Summer Trail Running

It’s not quite Thursday yet, but here’s my TBT to some awesome hiking and trail running this summer. I can’t wait until my iron deficiency clears up and I can hit the trails again! My new Altra Lone Peaks were barely broken in before my ferritin level dropped so low that I couldn’t run, and every time I see them in the closet, they look sad and ready to go. I can definitely relate!

It’s finally cooling down a little here in FL, which means prime trail running weather is almost here. The Florida Trail, which essentially runs from Pensacola Beach to the Everglades, is a great, diverse trail system. My favorite sections to run are through Blackwater State Forest and through the Gulf Islands National Seashore/Ft. Pickens property. I hope I’m well enough to run before November, but if I have to wait, so be it. My Lone Peaks and I will grit our teeth and wait. I’ve been through a lot this year, but I’ve never lost sight of my goals, hopes, and dreams. Onward, friends.

trail running
North Carolina is my favorite trail running destination.
altra lone peak
My new Altra Lone Peaks served me well and look quite nice next to a turkey feather.
female trail runner
I usually don’t wear headphones while trail running, but AfterShokz allow me to hear nature and music at the same time because they use bone conduction technology rather than blocking the ears.
mountain view trail running
I saw some of the most gorgeous parts of our planet while running this summer. The mountains are my favorite.

Low Ferritin Level

low iron food

I felt bad for months without answers and had no idea that low ferritin could be the culprit. The first sign or symptom, I think, was when my feet suddenly hurt so bad that I couldn’t walk. I went from comfortably running 12+ miles at a time to being unable to take a single step. The pain in my feet was incredible. A five-week saga involved complete rest, new shoes, custom arch supports, and tons of medical treatments that didn’t work. Then a young chiropractor finally got to what seemed to be the root of the problem.

Near the knee, the sciatic nerve splits into two and becomes the common peroneal nerve and the tibial nerve. Extremely tight calf muscles were compressing the nerves, which in turn sent agony to my feet. The chiropractor used e-stim, heat, and RockBlades on my calves, then adjusted the bones in my ankles. The difference was immediate and shocking and wonderful. I went from no life to an almost normal one, or so it seemed.

But as time passed, my calves stayed tight no matter what, so my feet still hurt almost all day and night. I drank extra water, used a foam roller, a stick roller, and had my colleagues RockBlade my legs, but the pain and tightness always came back quickly. I knew something still wasn’t right, but I was so damn tired of going to doctors and spending time and money that I just decided I might have to manage my calf issues indefinitely without a real answer.

Decreased Exercise Tolerance

That was late spring. As I made my comeback to running and strength training, I never felt right. I was sweating profusely after even short, early-morning runs, my endurance stopped progressing, and I began to feel dead tired after any exercise at all. After so many years of chronic health problems, I wondered if what was happening was a natural progression of the disease process. I also started noticing that I had increasing trouble concentrating, felt exhausted most days, and my usual insomnia was worse than ever.

low ferritin runner
This was my last run before low ferritin forced me to stop. I needed tons of breaks during that run, felt extremely overheated, and looked pale. It was only three miles but felt like thirty miles.

Things really took a turn for the worse when I drove through eight states to get to Baltimore for a few days of work. What should’ve been a fun, exciting solo trip that involved camping, a super nice hotel, old friends, new friends, and tons of adventure was downright terrifying. The four nights I was in the hotel in Baltimore, I honestly thought I was going to die. I couldn’t sleep at all despite being beyond exhausted. The mental fog was incredible and like nothing I’d ever felt. When I laid down at night, I was so tired and sick that I would tremble hard enough to lift my body off the mattress. I began living on extra coffee and energy drinks and strained to keep up professionally and socially. I had no idea what was happening but was very afraid.

Urgent Care and Primary Doc

I thought I’d start feeling better after I got home, although the justification for that thought was pretty weak and didn’t pan out to be true at all. I continued to get worse and despite HATING going to medical facilities, I went to urgent care one night when I was so lightheaded and wracked with tremors that I thought I might be dying.

My blood pressure was 82/58, then suddenly shot up to 140/92. An EKG showed that my heart was in atrial fibrillation (AFib), and I almost passed out a few times in the exam room. The urgent care doctor wanted me to go to the emergency room, but I refused. After years of dealing with our medical/industrial complex, the last place I want to go is a hospital. I went home and made an appointment with my primary care doctor and crossed my fingers that I’d live long enough to get to the appointment.

I developed all kinds of theories about what was going on, from reactions to supplements to simply, “I’m dying.” My doctor ordered a huge battery of blood tests and said he suspected iron deficiency. He told me to start taking iron pills just in case, and that if the bloodwork results showed I wasn’t anemic, it wouldn’t be a big deal to have been on the pills for a week. I hadn’t eaten red meat in a long, long time and had unpredictable, heavy periods, so his theory seemed plausible. I agreed to the blood draw— my first bloodwork in more than two years (I wasn’t kidding when I say I hate going to medical facilities).

Bloodwork Results

I began taking iron pills every morning and begrudgingly ate beef. I didn’t feel better at all and was too exhausted to run more than a couple miles at a slow pace and with frequent breaks. Eventually, I couldn’t run and could barely even function during day-to-day tasks. My thinking, concentration, and mood got so bad that I felt like I’d had part of my brain removed. Since the doctor ordered such a massive volume of tests, the bloodwork took more than a week to come back. When it finally did, several truths were revealed. I had extremely high testosterone, which could partially account for my months of extreme sweating. My progesterone was rock-bottom, which further signaled major trouble with hormones. My white blood cell count was low as though I were fighting a bad virus, which was unexpected and never fully understood.

And, perhaps most telling for my symptoms, my ferritin level was in the basement. (For those who aren’t sure what a ferritin level is, here’s what Mayo Clinic says about it: “Ferritin is a blood cell protein that contains iron. A ferritin test helps your doctor understand how much iron your body is storing. If a ferritin test reveals that your blood ferritin level is lower than normal, it indicates your body’s iron stores are low and you have iron deficiency.”) So, my doctor’s suspicion about iron-deficiency was well-founded, but there were also other issues to address.

My next doctor’s appointment was a few days after the bloodwork came back, but I saw the results online in my patient portal before the appointment. I understood pretty well what was happening but still had tons of questions. I spent a solid hour making a list (yes, an hour for a list, which is indicative of how bad my cognition got) of questions to ask him during the appointment. Every aspect of my life was affected. I was depressed beyond measure, stupid beyond reason, and exhausted to the point of near death. I hesitate to say I’ve never felt worse, but I think it’s true.

Treatment Plan for Low Ferritin

low iron food
My daily food intake now includes organic, humanely raised beef. Heme-iron is supposedly more easily absorbed by the body, so I’m learning to live with being a meat-eater. Cooking in an iron skillet is supposed to help, too.

Based on the bloodwork, my doctor quadrupled my iron pills, added liquid vitamin B to my supplement regimen, and sent me to a compounding pharmacy for a custom concoction of progesterone cream. He also prescribed Tamiflu to knock back any viral infection I might have, and ordered me to stay out of the heat and to not overexert myself at all. His reasons for why my ferritin level was so low were speculative but seemed reasonable— heavy/frequent periods, heavy sweating, long-distance running, and lack of dietary meat. He said heme-iron, the kind that comes from animal products, is the most readily absorbed by the human body, and that at least for a while, I’d need to eat meat again.

easy iron
Before my doctor’s preferred brand was back in stock (OptiFerin-C), I took Country Life Easy Iron. I didn’t notice any improvement while on it, but I only took one pill daily and wasn’t even on it two weeks before switching to OptiFerin-C.

We discussed an intravenous iron infusion to raise my low ferritin level. He didn’t want to risk me going to the hospital for the infusion with my health history and low white cell count. I struggled to take a deep breath, struggled to walk to my truck, struggled to concentrate. I knew there could be nasty side effects to taking four iron pills per day, but I also knew I couldn’t keep going on a fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality. The way I felt was affecting every aspect of my life. I’d called in sick a few days at work for the first time in years. I don’t have benefits, so calling in sick means losing significant money, which is pretty much the last thing a person needs when caught up in our broken, profit-mongering medical system.

Slight Progress

I asked for a timeline for improvement. My doctor said he hoped I’d start to feel better at the two-week mark, but that the 4x daily iron pills might still take six months to restore me to a healthy ferritin level. Six freakin’ months? I tried to focus on his two weeks comment. Two weeks is a long damn time, but six months sounded like something I couldn’t handle. Running and hiking are my major stress relievers. To not be able to do those things during such a hard time was even more crushing. But I’d gotten to the point of feeling so out of it— totally disconnected from life— that I almost didn’t care.

optiferin-c
My doctor has me on OptiFerin-C 4x per day to address my iron deficiency.

I’m now on day fourteen of taking iron four times a day. I have no way of knowing if my low ferritin level is rising a little, rising a lot, or staying the same, but I feel different. My next blood draw won’t be for another month unless I get worse. I hope it shows a huge rise by that time. I hope I feel so good by then that I’ll almost forget what I’m fighting. At this point, I do NOT feel good and haven’t noticed nearly as much progress as I thought would happen by now.

floradix
I read good things about liquid Floradix and decided to buy some at our local co-op. It’s a German product, which is unusual to see here in the deep south USA. I’m thinking about substituting one of my iron pills for a swig of Floradix each day.

The side effects of big doses of iron aren’t hitting me super hard, but my period came early and heavy and it’s possibly undoing a lot of the progress that I’d started to make. Heavy blood loss is one of the worst things for iron deficiency. My coworkers, patients, and family say I look better, and that there’s more color in my face than there had been for months. I’m not quite as stupid or exhausted as I was. The hot flashes are coming a little less often. I’m able to do light strength-training indoors with the AC blasting.

I still have zero heat tolerance, am foggy-brained, and very tired, but everything is a little better. One of the biggest changes is the pain in my feet and legs– it’s almost gone! But do I feel good yet? Definitely not. It’s amazing how long this process takes. Hopefully in a couple days, when my period is gone and I’m at the two-week mark on iron pills, I’ll really start to notice a difference. I miss running and hiking. I miss thinking clearly and I miss being sort of smart, but at least I finally see a tiny pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. Y’all, don’t be like me. Get your routine bloodwork done and don’t try to hide how bad you feel. It can really suck to get caught up in the medical system, but avoiding it when something’s wrong is dumb. Don’t be me. Don’t be dumb.

Symptoms I Experienced with Low Ferritin

  • Exhaustion
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Decreased Cognition
  • Fatigue
  • Constant dehydration
  • Bilateral calf spasms
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Hot flashes
  • Profuse sweating
  • Heat intolerance

Greater Than Cool Review

Cooling Neck Wrap

This summer has been insanely hot, and the heatwave started way too soon. By the middle of May, most of us in the deep south were avoiding the outdoors after 10 a.m. if we could, not showing our faces outside until nearly sunset. It’s gotten worse, with “real feel” temps around 106 for our new normal. That’s not particularly healthy for anyone, but especially for those of us with underlying health conditions, excessive heat can be dangerous.

I first tried Greater Than Cool on a boiling-hot day in my parents’ backyard. Even in their pool, I couldn’t get comfortable and felt constantly fatigued. I love being outdoors (I should move out of Florida!) and didn’t want to go back inside while everyone else was outside. It seemed like a great opportunity to try Greater Than Cool.

greater than cool wrap
Wearing my Greater Than Cool wrap in my parents’ yard.

Filling the Wrap with Ice

My parents have an icemaker, and after extracting a few perfectly uniform cubes—which excites me since we don’t have an icemaker and our cubes are randomly sized—I folded them into ice pockets in the Greater Than Cool wrap. The experience was vaguely reminiscent of making a burrito and was quite easy and user-friendly. My left hand was around 50% numb that day thanks to scoliosis and bad cervical spine discs, but I got the wrap full of ice and around my neck without much issue, which tells you it’s reasonably simple even for someone with less than ideal dexterity.

My neck is extremely sensitive to everything. Ever since I royally jacked it up while working in the back of an ambulance when I was an EMT, I’ve dealt with everything from cervical dystonia to herniated discs to hand numbness and, of course, chronic pain. I was a bit concerned about wearing the Greater Than Cool wrap around my neck, but the weight of it, even when full of ice, wasn’t symptom-provoking at all. My neck got damp when I put the ice straight in the wrap, but I didn’t care. I was already sweating anyway, and it’s not like the melting ice poured down or even dripped. It just made me a little damp. If you don’t like that, try using the small plastic bags to house the ice within the wrap. 

Details

The fastener is Velcro, so it’s easy to handle and adjust. According to the manufacturer, “the proprietary cotton polyester multi-layered material is engineered to absorb and distribute cool moisture evenly throughout the neck wrap.” The Greater Than Cool wrap is navy blue, so it looks nice enough with just about any outfit (although I’m looking forward to them considering a unicorn design, hint hint y’all!). You can put the ice directly in the wrap or in small plastic bags, or I guess if you wanted to, you could buy and use re-freezable packs. As of this post, the wrap costs $22.99 on Amazon, which isn’t a ton to pay if it allows you to live a more comfortable, full life outdoors.

Does It Work?

Yes! There’s science behind “central cooling,” which was a term I learned when training at a firehouse in the Florida summer. Since so many of us had overheating issues, our chief drilled the basics of central cooling into us. Essentially, he told us, putting icepacks over arteries is a great way to cool the human body. Greater Than Cool circles around the neck and comes into contact with a couple of major arteries, and I could really feel a difference in my whole-body comfort while wearing it.

The wrap is unlikely to help with major heat illness like heatstroke, but it might help you avoid getting that sick. I was able to stay in the backyard with my dogs and family while wearing the wrap, when otherwise I’d have been forced to go back inside. As my ice melted—which didn’t happen as quick as I thought it would—I simply went back inside for a minute and got new cubes. The wrap could work even if you’re not home, as long as you have access to a few ice cubes, like from a restaurant or a hotel or a convenience store. I filled up all the ice pockets, but if you just want to cool down a little, you can add less. 

Verdict 

If you spend time in the heat and need a little help staying cool, definitely give Greater Than Cool a try. They’re a small, family-owned business born from the need to help loved ones participate more fully in life without overheating. They’ll unveil new options soon, like color choices and multiple sizes, but their basic product (blue, one size fits most) is great! Click here to check them out on Amazon.

Disclaimer: I received a Greater Than Cool wrap in exchange for an honest review. I’d tell you if it sucks, but it doesn’t! It’s a solid product and a good choice if you deal with heat intolerance. 

Headsweats Visor Review

headsweats visor review
My new Headsweats visor has Bigfoot and a full moon on it and I’m very happy about that.

My second Headsweats ambassador box arrived yesterday and I was super excited to find it on my front porch. Along with some other great gear, I got my first-ever Headsweats visor. I’ve worn Headsweats hats for years and loved them, but never bought a visor because I wasn’t sure if that style would work for me. I’ve had visors in the past that didn’t fit right no matter what I tried. They were usually too tight to the point of giving me a headache or so loose that they slipped down and folded my ears outward. I love the Bigfoot line of products that Headsweats produces. After cyber-stalking the full moon Bigfoot visor for a few months, I decided to give it a try.

Unboxing the Visor

The first thing I noticed about the visor was the awesome graphic on the front. It’s printed well and clearly and looks like something an artist created. No pixelated junk! Sometimes online photos don’t represent reality, but the Bigfoot visor looks even better in person than it does in pictures. The next thing I noticed was the lack of adjustability of the headband. I wasn’t sure if that would be ok or create headache city, so I wore the visor around the house before taking it for a test run. I couldn’t believe how comfortable it felt! It was secure and snug but not at all tight. The elastic band is very thin, wide, and flat, and pretty much becomes unnoticeable once it’s on my head. No headache, no slippage, no ear-bending. My ears are small and sit very close to my head, so the ear-bending struggle is real with a lot of hats and visors and even headphones.

Wearing the Visor

We’re already in the mid 80s in the first week of May and the sun has seemed brighter than ever this spring. I decided to put the visor through a nearly literal trial by fire on its maiden voyage. It was already 82 degrees when I left the house in the morning. The humidity was between 85% and 99%, depending on which app I looked at. Hot as hell and wet as a swamp. The sun was intense and beginning to rise high enough above the trees that shade would soon become scarce. I started to sweat within five minutes out the door, but the visor stayed exactly where it was mean to be. No slippage at all.

I didn’t wear sunglasses, so the all-black underside of the visor was especially helpful. If you’ve ever worn a hat or visor with a light-colored underside, you probably know how ineffective they are at blocking glare. I had a hat once with a light gray underside and I swear it reflected more sun into my face than if I hadn’t worn it at all. All Headsweats hats and visors have a black underside to minimize glare, and I really appreciated that feature this morning.

I’m rehabbing from a major health setback, so I only ran 2.75 miles, but I kept the visor on for a metcon workout in the sun and a 1.5-mile walk home from the park. Running, jumping, pullups, pushups—nothing made the visor slip, shift, or otherwise do something unpleasant. I even banged the brim on a pullup bar by accident and it held firm on my head and only needed a minor adjustment. By the time I walked home, I was in love with my new Bigfoot visor.

As an athlete in Florida, sweat in the eyes is a major problem. It burns pretty bad on its own, but add sunscreen to the mix and it can be temporarily blinding and very uncomfortable. Never once did I even get one drop in my eyes today. The soft, wicking headband underneath the Bigfoot design did its job perfectly. Having the top of my head open to the breeze (unlike with a hat) helped cool me down. I went into Headsweats visor ownership feeling a little unsure, but now I’m hooked. If you’re not a fan of Bigfoot (or if you are), they have a ton of designs, from neutral to loud. I definitely recommend getting one and will probably get another visor for myself soon. Let me know if you have questions and I’ll do my best to answer. 

Headsweats Ambassador

I’m an ambassador for Headsweats, which means I get some of their gear at no charge. This review is my honest opinion, but I did not pay for the visor. If you want to get one for yourself, you can use VICTORIASTOPP25 at checkout for a 25% discount. Click here to see the collection.

Transverse Arch Dysfunction

feet in ice bath for transverse arch pain
I can’t stand cold and have to be careful because I have Reynaud’s, but the ice baths have helped bring down the inflammation in my feet.

My stellar run in new shoes turned out to be not so stellar at all. Despite feeling fine during the 6.25-mile run, and fine during a walk later in the day, I woke up the next day with sore feet. Those sore feet turned into agony and debilitation when I tried to to walk to the park near my house. Within a quarter mile, I had to stop. I couldn’t even get myself home and had to call for a ride. My feet felt like something was tearing off the bones in the space between my metatarsal heads and my toes.

I had no idea what was going on and had never felt such pain before. Perhaps scariest, the burning, tearing sensation was in both feet. I only felt it during push-off in the gait cycle, but of course that’s a major component of walking and running. I discovered that if I took off my shoes and socks and walked barefoot, I was pain-free. But as soon as I put on shoes– any shoes, regardless of model or style– the bilateral foot pain was so intense I couldn’t take a single step.

Transverse Arch Pain, Not Plantar Fasciitis

After extensive Googling that consistently turned up results for plantar fasciitis even though plantar fasciitis didn’t make sense with my symptoms, my fear and discouragement grew. I co-taught anatomy & kinesiology at our local community college for four years, but still couldn’t figure out what was going on with my feet. I pulled out the two textbooks I kept from my teaching days and still couldn’t quite make sense of what I was seeing. The internet definitely wanted to convince me that I had plantar fasciitis, but I knew that wasn’t right. I started wading through information on the structures of the foot and paid particular attention to the transverse arch. Bingo. The transverse arch essentially runs through the foot rather than along its length. I honestly didn’t even know the transverse arch existed until it caused me some of the worst pain of my life.

I’ll spare the details of a very intense eighteen days, but suffice it to say that the last couple weeks and days have been terrible. With the help of other practitioners, including an orthotist, we decided my hunch was right about the transverse arch in each foot. I tried everything, spent a ton of money on shoes (most of which I returned), used supportive insoles, and nothing helped. The insoles made me even more miserable because they were so rigid and high that my longitudinal arches and heels started to ache. The orthotist showed me metatarsal pads, which are essentially hard little pieces of foam that look like large guitar picks. If placed behind the metatarsal heads, the pads should support the transverse arch. I took the little pieces of foam home with renewed hope that I could at least walk from one room to another without agony.

In Search of Metatarsal Pads

The met pads (lingo, so I’ve discovered, for metatarsal pads) were a new kind of misery, but they had potential. Unlike the full-length insoles, the met pads targeted one problem area, the transverse arch, rather than trying to rework the entire shape and mechanics of my feet. I sanded down the hard foam to make them not so intrusive, but they still felt like smooth rocks under my feet.

A trip to Walgreens for something to support my transverse arches was a bust, but CVS provided a little more hope. I bought a package of thin, soft foam metatarsal pads. They were much larger than the met pads from the orthotist, but I cut them down with my old EMT scissors until they were the same shape and size as the hard foam ones. I put one in each shoe, and after a lot of misery and trial and error, was finally– after two weeks– able to walk semi-humanlike. The thin foam must’ve been just enough to support my transverse arches without feeling like I was walking on rocks.

homemade metatarsal pads
The remnants of my homemade metatarsal pads for transverse arch pain and dysfunction.

After a day, though, the pain got worse again, even with my homemade met pads. I realized that the cheap foam must’ve compressed too much and not rebounded, even though I’d probably walked only a total of a quarter mile on the pads. I cut another set and doubled them on top of the originals and began moving somewhat humanlike again. Transverse arch pain is no joke! This is some of the worst pain and debilitation I’ve ever experienced, even beyond the years of back and neck issues I’ve suffered.

Followup with the Doc

As things stand now, I’m heading back to the doctor tomorrow for an updated plan. I haven’t run in almost three weeks and can still barely walk, but the left foot seems to be improving. The right foot is the worst, which is weird because it started out better than the left. I have all kinds of ideas for inexpensive ways to custom-build some met pads for myself and will likely take a trip to Home Depot and/or Michael’s tomorrow to buy industrial foam and craft foam. Medical supplies are marked up so high, but it’s easy to find workable materials other places that will stand in just as well as the so-called specialty medical crap.

I’m very worried about my feet, especially the right one, but worry and anxiety only contribute to pain, so I’m trying to chill. I have newfound knowledge about the transverse arch, but I wish I never had to know anything about it. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s doctor’s appointment is worthwhile and helpful. I’m going crazy without running, walking, and hiking.

Headsweats Ambassador

headsweats ambassador
Wearing my new Headsweats Ambassador shirt, Headsweats hat, holding my book, and snuggling a friend’s adorable dog.

I’m now a Headsweats ambassador! I wrote a book about my journey (Hurting Like Hell, Living with Gusto: My Battle with Chronic Pain), and while all books have an ending, the real story keeps evolving as long as I live. For any of you who’ve followed the Fibromyalgia Athlete blog over the years or read my book, you know the ups and downs are quite a ride.

To go from nearly crippled by injury to writing a book about it and now being an ambassador for a running-focused company is surreal, and I’m beyond grateful. Being chosen as an ambassador reminds me of how far I’ve come and gives me a larger platform to share encouragement with others. And I happen to love running in Headsweats gear, too. They make the only hats that don’t bother my ears (I have small ears that sit very close to my head and are quite sensitive). The underside of the brim is always black regardless of the hat color. In Florida, the sun stays bright all year long and that black underside really makes a difference in cutting glare.

If you’re interested in ordering any Headsweats gear, I have a code for 25% off: VICTORIASTOPP25. Feel free to share the code far and wide. I’m having a setback right now and am unable to run, but I hope to be much better soon. See y’all outside!

Double Bridge Run

Grateful

Before I talk about the race, I want to give testament to the power of friendship. Friends I don’t know well yet– people who literally flagged me down one weekend as I ran past their group– have added a tremendous, caring new dimension to my life. If not for those friends, I never would have signed up for the Double Bridge Run. More than that, my life was missing something that I didn’t even know was missing until they filled the void. I hope I can be a part of that magic for someone some day.

double bridge run shirt
My Double Bridge Run shirt and race bib. The shirt is a horrible fit, but the art is fun.

Double Bridge Run Recap

I signed up for the Double Bridge Run only a week and a half before the race. I hadn’t run a race in years, mostly because of my chronic back and neck pain. The last 5k I did was almost five years ago led to living a nightmare of back pain and insomnia. It’s hard to have an experience like that and get excited about trying again. The Double Bridge is a 15k— almost 10 miles— and as far as I know, it’s the only race of that distance in Pensacola

The Double Bridge Run is exactly what it sounds like— a run over two bridges. I’ve drive those bridges (the 3-mile and the Bob Sikes) countless times over the years, but since they’re both unsafe for pedestrians, I’d never been on them except in a vehicle. I’ve always been curious what it would be like to run the bridges. Mostly I just wished the city would’ve planned protected pedestrian lanes. I never considered signing up for the race, largely because of chronic pain but partly because I don’t like crowds or early mornings. The Double Bridge definitely draws a large crowd, although its start time of 7 a.m. isn’t the worst. A few of my friends convinced me to sign up since it’s the last year this version of the 3-mile bridge will exist. Construction is well underway for a replacement bridge. Between friends’ encouragement and the ending of an era for the bridge, I signed up for the race and tried to get excited rather than fearful.

Running has been a wonderful gift in my life, but the past decade has been very, very challenging. Chronic pain— especially in my back and neck— have kept me from doing the things that make me feel alive, and running is definitely one of those things. After getting a fresh round of help in Atlanta last spring, I finally got some insight that was life-changing. I’ve not only been able to run again, but in the past several months, I’ve quickened my pace and lengthened my distance. The longest I’ve done lately is a half marathon, although it wasn’t an official race— just a circular route around the bayou done for no other reason than I wanted to celebrate my ability to run.

I knew the 15k distance wouldn’t be a problem, but I was still very nervous leading up to race day. I had no idea what to expect, and since a big part of my ability to live with relatlively low pain levels is routine, it’s hard to convince myself that it’s a good idea to break routine. Mornings usually look like this for me: sit up slowly, get out of bed carefully, drink 20 ounces of water, then make my way to the coffee pot and fill my cup. While the coffee cools a little, I gently move my back and hips around to get them ready for function. My SI joints are usually off after lying down all night, so I often use my foam roller before I finish my first cup of coffee. If my back and neck are agreeable, I eat a protein bar, then head out for a solo run. If my back and neck aren’t right, I keep foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and doing mobility work until I’m able to run. Extensive routines like that aren’t easy to fit in before a race that starts at 7 a.m.

I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. to give myself the best shot at getting through my routine before the start of the Double Bridge Run. For the most part, it worked, and after picking up two of my friends, I found myself in pre-dawn traffic on the way to the starting line. It was surreal, and not just because there’s usually no traffic at all at that hour. I couldn’t believe I was on the way to a race after all those years of chronic pain and corresponding disappointments. Pain can be very isolating, so to be not only returning to racing but to do so with friends was a little overwhelming. Even good things can take a minute to process.

We had a few hangups with post-race bag-check, and there were woefully few portapotties at the park where the race started. Once those minor issues were handled, I found myself surrounded by friends and strangers waiting for the cannon to fire and signal our start. As our corral slowly made our way toward the line, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I almost always run alone, and the crowd was a bit intimidating. My friends were awesome, though, and I smiled at their caring energy and positive vibes. Within a few seconds, the cannon blasted and we were off.

I didn’t have a pace goal or really any concrete idea of pace since so many variables were in play. A couple of friends and I decided to loosely stay together, which was easier said than done as the race wound through downtown Pensacola on the way to the 3-mile bridge. The police blocked traffic, but our running lane was still sometimes tight for as many people as were racing. We passed people, got passed by others, and mostly just moved like a giant unit along Bayfront Parkway. My friends talked about sticking to a 9:30-9:45 per mile pace, which was good with me, but even without looking at my watch, I could tell we were going faster than planned. 

The 3-mile bridge section wasn’t as wonderful as I’d thought it would be. The bridge is concrete, and I underestimated how rough on my body it would be to run on concrete. As we pounded along the bridge, I realized I never train on concrete. Asphalt, grass, dirt, and trails. Never concrete. And yes, there’s a huge difference. Concrete is extremely unforgiving, which isn’t a good thing for someone with a bad back and neck. The sky was heavily overcast, so the view of the bay wasn’t spectacular, but that was ok. What surprised me most was the traffic. Only one lane was blocked for runners, and it was bumper-to-bumper cars right next to us for the entire three miles. I guess I’d incorrectly assumed that there wouldn’t be much traffic early on a Saturday morning. 

double bridge run photo
This photo is from the 3-mile bridge section of the Double Bridge Run. I’m in the pink shirt on the left. Thanks to Street Safari photographers for covering the Double Bridge Run!

As we neared the end of the bridge, my group of friends separated even more than we already were. I stayed with a friend and her husband, and what was an easy pace for them was quite difficult for me, but I reveled in the challenge. I can run pretty fast these days, but not for 9+ miles. As we hit the asphalt in Gulf Breeze, I noticed we passed people every few seconds and figured we must be gaining speed. My back started to hurt and a bit of radicular pain tingled in my left groin, so I concentrated on tightening my abs and shortening my stride. It worked well enough, and soon we were on the ramp to the Bob Sikes Bridge.

By then, I was in a hurt locker, although not so much from my chronic pain issues as from pushing the pace out of my comfort zone. The ramp out of Gulf Breeze is miserable. It’s steep, extremely slanted, and makes an almost hairpin turn. Luckily, it’s also short, and after only a bit of misery, we headed straight for the Bob Sikes. A cheering section gave me a little extra pep, but I was still at my max capacity. My friend asked if I wanted to catch a woman in purple who was well ahead of us. I told her to go, but that I couldn’t. She stayed with me instead, which I appreciated more than she’ll ever know.

Bob Sikes is a steep bridge both ways. The downhill, though rough on the knees, was a welcome reprieve after the uphill slog to the top. We could hear an energetic high school band near the toll booth. The yellow arch of the finish line looked deceptively close but the band gave us motivation. Nobody wants to give up in front of high school kids– especially high school kids who got up early to play their drums for a bunch of adults.

The last half mile or so was pretty brutal, despite a wonderful cheering section. As we neared the end, a group of people on spin bikes encouraged us to sprint while they did spinning sprints. I didn’t have a real sprint in me unless I wanted to puke, but I did pick up the pace just a little until we crossed the rugs that signaled our chips had registered their last time. When all was said and done, I averaged an 8:57 per mile pace. No records broken, but for the hell I’ve been through with chronic pain for so long, I was very happy. I got a great finisher’s medal and celebrated with friends at the race’s after-party.

I don’t know if I’ll ever sign up for a road race again, but I’m glad I did the Double Bridge Run. The day after the race was brutal. My left knee, which is arthritic from an old surgery, was very inflamed. My back was so badly beaten that I had trouble walking. But, as the day wore on, I used my foam roller, Sacro Wedgy, Denner Roll, and every other tool in my arsenal, and I started to feel better. The next day, I did an upper body and core workout and walked 3 miles. Today— two days after the race— I was able to run 5 miles on trails without much issue. 

When I look at where I’ve been and where I am now, things still don’t feel entirely real. To go from not running at all because of my back and neck to running a relatively fast 15k in a few months— I don’t even have the words. I’d love to do an ultramarathon one day, but only if it’s on trails. My days of concrete running are definitely over. But my days of running are hopefully only just beginning.

double bridge run medal
While the Double Bridge Run shirt is lacking, the medal is not. It’s huge, heavy, nicely designed, double-sided… and the 15k token spins!

Group Running

5k group run
I underestimated the power of a group run. Speedwork together, in the rain, with my back screaming, was somehow still fun.

My back kept me up most of last night. My old acquaintance, radiculopathy, came to visit with a vengeance in my right leg. The pain was both shocking and familiar. At 5 a.m., I decided to hell with it and got up to join a group run.

I only recently started running with a group. For many years, I avoided races and groups because chronic pain dictated when and how I could exercise. Earlier this year, through a combination of several major changes, I started to see real progress. Between medical marijuana, targeted physical therapy, a better understanding of my spinal problems, and a specialized supplement regimen, I’m on the path to rebirth. A couple months ago, I took a chance and joined a women’s running group. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up and that I’d have a setback. I was afraid I’d lose my new friends before I even really got to know them. But early this morning, I met them in the rain for speedwork.

My back throbbed and I was exhausted, but resting wasn’t helping, so I decided to try to hang with the running group unless my leg dragged. My muscles loosened up during the warmup mile and my leg was tight but functional, so I stayed for the speedwork. I don’t feel so great physically, but emotionally I’m much better than I was pre-run. I haven’t seen 5k numbers like this in too long to remember. Sub-24 is a really big deal for me. Side note: sometimes the best gear is the oldest gear. I ran in my 15ish-year-old rain jacket and stayed impressively dry. When I bought it, I had no idea it would see me through so many years of pain, evolution, and redemption. It’s got a hole in it now, but I’m not giving it up until it rots.

Great Food, Better Health

broccoli
Freshly steamed broccoli read for fritters.

I’m constantly on the hunt for healthy recipes that use food as medicine. I’ve tried almost every reasonable anti-inflammatory diet under the sun and found that works best for me is something between paleo and vegan. While those two diets may seem opposite, if you do them right, they can be quite similar. Both diets can, and should, emphasize hearty servings of plant-based nutrition.

Under paleo rules, processed food is a no-go, but a lot of vegan foods are highly processed. No one forces a vegan to buy processed foods, but at least for me, the temptation to do so was difficult to avoid. Now, I take the paleo idea of fresh, whole foods and apply it to veganism— for example, eating a plate of vegetables and fruits instead of a plate of soy cheese and chips. When I was strictly vegan, I fell into the processed food trap way too often and ended up eating “cheese” that had enough mysterious ingredients to be a science experiment. When I went paleo, and then strict paleo under Whole30, I gave up all the junk and focused on truly healthy food. I didn’t like the amount of meat required under paleo, so I eventually merged the two concepts and now feel better than I have in years.

Broccoli Fritters

A wonderful woman I met through Instagram posted about some awesome meals she made last week, and I followed the trail to figure out where the recipes originated. That trail led me to Every Last Bite, a food blog run by a woman who manages autoimmune disease through healthy— and delicious— meals. My eyes went straight to her recipe for broccoli fritters, and after a five-mile run through the rain, I decided to give them a try.

My dad brought us three giant heads of broccoli earlier this week, and I’ve been wondering what to do with all of them. The broccoli fritters recipe seemed like the perfect way to use up a good bit of what my dad brought, and it was. There’s only half a head left, which is a pretty big deal considering how much he gave us. The only thing the recipe called for that I wasn’t sure we had on hand was nutritional yeast, but after a quick look through the cabinets, I found I still had plenty in a tightly sealed glass jar. The other ingredient that some people may not have on hand— almond flour— is a staple in our house, and I had a fresh bag ready to use for the fritters.

I don’t have a food processor (well, I do somewhere, but it has yet to show up since our recent move), so I used the small carafe on my Ninja blender. While the broccoli steamed, I blended all the other ingredients into a surprisingly good-smelling batter. When the broccoli was done, I let it cool a little, then sliced it according to the recipe directions. After the olive oil got hot in the pan, I got ready to drop my first spoonfuls into the oil and, hopefully, make something delicious for lunch. I was a little skeptical, mostly because I’m not always the best recipe-follower, but the batter smelled good enough to make me optimistic.

broccoli fritters
Clearly I’m not a food photographer, but I promise these broccoli fritters were awesome!

After a few minutes and even more good smells, the first two fritters were ready. I barely waited for them to cool enough before chomping a big bite out of one. It’d been an hour since my run and I’d only had a few grapes, so I was super hungry. I couldn’t believe how good the fritters tasted. They were somewhat like broccoli cheese soup (the cheese flavor comes from the nutritional yeast) mixed with something that tasted fried. Food heaven. I made four large fritters instead of several small ones, and the first two were gone quickly. My wife isn’t usually a fan of broccoli, but I suspected she’d love the fritters, so I reluctantly practiced restraint and waited for her to come home and eat the remaining two. She loved them too, and couldn’t believe how good they were. She even said, “the broccoli is really good in here,” which is a sentence I never thought I’d hear. 

I’m excited about trying several more recipes from Every Last Bite. I haven’t decided what to make next, but I wanted to pass on this excellent resource to anyone else who might be looking to change up their food routine. Cheers, friends! Click here to go the Every Last Bite for tons of health-minded recipes!

Running and Chafing

trail running
I’ve gotten to do some awesome trail runs lately as I increase my mileage. One of my favorites was at Cheaha State Park, where this picture was taken.

I’m going to talk about something a lot of people may not want to admit to, but I suspect it impacts more of us than we like to acknowledge— running and chafing. And by chafing, I mean inner thigh, right up by the crotch. I have large thighs compared to my overall body size, but they didn’t cause much problem until I started running 8+ miles at a time. I don’t know what’s magically awful about 8+. Whether it’s accumulation of sweat (although I don’t think so, because shorter runs in the Florida summer are much sweatier), wearing down of the fabric of my shorts, or just skin rubbing together that eventually says “enough,” it sucks. I don’t feel like my skin’s rubbing when I run, but maybe it is. Something is definitely going on. When I got home from a 9.25-mile run yesterday, I took off my shorts and used a mirror to investigate what was causing the increasingly miserable burning sensation. Angry red skin and raised pink bumps told the story: chafing.

Since I’m not sure what’s causing it, I’m not sure how to prevent it. Obviously, running longer distances has something to do with it, and something— whether skin-to-skin or skin-to-shorts contact— is blistering the skin. I’ve never used anything for chafing, probably because I’ve never consistently run this much. I’ve been looking at powders, creams, sticks, balms, and salves, and am still unsure of where to start. And maybe it’s the shorts? I run in slightly large-fitting, several-years-old running shorts. I HATE tight clothing and always opt for a looser fit when possible. Maybe I need to join the current trend and try some tight shorts? I’m literally cringing while thinking about that, but I’m also not looking forward to more bouts of what essentially looks like diaper rash.

I’m thinking about try Squirrel’s Nut Butter or BodyGlide for Her. Both are vegan-friendly and aren’t tested on animals, which are absolute requirements for me. I don’t have any idea how to use anti-chafing products, but I assume they’ll come with directions. I have a ten-miler planned a few days from now, with several shorter runs before then, so it’s imperative that I find something that works.

Ultra Marathon Time and a New Journal

In bigger news (well, bigger news to me), I decided to train for an ultra marathon. Ultras are arguably a crazy feat for anyone, and even crazier for someone with chronic health problems and spinal issues. But I LOVE running. It makes me feel free, capable, strong, and connected to the outdoors. It’s not as energizing as soccer, which will always be my first love, but when I come back from a good run, my anxiety is cut in half and my outlook is overall much more hopeful. I’m doing at least 1/4 of my mileage on trails and grass to lessen the impact on my body. But is running an ultra realistic for someone who has a bad neck, bad back, and chronic pain? I honestly don’t know, but I’m going to find out.

believe training journal
I love everything about my new Believe Training Journal.

I bought a Believe Training Journal a couple weeks ago despite years of resisting using any kind of training log. My health problems have, for so long, crushed my hopes to reach my physical potential, and training logs always served as reminders of unmet goals and major setbacks. But this fall, after several months of using medical marijuana and a year of using physician-tailored supplements, I feel stronger than I have in a very long time. I’m sleeping more— sometimes almost eight hours per night!— and my back pain and radiculopathy is not as daunting. I sometimes go several hours without any major pain at all, which is huge. So, an ultra. And chafing. And a journal to keep track of it all.

I’m really enjoying the Believe journal. It’s already helping me stay organized and is keeping me honest with how much (or how little) I stretch, roll, and work on mobility. There’s nothing like old-fashioned pen-to-paper for accountability. Last night, I did 25 minutes of rolling and stretching, and at least part of my motivation for dedicating more time to recovery was because I knew the journal awaited my report, and I didn’t want to write something half-ass. My goal, as I increase my running mileage, is to get to 45 minutes of stretching, rolling, and mobility at least six days per week.

Back to running and chafing. If anyone’s had good luck with a certain method, or bad luck, or has any input at all, please leave a comment here. My thighs and I say thanks!