I’m a runner. Well, I used to be. Maybe I still am, but it doesn’t feel like it so much anymore.
I’ve been running since college, I kept at it in my years overseas, and whenever I was back in the US one of my deepest joys was going for long runs down tree-lined roads in rural southern DE wearing shorts – a delight I couldn’t partake in where I lived in North Africa. These early morning runs in the summer heat were deeply life-giving for me.
I loved to run because it made me feel strong, capable. Whatever else was going on in a day, if everything else had gone to pot, if I got a run in it felt like the day hadn’t been a waste. Whatever I could or couldn’t accomplish in a day, if there was a run in it I still felt strong, like I was enough.
For years I ran something like 4-5 miles, 5 or 6 days a week. I didn’t run in many races, but I did place in the few I did compete in. My pace was steady, my short legs practiced and obedient, and I’d throw on a sports bra most mornings thrilled to hit the pavement.
Then, over 4 years ago, the pain hit. The start of a chronic illness that ebbs and flows, that steals and destroys, that forces me to confront that which I’d rather not confront. It makes me keep showing up when I want to hide and it has wildy, rudely, disrupted my life.
I still run. I can’t not stop. When so much has been lost, so much has crumbled around me, I find myself gripping with white knuckles onto running. I can’t lose this too.
Please, God. Not this too.
I’m not sure if running makes me feel strong anymore. Now it mostly feels like something I’m trying to do instead of something I do. Something I attempt instead of something I excel in. I lace up now unsure, nervous, hoping for a good one, knowing, though I’ll never go as far as I’d like, that I’ll likely wear out too quickly. The pain makes my insides very sore sometimes, I’m not always as recovered as I think I am after a flare-up. These days I’m forever unsure when I start if my desperate, hopeful jogs are making me stronger or in fact weaker.
Now, on good weeks I get three runs in. Usually there’s only one good week in a month. Maybe two. These three runs are usually less than two miles each. Every two months or so I get a euphoric 3.5 mile run in. But even in good weeks these days my weekly mileage taps out around 5 miles or so. And a pretty slow 5 miles at that. This makes me feel ashamed, embarrassed. I know there’s no need for that. No one is judging me really except for myself.
But it is a loss. Another thing my illness has taken, another thing that reminds me I’m not as strong as I once was. Another day I’m reminded my body is not what it once was. The first year or two of the pain I thought I’d get it back. Now I know the pain has a name but no cure and I’m trying desperately to not lose it completely.
Before, when running was as much in my daily routine as breakfast, there was one day a week or so that I really did not want to run. My legs would feel heavy, I’d feel bored. Once in a while I’d call it, turn around early. Head back to the house after what felt like a measly two miles. Usually I’d push through and be really happy that I did.
I never know how or when I can push myself anymore. I can’t trust it. For a while when the pain first started, I’d still push through on my runs. I was determined I wouldn’t lose the one thing that made me feel consistently strong. So, I would push. But there would be a price.
I’d get splitting headaches in the afternoons. My fatigue would get even worse. Instead of my morning runs energizing me they’d sap me for the next 2 days, or longer. So I had to stop pushing. I’ve settled for short, slow runs, and I stop, usually, if it feels like too much.
Now I rarely push it and I hate that. These days I weigh what else is going on in a day – if I can risk being wiped out by a measly run. I used to push and there was no cost. Now there is. I have to weigh it each time I lace up my running shoes. Should I try? Should I push through? Should I not go at all? What needs to be done tonight, tomorrow? Will I be alright, do I think?
A loved one asked recently if I wanted to train for a half marathon together. Years ago, I declined because I didn’t have the time. Now I physically can’t. My body couldn’t handle it. I’m 33 and maybe that chance is gone. This infuriates me and that’s ok, but I’ve got to be something other than mad at myself, at my body.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about making peace with this broken body of mine. I’m still grieving, I’m still angry. I’m still in pain. I’m finding my threshold for the amount of pain I can endure is ever-increasing and it scares me.
But I’ve got to figure out ways to deal with my life, to find serenity and peace with what I’ve got (which is, admittedly, still a pretty sweet, incredible joy of a life).
How do I make peace with a body that causes me severe pain? That makes me cancel plans, lets down people I love, causes pain for those I love, limits my work and my energy? How do I make peace with a body that used to make me feel strong and now won’t stop reminding me how weak I can be?
Chronic illness has made me loathe my body in ways that scare me sometimes. I want to believe with all my heart that all bodies are good bodies but I don’t know how to resolve that with bodies that turn on us and can cause unspeakable pain.
How do I make peace with a body that protected me and now feels like it forsakes me? How do I make peace when I’m still running around doctors to help manage that which has no conventional cure? How do I make peace when I’m scared and know more pain is coming? How can I love this body that keeps bringing me to my knees when I so desperately just want to run?
I’m not sure really but I’m trying something new because I can’t keep curling myself in to a ball and sobbing into my pillow because it feels as though my own body is unravelling and me along with it every few weeks.
I’m telling myself this, “I can do in a day what I can do in a day.” And that’s it.
It’s simple really, though perhaps it isn’t.
I’ve always been one for ambitious (some might say unreasonable) to-do lists. Usually when I look at these lists at the end of a day or the end of a week or weekend anxiety settles in my chest and I think to myself, “I should have done more! I should have done more!” I feel the shame of being capable of less than I used to be, ashamed of my smaller contributions to the world and my own household and I’m disappointed and anxious.
Turns out, wouldn’t you know it, this pattern is unhelpful. This tension, anxiety, disappointment, maybe even shame, sure doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t whittle down the to-do list or help me or my family in any way. It just makes me cry, makes me mad at my own body, and this is not what I need. This sure doesn’t help me feel strong.
So now I’m looking at my lists, as naively ambitious as ever, and accepting that I can do in a day what I can do in a day. I’m limited. I’m doing my best. Some days I’m able to do very little. Some days, I’m still able to surprise myself and do all I’d hoped. But whatever it is, I can do in a day what I can do. And that’s it. No anxiety, no praise, no blame. I haven’t yet achieved this realm of higher thinking with consistency, but I’m trying.
And when I do run, when I am able to, I try to be grateful that I can at all. However slow, however short. My body hasn’t failed me yet. I’m still here. I can only run how far I can run in a day.
And that’s it and maybe, soon, someday, I’ll believe that is enough, that I am enough, that this broken body is still enough.
Jessie · October 22, 2019 at 2:33 pm
This is so beautiful, Beth. Thanks for taking the time write out the pain that you are processing. You have endured a lot, and look at your persevering to create beauty out of heartache. You’ve encouraged me today as I am tempted towards hopelessness as deal with similar issues, though not as intense as yours. I admire you and always look forward to read what you write.
Beth Watkins · October 28, 2019 at 5:24 pm
Thank you so much, Jessie! I have my days of hopelessness too, and whatever you are dealing with is worthy of whatever feelings you are feeling about it. Thank you for your kind words, I appreciate it so much.
linda mcgee · January 3, 2020 at 5:30 pm
I can relate fully. I have fought with my ego for 20 years and it has gotten me nowhere. I was a serious athlete and now I can only do what I can do in a day too. I have caused a lot of pain for my family by complaining and beating the drum of “this shouldn’t be” .I know it’s time to get to know who “I” is. Who said I shouldn’t hurt? Who said it should not have happened this way? The only peace I am finding is be ing the wise observer and knowing that the body and these thoughts are not me. I am learning to be ok with what is and to forgive myself for all I have put this body through. Identifying with this egoic life is called suffering. Unconditonal love is loving myself with no conditons. minds get free…bodies don’t. I know I talking to myself…thanks for listening!
Beth Watkins · January 4, 2020 at 4:35 pm
I’m so sorry for your suffering and thank you for sharing these thoughts. Wishing you grace and peace.