Six months before I ran my first marathon in 2008, I had never even completed – or considered completing – a 5K.
My friend Tom mentioned it on a whim, suggesting it was something that would be a fun challenge. He had run one marathon previously, giving him a massive mental edge: he knew he could do it. I had no idea if I could even run a few miles, let alone 26.2.
But as so often happens with me, the greater the challenge, the more I start to really consider it. Finally, one morning in April, fueled by courage or caffeine (possibly both), I went to the Twin Cities Marathon web site, and a few minutes later I was committed. And terrified.
The first training runs were tough. The first time I tried to run six miles, it felt impossible. Slowly, though, with the help of persistence, a good program and my trusty marathon partner, 6 miles became manageable, then 8 miles, then 10, then a half-marathon. If you can do 13, you can do 15. If you can do 15, you can do 18. If you can do 18, you can do 20. And if you can do 20, you can do 26.2.
(A 20-mile training run is the longest distance most marathoners do before a race, and it’s often 3 weeks beforehand. It’s always struck me that a marathon, at least a first marathon, is one of the rare things in life you practice to do without actually doing. It speaks to the physical toll of a full marathon, to the months of mileage built up, and the craziness of runners).
Marathon day in 2008 was not an ideal day. It rained, hard, for about the first 10 miles. My shoes were waterlogged for almost the whole run. But we both made it, finishing in just over 4 hours, 30 minutes. The best marathoners will run in half that time, but for non-elite runners, times are secondary goals. Finishing is primary.
I was in pain and agony at the finish line, telling my wife, Julie, “You never have to do this.” Two years later, of course, she wanted to run one. So I told her I would run with her. She built up slowly, much like me, and this time I had the advantage of knowing I could do it. A much nicer raceday came. Around mile 12, Julie exclaimed – something I will never forget – “I feel like I could run forever.” And around mile 20, she wondered aloud how I had ever talked her into this.
But we made it, and I had the bug. I ran two more marathons in 2012, both with the same friend I ran with in 2008. (Pictured: The Toronto Marathon was the second of the two, and in order to prove that we weren’t taking things too seriously we stopped at McDonald’s around mile 22/kilometer 35).
That felt like too much, and I decided after that second marathon in October of 2012 that in 2013 I would take a year off from marathoning, though not running. I would just run distances that normal people run, 4 or 5 miles at a time for fun.
In December of 2012, I had a stretch of feeling lousy – tired all the time, headaches, weird visual disturbances. It continued to a lesser degree for much of the rest of the winter. No doctor had figured anything out, and I chalked it up to a stressful year (moving into a new house and deciding to try to start a family among the major life changes) combined with an unusually rough stretch of winter weather.
By spring, I felt quite a bit better – not perfect, but better. I stuck to the plan of running for my own joy and entering a few shorter races (the longest being 10 miles). The summer was good, too, but by late fall/early winter I was feeling lousy again. I again assumed stress was to blame (Julie was pregnant by then), though a part of me was still worried there was something bigger at play.
I was feeling bad enough in February of 2014 to require an ER visit, which led to some follow-up testing, which led to an answer: On March 25, 2014, I was given a preliminary diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (which was confirmed in August).
In a strange way, it was a relief to have an answer even if it wasn’t the one I wanted. By the time I was diagnosed – after MRIs and a battery of other tests – I was actually feeling quite a bit better than I had in February. That’s a good thing for many reasons, foremost being that five days after being diagnosed, Julie gave birth to our daughter, Anabel, on March 30 (which also happens to be Julie’s birthday).
I’ve spent much of the past year processing what it means to have MS and experiencing the joys of fatherhood. Some days are better than others, but I’ve been fortunate in that most of what I have dealt with in terms of the disease is relatively minor. It’s a strange disease that impacts many people in many different ways – some quite severely, some barely at all – and I know a lot of others have it much worse. Whenever I start to get low, I remember that everyone is dealing with something. It could be physical, mental, emotional. It doesn't matter. We all have something. We persevere when we have to, and we thrive in better times.
I’m heartened by the advances in MS treatment and by the notion that it’s not generally a disease that decreases life expectancy. I give myself a shot three times a week, injecting a drug that is said to slow the progression of the disease. I had a follow-up MRI a few weeks ago, and it showed nothing but good news.
I’ve also noticed that exercise – which for many with MS can be difficult because fatigue, balance problems and weakness are common symptoms – actually seems to make me feel better. Whether that’s a function of calming anxiety, helping me be “present,” releasing endorphins, taking in much-needed Vitamin D (at least this time of year) or some combination of those things, running usually still feels good.
I’ve had to make some adjustments, to be sure. I don’t run in intense heat because it can cause symptoms to flare up. I don’t run without sunglasses because too much sunlight can trigger visual symptoms. I probably take more breaks to walk than I used to just to keep my body feeling good. But I still run, and when I’m going I don’t hold back.
As I pondered new challenges for 2015, an old challenge resurfaced. Could I still run a marathon? I’ll admit to having trepidation, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was talking myself into it rather than out of it. When the reasons for doing something are the same as the reasons not to do it, I’ve found that you’re better off just going for it.
A trip to Arizona in early February clinched it in my mind. I ran 8 miles and it felt like nothing. I feel faster and lighter than ever, quite possibly a function of a strict gluten-free, dairy-free, low saturated fat diet that seems to help with my symptoms and has helped me shed a few pounds as well.
Shortly after getting back to Minnesota, Julie and I signed up for Grandma’s Marathon, June 20th in Duluth. It will be my fifth marathon and her fourth, but for both of us it feels in some ways like the first – first post-diagnosis for me, first post-baby for her.
The aim here will be for each of us to post once a week on a range of subjects – everything from good gear and a running regimen that works for us to personal stories from the river/lake trails. Julie will have her introductory post up on the blog Tuesday (she’s already written three posts, which puts her way ahead of me).
Training for a marathon while dealing with the challenges of MS and a soon-to-be-1-year-old won’t be easy, but I think I speak for both of us when I say we are looking forward to sharing our ups and downs along the way.