death

My first marathon was an impulsive decision I made in my 20’s before my frontal lobe was fully developed. Since that first marathon, I have run a total of 5 marathons and was celebrating a conscious uncoupling from marathons for the past 10 years.

The first time I ran a marathon

  • iPhones did not exist
  • Texting was fancy
  • I listened to music on an MP3 (because the iPod was a passing fad)
  • I had 2 weeks to train.

I was a young mom with three babies, 4-years old and under. I had survived three high-risk pregnancies with three healthy girls and was a trainer in a gym. I was living the miracle and felt a little invincible.

I had two weeks to train. I had no idea I was even on Heartbreak Hill during the marathon.  I decided that when you are not running really fast it does not matter as much. I did not know how many miles was in an actual marathon.  There was no “search engine” to fully understand what a marathon entails. My training was a 9 mile run the weekend before and a chat with an experienced runner on the bus ride to Hopkinton. That bus ride probably saved me a trip to the hospital that day.  Who knew those water stations were important?

Currently, at 44 my life and legs have changed.  My girls are calling me excited about their college classes.  My father is not available to get nervous about my crazy life choices. And, my life has helped prepare me for this marathon.   I made the decision to run this time for, Cal, my running motivation.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqvZabxJHqs

The training was going great until July. I had to take a month off because of weakness in my left leg and the summer heat.  Today I finally felt strong enough to run a solid distance.  It takes a lot of planning for me to run that distance, now.  I don’t understand how my body works but with a fully developed frontal lobe, I am very careful.

I decided to add caffeine to my life again and only drink one cup of tea before my run. I am still intermittent fasting which means it has to be timed perfectly in the day.  I am trying to add more yoga to my schedule. Today I crushed my 10 miles in under 90 minutes and was able to work a full day, walk the dogs, bathe the dogs, fold laundry and clean my house(“clean” might be a generous description of my house..cleaner is more appropriate).

I am thrilled that I hit my goal this morning and I am ready for next week. My goal is 11 miles.

 

 

There was a time in my life that every time I faced some bad news I would say “At least it’s not…fill in the blank.”  And life kept filling in the blank.  I stopped using that sentence as coping mechanism, because it became a painful foreshadowing.

So three years ago, when a medical test sent me to my couch for the day I decided to take it as the opportunity to watch a long list of sad stories with a large bag of chocolate. I figured that watching other people’s pain would help me see my life’s blessings.   I started with some Dr. Phil and giggled at those amateurs. I moved to a cancer movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  When he used his disease to pick up ladies, I didn’t laugh. He ended up in a great relationship with a gorgeous girlfriend and his family came together as a team to support him. The pinnacle was when I watched the Piano and started to cry when I realized that this Holocaust victim had a talent and hope for the future, that I couldn’t see for my own.

When you spend a day watching sad movies and can’t find a storyline as difficult as your life it can be eye-opening.  I decided to write my own happy ending with my life’s new screenplay and had to stop waiting for my wishes to come true. My three years was a long painful uphill battle, but it felt like it was working.

In September, I came out of running retirement for my niece, Callie, and the foundation that will save children with her disease.  A disease in the same family as my MS. The run was challenging because of the distance and the unique humidity.  It was poetic that an invisible obstacle weighed me down. My shoes and clothes became a weight  that the world couldn’t see but it impacted every one of my steps.  I remember feeling like that humidity was similar to the white matter disease that changed the course of my life three years ago. My shoes were so wet it took days to dry and there was never a drop of rain that day.

It was an emotional journey and with every step, I changed.  I started the run with a sprint and  by the end, there was no gas left in my tank.  We were writing our own happy ending that day and sometimes that takes everything you have and even the hidden reserves.  My damaged spine and sick legs helped me raise over $6,000 in 88 days and carried me for 13.1 miles.  It wasn’t my fastest run but it was the most effort, because of my niece and the money we raised.  It was those quiet notes and gentle hugs from my new community.  Those lovely people that made sure I crushed my fundraising goal. Those beautiful people that helped me write a new happy ending. My happy ending did not grant me any of the wishes that I dreamed of on that couch.  Callie is not cured and I can’t visit with my dad in this new reality.  My happy ending has a new landscape filled with new characters and some of the best original characters.

Many people were worried how the training and run might take a toll on my health. I admit it was in the back of mind.  I was worried the extra physical stress would lead to a flare up.  I had a stressful summer managing my daughters, working and training.  My hair was not brushed during this time and I was close to having dreadlocks.

After my run, I missed my regular six-month neurology appointment because of my commitment to the fundraiser.  I was able to schedule a new appointment right away and I had a doctors appointment that seemed unimaginable from that couch.  My husband, doctors and I were giddy with the results.  The young fellow took notes about my recent half marathon and was shocked with my time.  He tried to do the math and asked if I ran a 10-minute mile.  When I told him it was around an 8:30-minute mile, he was shocked. I passed every physical test with flying colors. I felt like a gifted Kindergartner reading Harry Potter in front of the class on the first day of school.  The fellow referred to my disease as subtle and my husband joked that was the only subtle thing about me.  My husband and I celebrated our hard work over a quiet cup of tea and cookie.   It was a great day that I won’t soon forget.

Soon after during a short celebration, I had an unimaginable stressor pop-up in my life.  And in one day my legs didn’t work.  I didn’t sleep well and had a hard time walking the next day.  Those legs that carried me for 13.1 miles and helped me raise money, stopped working.  MS is a mystery, but for me it became clear.

It took me a long time to get back on track.  I followed some simple rules to rediscover my happy ending.

Eliminate Stress – I utilize “block caller” on my iPhone.  I go for a run or yoga class when  I need a mental break from life.  I ignore obligations and make selfish choices.

Nutrition- This one is tough to get started but easy when I am in entrenched in the plan. No processed food, no artificial sweeteners, no dairy, lots of water, healthy fats, and food tracking.

Workouts- I committed to moving every day.  My plan for fitness is a priority in my life. Moving when my body hurts is counterintuitive but it works.

 

 

 

cornell

On Monday I celebrated my 20th anniversary of motherhood. I spent the day visiting my daughter who is a college Sophomore in Ithaca, NY. On the morning of her birthday I ran her college campus multiple times even though it was in the single digits and my phone would freeze unless it was flush against my skin to stay warm. The run was painful but I felt amazing.  During the college search process I promised myself that I wouldn’t support a college choice unless I could run during my visits. I set a goal to sprint up every hill in Ithaca by the time she graduates.

During this difficult run I was reminded of a question posed by my middle daughter almost 15 years ago. I can still remember her practicing her letters on our kitchen table.   She never lifted her head from the table during our entire conversation.   “Mom I know I got my math skills from my Auntie who is brilliant mathematician and I know I got my writing skills from my other Auntie who is a talented writer, but what did I get from you?” After running through a long list of possibilities, sense of humor and good looks were on the top of my list, she rejected every idea and finally said, “Don’t worry about it because you gave me the gift of life and that was enough”.

I love my girls and desperately want credit for everything. I know we are so different, however I like to think that in addition to the gift of life I gave my girls the gift of resilience.  They are masters of handling stress and moving forward. It is trait they all share and it is the backbone to their success. I’ve always viewed my life as teaching moment.

For years, I used my relationship with swimming as a guide to handle stress.  As a child swimming was not just my weakness, it was my greatest fear. I was so bad that I remember one frustrated instructor endorsed  the dog paddle as a reasonable path for some kids. During swim lessons I was satisfied to stand on the swim deck and watch my weak minded peers blindly follow the instructor.  I was never embarrassed about being difficult.

My islander parents would not accept my adversarial relationship with water as an excuse to not learn basic survival swimming. They worked for hours to help ease my worries and sent me to the best instructors in the area but nothing worked until I had one lesson with my dad.

My dad had a gift for patience and storytelling.  It was a unique combination that made him my first defense to any stressful situation. A conversation with my Dad could only be compared to taking a combination of the best anti depressant and anti anxiety pill with one side effect.  At the end of of every conversation I usually had a supreme inflated ego. My dad was so masterful in this role that during my most awkward years he convinced me that I was a brilliant academic who had a future as a Seventeen magazine cover model when I was actually  an uninspired student who looked like an overweight man-child (that’s the exact description my daughter bestowed on my middle school photo).

On one magical night he sat next to me in our backyard pool. He asked if I knew the secret to swimming, which of course I did not know and did not want to know. He said that I only needed to master one skill to be a great swimmer and then I was hooked on his lesson plan.  I could conquer my greatest fear by focusing on one thing.  Ok, sign me up!

He told me that he was one of the best swimmers on his island because he was an expert in floating.  Floating was his key to success because if he got tired he turned over on his back until he caught his breath. If the water got rough or his boat capsized he never fought the current instead he would float until he was strong enough to swim.   If you ever saw my dad in the water that man could float for days.  That night I mastered floating and conquered my fear.  I was also the oldest child to graduate into the advanced beginners swim session under the watchful eye of the famous Mrs Millican.  

Floating was not only my trick to master swimming as a child, it became  my strategy for handling stress.  Getting bad news in my life was like getting hit by a storm in water. Some storms were more powerful but I could just float until I had the strength to swim.  My dad was in the water with me for most of the big storms. He was the great protector who would take the big blows and make sure I just felt the current that was left in the wake of the vicious waves.  I floated for years with his help and became a proficient swimmer.   

papou

My protector

The pain of losing my dad hit me like a tsunami in unprotected waters. I realized that not only was he  protecting me from many of the big storms, he also had his hand under my back the entire time.  I was tricked into believing I was a gifted floater and masterful swimmer.

I lost my dad in December of 2013 and I was constantly gasping for breath and barely staying afloat in these new unchartered waters. My daughters rallied around me like a coat of arms and propelled me forward.  During my darkest days I had two girls getting ready for college.  The college process was already a unique time but this added an a new level of complexity.

I remember hearing about a relevant Slate article from one of the greats of our time, Rob Lowe,  regarding sending his first child to college. I always felt a strong connection with Rob since he spent so many years saying good night to me when he was a member of the Brat Pack.  His Teen Beat picture had a prominent place on my wall.  Other than that one awkward sex scandal, we were kindred spirits. I was excited to connect again.  I googled the article and it already looked promising with his beautifully chiseled face front and center.  By the second paragraph when he compared his son going off to college to the death of a parent I was out!  I felt betrayed by Rob.  I thought we had so much in common but I was going through the loss of a parent and sending a child to college at the same time and there was nothing similar.

While I was consumed with the grief of losing my dad, I was sandwiched between one freshman daughter in college and senior in high school. I traveled to watch my Freshman play her first scrimmage in her first softball game as a collegiate pitcher. She was living her dream and I had a front seat in her life. Her path to this field was a Greek tragedy with a shockingly happy ending.  I thought of my dad because he never loved the game but he loved his grandchildren and jumped at the opportunity to watch her play. He used to make the sign of the cross every time she struck someone out and once showed up during a practice to stare down a bad coach.  My dad could not resist swimming in her ocean.  I was thrilled to be there for her first scrimmage, but heartbroken I couldn’t call my dad.  

I grabbed my winter jacket from the car to walk the fields of Ithaca because I wanted to hide my tears. I had not used the jacket for months and though it was not cold I felt compelled to be a little extra warm.  I was holding my husband and sobbing thinking of the past year.  I placed my hands in my jacket pocket and found my dad’s gloves. Here were his big grey fleece gloves in my hands and I felt him next to me.  Instantly, I went from barely staying afloat to this desire to swim, for the first time.  

I went home from that trip and I was excited to look at colleges with my Senior in high school.  As I drove to multiple colleges I had an opportunity to connect with my girls and it became  clear that Rob Lowe was wrong about everything.  Watching my girls enter the next stage of their lives was the best gift in the world and it was the opposite of sad.  I cherished every second of motherhood even when I was in pain.

On my 20th anniversary of motherhood I was emotional thinking about how far we had come. I realized that I am not a naturally resilient person nor am I the best mother.  In reality, I am just smart enough to surround myself with remarkable people. My ocean has transformed because of the violent storms and I have weathered.  Those storms and the people in my life changed the landscape of my life in an extraordinary way.  Not only are my girls swimming next to me the entire time, they’ve inherited their masterful swimming skills from their grandfather.  As I sprinted up the hills of Ithaca, fighting against the wind, I felt blessed.