A few years ago an acquaintance remarked on my overly-active lifestyle that I must be running from something.
I am. My pain.
Since developing meningitis in 2001 at the age of 18, I’ve had a chronic, incurable daily headache that hasn’t left me even for a moment. In the first three years after becoming ill, I spent more than 150 days in the hospital. I lost my ability to complete my math major, my status as a cadet at the Air Force Academy, and my dream of becoming a pilot.
Beginning flying lessons at age 17, July 2000.
I had no idea I would lose my medical clearance to fly within a year and a half.
I tried just about every drug imaginable to manage the headache: anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, seizure medications, and blood pressure medications, just to name a few. Neurologists ran out of ideas, acupuncturists couldn’t break through, pain doctors injected my scalp with Botox, and a few times a chiropractor even attempted to “manipulate my skull” by inflating balloons in my sinuses. For three years, I lived half comatose on a cocktail of narcotics. I realized the side-effects of so many medications and treatments kept me even more incapacitated than the pain on its own.
It wasn’t until 2007, six years after I developed the headache from hell, that I had a series of surgeries to implant a peripheral nerve stimulator, a subcutaneous device that sent low levels of electrical current to the nerves in the pack of my neck. By that point I was bald from the surgeries, fat, depressed, and unemployed.
But once recovered from the surgeries, I started having significantly fewer bad headaches. While I still had constant, low level pain, I could do more, sleep less excessively, and occasionally exercise without paying the high price of days of increased pain. I went for short walks, then longer ones. I began to jog. I climbed the foothills near my home in Boulder and then one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. I lost 30 pounds. I went back to school, graduated college, and got a job. For the first time since 2001, the pain didn’t control me.
I began to wonder how far I could push my body before my headache punished me. Could I run a half marathon? A full marathon? Could I climb all of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks?
In 2010, I ran over Rome’s cobblestone streets to finish my first marathon. I was elated. If I survived 26.2 miles, or 42.195 kilometers as the Italians referred to it, plus the hundreds of miles it took to train, all with an everlasting headache, what else could I accomplish?
I returned to the States and my job feeling indestructible. I felt as close to conquering my pain as possible without actually being out of pain. I rewarded my legs with a two-week running and hiking hiatus.
After the first week of my break, I had my first day of bad day of pain in weeks. My skull felt crushing. I could feel my heartbeat in my temples. It hurt to open my eyes. I felt dizzy, and I vomited when I tried to get up from the couch. How could I survive the day at work? What was causing the increased pain? By the second day of my worsened headache, I was panicked. The headache became so intense I forgot about my success in running and I could only remember the years I spent being held hostage to the pain. A full week passed. I couldn’t sleep, I made mistakes at work, and I was on the verge of quitting. I felt helpless and hopeless.
Finally, I made a choice. Running was the one thing I could count on to lift my mood and help build my confidence that I could live a normal life despite the headache. I risked making the pain worse, and I went for a run. The next day, I went out again. Three days later, I was back to a headache that rarely worsened beyond a low, baseline pain.
Mentally, I felt in control again, and better, physically the endorphins and increased blood flow actually lessened the headache.
That’s when I became completely sure that running wasn’t something I did despite my chronic pain, it was something I didbecause of my pain. And there wasn’t anything wrong with that.
Since 2010 and my first road marathon, I’ve competed in a number of other races as a proud, middle-of-the-pack runner. I’ve also transitioned to mountain races and ultras, distances further than 26.2.
I think of ultra-running as “ultra-journeying,” as I walk, run, or meander in the mountains, testing my own limits more than testing myself against others.