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The Accidental Runner

My whole life, I told people “I’m not a runner.” When I was in the Air Force, we had to complete an annual 1.5 mile “run” with a minimum time requirement that essentially allowed you to briskly walk most of it, which I did.

I happened to married a runner. When he would do this marathon or that half marathon, or just mention to someone that he was going for a run, people often asked me, “Do you run, too?” “No!” I’d say, aghast. “I’M NOT A RUNNER!” That was often followed by a visible shudder at the thought. I grew up in a very inactive family.

When I was in basic training, I shattered my left ankle trying to produce a “heel beat.” If you are/were military, you know what I’m talking about. If not, a “heel beat” is actually the cadence of 50 to a 100 people all stepping at precisely the same time. As trainees, we were prodded to produce a “heel beat” by our Training Instructor (TI). Without any clarification on her part, we assumed she meant that we were supposed to slam our heel down hard at each “left” step to create the desired sound. Wrong. After half our flight came down with shin splints, swollen knee joints, or–as in my unfortunate case–fractures, the TI clued in and told us what we were doing wrong. Idiot.

Whether that incident or my inactive family background played into my aversion to running, I avoided it for decades. Then one day…

A few months after my 51st birthday, I had to get to the gym early on a Friday, which I try to avoid as it’s always packed. When I arrived, horror of horrors, EVERY SINGLE elliptical machine and stationary bicycle was occupied. There were only 2 treadmills still available and a couple of young men looked like they were headed there. I had no choice. I picked up my step and snagged the nearest treadmill. I needed to get in my 20 minutes of cardio to start my workout! I’d been tracking my activity level for quite a while by then, so I knew that just walking wouldn’t burn nearly the calories that the elliptical would. What else to do?  Well, I cranked up the speed on the treadmill and before I knew it, I had run for 20 minutes without stopping. I went way too fast, and was pretty out of breath by the end. However, when I stopped, I had this funny light-footed feeling. It was like I was walking on bouncy cushions for a few minutes. Cool. And I saw how many calories I burned. Wow.

I did it again one day the next week. On purpose. Without there being a need. I tried to be more controlled this time. I ran five minutes, walked one, ran 8, walked one, etc. A couple weeks later, I ran again for 20 minutes straight. I asked for tips from my lifelong runner husband. I worked my way up to a mile and half on the treadmill. I downloaded the Nike Running app on my iPhone.

By mid-September of last year, I started running outdoors. I never bothered to buy proper running shoes. Remember, I’m not a runner! I just wore the cross-trainers that I used at the gym and on the treadmill. This turned out to be one of the dumbest things I could have done. On September 29th, 2015, I got 1.5 miles into a run with my husband–fortunately just in our neighborhood–and had to stop because of a shooting pain in my right ankle. No, NOT the one I had shattered in the military. What the hell?! I walked back home and before I even showered, I called my podiatrist. Fortunately, they had a cancellation later that morning.

After chastising me for improper footwear, the podiatrist tried a couple of options to fix my strained perineal muscle and ultimately put me in an air cast for several weeks. At the end of that period, I eased back into more activity at the gym. However, my ankle still felt “tweaky.” Back at the podiatrist, he fitted me with orthotics made from a plastic that was developed by NASA. Cool, right?

In the interim, I got to my local running store and got tested and fitted for proper running shoes. Also, I worked with my trainer at the gym and had her design a program of ankle-strengthing exercises as well as exercises that would benefit a new runner in the long run. I added these exercises to the other regular gym workout.

The bottom line: the orthotics worked! Within days of being fitted with them, I was able to get back on the treadmill and start running again. I’ve been at it ever since. Last weekend, I ran my first 10K ever–that’s 6.22 miles–down at the trail on Lady Bird Lake.

And you know what? I guess I’m a runner after all, however accidentally it happened. What lessons have I learned in all of this? First, while a soft, cushioned treadmill run can be fine when wearing cross-training shoes for the newby runner, if you want to start running seriously outdoors, get yourself to a running store. Have a running specialist put you on a treadmill and check your stride to find you the right running shoes for your feet. There is nothing worse than sustaining an avoidable injury and screwing up your progress.

Second, just enjoy it. Don’t put pressure on yourself to run fast or increase a run distance too soon. Hell, there are days when all I can manage is an 11’30″/mile pace. And that’s okay. I’m not a competitive runner. I will probably never be one. I just run for me. Like a workout at the gym, I’ve discovered that a run is a great way to get out of your own head, de-stress, and burn a bunch of calories. Just going to the gym or just running are okay, but combining them is ideal. Both are important for your overall health. You use different muscles and strengthen different parts of your body with each activity.

Third, don’t let anyone make you believe you are too old to start running, whatever your age. There is no age limit to becoming a runner. My podiatrist told me after my injury, “You know, people don’t START running in their 40s, they stop.” My reply? “I’m 51!” Whenever I’ve repeated that story, people tell me he’s crazy and then list all the people they know who all started running in their 50s. Just be sure to do it smarter than I did, okay? Don’t get injured.

Before I started running, I was a regular gym user for many years. Typically, I go to the gym 3 days a week for about an hour each day. Now, I’ve added about 3 days a week to run. Running is faster. I can knock out 3 miles in about half an hour now. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, however. I began by increasing my runs by .25 to .5 mile every week or two. If you aren’t currently active, though, seriously, talk to your doctor first. Make sure you are healthy enough to start any activity. You may literally need to walk before you can run.

Finally, if you get to the point where you find joy in running, you’ll discover it’s an activity that is easy to do wherever you are, whether from home, on a business trip, or on vacation. Inclement weather? You can still run on a treadmill. Wake up to a gorgeous morning? There’s nothing better than starting your day off with an outdoor run.

Late One Friday Night

It was 11:10 pm on a Friday night. And it sucked. My husband was away at a conference in Dallas. I’d just spent most of the day in the hospital with my mom, whose blood pressure had spiked enough to concern a home-health person. The home-health person called Mom’s PCP (that’s Primary Care Physician, for those of you not “hip” enough yet to know all the hospital lingo!). PCP said to take her to the ER. Day lost.

But did I mention that the REASON Mom ended up in the ER was because the PCP had her on a heart-stressingly high dose of sodium chloride WITHOUT CONSULTING her cardiologist first? Turns out that excess sodium (even in one who is deficient), when a heart patient, can fuck you up.

From ER, they “got her a bed” (euphemism for checking her into the hospital for observation and testing) where she would stay for the next two days. “Med tweaks” is the term of the day in situations like this. As in, “let’s keep her for a day or two, run some tests, and see if we can ‘tweak’ her meds to get her stable again.” They don’t call it a medical “practice” for nothing, folks. Trial and error–often, more error than trial–seems to be the norm.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, on the day of this particular drama, ‘rebarbative’ was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day (it means “repellant or irritating”). I find the U.S. medical establishment to be rebarbative. Like when I try to get one doctor to communicate with another…over and over again. And it never happens. Or to get my mom’s PCP to talk to me…ever, let alone in plain English.

Now, I appreciate slinging big words around occasionally like the rest of us, but I do try to know my audience. I’ve found that the majority of doctors fail spectacularly at this. There was about a decade, as I recall, when the medical community caught on and started using laymen’s terms when communicating with patients and their families.

I call this “The Doctor” effect, from the 1991 film of the same name. Sadly, it didn’t last. Only two of my parents’ many doctors communicate well (frequently using clear terms and explaining whatever 80-character medical terms they spew when relaying a diagnosis).

Oh, and did I mention that Mom has mild dementia? You’ve read about Dad’s issues with late-onset Alzheimer’s, but Mom was also diagnosed in December 2014. I recently learned (during yet another ER visit) that every year you live past age 90, your likelihood to develop dementia increases by 50% (of whatever your likelihood would be based on your individual prognosis).

Essentially, when you have someone with dementia and they end up in the ER, you have two possible outcomes. They either understand why they are there. Or they do not. Frankly, you never know when you get the call, which parent you will meet in the ER. Will it be the one who felt unwell and knows why she was brought to the hospital? Or rather, will it be the one who felt unwell and upon arrival at the hospital is confused, combative, has no understanding of why she has been brought here, complains she is fine and wants to go home? It’s always a crap shoot. That’s the reason a family member needs to be present.

When people take medications routinely, it is critical that hospitals and doctors know what those medicines are so that they do not prescribe something that may negatively react with a current med. It could be fatal which is, you know, bad! Now, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a nurse or doctor ask Mom whether her meds have changed. Her standard answer is “no,” which is simply not true. Mom has no idea if her meds have changed. She doesn’t manage them. I do. I’ve asked her to respond with, “I don’t know,” and to give them the meds list that I keep up-to-date and with her at all times. She doesn’t do that, of course, because dementia.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last few months. Among them, I have to force the PCP to confer with the cardiologist whenever medication adjustments are thought to be needed. I have to constantly communicate with the home health staff who look in on my folks weekly so that they understand what “normal” looks like for a cardiac patient–in Mom’s case, 148 BP is just fine. Over 200 can now be managed with meds. If that doesn’t work, THEN ER.

Another important lesson is that I have to take care of me as well. Too often, we caregivers put aside our own needs. But we’re helping no one when we do that. So, after one week where I had TWO ER/hospital events with Mom, I got a massage at a nearby spa to de-stress. After another recent ER trip that had me up at 1 am and back home by 7, I scheduled a mani-pedi. The point is, as a caregiver, I matter, too.

If I’m not whole and healthy, I’m no use to those I advocate for.