I started running four years ago. Well, I actually ran for a short time 15 years ago when Chris started running, and I hated it. A couple years in, unrelated to running (maybe), I had to have two foot surgeries, and my surgeon told me I’d never be able to run again, and I totally did a fist pump and whispered “yaaaass” (except the word yaaaass hadn’t been invented in 2005.)
But five years ago, I was diagnosed with Dysautonomia, which is a really annoying and life-altering nervous system dysfunction that is helped by even more annoying lifestyle changes, like drinking insane amounts of water, going easy on caffeine and sugar and all things delicious in life, eating healthy, getting lots of sleep, and – you guessed it – running.
(We do get to eat a lot of salt, so that’s the one decent change.)
I waited a year before I tried the running option. I REALLY didn’t want to – especially since Dysautonomia makes you feel exhausted and sometimes makes you black out when you stand up – it seems like running would be an exceptionally stupid idea.
But I was finally desperate for something that would make more of a difference. So I tried it. And within weeks, I was actually enjoying running, because of the difference it made in my quality of life. Staying in bed when I felt bad just made me feel more dizzy and woozy, but if I got up and ran, I would feel like a normal human – within a mile of the beginning of my run.
But, as with literally all things that help Dysautonomia, running also hurts it. Because dehydration is a constant factor that must be fought, and running, though it helps circulation and blood flow, clearly increases dehydration. So I decided that, for me, running helped until it didn’t – too much and it hurt. I did a few half marathons, decided I didn’t really *love* races (I much preferred the introversion and solitude of a quiet run), and committed that I would never do a full marathon.
26.2 miles is much too far to be helpful.
Then I fell in love with trail running. The kids and I love hiking, and so being able to enjoy my solitude of running while moving at a much faster pace (than with the kids) on the trails became my favorite way to treat Dysautonomia. Plus, being alone in the woods basically feels like you’re with a counselor. It’s the best therapy.
I still didn’t have any interest in racing, so I was happy to chill with the kids as Chris did a 27 mile trail race, a 50K trail race, a trail race series, and an absolutely insane 50 mile trail race.
But when he returned from his 50 mile race, he told me, rather pensively, that he really thought I should do the 27 mile race at Lake Martin with him (which is just one measly loop of the two loops he’d just finished.) His reasons: we enjoy running in the woods together, it was a beautiful course, and he believed that I could do it.
I ignored him for a few months.
Then I ignored him a little longer.
Then I had a hysterectomy and he quit mentioning it, as the race would be 90 days post-surgery.
Then, three weeks before the race, I texted him.
“Sign me up. The kids are going to my parent’s for that weekend. I want to do Lake Martin.”
I was completely uncertain if I could finish the race, but I was willing to try.
Then the anxiety set in. What was I going to permanently damage? Would I fall? I do tend to maim myself when I fall…What if I am unable to move anymore when I’m miles from an aid station? How many more months of physical therapy would this race buy me?
I hardly slept two nights before the race, and the day before I was a sleep-deprived anxiety bubble. I just wanted to enjoy a weekend away with my husband, but for some reason this race had really gotten under my skin.
Chris, in all his wisdom, took me sunsetting Friday night to calm me down. Much like running, sunsets have a therapeutic effect on me.
It totally worked and I slept great Friday night – until 4am when it was time to wake up and get ready to race.
(The race didn’t actually start until 6:45 but Chris has a nasty habit of waking up extremely early for races so that his digestive system has time to work and since we were staying in a camp cabin together, I woke up too.)
We took our time and gathered our supplies (these are just mine – poor Chris had to find room for me in his aid station box.)
Then we headed to the starting line. The gun went off at first light, and we headed into the woods in a giant pack of about 300 people doing various lengths of race (27, 50, or 100 miles.)
A lot of the trails are single-track, and after being behind and in front of gaggles of people for quite some time, I whispered to Chris, “I really pictured this more of a you-and-me-alone-in-the-woods thing…”, and he said “Well stop for a minute and let all of them pass us.” and I was all like “WHAT?? NO!!” because I’m too Type A for trail races.
But I did finally have to stop and readjust my shoe laces, which let all the people around us get ahead of us and I breathed deeply and said “Ahhhh. That was the best shoelace tie ever.”
At 7.25 miles, we came to the first aid station.
The race is set in four loops, each intersecting at one of two aid stations. So every 6-8 miles, you have the opportunity to refill your water pack, get food, fill a Ziploc bag with more food for later, use the port-a-potty, and eat a pickle from the communal pickle bowl (because pickles help with cramps…supposedly.)
(It’s worth noting that hand sanitizer is a foreign concept at trail races and being a mom and frequent user of such really made me think about what all was floating in that pickle juice as I reached in and grabbed my pickles right after using the port-a-potty. But apparently this is part of the trail running mindset, and I really better get used to it.)
Before I was ready, Chris said “Okay, I think we’re ready to get going again.” As often happens with me, I forgot that I could say “Wait!! No!!” until it was too late. So I spent the next loop growling about how I really needed to pee one more time before we left because he should know my bladder basically has two chambers and it’s a known Dysautonomia symptom and now I’m going to have to pee for six miles and how can I possibly run if I have to pee.
(He’d told me pre-race I could say anything I wanted to him during the race and he would just take it. So I whined with pleasure.)
He told me to just pee in the woods.
I told him there was another couple too nearby (incidentally, our next-door-neighbors back at the lodge. I didn’t want to spend the evening on the porch talking about them coming up on me leaning on a tree in the woods.)
I whined more and looked for a hidden space.
I kept looking behind me and seeing the other couple.
Chris said “Let’s just let them go by us then you can pee wherever you want.”
I said no because who just stops and lets people pass them in the middle of a race.
Finally, after three miles of increasing urgency, I found a turnoff trail, walked down it a hundred yards, into some briars, and leaned against a very large and hidden tree.
Only after I utilized said tree did I realize it’d been caught up in a brush fire at some point and was covered in charcoal…and now, so was I. In all the places.
I walked back out to the wide red dirt road that was the race path at the time to find that Chris had actually held up the other couple and was chatting with them.
I said “What?? You thought I was just going to be peeing in plain sight?? That was the whole point in waiting three miles!”
We set off with them, and I realized running with other people wasn’t so bad – as long as you weren’t on a single-track trail where you were stuck looking at their butt.
We made it back around to the aid station at 13 miles and Chris wisely gave me ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.
My IT band (on the side of my knee) started hurting a bit in the third loop, which I had fully expected at some point, so we began walking more and running less. My Ultra Hydrating Plan continued to make me need to pee, and I got less and less paranoid about the whole procedure. Chris was so proud of my trail-racing-culture-embracing of barely hopping to the side of the trail that he might’ve bragged about it to one of our running friends.
At mile 18 we came back through the main aid station at the start/finish line, and by now my IT band was getting fairly painful. They had chiropractors on hand from The Farm, which specializes in Ultra Running, and Sloan made me do 100 stretches in 30 seconds as she barked commands at me, helping to force my IT band to allow me to finish the race. I grabbed my spray can of BioFreeze out of Chris’ trail box and we headed back into the woods for the final loop.
It was slow. It was hilly. I had to do a wide-legged duck walk to go downhill without burning pain. At one point Chris was chatting when he said “If, I mean WHEN you finish this race…”
I picked up a rock.
He threw his hands to his face and yelled “YOU CAN’T THROW ROCKS AT ME!!”
I guess that didn’t fall under the “You can say whatever you want” clause.
But he didn’t say the word “If” again.
The last loop was beautiful. It butted up against the lake, but the hills. I received three new FitBit Elevation Record badges while we were on it.
At mile 23, We found a bench and sat for a few minutes. It was excruciating to get up and start again, but I was able to run for a bit after that.
At mile 24, we hit Rock Bottom.
There was a bench there, too, but I was DETERMINED not to give Rock Bottom the pleasure. So we started up the steep incline.
We made it back around to the start/finish line – but that was just mile 25. To make it the official 27.1 miles (just long enough to call it an Ultra Marathon), we had to go out and back as if we were starting a second loop.
The one mile out, though downhill, was the longest mile I’ve ever hobbled. At one point, after it’d felt like five miles, I definitely yelled at the trail “OH COME ON!!!”
But it was pretty. There were horses.
…Who didn’t care at all about my feats of impressiveness.
On the one mile back to the finish line, I desperately wanted to see at least one human coming toward us – to know that I wasn’t absolute last. And we did. He was hobbling and looked in as much or more pain as me, but I mentally thanked him for his service and kept limping up the hill.
After nine hours and twenty minutes (and getting lapped by three people doing the 50 mile race), we got these.
It actually was fun. I never thought about quitting, and (don’t tell Chris this) I already want to do another one. Clearly they lace the medal with some sort of illegal drug because why.
The total count: I peed 4 times in the woods and 4 times in port-a-potties. Whether I’m an ultra anything else, I’m SO an ultra hydrator, and that kept me from dying on the trails. And, per the official results, I actually beat seven people. I immediately regretted not wrenching out of Chris’ handholding finish and sprinting ahead of him so I could’ve beat eight people.
That night I woke up at 2am in a miserable panic with a fever (a pickle juice fever?), nausea, intense knee and hip pain, and a burning anger at my husband because he said right before we went to sleep “we’re going to sleep SO DEEPLY tonight.”
But I forgave him when he got up, brought me Tylenol, bread, and a Sprite, and made sure I felt better before he dozed back off into his deep sleep.
The next morning I was fine except that my legs definitely never wanted to move ever again. The sign at our cabin had never been more true.
But Chris told me I’d be worse if I didn’t keep moving, so we went to take some more pictures of the surrounding beauty, and then went back to the finish line to watch some of the 100-mile racers finish (making me feel like a total wuss…but not.)
But most importantly, I didn’t die or even permanently damage myself.
So, Dysautonomia. There are certainly days where I have to stay in bed for large portions of time, and that probably won’t change.
But not this day.
And ultimately, Dysautonomia has indeed altered my life. It’s given me running. It’s given me hiking. And it even gave me photography.
So I’ll say as often as I can, and I definitely said it on this day…
Not Today, Dysautonomia.