The NYC marathon was on Sunday. It was a very exciting race on the women’s side, as Shalane Flanagan became the first American female champion since 1977. She ran a gutsy race and looked strong throughout, clocking a 4:52 for her 25th mile! Insane and phenomenal. It was inspiring, particularly because she had a stress fracture over the late winter that kept her out of the Boston Marathon.
Despite this excitement and the happiness I felt for Shalane and other competitors, the NYC marathon day was also challenging for me. I ran the race in 2009, placing third in my age group with a time of 3:01:02. I wasn’t even disappointed that I rather narrowly missed breaking three hours because that far exceeded my goal. It was my second (and last) marathon, after I ran 3:20 or so at Vermont City in May of the same year. That first race was quite poorly executed in comparison—a learning experience to say the least! I felt triumphant and powerful during my NYC race and frankly had the time of my life for most of those three hours. Ben and my mom were there to cheer and support me and I remember jumping into their arms in glee upon seeing them after I finished. The training had been enjoyable and my body was fit and healthy to produce a great performance. That evening, we went to my favorite vegan restaurant in the city, and I sat with the people closest to my heart as a relished my success. The memories of the 26.2 through the five Boroughs and the experiences surrounding the event are forever sealed in my brain’s chamber of cherished memories.
Things changed physically shortly after that race. My stomach and digestive issues escalated to debilitating levels and I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Running took a back burner as I needed to prioritize my health, and grad school demanded a lot of my time and energy. I still ran, but ceased formal training, particularly for any long distances.
Initially, after adopting the gluten-free diet, I felt almost “normal,” after a lifetime of pervasive digestive distress, diarrhea, joint pain, and rashes. I had more energy, only needed to use the bathroom once or twice per day instead of 18-20 times or more, and I slept better. My joints were much less swollen and painful, which made running with any regularity a much more viable possibility. Throughout college and my early adulthood, the biggest obstacle to consistent training I faced was flareups of joint pain scattered throughout the major joints of my lower extremities and back. It was upsetting at first to give up many of my favorite gluten-filled foods (and back then, gluten-free alternatives were much rarer and less appealing than ones today!), but I felt so much better that it wasn’t as trying as I expected it to be. It was a little emotionally uncomfortable to feel like I needed to consciously restrict certain foods from my diet (to prevent autoimmune attacks) after my long history with anorexia that I had fought so long and hard to overcome, but I reminded myself of the clear distinction between diligently sticking to the necessary dietary treatment of a serious autoimmune disease and the controlling, unhealthy eating patterns (based just on mental choices) that characterized my eating disorder.
Besides missing some of my favorite foods, the improved quality of life was a welcome positive reinforcement of adhering to the celiac dietary protocol. However, as I approached the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, symptoms started returning with a vengeance. After many appointments with different specialists, many more food allergies and sensitivities cropped up and my health continued to decline. I’ve incurred many injuries and have had to significantly taper my running, even before my behemoth of an injury last winter with my foot.
There’s no way my body could physically support training for and running a marathon these days. It’s so far out of the realm of reasonable expectations that I cannot even allow myself to have it as a pipe dream. Watching the NYC Marathon filled me with feelings of loss: Loss for my old life, loss for vastly better physical health, loss of a less restrictive diet and the unencumbered ability to eat out, pre-trauma innocence, less pain in every sense of the word, and loss of a highly competitive and successful running career with a body that felt up to the demands.
Yesterday, I was again tempted by the allure of doing another marathon. A new, low-cost marathon in Massachusetts cropped up all over social media and I clicked on it, read it, and even filled in all my personal information. When the payment screen came up, I was thankfully jolted back to reality and closed the tab before going through with it. I cannot allow myself to dream about running a marathon; I need to be ok just running a little bit, if and when my body is up to it. Any racing that can be considered healthy for me will need to be incredibly short (5k/10k), very infrequent, and only if all body systems are a go.
The natural self-critic inside me in inclined to say that these are all petty complaints and minor losses, yet given my personality, passion for running, and the significance the sport has played in my life, it’s actually an enormous loss that necessitates a major perspective and mind shift. It’s also not just running in isolation that has changed; the physical reasons I must substantially reduce my running these days are widely impactful (beyond running) in my life. Almost every day, the pain in my body is a constant uncomfortable reminder and the daily digestive discomfort and dietary needs are an inescapable challenge. I’m not wallowing in self-pity, but it’s important for me to acknowledge the gravity of these changes and the strength and stoicism that I typically demonstrate in the face of these realities. I gain nothing by chiding myself for feeling “weak” or “pitiful” when I sit with grief over some of the struggles I face. As long as I continue to try to be optimistic and as adaptable as possible despite undesirable changes, I feel like I owe it to myself to be proud. Some things each of us face in our lives are so tough and practicing self-compassion is one of the hardest, but most important, parts of maintaining the resolve to endure these struggles.