Dear Running: It's Not You, It's Me

I remember the first time I met one of my favorite Pilates teachers. I was in a Wunda Chair workshop and apologizing for my super tight hips and hamstrings as I tried to struggled with a particular exercise that had sent my already overworked quads and hips into spasm.

"I'm a runner," I explained.

"A RUNNER???!!!!" she bellowed. 

"No one gets to the end of the life and wishes they had run more. Cycling, yoga, swimming, yes. Running, no. It's just so hard on the body."

At the time, I resented the unsolicited feedback. But I don't LOVE cycling or yoga or swimming, I thought, indignantly. 

Or honestly, even Pilates. I do Pilates because it allows me to run, and most importantly, to run pain free for the better part of eight years.

We joke about it now, because she understands my passion for running, and her instruction--particularly teaching me how to recruit my underused glutes and hamstrings--has been instrumental in my progress as a runner and my ability to teach other athletes.

But running? I LOVE running. Running is so much more than just a workout to me. It saved me--from a failing marriage, from an eating disorder, from a trapped and miserable life. It was my initial connection to my husband. It's made me countless friends across the country. It's my meditation, my anti-depressant, my drug of choice.

Which makes this break-up even more painful.

Yes, I'm breaking up with running.

Not forever. Maybe for a week; maybe for a month. But I need my space. I need to find "me" again, without the pressure of tempo runs and track work and PRs and all of the identity and ego wrapped up in go, go, go and achieve, achieve, achieve.

And also? I'm tired. And I'm sick. Nothing life-threatening, but just enough compounded to make me sluggish, miserable, and in desperate need of a re-set.

I've been in denial for a while. I never really bounced back after my Albany marathon and BQ in March of last year.

At first, I blamed it on taking too much time off post marathon. Then, it was the heat. Then it was a string of emotionally difficult events. Then it was the flu. Then it was going off anti-depressants. Then allergies. Then my training plan. Then myself and lack of mental toughness. Then Boston came, and deprived of confidence or a stellar training block, I had the unfortunate experience of toeing the line with enteritis, and ended my dream race at Mile 20, crying, despondent, delirious, feverish, and ill.

You think an ER visit and an overnight hospitalization with six bags of fluids would be a wake-up call, but no. I blamed it on temporary illness. I jumped right back into training less than a week out of the hospital. 40+ mile weeks (not right away, I have a smart coach), speed sessions, long runs on 80+ degree days, punishing myself, willing myself back into shape on effort and guts alone.

But the truth is, I was working too hard. I was struggling to hold paces that were "easy" for me four and five years ago, that I never see on my watch, regardless of heat or fatigue. My muscles were tired and sore and just not recovering, no matter how many massages I had, trips to the chiropractor I took, how much I stretched, cross trained, foam rolled, ice bathed, or stretched. I was bloated and gaining weight, even though I feel the strongest physically I have in my adult life and eat better than I did two or three years ago and work harder. Many a run dissolved into a walking panic attack, desperate sobs and dry heaves. I was so frustrated and deeply sad that something I once loved had become a chore and that my body was betraying me.

I've know for a while something has been "off" with my body. It probably started last summer, though I was so busy getting through life, I was ignoring the warning signs. 

It started with a visit to my GP in January, which led to a diagnosis of low Vitamin D (not unusual, and something I've dealt with before) and low iron/anemia.

I started prescription levels of both and went on my merry way.

Then some time in March, my chronic hives returned, in a big way. I had worked with my nutritionist on this very issue two summers ago, and they had been under control by carefully managing my diet. Eliminating dairy helped, and while I cheated now and again with some queso, I wasn't eating dairy at home. Yet every day, I woke up with my hands and feet covered in itchy, splotchy welts. Anything medication I took (even before bed) made me so groggy I was unable to function the next day, so hard runs were out of the question. I took another week off, blamed allergy season and soldiered on.

Then Boston, and the enteritis. I blamed it on a random, fluke virus (Tim had the same exact symptoms, minus the hospital stay) that happened at the worst possible time and never made a follow-up appointment with my physician (bad, I know, but I'm finding mainstream medicine particularly unhelpful for my complex health issues right now).

I did my first run eight days after Boston, six days after I had been hospitalized. Nothing hard. It felt good. I immediately jumped into a training plan, insistent that the only way I could prove my worth as a runner (and person) was the re-qualify for Boston. The runs were slower than usual, but I blamed it on the heat and the high mileage. On being more mindful of my heart rate. But I'm three months into training and can barely sustain a 10 minute mile, when my normal "easy" runs are generally a minute or more faster. I nap for two hours almost every day, in spite of getting plenty of sleep at night. I barely have energy to do a load of laundry.

And the hives returned. Then I had (TMI) three heavy menstrual cycles in five weeks. I went to the gynecologist. Had an ultrasound. No fibroids, no cysts, no thyroid issues, just a high white blood cell count, not unusual given how many periods I've had recently and my anemia. I went to the allergist, and basically, they handed me a prescription, drugs that only made me MORE sluggish and gave me MORE hives. I took two and flushed them down the toilet.

I finally reached out to my nutritionist about ALCAT/food intolerance testing. I described a few of my symptoms and without even seeing my blood work, she said "I think your issue is hormonal." A quick look at my chart led her to the hypothesis that I'm in estrogen dominance, which explains many of my symptoms. She suggested a diet re-set, which I've followed for exactly a week. Minimal alcohol (two drinks/week), no caffeine, minimal sugar, no dairy, low grains, tons of veggies. Caffeine has been the hardest, and I'm not a HUGE coffee drinker. But enough, apparently. My sugar cravings are gone. My energy came back after a few days, though when I had two drinks, it was awful the next day. There's a reason alcohol is a depressant. Food is tasting better and more filling. 

Even with this drastic change, I was convinced I needed to keep training. To check all of the boxes, that somehow I would magically regain the old spark if I just worked hard enough. Even though I cut down on some of my work, I'm still teaching fifteen hours a week (including two early mornings), running 6-7 days a week and 40-45 miles/week, walking/running/hiking with the dog 30-45 minutes a day, taking two Pilates sessions a week, attending puppy obedience classes, and otherwise on my feet 10-14 hours a day and working out 90 minutes a day.

I took a couple easy run days after I started the new diet and then set out on Sunday for an "easy" eight mile run. It was over 80 degrees at start time, and even though I generally run well in heat, by the time my heart rate hit over 180 from stress and frustration and heat and I was barely holding on to a 10 minute/mile even though I was well rested and having a "down" week running, I realized it was time to take a break.

I was still reeling from this decision and why my body would just not cooperate with me when I met a new private Pilates client for a session at the studio where I teach. A delightful, slight woman in her early 60s. I asked about her injuries, and she mentioned a scapula issue specifically enough I knew that she probably worked in medicine. She didn't mention anything else, health wise, but as we moved through our session, she told me she was a colon cancer survivor, and that led to an autoimmune disorder that left her unable to walk, though she is now not only walking again but running, and that she recently developed osteoporosis due to low Vitamin D. I mentioned I have low Vitamin D. She asked my specific levels, and I said I wasn't sure, but that they came out normal on my last test, that only my white blood cell count is high. She said it could take a few years for Vitamin D levels to regulate. And then everything started to click, for her, and for me.

"Your hands are really cold. Have you been tested for anemia?"

"Yes, I'm on prescription iron."

"Well, definitely get that re-checked, because I think it's still an issue for you."

We continued with the session, and she mentioned running the Peachtree Road Race, and then I mentioned that and then Boston.

And then more things clicked for her.

"You know, when you run long distances, your body basically absorbs its red blood cells, so you're more susceptible to anemia, and autoimmune disorders, and enteritis."

"I HAD ENTERITIS IN BOSTON!!"

"AND I HAVE AN AUTOIMMUNE DISORDER!"

"And you just told me I still have anemia!"

Oh yeah, and I'm basically pre-menopausal and dealing with crazy hormones and a drastic diet change and WHY AM I NOT GIVING MYSELF A BREAK ON RUNNING????!!!! Running isn't what's making me sick, but at this point, it's not making me well, either.

I felt like I should be paying HER the $75 session fee (note: I promise, she got what she said was a "great workout." I'm quite adept at talking and teaching at the same time!) and basically walked away from the session crying. Tears of sadness, but also relief.

This stuff is NOT just in my head. I AM getting slower. I AM fatiguing more quickly than usual. I AM dealing with more than just allergies or the occasional flu. 

In some ways, it would be easier if I had an injury. Something specific. Stress fracture, cool. Six to eight weeks in a boot, then start back easily with a run/walk, and then boom, good to go in a few months.

This is more intricate and complicated. I'm addressing it the best way I know how, and that's with diet and supplements and a great support system and therapy and writing and puppy snuggles and music.

It was time to not only take a break, but give MYSELF a break.

Because I DO want to live a long, healthy life and still be doing what I love--and that includes running.