37. A Runner

37. A Runner

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

A Runner

I run because it’s so symbolic of life. You have to drive yourself to overcome the obstacles. You might feel that you can’t. But then you find your inner strength, and realize you’re capable of so much more than you thought.
 ~Arthur Blank

Anyone who has taken up running for the fun of it knows nothing compares to the high you get when you’ve pushed through “The Wall” on rubbery legs, miraculously feeling nothing but good. For me, each step I took even when I didn’t feel like it provided a sense of inner strength and wellbeing. Running allowed the physical world to slip from my consciousness, my mind astoundingly untangled personal problems, even unraveled the puzzle of world peace from time to time.

Since the age of six I’d competed in sports. Competition filled my life with small achievements that felt big. I started running in college after a lifetime of grueling swimming practices came to an end. At first, running was my antidote to fries and beer. However, it didn’t take long to get hooked — especially when my running route wound through unique urban neighborhoods that surrounded the University of Pittsburgh.

One neighborhood was characterized by the mansions of long-gone steel magnates. The next was defined by rundown row houses young people were rehabbing. A canopy of trees covered the sidewalks and provided just enough shade to keep me going through the second pass of my five-mile route. It didn’t matter that at least three months of every year were marked by frigid temperatures. I was that much stronger when spring finally sprung.

My running wasn’t confined to where I was living at any given time. Each vacation or visit with friends became a running discovery zone. Sunny St. Helena in the northern California wine country, Laguna Beach, Carmel, Lake Tahoe, Philadelphia, suburban Maryland, Tucson, and Kiawah Island. Each place proudly shared its hidden treasures. When I think of running in those places, different feelings are instantly evoked — specific to the place. As though I’m there.

Running made me feel part of the place I was visiting — instantly a community member. It also created and nurtured relationships. My husband and I ran races together. Friends and professors in my Ph.D. program found running bolstered opportunities to learn as though our minds worked better when our bodies were in motion.

Shortly after my thirty-fourth birthday, running came to a screeching halt. Admitted to the hospital with debilitating numbness, pain, weakness, and fatigue, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). As much as I wanted to go for a run when I left the hospital, I couldn’t.

My leaden body disappointed me repeatedly. It took all of my energy to care for a baby and a toddler. That feeling when you have the flu — you can’t get off the couch and if you do, you’re back on it in 20 minutes wondering what you thought you were trying to prove — plagued me. Even with help from family members, breaking out of the cycle of fatigue and pain to start running again wasn’t happening. Nothing was the same.

Mentally, this was disastrous. I was a runner. An exerciser. Not a couch potato. Suddenly, exercise was my enemy. Instead of runner’s high, I had runner’s remorse. Wouldn’t life be easier if I never felt my mind unwind while moving through space at the speed of light? Okay, I never ran very fast, but I could go long. I needed that back.

More than two years have passed since my rapid spiral into what felt like my ninth decade of life. The MS symptoms have lessened. Much of my life is back to normal. I’ve been walking and trying to run. One foot in front of the other. Should be so easy. But searing pain in my feet, as though a vice is closing on my bones, forces me to stop after only a few steps. I stumble. Sometimes literally. Mostly I trip over the fear I’ll never be my old self. Am I damaging my body if it’s so hard to run?

The scientific answer is no. It’s better to be in shape when the next episode comes along and dares me to live my life the way I want to. I still think of myself as a runner. Even though I’m not. Walking doesn’t provide the Zen-like state I’m chasing like water in the desert. I wish it did.

I’m not giving up. I can push through this. “The Wall” every runner knows so well may be a little thicker for me, but the exhilaration will be that much greater when I finally manage to recapture Running. Boy, will that be good.

~Kathleen Shoop

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