tomorrow might be different, next week might be different. Don't give up. Be satisfied with doing it half-way. Anything else is my ego talking. But another voice says that my problem is that I don't push myself hard enough, that I'm not doing it right, that I'm making excuses.

Who knows where the truth lies. All I want to know is that I am always hoping that I can return again to that feeling of having wings, even if it is interspersed with a bit of pain. I also want very badly to be a runner.

I have a feeling that the only way out of this mental turmoil is through a hard won acceptance, the peace that is a product of ambition tempered by years lived beating one's arms uselessly against the tide as it insistently crests and falls upon the shore.

The question is:
If I stop fighting the power of the wave, will it drown me, or carry me gently to the shore?

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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License