Saturday, December 28, 2019

Tunnel Hill 100: Living as if Living Matters

I wanted to title this "Running After Heart Failure".  I like the ambiguous way it can be read.  However, I can be superstitious, and I never want to tease the Fates with my silly word play. The fact remains, we (my doctors and I) do not know if this is "after", temporally speaking, or if I really am still in hot pursuit, running after it...that will take more time to know. Maybe I'll save this for my book...

Over the course of my life I've returned to this quote time and again. This year, when I find myself fearing for my mortal existence, that really drives the point home - and forces me to perhaps do some things that are more scary than I could ever have understood before.

In June, after five months of cardiac rest and being on horrible meds that made me feel like the walking dead, my first good echocardiogram results came back. These four months were decidedly not a time when I lived a good life. I did it as a means to a hoped for end. My act of hope was quietly registering for Tunnel Hill 50 miler. My thought then: I want to run the 100 (and already knew that I could switch up), my last real race before my world began to unravel.

An act of reasonable unreasonableness.

In July, I tell my cardiologist that I want to get off the drugs (which I am supposed to stay on "indefinitely") - they are having an overwhelmingly negative effect on my quality of life. Base on my quick rebound, he agrees, with some reservations. We plan another echo to monitor things. I continue gradually ramping up my mileage. Paces are still far slower, but I am feeling more "normal" after getting off the drugs. Things gradually proceed. At the end of August, I have another echo: Results, normal.  

On September 7th I message Steve Durbin, The RD of Tunnel Hill:
"Hey Steve, I'm registered for the 50 (again) and want to upsize (again). :P I'm assuming that's still allowed"
Now the question is: Is this the "smart" thing to do?

When I started making noises about doing something like this (and no, I did not share this with many), the overwhelming response was: Don't jump in too fast. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Wait for what, for how long? Wait for a year? Will that be adequate? Wait for two years? Wait for a few more good echos? What will it take for me to ever feel comfortable again? The fact is, I will NEVER feel "comfortable" again. I will never again have the luxury to take my body for granted. That convenient fiction is shattered and done for me. For the rest of my life I will have to have regular echos, and I will dread and fear each one. Myocarditis sometimes comes back and there's no way to know or prevent this from happening. Some never have a reoccurrence and some have many. The challenge is to keep things in check - keep those thoughts rational and the risks reasonable. Unless you've been told that you could drop dead in an instant, you can not understand this. Consider yourself fortunate. For me, the safest thing to do is to stop doing the things that allow me to feel the most alive that I can feel.

And so, I choose to live reasonably unreasonably.

The days leading up to Tunnel Hill I can't help the thoughts that pop into and pulse through my head. I am running this solo, again, so I plan to carry my phone, at night. I don't usually do that, but my experience last year was that I was alone for hours at a stretch during the night. I order a new RoadID, with my medical info. I do what I can. But the fact remains: If something goes wrong, it will go very wrong very fast. And, I will have no prior warning.

Maybe I'm just soaking in self absorbed awfulizing! Much ado about nothing?

But, what if...back and forth I vacillate:  This is reasonable...this is unreasonable...You need to do this...It could kill you...Is it worth it? Why must you do this? Why must you do this now? 

I'll admit that part of it is about defiance - fuck this shit that's happened to me. Fuck this year that I've had to sit on the sidelines praying that what I was doing would matter. Fuck existential uncertainty (which of course is always there whether we choose to notice or not). Fuck fucking viruses. I'm angry. I'm sad. I'm depressed. I'm scared.

And, I am hopeful. Through all of this, I am hopeful.

If I lose that, then I am already gone. But there are moments, when I cry from the fear and frustration of it all. When my heart feels like it is racing at 3 am, lying in the dark thinking about the possibilities. I touch my pulse - It's not racing - it just feels that way inside my head. 

Ultimately it comes down to choosing my life instead of just allowing life to happen to me. It is my act of saying YES to living on my own terms.

But, I am still scared. Those of us who take on scary challenges, who allow ourselves to be vulnerable, who risk "failure", need to accept that things may not go well. That's part of the game we play. But this is the first time I've had to accept that "failure" can be final.  
“It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.” ~ William James

So, how did it all go? Well, I'm here writing this so obviously I survived, so far. The journey was the point, not the end. But getting to the end is a good thing too.

About two weeks before the race, my breathing issues reemerge - this after several months of minimal issues. I do everything I can do to get things to calm down, but in the end I contact my ENT and she puts me on another three week round of antibiotics. I start those late on Wednesday. The race is Saturday. This is not good, but I really have no choice.

I fly out on Thursday to Chicago. Sandra fetches me there and we drive south. I feel like utter crap. Maybe it's the antibiotics. Maybe it's the bug my husband and daughter started fighting a couple days ago. Maybe it's worry. Maybe it's my heart. Who knows. I planned things so that we would have a day to chill before the race. I spend most of Friday in bed, except for a short shakeout run and a trip to packet pick up. But Friday night I feel better, but not great.

Saturday morning we wake a bit before the alarm. Coffee. A bagel. Dress. Finalize plans. Add the finishing touches to the drop bags. Arrive in Vienna without incident.  It's cold. 20ish degrees. I finish getting ready just as the gun goes off.

I have some goals in mind, but I will have to see how the day unfolds. If my breathing issues kick in then all bets are off. I'm unsure how I will handle that. I am determined not to run myself into the ground like I did last year. One of the biggest challenges in running a relatively flat, runnable 100 is pacing. It is easy to run the first 50 fast and then hit the wall for the second 50. The DNF rate at Tunnel Hill is generally around 40-50% probably for this reason - Also becasue you can "buckle-down", earning a 50 mile finish for getting to 50+ miles. "Easy" 100s can be very hard if you aren't smart! So, I take it very easy to start. I do, however, immediately realize that "very" easy doesn't feel quite as easy as I would like.

Being on "cardiac rest" for five+ months means basically weakening your heart. When you take stress off of anything, it gets weaker if that is not balanced with work.
Work + Rest = Stronger.
Rest - Work = Weaker.
While my training was good, it was too condensed. My heart is nowhere near where it was last year. I can only hope that being smarter will pay off.

The miles tick along. I run with Sandra and her friend Jodi. We chat away the miles - or mostly they chat, since I'm not really a chatter, and I am a bit stuck in my own head.

We hit the wetlands turnaround at 13ish miles and let Sandra and Jodi go on as I walk and take a gel. I know I need to start switching up my paces a bit more. I catch up with them before we hit Karnak at 16ish miles. At this point I decide to start adding in short walk breaks each mile. Jodi goes on, champing at the bit, and I tell Sandra to go on. I'll be walking .10 mile at every mile beep. I'm maintaining a good pace, around 10:30-11 this way and eventually catch and pass Sandra. She's moving well and doing her own thing. We hit 26ish miles at Vienna. I am, as usual, not efficient on the aid station end. I fuss with my bottles, change shoes, use the potty and head back out. I catch up with Sandra who came into the AS behind me, but left ahead of me. We run together for a bit, but my walk-run doesn't really work with her run. We pass 30 miles and I comment on how she has less than 20 miles to go - which I guess is not what she wanted to hear, but since I have less than 70 miles to go, I though that sounded pretty damn sweet. Hahahaaa. Nope. She's hit a bad patch, and I'm hitting a bit of a good patch, so I let her get through that and I move on knowing she will get through it.

At somewhere between 31-33 miles, my breathing starts getting wonky. That patch, that was good, comes to a screeching halt. I don't know what tricked it, but the tickle starts and then my throat feels like it closes up. And the coughing starts. I am struggling to maintain my pace and my breathing is labored and uncomfortable. But here's the problem: I can't really tell what's going on with my body when this happens. Is my heart pissed off? Do I just need more fuel? I feel instantly weaker when this happens - but why? I get to the Tunnel Hill aid station feeling pretty awful. The only way that I can describe it to people is that I feel like I am breathing through cotton balls stuffed down my throat. I see Sandra get in and out of the AS fast. I am starting to freeze since my body feels like it's just powering down. I add clothes and head out for the 2+ miles to the turn around. I see Sandra coming back in, looking good, and that will be the last time I see her before I reach Vienna again.

The next 12+ miles are rather unpleasant. It's cold, I can't breathe, and it feels like every sip of fuel further clogs my throat. Somehow I make it back to Vienna. I'm about 2 hours behind where I want to be. Sandra is there, having finished strongly, and PRed by hours, she helps me get my stuff together. My breathing is so labored. I haven't been able to eat, and I feel weak. All I can think is: I should stop. I don't want to stop.

We sit in the heated tent and I get some hot soup. Soup is what always saves me. Having squandered a good 45 minutes trying to re-group and trying to get my breathing to settle down I accept it is futile. I tell Sandra I need to go and she needs to go back to the hotel to sleep. I assure her that my original finish goal is not going to happen, if I finish at all. So, she needn't get up early to be at the finish. And against all reason, I head back out into the dark, cold night for the second 50 miles.

The next 26 miles is just a grim exercise of putting one foot in front of the other. Last year the pancakes at Hammond Pond saved me. The thought of them keeps me moving. I get there, grab two and discover that this year they have added chocolate chips. Normally I would be so down with that, but tonight they cause my throat and stomach to seize up. I march on with grim determination and no hope for reprieve.

On my return trip, however, the pancakes are replaced with mash potatoes. Oh, mother of god, these mashed potatoes are manna from the heavens. I eat two cups and then reluctantly move on. they save me, but not for long.

My last pass through Vienna is not good. I literally stumble into the heated tent, dizzy, unsteady, freezing cold. I see others with the same vacant stare I wear. I suck down noodle soup. Potato soup. I sit close to the heaters trying to get my core temperature back up.

I'm terrified of this last 24 miles. It's 3 am, and I am now many many hours behind my goal. There's a very lonely 7 mile stretch coming up, from mile 78.5 to about mile 85.5, where you see very few people and there is only one unmanned aid station with water (usually frozen at this point). This is the point I have been worried about since I decided to do this race again. But given how rough I feel now, at 76 miles, I'm just, honestly, scared. I envy those who have clearheaded friends helping them - heading back out into the dark with them.

Somehow I muster the will and courage to get up and go.

It is a long, lonely night. November nights are very long. I keep moving and occasionally pass someone. My only consolation is that I keep passing people at regular intervals. No one passes me for that last 24 miles. By the time I get to the last turnaround, I start see people in even worse shape than myself. As I head back for the last 9 miles, the marathon runners, who started their race that morning, trit-trot by offering a steady stream of encouragement: "Great job!!", "You are amazing", "You are such an inspiration", but all I want to do is run. This does not feel amazing in the slightest. I want to do what they are doing. I'm barely moving at this point, between my labored breathing and my inability to eat much for hours, I cannot get my body to move. I am shuffling, along, and if feels like torture.

For the past 20+ miles I try to rework my goals. What will I be satisfied with at this point? I decide on a number that at this point is reasonable, but still hard. Unfortunately, I don't have a net time on my watch (that was replaced months ago with heart rate when I needed to run by that. I didn't change my settings before the race, and I am regretting that now). With about 3 miles go I just try to will my legs to run just ONE mile at a "normally" easy pace. Just ONE!, and I will reach my new goal. But my legs will not. Few really know what this feels like unless they have been there. I've had people laugh at me when I tell them that it took every ounce of willing and effort to "run" a 15 minute mile.  But when all you want is ONE stinking 11 minute mile, but all you can get are 15s, you become much more humble. And you never laugh at another's tale when you have never been there.

And so I cross the finish, 3 minutes behind my "goal", revised now about 10 times.

But, I did it. I finished. I did not quit when I wanted to, and I desperately wanted to at least 20 times.

Should I have done it? Probably not.  Did I do myself any harm? I honestly do not know. Have I told my cardiologist about all of this? Hell no. Call me stupid if you wish, but we all must decide the terms of our own lives and take responsibility for those choices. I have and will continue to do so.

2019 was not my best year, and yet in some ways it was the best year I could hope for. I do believe that I am in a much better place in many ways then I was a year ago, though I have dark and scary days still. I am not the same person I was. Some of that is good and some of that I need to make peace with. I do hope that 2020 is better in the ways I want it to be, and that the lessons I need to learn are not so hard, because there's still a lot I want to do before this book is closed.

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