When I purchased this book at Borders the check out girl smirked and ask, “are you an ultra marathon runner?”. I quickly responded with a sturdy “no way” and an accompanying hand gesture of dismissal. “Then why do read a book about ultra marathons, silly?” I could tell there was a little flirtation in the question but still, I hope people don’t judge me on my book purchases because last week I bought a book called Useless Knowledge. No, I told her that I read these books for pure entertainment. She raised her eyebrows, smiled and said, “a book on running, sounds like a blast.” I wished she would hurry and make the transaction.
The truth is I read books like these for a very personal reason. In 2002 I received an injury to my lungs in the military that not only cut my career short but took me from a professional athletic level to barely being able to climb stairs. I had damaged over 30 percent of my lower lung tissue and with months of therapy the doctors were convinced that I would be a severe asthmatic at best. I sank into a deep depression as I watched my buddies go off to war, some returning disfigured and some not returning at all. I felt a feeling of failure for the first time and that stuck with me for years. I tried to fill the void by hopping from one relationship to the next, each ending horribly. I changed careers over and over, never understanding why I had the urge to keep moving, thinking the grass had to be greener on the other side. My friends became distant and I stopped going to church all together. It was the typical surrender to life and my white flag was tied to the end of a beer bottle.
On one a particular day, when life had a strangle hold on me I combated it the same way I had always done before; I pulled into the local pub and drank. As I sat there I looked across the bar and saw the same faces expressing the same contentment for missing their opportunities in life. I looked up at the TV and became acutely aware that I could now read the lips of the anchors on CNN because the music from the pub always drowned out the volume of the TV. The smells from the kitchen reminded me of what day it was because each day had it’s own same special. It was a Friday that day because it smelled like wings, the typical Friday special. I recognized people’s stroll from my peripheral vision and knew exactly who they were. My hands and feet went cold and I realized my life was like two roads that diverged into the woods, and at that moment I took the one less traveled.
I threw a five dollar bill on the bar to cover my full Mich Ultra that I left and headed for the door. I didn’t say goodbye or turn for one last look, because I knew I wasn’t coming back so there was no point. I got into the car and turned off the radio because at this moment of clarity, Cinderella would have been simply white noise. Driving home is a blur and I had no plans for what to do with this ‘episode’ I was having. All I knew was that when I got home I would know what to do. And I did.
I ran through the front door, peeled of my work clothes, pulled on shorts and a t-shirt and stepped into my running shoes. Without even a second thought I sprinted out the door and ran. I can’t tell you what I was running for but I can tell you what I was running from. I ran from the guilt of many heartbroken girls as I drug out doomed relationships for fear of being left alone with my own demons. I ran from the memory of watching my buddy in the Army who was a rock, return from the battlefield without both legs and an arm. I should have been there with him. I ran from endless nights, drinking to extremes and driving home only to fall asleep in the driveway listening to the radio. I ran from everything and felt the faster I went the further away it would all be. And then my lung condition started to rear it’s ugly head.
It first feels like you are breathing with a sock in your mouth. Every breath is laboring and heavy as you try and fill the lungs. That repetitive struggle starts to exhaust your upper back and neck muscles, the tips of your fingers go numb and pretty soon the lack of oxygen that the lungs get, produce a build up of carbon dioxide in the muscles and cramps start to set it. For me that takes place relatively soon without the aid of a bronchial inhaler. But I never took that aid and when the doctors gave them to me in 2002, I threw them out on the way out of the hospital. Not smart, I know.
When my lungs started to contract and my quads to my hamstrings began to seize I could feel all my demons catching up. I became enraged. My breath became gasps and my strides became leaps as I ran faster. I ran without any technique and my breathing had no rhythm. To a passerby I probably looked as if I was being chased and really, I was. I would not stop until I gave the demons the slip or die on the side of the road. For the first time in years I felt like I hopped the fence of slavery, and even though it was symbolic, I was free. I had taken the wheel and now I was cruising on a road that wasn’t on any map.
Looking back at that pivotal point in my life, I have no idea how far I went. I do know how long I ran for. I ran from 6pm to 11pm. I know it was eleven because I stopped at a gas station to buy a drink and inquire where I ended up. It turns out I ran due north and I went seven exits up GA 400 through some fairly back wooded areas. My feet were torn to shreds, my ankles were swollen, I couldn’t hear very well out of my right ear and I had been coughing up blood for over an hour. Many would think I took a step closer to death but it was there that I found my life again. I was at a BP station north of Dawsonville, Georgia and that is where I took everything back again.
After I drank a few bottles of Gatorade and downed two turkey sandwiches (that was probably made the week prior) I hobbled down the road on the long trek home. I never thought about going home when I started; I just ran. Every inch of me hurt but with this pain came a new sense of self. I know that sounds like an Oprah moment but it was true. I hobbled all the way back to Roswell and at 9 in the morning I fell on the front yard. I picked myself up and barely made it to my door before I fell over again. This time I was a little nervous that I may have done something bad. I unlocked the door and crawled up the stairs to the bedroom shower, tuned on the cold water and crawled over the tub with clothes and shoes on. With the cold water running over me I drifted in and out of consciousness, cognoscente that there was blood steaming down my elevated legs from my shoes. It may have been ten minutes it may have been two hours but I finally turned off the water and pulled myself out of the tub and took hold of myself. I got undressed, peeled off my shoes and socks, revealing that I had done some considerable damage to both feet, and walked gingerly down the stairs to the kitchen and replenish what I had lost.
It took days to recover from that. I was still bleeding from my lungs days after but it didn’t deter me. I went running again. Everyday I left the comforts of the couch with Everybody Loves Raymond and Family Guy for the pain of the trail. The lungs began to burn less, the feet were constantly blistered but tougher, the legs became stronger and I started to find that I wasn’t actually running from my demons but dealing with them on my own terms.
Earlier this year I went to a pulmonary physician for a few tests to see how my lungs were. After my injury I never accepted that I had a handicap so going to another doctor just to reconfirm that I was disabled was not in the cards. But now I had a handle on life and in order to truly conquer my past I had to face things head on. He put me through every test they had including taking bronchial dilators to test the amount of air I can take in to a MRI to view the damaged tissue. After the tests were concluded I went home and waited two weeks for the test results. It was a long two weeks.
Well, the results came in and I went to the clinic to have a face to face. He sat down with me and showed me the folder with all my tests and a summery sheet. To make a long story short the test came out very good. I still only have 83% of undamaged lung tissue but with my running they expand to take in more oxygen. From what he explained, I had trained my body to adapt to my lifestyle. I can accept that.
I guess that little story would have been an overkill for the girl at the checkout counter at Borders but that is why I read books about running. It’s a sport that is the purest form of raw stamina and endurance. My runs bring me closer to God and I know myself better because every time I feel that I can’t take another step I know, I can. Running to me is a way to explain life. It isn’t suppose to be fun, it isn’t easy and sometimes it hurts like Hell, but it should. The rewards and accolades are completely intrinsic and the only person you need to impress is yourself.
I was planning on reviewing the book Ultra Marathon Man but I don’t think I will today. I will say that it is an amazing story of self determination and the will of Dean Karnazes is matched by no one I have ever heard of. Maybe Ernest Shackleton. Maybe. Anyway, I read the book in one sitting and I found myself at times pumping my fist in the air, getting caught up in the moment so I would suggest you read it from the privacy of your home. It is inspirational and the first part floored me because I felt like I was reading my own story.
So buy it, borrow it, check it out, do what you need to do. Just read it. You will take something away, I promise.
(This is also posted on Macabre Fitness)
EDIT: Someone emailed me and asked what my favorite tune is that I run to. Here it is, “Coffee & TV” from Blur. It’s on repeat for many miles. Plus the video kicks real ass.