Monday, February 17, 2014
Autumn? Yes, it's been gone for quite sometime now. In fact, chinook winds have been blowing for a week here. Yet the cold grey shadows that dominated the fall of 2013 still remain. Tragedy struck the community just when the leaves were beginning their brilliant swan song, the air was turning as crisp as the apples ripe for the picking, and the sky was a blue you couldn't stop staring at. Although not close friends with my daughter of the same age, two of her classmates were killed in a car accident. It was akin to sitting in a movie theater and having the seats next to you blow up. Suddenly, my world was viewed through the filter of What if I was waking up without my child? What if I were looking at this sky through the eyes of someone who would forever remember this blue as an empty ocean, devoid forever here on earth of the most precious love I've ever known? To never stroke their soft cheek, smell their hair during a tight hug, hear their voice again. At the same time, another young man in the same daughter's class was moving to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant for cancer. Teenagers are not supposed to die. They are supposed to be growing out of the pants you just bought them, sassing their parents, falling in and out of puppy love, learning to drive, eating crap like Taco Bell; not being remembered at a funeral or planning their own. I quit running. For the first time in 25 years, I didn't have the heart. It seemed everything was broken. I walked with the dog, but my heart was so heavy it was exhausting. There is nothing you can do really, but you want so much to do something. Anything. Every thought was with the families. There was a giant black hole blown into the Universe, and nothing in the world could fix it. It was-- is-- so massive it takes over. Running felt like almost a slap in the face of that enormous grief. For weeks it remained this way.
I started running consistently when I was 18. My older brother, whom I always have had a special relationship with, would invite me to go with him. There was no thinking about miles, no worrying about injury, no discussion of workouts, of clothes, just a phone call and a 'get over here in 10 minutes. We're going running'. And we did. And when my side hurt and I wanted to vomit, he'd say "We're almost there-- dig down, we're sprinting the final!" and he'd take off, making me run as hard as I possibly could to catch him, while imagining the epic scene it would make when my heart exploded out of my body and I fell in front of all the cars, because my chest, my whole body, hurt so bad. And then, we'd reach his apartment, and keel over, gasping, sweating, and he'd grin at me and say "Now that was fucking awesome, wasn't it?" I must've agreed, because I kept answering that phone call. Anything my big brother did was cool. Running took hold. I ran in a spring rainstorm my senior year of high school through the deserted streets of Nice, and the feeling was so glorious I may have skipped and sang too (this may have been a product of the wine at lunch). I ran in college, when breaking up with my first serious boyfriend left me adrift and alone but not willing to talk to anyone. I ran in the beautiful Palouse, with the strong winds pushing hard as if denying me my run, and me pushing back. I ran when I moved alone to NYC and knew no one, and felt like I'd never make friends. I'd run in Westchester county and sometimes, I'd run so long that I couldn't run another step and I'd collapse on a lawn until the curtains moving and the people staring prompted me to move off and stagger my way home. I ran in Missoula Montana, on the college campus early before the sun rose over the mountain that shadowed the campus, shivering and freezing and slipping on the ice. I'd run up the trail to the M with my first dog and sit and watch the sun make it's way over the buildings like someone opening the curtains. I ran with my brother the morning I got married, before the sun came up-- the last one I did with him. I ran during my pregnancies. In fact, some of my best running was during my second pregnancy. That 4th of July, 38 weeks pregnant, I wanted to run a 50 yard dash at a small town festival, which I was formally rejected from, I guess on the grounds they thought the baby would fall out. Apparently, they didn't know how these things worked. I ran and I ran and I ran. Never knowing anything about how to do it 'right', just running. I ran in 5 degrees in *gasp* cotton. ALL COTTON. I ran as fast as I could, every run. Gradually I learned 'how' to run. I ran in rain, sun, wind, hail, snow. I had freezing cold runs, hot runs, amazing runs, average runs, perfect runs, angry runs and horrible runs. I never let weather dictate a run. I ran with the flu, with colds, with bronchitis (not one of my smarter moments), with fevers. I bought running clothes. Met running friends. I ran on vacations, all over the country. Running was always there, steady, faithful.
Then one fall, in 2002, running seemed exhausting. I could barely drag myself 3 miles. I kept getting fever after fever. After a million tests, including 3 bone marrow tests, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and associated Spondyloarthropathy, which is connective tissue disease. I briefly stopped running. I was put on meds, first mild, then medium, then major. I felt better. I ran again, but I had An Excuse Now. My running was not my friend, it was Something I Had to Feel Good to Do. I 'couldn't' run. I had ARTHRITIS. Then.... I had The Arm Episode. Let's just say, The Arm Episode taught me all I needed to know about running and it's role in my life. I got out of the hospital, 'suffered' with a picc line for over 3 months, and had to start with walking. But walking led to running within a month. And my old friend embraced me as if I'd never left. We were back, running and I. I marathoned trained. I got injured. I kept running. Had issues in my life that left me in deep pain and through it all, running remained my sanctuary. When the disease would get so bad that I felt I could barely move, (usually if I didn't run for a few days) I'd just run slower until I felt greased up. Until last fall.
People often ask me how I can run, with arthritis. I always hear "Oh my knees won't take it". "I used to run, until my knees gave out". "I'd run if I felt good enough!" Everyone has their own demons, their own struggles, but if I waited for a day I felt 'good enough' to run, I'd never do anything. Often, I leave the house feeling like such a sack of shit I want to do nothing but crawl back in bed and stay there. As my disease progresses, 11 years this last fall, I find I cannot run immediately upon waking, I must first 'unstiff'. (Yes, males, I too wake up stiff. Heh. This also happens when I sit for a long time, like at a restaurant, which is why I always stand up and linger at the table for a minute before attempting to walk. Otherwise everyone in the establishment would think I was drunk and call the manager). But on the run, The Magic Happens. Or so I call it. I never feel as good as when I'm running. I feel like I Can.Do.Anything. I feel free, unencumbered, un-arthiritic. In fact, often that's the only time I feel good all day. With the addition of weight-lifting in 2008, I rarely get injured anymore. Only my feet remain attacked by the disease in terms of running. Frankly, there's not much you can do with feet. It's not like you can lift weights with your toes. There's a few little things, but when you have an inflammatory condition, and your feet are taking a pounding, all you can do is hope to keep The Beast Asleep. If you wake it up, it's like a baby. Good luck getting it to sleep again. Because of this, I have to make increases very slowly. A lesson in patience for an Irish girl. I guard my gains ferociously since they are so hard-won. Running is how I keep The Beast at bay. But last fall, all of that crumpled and blew away like a brittle, dry leaf in the wind. Running was shut out. Gone. I didn't know if I'd ever run again. 4 weeks went by. I made a couple half-hearted attempts that felt disloyal to the shroud of grief laying over the valley, only to return home after a couple of miles.
Finally, although it had been 7 weeks, I woke up and it was all I could think about. I felt lost, stiff, terrible; both mentally and physically. I laced up my worn out shoes, which seemed to match my worn out attitude, and I ran. And ran. And ran. I ran 6 miles. which for an arthritic person to go do after rusting for almost two months, is akin to inviting disaster. But by the end of that run, I knew I would be fine. I knew that running would once again, work it's magic. The hurt is still there, but running helps bear the burden a little. It reminds me of runs I've had over the years, where I'd suddenly feel terrible or get an unbearable pain but I'd be 3-4 miles away from home. Well, the fastest way to get home is just keep running. Usually, after another mile or so, suddenly I'd be fine. It is a concrete example of the saying, one of my favorites, "The only way out of something is through it". Running has kept it's foot on my disease, holding it down, allowing me to hike, backpack, work a physical job, remain strong, limber (of sorts) and positive. In fact, in order of importance in my disease I would say it's above medicine. I used to think it was lower than it really is. But when I look at the big picture, I see it's actually more important than anything. I don't run for races. I don't run for time. I run for me. There's an expression I hate-- "Everything happens for a reason". I loathe this expression. Everyone loves to rip it out when it's something in their favor. But what about these tragedies? What about abused people, children, animals? What's the reason for that? When things like this happen, there is no answer. There only is IT. The grief. There is no way out but through. Running makes that burden feel a little lighter. It doesn't make it go away-- but it reminds me that some things will always be. There will always be disease, pain, tragedy. This is the reality. But there will always be running, too-- or at least, the lessons learned.
I talk as if I'll always run. Easy to say when you're the relatively young age of 43. I hope to run, I hope to count myself as lucky as Joy Johnson, who still ran 3 marathons a year at age 86, and died this year in her sleep, after falling and hitting her head in the NYC Marathon. She got up and finished, and died later in her hotel room, peacefully. But the reality is, I don't know. I don't know what life has in store for me. As much as I love running, and feel like I will run as long as I live, the important thing that running has done for me is taught me to presevere. That the only way out is through. You just go on. Numb, in pain at times, void, you just keep on. The lessons of running will remain learned, even if I never run again. But for now, I will keep running. The dark, cold shadow of Autumn, which greedily and happily passed it's torch to the icy grip of Winter will finally give way to the warm winds of Spring; at times, gentle, at times, furious and wild, but eventually winning. And I'll be running.