It was a damp Seattle day in January 2013. I took the elevator to the second floor of the gym. Jen was sitting in a chair when I stepped off. I hadn’t seen her in months and I walked slowly over to her and sat down.
“I have bad news,” she said. “I’m sick again.”
“I’m sick, too,” I said.
We sat in the chairs side by side. She told me how the lumps in her lungs had returned. She was back on the medicine she hated. She hadn’t told many people. She was exhausted from it all.
I told her about the blood clots, three in my legs and a couple in my lungs. I was also on medicine I hated. We both felt weak, angry, and scared. I was 40 and she just turned 37. We were too young to be this sick.
A month earlier when I was in the hospital, the nurse came by with a prescription for warfarin – a very strong blood thinner. “You’ll have to do weekly blood tests for a while to make sure your blood is thin enough or you’ll have to up your dosage,” she said. “By the way, this used to be used as rat poison and then they discovered the rats bled to death. That’s when it started being used as a blood thinner.”
I told this to Jen and she burst out laughing, “Okay, you win for crappiest story.”
She and I met in 2008 when we joined the same team at work to do the Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer 3 Day, a 60-mile walk over three days to raise awareness and money for breast cancer. I had only lived in Seattle a year and thought it was a great way to see my new hometown. Our team trained for months, walked for hours and hours, and wore pink t-shirts that said Never, Ever, Ever Quit.
Now we were both sidelined. We did a little moving at the gym that day and met up again later in the week, this time in the downtown park near us both. We walked in a rhythm on the circular path, talking about our jobs, our recovery, our fears. “We’re leaving it in the dirt,” we would say at the end.
We each got better slowly. I was able to get off my rat poison a few days before my 41st birthday. We met up in the park a couple times a month. Jen’s lungs were better and she was weaning off her medicine. One of my blood clots in my leg dissolved completely and the other two were much smaller.
Things were getting better. I wasn’t afraid to use my legs anymore, I didn’t get concerned every time I felt out of breath. Jen and I would try jogging a bit around the park. “Let’s go from here until that pillar,” we’d say and then huff our way to the marker. We worked at the same company but never saw each other there. Our place was in the dirt. Our lives resumed their busy pace and we’d see each other every month or so.
Then in August, my dad died unexpectedly from a heart attack – in the same hospital where I had lain just months earlier with him at the end of my hospital bed.
I was lost. I told people by text. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t process it. I didn’t want any more crappy stories.
I returned to work a couple weeks later. I met up with Jen in the park but I didn’t do much talking. She walked alongside me as my feet kicked up the dirt in a swirl around me. Fall was upon us and the days were darker. I busied myself in work and by the time November came, I was empty. I took a two-month leave from my company and faded into the holidays. I flew to Arizona to be with my extended family and soak in some sunshine.
On New Year’s Day, I went to the hotel gym and ran off and on for 20 minutes on the treadmill there. It felt good. I had a lot of anger in me and the ache in my legs when I ran, even for a few minutes, felt like I was stomping it out. The next day, I went for a walk at sunset. I saw a woman run by me and watched her silhouette fade. “That’s a future me,” I thought.
When I got back to Seattle, I called Jen and we resumed our park walking. “I went to a cool workout class,” she said. “You should come with me.” So we began going to cross-training classes, including some 6 a.m. ones. We laughed at ourselves for how tired, achy, and red-faced we were. But it still felt good to release energy, to burn emotion, and to focus on nothing else but not passing out for an hour. It’s a privilege to be out of breath I would remind myself as I climbed off the bike, treadmill, and rowing machine.
That spring, I saw a 5K race scheduled for Mother’s Day. My birthday was two days after the race so I thought it would be a good way to celebrate being off rat poison for a year. I ran by myself and my kids were at the finish line to cheer me on. I completed it in 35 minutes and I felt like an Olympian. I was high the rest of the day (and sore the next). While I still didn’t enjoy running, I liked the feeling once I was done. I felt accomplished for the first time in as long as I could remember.
A couple weeks later, I did another 5K with my friend, Heather. She and her husband Mike are run-y people. They do silly things like go to Chile for a triathlon and finish half marathons in 90 minutes. I got overheated on this 5K and was slow. I was really annoyed at myself as I walked part of the course with her. After the race, we passed a booth promoting another 5K in August and Heather said we should try it . I was chugging a water bottle as I looked at the race card. “It’s also a 10K, let’s do that one,” I said. What did you just do? Too late, Heather was grinning at me. I signed up before I could back out.
I left a week later for a trip to Kenya with Free The Children and my whole perspective shifted. I walked through villages and outdoor markets, went into homes of other mothers 9,000 miles away from my own home. I helped carry water from the river back to their huts, visited an all-girls school where I sang and danced with them, and helped build part of a wall for a new teachers dormitory. I went on safari and watched animals lumber by our rickety vehicle. I flew on a dusty plane and I put my feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time. I walked that beach over and over with a Maasai warrior as my guide. I felt the tectonic plates of my life shift within me.
I came back certain that my life would change. It was June 2014. I hired a running coach, Tara, who looped me through trails, hills, and the muggy summer afternoons. I bought new shoes, a GPS watch, and loads of iTunes. I got up early for runs in the dark, the rain, alongside traffic, and in the quiet of my slumbering neighborhood.
I ran with my new puppy and prayed for her to stop and poop so I could rest for a minute. I made it a full lap around the park in the dirt and pumped my fists in the air. It was only half a mile but I did it without stopping. Then I did it again. Jen had taken a new job in San Francisco by this time but we would still meet in the dirt whenever she was in town.
My mind was focused on the road ahead, literally. I thought a lot of my dad, my job, my family, and my health. I stopped feeling sorry for myself that things had happened and started feeling stronger for it. Each mile further became a leave-behind. I was still slow but I was “on my feet” as Tara would say.
When the 10K came, Heather ran the first 3.1 miles with me and Tara took over for the next 3.1. When we crossed the finish line, Heather and Mike were cheering for me, my kids brought homemade signs, and Tara put the medal on me as I cried. It was a year and a week after my dad died and I was standing this time.
I kept going. I still didn’t love running but I was discovering this new person I was becoming. My go-go dot-com work stress started to dissipate. I would log 4 miles before most people finished their first cup of coffee. Work difficulties and drama didn’t affect me as much anymore. I was also working on a plan. I knew I wanted a change. My company didn’t offer sabbaticals so I used the miles as planning time. Over the rest of the year, I thought about how I went from rat poison to 6.2 miles in one year. If that could happen, what could life could be like next June?
I ran a 12K in December and Heather found me in the crowd and ran the last 1.5 miles with me. Other friends at work started telling me about races. In January, I ran with thousands of people in the Star Wars 10K in Disneyland, weaving through the Magic Kingdom at 5:30 in the morning. Once again, my kids, husband, and Heather and Mike were cheering me on.
I did a 15K in March. I wasn’t getting faster, still clocking 11 to 12 minute miles, but my miles were getting longer. On a training run with Tara before the 15K, I told her there was a Mother’s Day half marathon and asked if she thought I could do it. “Finish the 15K and you’ll know the answer,” she said. I had already signed up for it. She laughed and added more training to my weekly schedule.
It’s a whole new world when you cross over 10 miles. My long trainings took over two hours. My whole weekend was planned around it. I checked weather reports like I was Al Roker, I drank water like it was my part-time job, and I cut back on caffeine and alcohol. I would come home in the morning to my family who just woke up and were on their second plate of pancakes. It wasn’t always fun. Many miles left me feeling raw and bone tired. I was losing motivation, I was tired of running.
A work pal, Laura, gave me a tip right before the half marathon. “When you need an extra push, and you will, dedicate each mile to something meaningful,” she said. “Do one for the women in Africa, one for your lungs, one for your dad, and one for the new you.”
It was fantastic advice. The miles were long that day. After 7 miles in, I started dedicating each stretch. When I got to 11, I focused on my dad and told him – out loud while pushing up a hill – that I was releasing the sad and going to honor him by living well. The last 1.1 mile was dedicated to me. I touched the Mile 13 sign and saw my kids waving. I ran across the finish line with full lungs and strong legs.
Three weeks later, on June 1, I left my job for this life sabbatical that was planned over so many months and miles. Two weeks after that, I joined Jen for the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon. We were together at the start line and met up at the finish. As we lie in the grass afterwards, we reflected on the miles behind us. No longer sick, no longer scared, we have only open road ahead of us.
And so marks a milestone in my next year of life. I have no idea where I will be next June…and that’s what excites me the most.