Six years ago, when I started this blog, I made that tagline “A Running Odyssey” because I thought it sounded catchy and made me seem smart. Never mind that twice I’ve spelled it wrong in the header graphic and continue to have to look the word up whenever I write it. Spellcheck woes aside, what I never imagined was that I actually would be going on one.
I’m going to tell you the conclusion to the health thing that started a year ago last March. It’s a story I’ve been sitting on, wanting to make 100% positive sure that This. Is. It. before I went spouting off once more on a hunch. It’s amazingly simple when all is said and done, and here’s how it goes…
For over a year, I’ve continued to have the leg weirdness on many of my runs (for those just tuning in: bouts of strange stiffening where my right leg would become uncoordinated). I would have short stretches of days where I’d think it was on its way out and was even considering doing a marathon this Fall, but then I’d have a series of bad runs that would leave me feeling defeated again.
May arrived, the weather was warming up and on one of those defeated runs, I just wanted to walk. Not a whole lot, just to stop, walk a few yards and then resume. This would appear to be such an obvious non-event, but being the somewhat “serious runner” I’ve considered myself to be, stopping to walk a few steps had always been anathema to me. After all, walking = weakness and once that starts, it’s a slippery slope to where it’ll become a habit and there goes your training OMG I might as well just sit on the couch for a week No! make that forever and Jesus Christ, it’s official, I’m never going to run again. Fucking ridiculous.
Mulling this whole thing over for a few days and realizing how utterly senseless that twisted perspective was, logic eventually won out. I would allow myself to walk, BUT, I would have to stop wearing the Garmin.
Now, aside from maybe 4 runs, I’ve been wearing a Garmin since before I even finished Couch-To-5K, while I was still “learning” how to run. It’s been a fun and incredibly useful player in my running experience but now, with the walking idea, I knew that seeing the numbers in my running log get all skewy would not make me happy, so on May 12th, I stopped wearing the Garmin.
Watchless, not even checking a clock before I leave the house for almost 2 months, I’ve had absolutely no idea how fast I run which has been entirely therapeutic. And for a couple weeks, I did take occasional short walk breaks, and it was good! Mainly, I needed to teach myself that I could walk, that it was “legal”, and the world would not come crashing down. That was the first big thing.
The 2nd big thing, and this was a BIG thing, that coincidentally happened just days after I dropped the Garmin, was that I found the name for my symptoms. I’m sure you can imagine I never stopped researching my health weirdness. While I always had an underlying worry that it was a brain or organ thing (thanks to that totally unnecessary liver operation) I mainly just wanted one single thing that I could say “YES, those are my symptoms!” And after all this time, I finally found it, to a T.
Well, almost to a T, because what I found concerns musicians: Task Specific Focal Dystonia. It’s a movement disorder that, for musicians, interferes with the ability to play their instrument because their fingers or hands (organists get it in their feet) becomes temporarily stiff and uncoordinated (often described as feeling paralyzed). It’s not painful at all, but feels like your limb is a foreign thing you can’t control. The “Task Specific” part means it only happens when doing the specific thing – in a musician’s case, playing their instrument and in mine, running – while at all other times, the limb feels and works perfectly normally.
It generally shows itself after a period of heavy practice and the common progression is that the sufferer will feel the weirdness, blame it on tiredness but as it gets worse, try to rehearse their way through it, working even harder to try and push themselves clear of it. All that does is make the nerve to limb connection even stronger which then makes it even harder to get rid of. So my pushing through the stiffness in attempts to “defy” it was stupid but the reason I say “coincidentally” above, is that my instinct about needing to walk was exactly the right thing to do for myself. Which brings me to the biggest and best revelation, #3.
While scouring a musicians dystonia forum, someone mentioned a book by Dr. Sarno, a professor of rehabilitation medicine at NYU School of Medicine, called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection“, though the title is deceptive because it’s about the entire body, not just our backs. Anyway, if you search his name on the web, you’ll find a ton of interesting stuff on his work, a great interview with Howard Stern (who thinks the man is God) and an excellent piece on 20/20.
Bottom line, my issue originated from one mundane thing: anxiety. I never would have known this, since I don’t see myself as an anxious or stressed person, but once I learned what anxiety actually is, the constant negative monologues in my head, the dread and fear I’d attached to running (will this be a good day or a bad one?) it all made complete sense.
A little over a week after reading the book, my 6-month hip/back issue that had continued to waft in and out of my life disappeared completely, never to be felt again. It was magical. However, as he warns, I got a hammy niggle soon after, which I knew was just my brain looking for some other physical problem to concentrate on.
One thing I should mention concerning mind-body, is that this is not the same as hypochondria, there’s nothing imaginary about it: my hip/back pain was real, the leg stiffening is real, the neurological tests I flunked in the hospital (I had no way of knowing what was being observed so could not have gamed it, even subconsciously) were real. So while I was over-the-moon-relieved to find out it was just anxiety because it meant this was all within my control (so incredibly huge), “just” anxiety does not diminish it because it’s still something that needs fixing…but it is so very fixable!
I ended up reading 3 of his books and then a funny old book that’s highly recommended for beating anxiety, though it’s hilarious because it’s from the 50′s so she references gramophones and shock therapy (but seriously, if you have an anxious bone in your body, read it!), Claire Weekes’ “Hope And Help For Your Nerves“. Her main message is that when you feel anxiety coming on, don’t fight it, it won’t get worse than what you’ve experienced so far, so accept it, ride it, and let it fade out. So simple but so opposite of the natural impulse to get freaked out and try to resist.
Between these two books, it was as if a vice has been released from my brain, leg and heart. Another great one that made a big impact was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, “Wherever You Go, There You Are” which is a fantastic book about mindfulness. It got me on a meditation kick (I lasted about 3 weeks of doing it intensely before petering out, but I still consider it a great tool to have). Here’s a great video of him speaking to employees at Google (which will also totally make you wish you worked at Google).
I also read a fair amount of stuff on Buddhist sites because the source of it all, when I really got down to it, was that old frienemy of mine, Ego: attachments to what I expect of myself, comparisons to others, self-induced peer-pressure…completely useless, unnecessary mind garbage. To realize the truth of this was, and remains, incredibly empowering.
Where does this leave me now? Infinitely better. The quality of my runs has improved tremendously, my leg stiffness has been in hiding for a good while and some signposts I used to judge by have been clear for a few weeks. I do still get anxious moments but I recognize them for what they are and can roll my eyes at them as they fade out – not a shred of fear about it being anything more worrisome. I haven’t wanted to walk in weeks (though I could if I wanted and that’d be cool) but even beyond that, I’m learning that it’s ok to not run for a day, two days, even three in a row! No fitness will be lost, no couches will come calling. I do keep track of my mileage, generally doing 30-40ish a week, but not reaching for a specific amount. I also have no idea how far I’m going to run until I’m outside and I have no plans to strap a Garmin back on anytime soon.
Also, I won’t be racing this year at all. The sole thing I need right now is to have a clear, unfettered mind when I’m out on the path, zero pressure. Thoughts of training and racing can be entertained again only after the anxiety blips are a distant memory. That might mean next Spring or it might be 3 years from now, it really doesn’t matter.
In the end, it’s been an odyssey of the highest order. In all my many years, I’ve never had so much reflection and self-discovery as I’ve had these past 15 months, so I can’t be sad or resentful for any of it, I’m grateful for learning more about what I’m composed of and for getting to recompose some of myself, too. In fact, I guess this isn’t the end at all, just some sorely needed closure for a long, complicated chapter.
And so the journey continues…