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?
Celebrating the completion of the Rome Marathon with one of my sisters, March 2011.
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.
4 thoughts on “Why I Run”
So inspiring! >
I enjoyed your post – you are a very good writer; you are able to bring your adventures right to my PC screen.
I have been an aviation freak since high school. My dad worked for the CAA (Civil Aviation Administration) — now the — FAA so I have wandered around the fringes of aviation for a very long time. I have longed to fly for many decades; Unfortunately I had extremely poor eyesight that required me to wear coke-bottle lens glasses. I ought to have gone for my license when I was in the Army (flight training was almost free through the post flying club). I was convinced that my poor eyesight (20/800) was severe enough that I could not pass the physical. It did concern me that if I dropped my glasses, I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A few years after we moved to Boulder, I had lens replacement surgery (to deal with cataracts) The replacement lenses gave me almost 20/20 vision (YeeeHaw). A year or two after that, I decided to give flight lessons a try. I took flight lessons at the Boulder airport an amassed a whole 10 hours. However, by this time my hearing had deteriorated to the point that I needed special amplified headphones. I also did a bit of hard thinking about the whole idea. Flight lessons were very expensive (about $150 per hour then. Aircraft rental ran about $100 per hour for a Cessna 172) (This was twelve years ago; I can imagine what it is now). I thought long and hard about this and finally decided that not having a license would not be as bad as having a license and not being able to afford to fly so I gave that idea up. It was probably a wise thing to do, but I sometimes regret not pursuing that dream more vigorously .
About 35 years ago I got into running, cycling, climbing and hiking/backpacking. Happily, I could do all of that — and I did. I have worn out 4 or 5 pairs of hiking boots, 5 tents and sleeping bags, countless running shoes and 5 bicycles. I ran lots of 10K races, several triathlons, and did some long distance cycling. Our favourite ride was a bike-camping trip from Tacoma to Vancouver Island (with a ferry trip thrown in) to the northern point of Vancouver Island. From there a ferry trip to Prince Rupert then out to the Queen Charlotte islands and a cycle trip to the northernmost tip of the big island. Then, retracing the trip with an added cycle trip from Vancouver city down through Seattle and back to Tacoma. The whole ride was just a bit over 1400 miles (not counting the ferry rides). Gawd that was a fun ride – we really enjoyed that (even despite the well-known west coast rains.
So, here I am in Boulder 73 years old with great hiking backpacking plans but with an uncooperative back/hip. I am hopeful that the doctor can find some magic to overcome the hip/back problem. In any event, I have had some great adventures and I am looking forward to more. Photography has partially replaced some of these past activities — of course I can carry a camera or two along with me on these trips and enjoy the mountains, back roads, and breathless beauty of Colorado.
I love reading of your adventures, Lynn — you are a great inspiration to me. It is fun to enjoy vicariously trotting along with you. Fortunately, I have not had to face the huge barriers that you have. I don’t think I could have surmounted such challenges. You are amazing my friend; each time that I see an e-mail from Lynn, I think “Wow, another adventure to share”.
Take care my friend.
But oh I’m so so glad to have stumbled on this old post. Jesus H, Lynn. You are truly a survivor. What you’ve overcome- one thing after another – it’s remarkable.
Sent from myphone