Sunday, September 15, 2013

Building the New

I’ve been holding off on blogging for quite a while. This has primarily been a result of being very busy and lacking the time to put all of my thoughts into words. But, this hasn’t been the only reason for my delay. My life has changed more than I expected in ways I didn’t anticipate over the past few months, and I wasn’t sure how much of this experience I wanted to share. If you have been following my blog since it began in the summer of 2011, you know I don’t hesitate when it comes to the truth. The truth about the truth is that it isn’t always pretty and is far from perfect. However, the last thing I ever want to do with my truth is be negative or discourage others and I have been worried that what I write may do so.  But highlighting only the serene peaks of my running career would be painting a dishonest picture. Doing so, I’m not helping anyone and the primary purpose of my blog has been to put my journey out there to help others.  So, upon lots of reflection, I’ve made the decision to continue to share my story. As with all of my blog posts, it is my hope that this most recent experience also motivates others, whether it be to follow their dreams or perhaps take some time to slow down, reflect on their dreams, reassess, and faithfully move forward in a new direction.

Running this summer has been like riding a rollercoaster unsure if I’m strapped in. After my third mystery “seizure” or “passing out” incident that happened last May, the resultant uncertainty forced me to make a personal commitment to stop marathon training. I was to focus on running casually, without any training plan, goal, or extreme intensity. I also made a commitment to run only in safe locations, sticking to the treadmill for the majority of my runs and about once a week on the roads of my local Metroparks. In the early parts of summer, this commitment came with ease. I was happy with the treadmill and, in fact, made a new, incredibly inspiring running buddy along the way! But as the summer progressed, I became restless with the ease. I did not want to completely lose my fitness and wanted the option to perhaps jump into a few races this fall. I knew that I would not be in any shape to run fast, but I at least wanted the option to complete the distances.  So I slowly started adding in speed training to my regimen, and slowly started spending more time outdoors running circles in the hilly Metroparks. However, adding these few things into my routine certainly did not come with ease.  Fear came with every quick stride in my speed training on the treadmill and with every foot strike on the roads of the Metroparks.  There wasn’t one speed training session or Metropark run that wasn’t accompanied with a series of “you can do this…you can do this…you’re not going to pass out…you can do this…”on repeat in my head. It was exhausting. Running was no longer the fun, stress-releasing exercise it was in the past. It was now a huge mountain that took a great deal of mental strength to simply get through, more intense than any physical demand I’ve ever put on my body.  It was a stirring a great deal of anxiety in me, and was not getting easier with time.

I prayed and prayed that running could go back to what it used to be. I was fixated on the memories of the good times and accomplishments. I was missing the feelings that came along with pre-race butterflies, winning ridiculously huge trophies, achieving P.R.’s, collecting race medals, traveling to fun cities, and so much more. Marathon running was a huge part of my life for four years, and letting go of the goals attached to it as a result of an undefined health issue was more of a challenge than I expected.  I felt myself spiraling downwards, and ended the summer feeling lost with a total lack of enthusiasm for just about everything.  Although blessed with a great deal of loving people in my life, I felt very alone. No one really understood what I was going through, it was hard for me to put my experience into words without pity, and so I bottled most of my feelings inside. I was hurting and was just at an all-time low. I was trying hard to smile on the outside, but felt a huge, bleeding hole in my heart on the inside. In the past, a run could quickly ease the pain of those feelings. But now, running was the culprit. No run was going to take away those feelings, and I had no choice but to face them. Change has always been difficult for me, and this difficulty escalated beyond what I felt I could handle at times.  But despite my fear and anxiety, I still was holding on to the hope.  I prayed I could get back to where I was and that I was going to get some answers regarding my health issues.  I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet.  

When Labor Day weekend rolled around, I decided to take a leap of faith. In the past, leaps of faith lent themselves to great success for me. I was eagerly seeking the “high” that came along with feelings of accomplishment, and so I decided to lace up my running shoes for a 5k race on Labor Day Monday. The race was a challenging course that began with a steep, long uphill that winded around and back down to the finish. It was an incredibly hot and humid day following an incredibly hot and humid weekend, but I decided I was going to take the challenge on any way. So I did, and OWNED it. Despite the big hill in the beginning leading into a slow first mile around a 6:40 pace, I crushed the second half of the course. I finish in 19:41, 6:21min/mi and was the 2nd overall female and 6th overall finisher! I was very surprised by my performance and had no idea I still had that kind of speed left in me! The 1st overall female and I ran a cool down post-race together. As we talked throughout our run, she opened up about a chronic illness that she is dealing with that has prevented her from pursuing running distances greater than the 10k.  Her openness helped me immensely, in ways she has no idea. For the first time this entire summer, I felt not alone. I had been feeling “defective” with my own personal chronic illness and like a wimp for consequently putting my running goals to the side. This girl is by no means a wimp but is taking care of her body and playing with the cards she has been dealt in a positive, healthy way. I was incredibly inspired by her great attitude and responsible decision. They say everything happens for a reason, and meeting this phenomenal runner during this difficult time in my life is one of the reasons I can say it certainly does!

After the awards ceremony, I started to feel horrible and became incredibly nervous. I was so wiped, exhausted, dehydrated, and just needed to get home and take a nap. As I was driving home, I evidently took racing to another level. I got my first speeding ticket since 2007. The cop definitely put me in my place and the speeding ticket immediately killed the “high” that came from my run. I felt sick, miserable, and like a complete fool. I felt like God was shouting at me, “What are you doing? Stop. Slow down…and move on!” It was like someone through a bucket of cold water on me. All-around for a multitude of reasons, I just felt ashamed with myself.

The next day, I had an appointment with the neurologist I had been waiting to see for three months. He is said to be the best neurologist in Cleveland, and I was a hybrid of excited and nervous to meet with him. I wasn’t so much scared to hear about what might be wrong. I was more scared to hear that he had no idea what was wrong with me and I was just going to have to deal with the uncertainty for the rest of my life. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned that there was a reason I waited so long to get an appointment with him. He was AMAZING. Upon analyzing my long list of tests, my symptoms from each incident, my health history outside of running, he came to a definitive conclusion. I do NOT have epilepsy and have NOT been having seizures! Instead, I have been having exercise-induced migraines that lead to syncope (which is a big medical word for passing out). He said that extreme migraines cause a decrease in blood pressure, which he believes is what is causing me to go unconscious. He said that migraines cause problems with facial nerves, which explains my slurred speech and droopy eyes. He said the shaking my body endured happens with any kind of syncope, which can be mistaken for seizure. Additionally, confusion and cognitive impairment are also symptomatic of a severe migraine which explains my “out-of-it” state with the paramedics. He said he has studied epilepsy and seizures throughout his entire career and he can say with fair certainty that that is not the issue! It was a relief to hear him say those words. However, although my migraine issue is a diagnosis of much less severity than epilepsy, I am not totally in the clear. I have been cursed with chronic migraines since my early teens and when they strike they are incredibly debilitating. He gave me some suggestions and medication to help mitigate the pain they cause and hopefully prevent any possible syncope episode. He himself is a runner with a respectable 16:00 5k P.R., and was very supportive of me continuing on with my marathon training. However, he informed me that I would have to change my mentality. It is engrained in our running souls (or should I say, “soles”) that mind is always over matter, and that there is no challenge we can’t push our bodies through. He said that this biological challenge I face cannot be overcome with a positive attitude and that there is no pushing through it. When I feel a migraine coming on, I have to stop and let it take its course. He recommended I lie in the grass and put my feet over my head at the onset of the visual disturbances. If an ambulance comes, he recommended letting it drive me home because there is no need to get stuck in an E.R. and spend lots of money on diagnostic tests. Dropping in the grass with my legs in the air is somewhat of a comical idea, but I deeply appreciate his optimism, faith, and support in my running career.

So, did this diagnosis spring me back into marathon training mode? Believe it or not, even to my own surprise, not at all. I took an entire week off of working out after that appointment.  I have been so physically exhausted over the past few weeks. I’m not sure exactly why, but I can hardly even run a few easy miles. Maybe I’m missing some nutrients in my diet? Maybe I’m not getting enough sleep? Maybe it’s stress from work? Or, maybe, this diagnosis is the green light that I can relax…and my body is forcing me to do so.  And, maybe, this is the time for me to truly take a step back and let go of what I’ve been so afraid to step away from.

Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” This is my new mantra. Instead of praying to get back to where I was, I’m saying a new prayer. I’ve decided it’s time to find a new focus and put my energy into “building the new.”  I can’t rationalize putting all of my energy into fighting what has come to make me feel miserable. The potential for syncope on a run does not sit easy for me, and lying in the grass with my feet over my head waiting for a migraine to pass seems like such a waste of precious time. Life is too short. Everyone has a hurdle to jump through in his or her life, and this is mine. It’s time to truly let goal of my running goals. Focusing any more of my energy on running a fast marathon feels foolish for me at this point. I’ve accomplished more than I ever could have imagined since my running adventures began in 2008, and I’m happy to share my knowledge to help others reach their goals. But, for me personally, it’s time to close this door. I’ve put the Garmin away. Running is no longer my focus, but something to do to stay in shape and relax. Running will always be a part of my life, but training will not. It’s time to truly enjoy running to feel not burned out, but to feel refreshed. The intensity of marathon training has taken its toll on my body, and my body is shouting at me that it’s done. I’m not sure yet what my new focus will be. I’m not even sure where to begin! There is so much opportunity in life if you let it in, and sometimes letting go of what was is the only way to have a clear lens of what may be.

In the meantime, I cannot wait to cheer on all of my running friends in their races this fall! I truly love supporting others experiencing all of the greatness that comes from road racing at any distance. Being on the sidelines watching my running buddies, who have worked so hard and dedicated so much time, reach their goals has been the best medicine for me. No matter my personal direction, I will always be everyone’s biggest cheerleader!