It’s been hot as hell in my part of the world this summer, but I’ve been able to gradually increase my running mileage despite the heat. My longest run this year is 8 miles, which makes me pretty happy considering I wasn’t able to start running again until March of this year after nearly a year off after a disastrous April of last year. I came home from a two weeks of travel and my legs were much tighter than usual and my back was stiff (although it’s always stiff, so that wasn’t new). I thought a run would help loosen me up, but it didn’t at all, and then an awkward bend to pick up my little beagle sent me into severe spasms. Fast forward to now, and with major core and posture work, medical marijuana (a whole other story that I need to write about), and personalized supplements, and 8 miles seems pretty awesome.
My speed isn’t where I want it to be, but I’m trying to stay calm and steady and trust that progress will happen. I’ve already sped up quite a bit in the last month, but I’m also being mindful to avoid common overuse injuries, like stress fractures, so I’m not letting myself do quite as much as I’d like to. I went from running 11-minutes-plus per mile upon my return a few months ago to running sub-10 this month. Both of those are very slow compared to my former self, but I’m still happy with the progress. I’ve done some very short stints in the 7-minutes-per-mile range, which felt great and a little scary. I’m always mindful of my back, which probably makes me tense up, so I’m trying to work on staying calm while speeding up my leg turnover.
My favorite run of 2018 so far was an 8-miler through the state forest. It was extremely hot and I went through all my water on my FuelBelt by the 2/3 mark, but the peace and scenery were totally worth it. Afterwards, I swam in a cold, clear lake while tiny fish bumped into my legs and I took in the enormity of what my body had accomplished. It was a great day, and I’m so glad to be able to run again.
I don’t often have a so-called normal injury, but when I do, it’s a tough battle to force myself to take care of it. I worked on some posts about chronic pain and insomnia this weekend (which I’ll publish soon), then ironically got a relatively great night of sleep. I woke up Sunday morning ready to run. The weather was beautiful, I’d actually gotten some rest, and my back and neck were behaving pretty well. I decided to go 9-10 miles, depending on how I felt on the road.
I took off on terrain I’ve run on for years and was quickly bored with the usual sights and sounds. On a whim, I ducked behind some fenced-off private property (no location details here, but don’t try this at home, kids) and discovered a network of hidden trails in the middle of suburbia. Birds sung loudly, the air felt fresher, and all I could see were trees—real, hardwood trees! I had no idea how long the trails would last, but I hoped for at least five minutes of traffic-free running.
As I rounded a corner under a canopy of oaks, I realized I’d been in the woods for at least a mile. I was thrilled. So thrilled that I stopped paying close attention to the leaf-covered ground ahead. I ran at a 7:30 per mile pace, fast for me on a long run, and felt carefree. My feet landed on soft ground and I couldn’t smell smog or see any cars. I looked up at a cardinal in a tree and my right foot came down on a small stump. My ankle rolled so badly that I felt my fibula slam into the ground. I heard and felt a “pop” but instinctively kept running. Continuing to move was my way of assessing damage.
A few steps later I decided, despite the pop and severity of the roll, nothing was badly damaged. Pain shot up from my ankle to my knee on initial impact, but the sharpness dulled to an ache as I kept running. “Stupid,” I said aloud. “Watch where you’re going.” I was lucky, for sure, but I also make a habit of running in grassy medians and through debris-strewn parks as much as possible to help keep my ankles strong. I’m pretty sure Sunday’s outcome would’ve been a lot worse if I hadn’t spent lots of time strengthening my ankles.
I managed another eight miles after the trail ended and returned home full of excitement, energy and nagging concern for my ankle. I drank coconut water and described the trails to my wife, who smiled but expressed her disapproval at my adventure. She was right—I should at least tell her where I’m going if I decide to cover new ground. Oh, well. Live to die another day.
I spent the rest of the day like normal, throwing toys for the dogs, reading magazines, and stretching my tired body. My Achilles tendon ached, but my ankle didn’t show any swelling. I pinched along the margins of the tendon and it was sore, but everything seemed relatively in order. Then, as is the case with many sports injuries, nightfall brought pain and stiffness.
By the next morning my ankle and Achilles throbbed. My foot, ankle, and knee were stiff, and I tried everything I could think of to remain in denial about the injury (although I ordered some K Tape, so I wasn’t in complete denial). I have chronic pain—not normal injuries! I don’t have time for normal injuries! A sprained ankle and a sore tendon seem so alien.
The ankle felt unstable, so I bought a cheap drugstore compression sleeve to add support. I was able to walk around the neighborhood, but that was probably stupid. I felt worse after the walk. I hoped to run this morning—not quite two days after the initial injury—but when I woke up (yes, I slept again!) I knew it would be a very dumb idea to run. I probably could, but what if I turned the ankle again? I’ve seen friends with horrific Achilles injuries, and I don’t ever want one of my own. I put the compression sleeve on and set out for a walk. Too much pain. Time for plan B.
I ended up riding my bike around the neighborhood, but if I put the bike into a gear that offered much resistance, my Achilles screamed at me. I managed 25 minutes and headed for home. I couldn’t believe that all of my chronic pain issues were finally, blessedly feeling under control, but I was sidelined by an avoidable, normal injury.
As soon as I finish typing I’ll wrap my ankle in ice and elevate it for 15-20 minutes. I’m trying not to jump out of my skin about being unable to run. My perspective is weird—on one hand, I’ve dealt with horrific health issues that kept me from running (or doing much of anything) for a long time, so a few days off for a sprained ankle shouldn’t be a big deal. But, because of those stolen years when pain and bad health kept me down, I don’t want to lay off another day. More down time seems unbearable.
The reality is, those of us with chronic pain still get routine injuries, too, and we have to treat them with respect. Time to ice my ankle, dammit.
My friend Gloria was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2008. She has been through surgery, chemo, and radiation, and continues to endure infusion therapy every twenty-one days to block estrogen from feeding the cancer cells. Right now, cancer lives throughout her skeletal system but is not in any visceral organs. She’s beaten incredible odds to survive well past doctors’ predictions. Unfortunately, her survival comes with a price—chronic pain. Gloria is an adventure-loving, free-spirited person who hopes her experience can help other people who are also fighting cancer.
What were your initial thoughts when you were diagnosed with cancer?
I can’t call it shock because I knew it was cancer when I first felt the lump. But the first time I heard the confirmation of my intuition—“you have breast cancer”—I went into a tunnel. I heard “you’ll need surgery and chemo,” and everything was muffled sounds outside my tunnel. All I could hear clearly were my thoughts: ‘This is it. This is how I will die.’
What would you want friends and family to know about helping a loved one newly diagnosed with cancer?
“I don’t know what to say” is ok. Even silence is fine. I didn’t want to hear anything but “I’m here for your” or “I’m sorry.” Or silence. Not “my aunt had cancer, you’ll be fine, or don’t worry.” I wanted them to just be there.
Do you have advice for new cancer patients to help them take care of themselves emotionally?
Don’t start spending too much time obsessing on the internet. Don’t look up survival rates. Everybody’s different—when you first get diagnosed, you don’t even know what you’re dealing with. You need to process that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and that’s it. Things will change. You might get discouraged about something that’s going to change anyway.
Have there been any happy surprises since being diagnosed?
What I call my angel experience. I was going through chemo and had to go to physical therapy to get my right arm moving again. A lady walked up to me and said, “do you have breast cancer?” And I was pissed at her for asking because it was obvious that I was weak and bald. But then she said, “I’m a twenty-year survivor, stage 4, in the bones, thoracic, sternum, cervical, and lumbar. You are going to be alright.” The same shit I have! Then she walked away and disappeared and I never saw her again. That was enough to encourage me. That was a real turning point. I’d started out real positive, but then I started sinking. And then she showed up.
If you meet someone who just found out she has cancer, what would you want her to know about how to handle day-to-day life?
Keep a journal. It’s important to write down how you feel. I think the hardest part is listening to everybody’s bullshit. You have to just not listen to too much and try not to look too far ahead.
What’s one of the best decisions you’ve made since your diagnosis?
To just live in the moment. Not to worry about down the road, because you can’t. Nobody’s going to get out alive. Honestly, not having to go to work anymore helps. I don’t have all that stress. Most days I’m in a lot of pain, and when I worked as a nurse, I couldn’t lie down and rest when I needed to.
What’s your favorite part about survival?
I can spend each day appreciating what I have. I appreciate time. I get up and sit on the porch and listen to the birds. And being with Ruby, my dog, is my life. She’s my baby.
5. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. This seems like a no-brainer, but I stayed well through the entire fall season when a lot of people were sick. I think a lot of my wellness had to do with washing my hands with warm water and soap more often than I wanted to—especially after grocery shopping, checking the mail, and at work.
4. Sleep. Having fibromyalgia or any kind of chronic pain can make sleep very difficult, but do what you can to get as many hours as possible. I’ve taken to sleeping on my camping mattress on the floor with my legs on three pillows. I look ridiculous, but my back hurts less and I’m able to rest.
3. Try herbal supplements and teas. I like spirulina and Counter Attack. They taste bad and require a quick swallow and lots of water, but they make me feel energized. I also like Throat Coat tea. Of course, make sure your healthcare provider clears you to take supplements before you try them.
2. Exercise outdoors. Even if I only go for a short walk in the woods, I immediately feel better physically and mentally. The clean air and peacefulness helps me connect to the planet, and the movement helps with my stiff joints. I feel sick in general if I don’t get time outdoors.
1. Avoid processed foods—especially sugar. There are lots of studies that show the negative effects of processed sugar. Yes, it tastes good, but feeling like crap and/or getting very ill isn’t worth the momentary blissful taste. Fresh blueberries will taste super sweet after you get used to abstaining from processed sugar, so go for fruit if you need something sugary. As a side note, I ate some candy and cookies as the new year approached, and caught a very bad cold within a few days. Coincidence? Maybe, but I’d been healthy for 14 months before, and those were 14 processed-sugar-free months.