Running is not my favorite thing.
Even as a kid, it was clear that neither my size nor my innate athletic ability were on my side. Naturally able in things literary and musical, I identified myself as a “non-athlete”, which was, I realize now, a convenient label but a big mistake. It was true that I was slow, tended to get cramps in my side, and when I tried to keep up with longer-legged and undoubtedly better-conditioned people, I would run too fast and have to stop too soon, which made me feel like a loser. It was always the same: a quarter of a mile in, I was done. Even at college, at the freshman floor ice breaker, I listened as girl after girl cooed about her hobbies, which included, in almost every case, how they “loved to run”. When it was my turn, I declared simply, “Well, I hate to run”, which got a big laugh, and which everyone at my 25th reunion seemed to remember. It was self-deprecating, but it solidified my identity as a non-athlete.
Fast forward to 2006. I am (barely) surviving breast cancer. Despite the fact that my prognosis is excellent, I firmly believe that I am dying, which is making life a living hell for pretty much everyone around me, but most especially two good and patient men whose initials are my husband and my oncologist. I am facing chemotherapy and, certain that I will be crawling from bed to porcelain bowl for weeks and months, I have spent kind of a lot of money on new pajamas, sheets, washcloths, and towels. In preparation for this period of – uh – confinement, I finally summon my nerve to ask my nurse Kelly, “How many days should I plan to be in bed?” With impossibly paired respect and adolescent DUH-ness, she replies, “Uh, NONE. Most of our patients do not stay in bed.”
“I want you to try to walk every day,” she adds. “If you can’t, you can’t; listen to your body. But try. It will help with the fatigue. It will help with the nausea.” So I did, and it did. And besides that, it helped me feel normal, and like a person who was maybe not dying. And believe me when I say that that helped everyone. Sometimes I walked with my dog in the woods near my house so I wouldn’t see anyone else, and sometimes I cried and sometimes I marveled joyfully at the beautiful day and the wakening spring. Some days I still worried that I was dying and some days I was sure I was truly living. But all days, I walked.
Fast forward another few months, and my oncologist and I are revisiting a previously settled issue. Though my tumor was HER2 positive, it was too small for the Herceptin clinical trials of the time. But while I was busy getting chemotherapy, and more surgery, the data had started to trickle in, and my oncologist is suggesting that we consider Herceptin again. Though I am adamant about wanting all treatments available to me (see, “dying”, above) I am not excited about the prospect of adding another cardiotoxic drug to the anthracycline I have already received. After 20 years as a cardiac ICU nurse, and twice that as a first-child overachiever, it was of utmost importance to me that I have a really good ejection fraction.
So I made a most unlikely plan. I decided that I would begin running.
As much as I disliked running, I could not deny its possible benefits in the unfortunate situation in which I currently found myself. After all, my ejection fraction might actually improve with exercise. It would take some time, to be sure, but exercising my heart muscle would only help it pump more effectively. If I were to develop complications of any kind – like heart failure, for example – surely I would notice it more promptly while exerting myself. If I noticed any subtle signs of cardiac insufficiency, I could alert my doctors and we could work on reducing that as quickly as possible. I also hypothesized that a conditioned heart might be protected from heart damage in a way that an unconditioned heart was not. My oncologist was very clear on the fact that no evidence existed (nor does it exist to this day) that these things were true, but to me, it didn’t matter. They made sense to me, and, empowered by intuitive-but-sort-of-made-up information, and adequately motivated for the first time in my life, I started running.
It was hard to show up at the gym with my bald and then peach-fuzz head, but it made me feel empowered too. It gave me a persona that I had to live up to: someone who was tough, and pushing through, who did not give up. Now, when the cramps came, I thought of my little girl, who was only five, and ran faster. For her, I could surely keep going. I asked myself what it would take to survive this, and told myself my life depended on my ability to keep going. I dug deep and learned to run through pain, laziness, breathlessness. Eventually, I found, as all runners know, those symptoms recede; my body would adjust, and once I got through the first difficult mile, I could actually run for a long time. I never knew this before, had never stuck with it long enough to find out. Sometimes, unbelievably, I even kind of enjoyed it. Always, I loved how it made me feel like someone who was living, and definitely not dying. Before long, I was doing a few miles each day; the distance itself was not a lot, but the road to finding my inner athlete, at 41, might as well have been a thousand miles.
I ran in the Komen run the next fall, the first time in my life I had entered a road race. My family offered to run with me but I told them they could sleep in instead. Despite my good fortune in enjoying the love and support of so many, the road had been, in so many ways, a singular journey, and it was fitting that I do this alone. I ran the whole way, passing those who stopped to walk on the hills and probably didn’t even have breast cancer, which made me feel very smugly competitive and proud and like an excellent runner. I found I could run a little faster than at the gym, the energy of the day driving me on. I ran past the one-mile marker, and the two-mile marker, and sometimes people cheered me because of my survivor shirt, and that made me cry a little, but all the while I kept running.
At the finish line I got to go in the survivor chute, and as I finished this little tiny race, I threw my arms up in a V for victory like it was the New York Marathon and for the first time, wished I’d let someone run with me, and started to cry again. This day it was only a few miles, but all in all, it had been a long road. I hadn’t finished first, but still, I had become a survivor, a winner, and a real-life runner too.