Expect the unexpected

It has been a while since I last posted.  I have been busy teaching and going to school full time to get my master’s in educational leadership.  This fall has been one of change and growth.  With a few weeks off for the holidays, I have some time to reflect about the past few months.

This summer, I was supposed to train for the Santa Rosa Marathon to qualify for Boston.  I was supposed to spend my time in Florida doing my long runs on the beach.  I was supposed to use my time there to acclimate to the humidity for training purposes.  I was supposed to spend the mornings swimming and the afternoons running getting myself in peak condition for my races.  I was supposed to go galavanting in the Santa Cruz mountains for hours at a time.  I was supposed to run…a lot.  But that didn’t happen; something went wrong.  Somehow, my body decided that it had a different idea, and after a long debate and fight, I finally decided to listen.

Looking back, I still can’t figure out exactly what went wrong.  Sure, I probably upped my mileage too quickly prior to the San Francisco half marathon.  I probably upped my pace too much as well.  I probably made the transition from trails to pavement too quickly.  But every time I started to hurt, I backed off, or so I thought.  But maybe, the issues started well before the half marathon.

After the half marathon, I felt great (physically speaking).  I remember getting home and waking up the next day, and wanting to go for a run.  I was excited by the short amount of recovery time I required.  And then everything somehow fell apart.  After flying to Florida that night, I arrived the next morning feeling sore.  I told myself it must be DOMS.  I went for a run to stretch, but I still had a nagging ache behind my knee.  After cutting my run short, I took a few advil, and figured it would be better the next day.

After a quick run

After a quick run

Every day it got worse.  My back started to ache, my hips were tight.  When I ran, the aching behind my knee became a sharp pain.  This wasn’t what I expected, this wasn’t what I wanted.  I decided to join the YMCA whilst on vacation, and I hesitatingly took the next five days off running.  Instead I spent my training time swimming, biking, and lifting.  I also spent 20 minutes a day strengthening my core.  After my five day hiatus, I tried to run (after taking a few advil), and while it was a bit better, my knee was still not right.  Disappointed, I ended up spending the majority of my training time in the gym, and ran once every few days, trying to ignore the pain.

When I returned home, I went to the doctor.  After getting an MRI on my knee, the doctor said I had a baker’s cyst that ruptured.  It caused some irritation and it would take some time to heal, but it wasn’t anything too disconcerting.  During my time off, my back decided to go out (specifically my SI joint).  Nothing seemed to be going my way.  I felt like my body was betraying me.

exploring trails in Florida

exploring trails in Florida

I have spent the past four months in and out of doctors offices, chiropractors, and acupuncturists, Almost all of my workout time has been in the gym… biking, lifting weights, or swimming.

I have not been running.

Being unable to run has given me the opportunity to think… perhaps too much, about running and why I run.  I couldn’t help but think that there was another component to my injuries.  It was while I was at my acupuncturist that I realized this poignantly.  After an hour of working on me, she said at the end of the session, “you know, I have to tell you, I think that most of your physical ailments are manifestations of emotional issues.”  Woah.  What?  This was something I never heard before from a doctor.  I needed to think about this.

After spending so much time being overweight, I started to see that perhaps, I was merely replacing one addictive behavior with another.  However, as a friend said, “at least it’s a healthy one.”  While this may be true, my unbalanced approach to running created physical/muscular imbalances that I now understand and have the time to correct.  In essence, I am rebuilding my body.  However, the emotional component is just as important.  I am learning that my deep seeded fears of gaining back the weight, of not attaining my goals, and of (perceived) failure have manifested themselves through unhealthy coping mechanisms.  I have been forced to face the facts that I am impatient, I am an addict, and I am a control freak.  Much of that need for control was being trapped in my hips and my back.

Having injuries has forced me to face these issues head on.  I have to allow myself time to heal, I am unable to get my “runner’s high,” and I have limited control over my recovery of my injuries.  It sucks.  But as I am allowing myself to physically heal, I am also allowing myself to emotionally heal.  I find myself asking questions like why do I need to run?  Why do I have addictive tendencies?  Why do I need to be in control?  And so many of my answers find their way back to fear… fear of the unknown… fear of gaining weight…. fear of stasis.
As I slowly return to running, I am taking it one day at a time.  While it is tempting to start running two, three, and four days a week, I know that will lead me down the same road.  I have been learning patience and a new kind of discipline.  I no longer think that I’m only running one day a week, but I now realize that I am running, and I try to enjoy every moment.


“Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.” Benjamin Disraeli

    Last December, a month before running my first 50k, I went to the neurologist for my annual check up.  As usual, he asked me what I had been up to; he was surprised by my rapid weight loss.  I told him that I changed my diet, and that I was running… a lot, and I told him that I was going to run a 50k in the beginning of January.  He looked up at me from the yellow pad of paper on which he was scribbling his notes, and he raised his eyebrows.

    “Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

    I was caught off guard.  Why wouldn’t it be a good idea?  I had been training for months, and I had sufficient mileage to run the race.  

    “I’ve been training a lot.  Every weekend I do back -to -back long runs.  I’m ready.”

    After having epilepsy for twenty years, I should have known better.  He wasn’t questioning my training, he was questioning my brain’s ability to endure so much stimulation. He was concerned about the potential for an electrolyte imbalance, among other possible problems that amounted to an increased risk for a seizure.  Upon reflection, I could understand his apprehension.  However, in his office, I became defensive.  I spent hours up in the trails alone every weekend.  It wasn’t until just a few months ago that, after my father’s persistent badgering, I started carrying my phone.  It never dawned on me that my epilepsy could be a hindrance to being an endurance athlete.

    My doctor glared at me and said, “you know Sarah, you have a 50% higher likelihood of instantly dying.  Your seizures are controlled by medication, but you just never know.”  He was never one to have a good bedside manner. “Running alone all the time, and running a race like that can be dangerous.”

    I was shocked, and I sat in his office, listening to him ramble on about all of his concerns.  I fought back tears, and nodded my head.  I managed to squeak out, “I’m still going to run the race.”

    “I want you to be aware of all the risks.  If you choose to run the race, please carry some Lorazepam with you, just in case. “

    I scoffed at his suggestion, and as per the usual, he renewed my yearly prescriptions.  I left his office feeling angry, devastated, and deflated.

     I was diagnosed with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy when I was fourteen years old.  There are many different types of seizures and therefore, different kinds of epilepsy.  In fact, the types of epilepsy are so vast that Diane Van Deren used running ultra marathons a means to manage her uncontrolled seizures.  My type of epilepsy is extremely different, and I often think that there is more that we don’t know about the brain than we do know.

    Despite having a neurological disorder, I never felt that it impeded my ability to go through my daily life.  While there were times when I had to stop driving to change medications, or I experienced intense side effects, those were all minor bumps in the road towards forward progress.  My seizures are controlled by medication, and with one exception, the breakthrough seizures that I had were when (in college) I forgot to take my medication. I am able to drive, to swim, to teach and to live an independent normal life, and I have been seizure- free for thirteen years.   However, after so many years, I started to wonder if I developed a false sense of security.  Maybe my medication allowed me to become overconfident.  

   The causes of a seizure range from sleep deprivation to caffeine to alcohol to flashing lights to anxiety to hormone imbalances to electrolyte imbalances (to name a few).  While I try not to be reckless in my lifestyle, I don’t allow my disorder to control my life.  I drink coffee, I drink alcohol, I often don’t get enough sleep, and I sometimes play video games with flashing lights.  I live an average life of a thirty- five- year- old woman; I don’t live in fear.

   However, I slowly started to realize that perhaps running a 50k was outside the realm of “normal” and I would have to reconsider the doctor’s recommendations.  The average person doesn’t go for a six- hour run, and many of the risk factors of running an ultra marathon overlapped with that of having a seizure.  

       Endurance athletes encounter many limitations both physically and emotionally whether it’s in the midst of a race or a training run.  I often tell myself when I hit a physical wall “mind over matter.”  As humans, and more specifically as athletes, there are certain variables that we can control (whether it’s our training, our eating, or our resting), but there are many more that we can’t.

    The verb “to endure” denotes suffering and tolerance of pain. Being a long distance runner requires me to feel a significant amount of discomfort.  I have twisted ankles, bruised various parts of my body, suffered a stress fracture, dealt with several different forms of tendonitis, pushed through leg cramps, bonked too many times to count, been dehydrated and the list goes on and on.  I dread going to the doctor because I fear he will tell me to “take time off.”  Yet, there are times when I have to listen to my body because if I don’t I risk ending my running career.  I find that I am constantly trying to find the balance between pushing my body to the limit and taking care of my body in a way that allows it to recover sufficiently.  

       While I can’t control the fact that I have epilepsy, I can make intelligent choices that limit my risk factors.  Sometimes, I find that there is a fine line between living in fear of what may happen and making choices that are in the best interest of my well being.   After much thought, I decided to carry Lorazepam with me during the race.   To some, it may seem small, and it may seem silly, but to someone who rarely carried my phone let alone any medication, I felt like I was succumbing to the “what if” mentality.  However, I came to the realization that carrying the drug was not a sign of weakness or fear.  Rather, it was a proactive decision in acknowledgement of the feat that I was going to attempt and how it overlapped with the risks of my neurological disorder.   I decided to run as safely as I could, and to control the variables I was able.  After all, would I run the race without eating or drinking the entire time?

       At its core, running has the ability to expose our greatest fears and weaknesses, and because of that, I have chosen to surrender what I can’t control: my neurological disorder, but I choose to accept and embrace the help that modern science has afforded me while still pushing my body to extreme limits.  

“…the only thing we have to fear…is fear itself”

Three months ago, during my favorite nine mile run up Hamms Gulch on Windy Hill, I decided to run an ultramarathon.  I kept hearing a voice deep within me telling telling me that I should do it.  At that moment, I knew that I was supposed to listen to that inner voice, and so after my run that day, I signed up for the Crystal Springs 50k.

It seems strange, having never run a marathon and having only been running for seven months, to tackle an ultra, but I just knew it was something that I was supposed to do.  It’s difficult to quantify moments of clarity, or to explain to people why I make choices, when my only response is “because I know I’m supposed to… “

Before the race...getting my number

Before the race…getting my number

And so, on January 5th, I set out, along with 300 other runners, on an adventure that I will never forget.
I woke up that morning feeling well rested.  I ate my usual pre-run breakfast (eggs and toast), got dressed, and loaded up my friend’s car with all the necessary post race recovery items from food options to a change of clothes.
It was a frigid 40 degrees as we pulled into Huddart park.  It was supposed to warm up, but I knew that we would be running under a canopy during the majority of the race, so it would remain rather cold.  I walked around the parking lot with my friend to warm  up  my muscles and took that opportunity for a final trip to the bathroom.
I double checked to make sure that I had everything.  I had eight hours to complete the course.  I had my water pack, several packs of Gu, honey stingers, Cliff Shock blocks, gloves, beanie, phone.
I was ready.
At the start, we all gathered and headed down towards the single track trail.  The first mile was downhill; a bit deceiving, though an easy way to start the race.
But then the climb began: four miles up.

I ran these trails frequently, and I knew the course.  This was nothing new, but running with so many people was.

This first ascent was hideous.  I couldn’t find my zone.  I kept questioning myself:

Maybe I tapered too much or incorrectly.

Maybe I took the carbohydrate loading too far

Maybe my cardio wasn’t where it should be
Maybe …
I wouldn’t make it.
Five miles of questions, frustration, anger, disappointment.  I struggled to get out of my head.  While I was at first stressed about running surrounded by people, I became appreciative of having others around me to motivate me.    I knew that if I could get to that first aid station everything would be ok.
But I was wrong.
At mile four, my hip flexor started to hurt…with every step up I took, I felt a pain in my hip.
But I knew that I had to forge ahead.
I grabbed something to drink at the aid station and pressed on.  This was normally my favorite part of the course, but I still struggled to find my stride.
Six miles in, and thoughts of doubt were still spinning around my head.
People kept passing me, and I kept having to slow down.  I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.  Nothing seemed to be going my way.

And then I let go.

I felt my feet on the trail… touched the trees as I went by… focused on my breathing… felt my power deep within my core…and just like that… I found my zone, my stride.
Everything in the world seem to dissipate, and for ten miles I was unstoppable… feeling… breathing…running.
When I felt the pain in my hip, I felt it and breathed through it… I didn’t allow it to impede my stride…
I felt like I was flying.

At mile 15, after a long descent, my legs started to feel tired, and I lost my focus.  I knew that there was one more long climb…up.
I was plagued by cramping legs and a strained hip flexor; the climb out of Wunderlich was arduous.  Yet again, I started to question my ability, my legs, my training.  With about 14 miles to go, I wondered how I would make it; every step representing a painful challenge.
I knew that I had to slow down and I had to stop questioning myself:
mind over matter.
I knew I trained sufficiently.
I knew my legs would get me there.
I knew I could finish.
I had run this trail so many times before, this was just one more training run with a few more people thrown in for good measure.

And so I started saying to myself, “I am not afraid, I am running.”
Before I knew it, I was at the aid station, where I got a sodium tablet for my cramping legs.
I was out of Wunderlich, which meant that I had just over ten miles left, and all of the difficult inclines were over.
20 miles down, 10 to go.
Despite my tired cramping legs, I started to push the pace constantly saying to myself, “I am not afraid, I am running.”
At times, the roots on the trail got the better of me, and I fell with a thud.  While not a technically challenging course, after 23 miles of running, my legs were finding it difficult to elevate over the roots.  And while I landed in the dirt, I said to myself again, “I am not afraid, I am running” and got up, and continued on my way, extending my stride even further.
The miles flew by…
I could hear the birds… the blue birds, the crows, cheering me on.
I felt the power of the ferns, the trees and even the rocks…
reminding me of why I love to run the trails.

And before I knew it I was at the last aid station.  I took another sodium tablet, drank several cups of water, and asked them how much further…
“4.6 miles down.”
It was cold, and I could no longer feel my legs.
As I got to the Chinquapin trail head, I sped up once again.  I knew I could open up my stride even more.  I just wanted to finish.
Each step …closer to the finish, closer to home.
Following the pink ribbons… across the wooden bridges… I listened to the water from the creek… enjoying the silence… but pushing on… pushing forward…
so close.

And then, the trail changed, and started uphill again.  I started to panic.  My legs had nothing left, and my hip flexor was no longer able to maintain a jog.
And so I walked… and even started to wonder
Where are the pink ribbons?
Am I off course?
I thought it was all downhill…

Before I knew it, a pink ribbon appeared, and the brief half mile uphill was over; I knew I had about a mile left.
a paved road…
I could feel the jarring of every step…
and went faster…
and faster…
until I saw the finish line…
So close…
As I crossed the finish, I started to cry.  All of the focus, all the pain, all of the emotion, all of the preparation seemed to release in that moment.  I had nothing left, and it manifested itself in tears.

tears...nothing left

tears…nothing left

Sometimes the choices we make, aren’t quantifiable.  While I can’t explain or rationalize why I ran this race, I do know that I learned an inordinate amount about myself.  Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I am stronger than I ever thought I was.  While I have many fears, this race was in many ways a release of some of those fears… each hill… each climb… each breath….
moving forward … one foot in front of the other.

20th overall, 2nd age group, 3rd female overall

20th overall, 2nd age group, 3rd female overall

“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.”

Every day, I attempt to teach students how to take personal responsibility for their actions and choices.  It’s frustrating, tiring, but rewarding.  Every day, I encourage them to dissect the rhetoric of “I can’t” and “I won’t” and gently redirect it to: “I choose not to” because “I’m afraid.”  I often hear my students say,
“I can’t write essays”
“I can’t come in at lunch”
“I can’t get an A”
I empathize with my students.  In the process of re-directing and re formulating their “can’ts” it raises a lot of questions.
If I take personal responsibility for my actions, what does that mean for me?  What choices am I making to inhibit my learning and growth?
I choose not to improve my writing because I prefer to spend time with my friends at lunch. And so…
I choose not to come in at lunch.
I choose not to do the extra work to get an A.
     I equate learning with personal wellness and health.  I know for years, I would tell myself:
“I can’t run.”
“I can’t wake up an hour early to eat breakfast.”
“I can’t give up sugar.”
“I can’t find time to cook healthy food.”
However, re-formulating my “can’ts” has altered my perception on life.  When I saw things as a choice, I began to dislike some of my choices.
I chose to watch tv.
I chose to eat sugar.
I chose not to run and exercise.
I chose to eat processed foods because I choose not to take the time to cook healthy food, and perhaps most importantly,
I chose to put everyone else first.
And then I began to wonder… why have I chosen this path?  What has it brought for me?  What makes sense for me? What is the best way to live my life?  And so…
I chose to put myself first.
I chose to go to the gym.
I chose to run.
I chose to give up all processed foods.
After a few weeks of running, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture, and my doctor told me that I couldn’t run for six to eight weeks.  My choice to run became a “can’t”.  However, I chose to figure out a way to stay in shape despite my inability to run.
I chose to swim.
I chose to lift weights.
I chose to bike.

My stress fracture

These were choices that worked for me, and that I have integrated into my life over the past eight months.  There is no “right” or “perfect” formula.  Each person is different and has to figure out what works for him/her.

Perhaps more importantly, I have chosen and embraced growth.  Much like running or working out, it is often painful and challenging. I am learning to enjoy those painful moments just as much as the painless ones.