Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Running Journey, Part 1: All My Problems

So here's the thing.

I have this vivid memory of me in 5th grade, running with a gaggle of girls behind Monsieur Catania, a native Frenchman with tan skin, sculpted legs, and a languid accent. He transported from France to West Texas for marriage where he subsequently taught both of my brothers French and became my middle-grade soccer coach.

In this memory, Cathleen Wright flew blithely along at Monsieur Catania's side, chatting away with him while we clipped around the soccer fields, tracing giant rectangles in the freshly mown lawn. Her straight blonde hair was loose and bounced behind her like swinging sheets of sunlight. She smiled and laughed and ran. All at the same time.

We started in one big 11-year-old pack, but in no time the pack thinned to an unrefined line, with me trailing at the back.

The very back.

And when we finally, gratefully stopped, I curled up in the grass (in the shade, between the back wall of the gym and the kickball field) and tried to breathe and mostly failed.

Running seems like it would be the most innate ability in nature. Have legs will run.

Well, then why have I always always always struggled?

There are so many potential reasons.

I wouldn't maybe care to pursue this line of thought at all because my dating history with running is rocky at best. But I have reason (explained later) to give this particular partner another chance.

After two years of soccer team grief, always coming in last, mostly I avoided running, especially outside.

I played court sports in junior high and high school, volleyball--my one true love--and basketball. They both required high-intensity conditioning, including a lot of sprints.

My least favorite drill was a long series of short sprints called a "suicide."

The hardest practices were the evenings when that shrill whistle was followed by the call, "Again!" and we ran suicides over and over and over.

"On the line!"

"Do it again!"

And you know what? I wasn't a terrible sprinter. Not the fastest, but not the slowest.

When I got to college, it was harder to prioritize regular exercise without an organized team with practices and games, so individual sports became more appealing.

(This is not me. These are gods.)

I heard my running friends proclaiming, with apparent sincerity and a hint of nonchalant boasting, "Oh, you know." (Flip of the casual wrist.) "I just ran through campus, up the mountain past the temple, and watched the sunset over the valley."

"How far was that?"

Shrug. "Not very. Only 8 or 9 miles. It was SOOOO beautiful. You should try it."

I could never quite be certain, but as they walked away, I thought I could hear a faint snicker hovering invisible in the air. And even though I've never seen one, I know what a snicker looks like. It's a big disembodied mouth with thin lips and sharp teeth.

So I tried running.

And I hated it.

At first I assumed it was because I was out of shape.

Which was true.

At first.

But as I forced myself to run daily, I could feel myself getting stronger, and I still hated running just as much.

There were no glorious sunset runs where I felt free and alive like a slender, optimistic gazelle. Yes, the sun set. But I was too sweaty and tired to notice.

So what do you do when you hate something but know it's good for you?

Well, I don't know what you do, but I push on. I swore to myself I would run until I enjoyed running.

And I did, on both counts.

It took me 6 months.

I was not fast nor lithe, but I found myself looking forward to my runs and even running at odd, unscheduled times when I felt the need to relieve extra college-oriented stress.

One cold winter's day, I came home from my 3AM janitorial shift and headed out for my pre-class morning jog.

I don't know if it was because I hadn't stretched or because it was below freezing and my limbs were covered in ice or because I was running on a severely angled surface, but within a few seconds I felt/heard a pop in one knee.

(Those of you who have experienced a similar injury will recognize that it's psychologically difficult to tell the difference between the feel and the sound of your body breaking.)

It didn't hurt too badly, so I kept going. A few minutes later, I felt/heard the other knee do the exact same thing.

Three miles later I stopped to talk to a friend who was playing basketball on an outdoor court along my route. We only chatted a few minutes, but my knees were at rest. And when I started off again, I found I could barely walk. I don't think I had ever felt pain like that before.

At my apartment complex, I sat on the bottom stair and pulled myself up to the second floor using only my arms. It hurt that badly.

That severe knee pain came and went and was unpredictable enough to erode my recent confidence that running might indeed be a sport for me.

Enter a 12 year series of running set-backs.

Diagnosis of asthma:

I had always thought of asthma as an excuse, not a real ailment. I was actually diagnosed in high school, but it was like the ADHD of the time -- over-diagnosed? real? what does it mean and how do you handle it? It's caused by "genetic and environmental factors." Could there be any diagnosis that sounds less clinical?

It wasn't until the end of college that I actually understood how real it was and that, for me, it needed to be managed.

There are variant triggers. From what I can tell, I deal with two specifically -- allergen induced and exercise induced. According to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

"A diagnosis of asthma is common in top athletes. One survey of participants in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., showed that 15% had been diagnosed with asthma, and that 10% were on asthma medication. There appears to be a relatively high incidence of asthma in sports such as cycling, mountain biking, and long-distance running, and a relatively lower incidence in weightlifting and diving. It is unclear how much of these disparities are from the effects of training in the sport."

I can tell you that the difference between running with asthma unmanaged and asthma managed is like the difference between running with or without pneumonia.

When I run with my asthma unmanaged, I literally can't fill my lungs more than half-way because my bronchioles become inflamed. The inflammation causes the muscles around my airways to tighten which in turn causes the brochioles to constrict even more, narrowing and restricting airflow to the tiny terminating air sacs, or alveoli. Often this is exacerbated by the production of mucous which has the potential to plug the airways completely.

It's uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.

When I take my preventative asthma meds and keep a rescue inhaler on-hand, well, then my running problems are for other reasons.

Now I look back at my 5th grade self, gasping for air in the fresh cut grass and have a different view of my running woes.

Torn ACL:

During an Ultimate Frisbee game near the end of my undergraduate days at BYU, I went for a last-minutes potentially game-winning touchdown pass.

It was a hard, low pass, and I had a choice.

1) Stop my current forward momentum then dive for it, or 2) run through, reaching to my ankle to nab it as it crossed the line.

Incorrectly, in hindsight, I chose the latter.

(And I could have looked like this! Well, a more feminine yet hardcore version of this.)

To this day, I can't remember if I caught it.

Probably not.

At the time, it felt (quite severely) like I had bigger problems.

For example, being face down in the grass, about to pass out. Or, when full consciousness returned, rolling over to face the stars, clutching my knee in agony.

(Leaning forward to my ankle while running full-throttle caused my knee to twist and hyper-extend, ie: bend backward. Unlike this fantastic illustration, however, I was not wearing heels.)

Faces loomed over me. One of them said, "Are we gonna play, or what? Quit layin' around."

I didn't have an answer as I couldn't unclench my teeth to respond.

But he was right, sorta. I felt pretty foolish holding up the game and, assisted, hobbled off the field.

A couple of days later I went to a doctor (who shall remain nameless). He assured me I had sprained my knee and told me to stay off of it for about two weeks.

Having never sprained my knee before, this seemed plausible.

Also, I was clueless.

I used crutches for two weeks then ditched them and flew to Barbados.

The Caribbean was my home for most of the summer while I researched Crop Over, a Bajan festival that has changed a great deal over the past 300 years but continues to hold meaning to the island.

(What was once an evening of effigy burning at the end of the sugar cane harvest has turned into a tourist month of color and music: soca, calypso, steel, and tuk bands, stilt walkers, Grand Kadooment, art displays, markets, costumes like you wouldn't believe, lots of debauchery, Cohobblopot and food... souse, jug jug, and flying fish to name a few.)

The problem was... I kept falling over.

Anytime I walked uphill or up steps or tried to play cricket with the neighborhood children, my femur slid around inside my Jell-O-Knee.

Every time I fell, it felt like the old injury happened for the first time.

When I returned to the States, of course the first thing I did was hit a volleyball court. It didn't work out very well, and I found myself back at a (real) doctor's office.

He who shall be named, Dr. Kimball (as in the guy who treats the BYU football team -- he's so the best, that I'm including his website HERE), moved my leg/knee around in all kinds of ways it shouldn't move, and said, "WHO SAID THIS WAS SPRAINED!?"

At least, that's what I heard.

I was under the knife within a week.

(This is me, a day after ACL surgery, Sept 2001.)

Six months and a lot of pain later, I was finally allowed to run. I celebrated with a long frozen jog on a deep snow trail up Provo Canyon.

It was probably the best run of my life. I was slow, but I was freeeeee!

Torn ACL:

Only then I tore my other ACL.

Remember, all those years ago, that cold morning when I heard/felt both my knees snap?

I swear that has something to do with these injuries.

This time I was in grad school.

Volleyball being my prime outlet, I had joined an intramural team.

(Blatant advertisement for Tachikara!)

In the first five minutes of the game, I was given a sweet outside set. After my hit, I dropped to the floor and felt a wrecking ball crash into the side of my leg.

I fell hard and once again fought to stay conscious.

You know what kept me awake? I was listening for the whistle.

The guy across from me, the guy who had gone up for the block, had come down kicking my knee out. I was sure of it.

So sure, I stared at that one tiny dot of light, the one signaling my remaining consciousness, feeling LIVID that people were gathering to check on my welfare, but the ref STILL hadn't called "under the net."

In fact, when I was finally able to process the mighty choruses of... "Are you okay?" I blinked and said, "Where's the call!?"

That's when they were all sure I was not okay.

At this point I had been married for five years. A fellow cohort member called Jeff to pick me up and then helped push me out to the car in one of those fabulous office chairs with wheels. You know the type. The kind that has no armrests and the back is perpetually tilted to the right. Gray upholstery.

I went back to Dr. Kimball.

Once again he was quite certain it was torn. He asked if there was any chance I could be pregnant. Because if I was, no surgery.

Um, no.

No chance.

But, I guess, it could, theoretically be possible.

He made me pee on a stick, just to be sure.

And that's how I found out I was with child. Surprise!!!



Baby and grad school.

Baby and grad school and torn ACL.

Baby and grad school and torn ACL and rough pregnancy.

(Pumping her fist in utero. Happy, apparently, to exist.)

Baby and grad school and torn ACL and bed rest.

Grad school and torn ACL and newborn with Hirschsprung Disease.

Newborn and grad school and torn ACL and Hirschsprung Disease and (eegads amounts of) homework and Ileostomy bag changes and nursing and pumping and exams and projects and surgeries and fieldwork and nights awake with infant and hospitalizations and medical specialists and dissertations and defenses and occupational, speech, and physical therapists and Kindermusic classes and motor classes and hippotherapy sessions and biostatistics and epidemiology and nursing an infant in a desk and lobbying in D.C., and, oh yeah, I had a job too.

Those were the good old days.

I didn't run much ever.


This is a pretty new ailment about which few (to this point) are aware. But in an effort at honesty (and apparently full disclosure), here's one more difficult-to-run reason I'm throwing on my pile.

A little over a year ago I noticed I was exhausted all the time.

No, I first noticed it at the beginning of my pregnancy.

But a little over a year ago I was finally sleeping through the night (mostly), and I was still exhausted all the time.

(This is also not me, but she does a pretty good impression.)

The fatigue was so bad I went to a doctor. That alone was unusual.

I think the last time I had been to a doctor for myself was three years previous during Bridgette's second hospitalization. The little time I had had to sleep in the hospital was marred by impossible discomfort. I had ignored it since her first hospitalization. For three weeks I'd been getting steadily sicker.

Diagnosis: UTI that had infected both my kidneys.

I hadn't been back to a doctor since.

So three years later, after a smattering of tests and questions, we couldn't pinpoint a problem. I went home thinking all I needed was to catch up on sleep now that Bridgette was doing better.

But for a full year on, I had an intensely difficult time functioning. And it was getting worse.

By the time my heart began having problems (in May of this year), I was painfully tired only an hour after I woke up each morning. Two hours if I was lucky.

It was affecting everything: my ability to mother, to take care of my house, to set and accomplish goals, and to do my job(s), not to mention my ability to exercise.

I was doing my best at all five and more, but it was overwhelming, and I was often miserable.

Then in May, not long after I'd started (once again and all together now) *running!* my heart started missing beats, double-beating, beating in triplicate, and generally and otherwise misfiring.

(I <3 anatomical hearts!)

I know a lot of people deal with electrical impulse trouble, so at first I ignored it.

But instead of going away, it became more erratic.

On the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, I sat down to watch a movie, and my heart started going crazy. I listened to it with my stethoscope (because of course I have one), and what I heard scared me. 

So I drove myself to the Emergency Department at a local hospital. I made that choice especially because I was headed to Yellowstone a few days later, and I didn't want to fall off a cliff or into a boiling cauldron of thermal mud if I became suddenly lightheaded from too few heartbeats.

They hooked me up to an ECG, and an erratic beat was recorded almost immediately.

I was admitted for continued observation and given a thorough blood workup to see if I had signs of imminent or past heart attack and to check anemia, cholesterol, various hormones, etc.

When discharged, I was attached to a Holter monitor for 24-hours at home. It was not a pleasant experience, but it wasn't terrible. I wore some baggy sweats so none of my neighbors would notice. And of course none of them did because baggy sweats are par for the course in this house.


Well, you already know from the title of this section.

It wasn't my heart, but it was my heart that led to the correct diagnosis.

I was seriously hypothyroid. Like, for reasons unknown my thyroid was almost dead.

My Holter monitor said my heart was having 500+ single, double and triple misfires a day and that I was dropping to a super-low 31/bpm at night. With already low blood pressure, that seemed potentially dangerous to the doctors.

But the solution was to give me a daily synthetic thyroid med to replicate all the missing triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) which normally affect protein synthesis and regulate protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism. Your thyroid decides how nearly every cell in the body uses energetic compounds.

According to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, I experienced hypothyroid symptoms in all three categories (early, late, and uncommon). If you, or someone you love, may be suffering from hypothyroidism, here is the article in Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge), so you can check it out: Hypothyroidism.

Among other symptoms like low heart voltage signals, memory loss / brain fog, and cold intolerance (Oh wait! No! I've always been cold intolerant!) I was noticeably fatigued. 

I may have also been depressed, but honestly, it's hard to tell the difference between fatigue and depression. 

For about a year, I was having approx. 1 good day out of 100. And on those good days, I wondered, "Is this how the other half lives?"

After four weeks of treatment, good and bad days began to average 50/50. Now I'm having a lot more good days than bad. Five months later, it's still getting regulated.

Considering everything, I've lived (and continue to live) a pretty healthy and normal life, for which I am grateful. And even though, like practically everything in life, there aren't obvious explanations for what goes wrong inside us, I'm glad that it was my thyroid and not my heart.

(This is not my doctor, but she does a pretty good impression.)

The one (so far) good thing to come out of this hypothyroid experience (besides empathy, I hope) is something my doctor said at a follow-up appointment.

"I guarantee the ED doc took one look at you and called a T3/T4 test because you're thin and he assumed you were hyperthyroid."

I said, "I'm thin because I work super hard at it."

To which she replied, "Then you must be working EXTRA hard at it because one of the most common symptoms of hypothyroidism is weight gain, followed by high cholesterol. Your weight is great and your cholesterol is normal. And even though your heart was erratic, staying in shape was the best thing you could possibly have done for it."

So... running, it would seem, is worth it.

Now to learn to love it.


NDStudent said...

Great post Kelly! I enjoyed reading it and can relate to the thyroid issues. It seems to be so prevalent now especially amongst mothers and women our age.

Tammy and Alvin said...

Wo. That was long...but so worth it. I'm glad to know more about what you've been going through. You've got some amazing superpower strength that helps you get through lots of pain and trials. I love you and am glad the ratio of good to bad days is leveling out.

Lore said...

Love you, Kel, and I look forward to the future parts to this post. How's your left knee doing these days?

Lisa Merkley said...

Wow Kelly! Way to hang in there!I'm glad that you are getting the medical help you need. I mostly decided that after 30 everything goes downhill.

As far as running, psh! I HATE it! I had asthma all through jr high and high school, mostly exercised induced. When I finally got it under control as an adult I tried running, too. I did it faithfully for a year. And I finally reached my measly goal of a 5K and decided I was DONE running because I still hated it. Now I just find other alternatives that I like much more.

If you ever grow to LOVE it, then let me know because I won't be trying that one!

Smith Family said...

Oh my goodness, it has been WAY too long since I've read your blog! You never cease to amaze and inspire me!