Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black Warrior 50K - 2/19/11

I love my legs. They are long for my 5-ft and 3.5-in frame. And thanks to chemotherapy, hardly any hair remains on them. In the past, the thigh muscles bulged in the right places, the hamstrings had long and thick muscular ridges, and the calves were tight as a drum. Long gone are the beautiful muscles that I worked so hard over decades to maintain. They moved fast at the 2007 Black Warrior 50K in 7:32:39. They moved slow this year in 10 hours. They started one hour and 30 minutes sooner than the remainder of the field, and time wise, they will still be listed as the last finisher of the race. I like to say that my legs enjoyed the trails longer than anyone else's legs, lol.

And what a beautiful trail, even with all the roots, rocks, stream crossings, small ups and downs, and horse poop. It's a runnable course, if your legs are in shape. My legs are not. My legs don't lift like they once did. They are like dead weights. They try, but after a while, fatigue sets in. And then they do what I call a shuffle. My feet barely clear the ground, and I pump my arms to propel my body forward. It's wasted energy, I know, but I can't help it. Oxygen doesn't get to the leg muscles to make them work. I feel like I'm running at altitude. I huff and puff trying to get air into the lungs, but the air gets caught some how, and it doesn't make it down to the legs. I have to be careful, because now, the dizzy spells are pretty frequent throughout the day. The fight to breathe makes my throat raw. My high-pitched girlish voice turns into a raspy, male voice. I always wanted more alto in my voice like Gladys Knight, but this sound that comes from my throat is not what I had in mind. I now wish I had that irritating high-pitch back. I can't get air through my noise either, because of the small blood clots that I blow out periodically. I always have a stuffy and runny nose these days. I carried wet wipes with me to take care of this problem during the race. The blood clots are really bad in the morning and then they taper off during the day.

I miss running. I really do. When the field caught up to me, I watched as runners who had taken the regular start, cruised by me as I stepped aside on the single track trail. I did not want to impede their progress. Some spoke as they passed. Some were silent as they concentrated on the task at hand. I truly envied them. Even in my running days, I did not move as effortless as they did, but at least, I was running. Now, I am so embarrassed by my awkward movements that when someone comes along to pass me, I discontinue my shuffle and walk instead. The shuffle is a pitiful sight, but if I'm walking, maybe the other runners will think that I'm taking a little break from the running. The walk and the shuffle are about the same speed at 3 miles an hour, so it really doesn't matter which one I do. When I am breathing comfortably and no one is in sight, I shuffle again. I am so very, very tired and wonder how I will ever make it to the next aid station, not to mention the finish line. And after a few strides down the trail, I am back to huffing and puffing and then I walk for a long way.

I should quit. I know I should. It's not fun any more. It's not fun to struggle at something you love. I've always said that when I stopped having fun at running, I would quit and take up another hobby. But that was before I knew that it would not be an easy thing to do. It's difficult to break an 18-year habit. I'm having a hard time giving up the idea of running. My legs were made to run, but they can't now. No matter how hard I push them, they will not lift. It's the cancer and the treatments for the cancer that are trying to force me to quit. I think if I was quitting for any other reason, it wouldn't be such a difficult choice. I feel like my hands are being forced, and I don't like being pushed in a corner. I always come out fighting. It's the Tiger in me. So I struggle on, shuffling when I can, walking when I can't, and most of the time, huffing and puffing for air. I have to keep going. I just have to. Cancer can not be the reason for quitting.

My right hip has been hurting again, so my shuffle is more of a Quasimodo move. It looks like I'm dragging the right leg behind me. But my most recent CT Scan on Monday was stable. Stable. If stable was on Facebook, I would "like" it. I have been waiting almost four years to hear that word. The little bit of chemotherapy that I've been able to handle (and stay on) has been working. In almost four years, this was the first scan that showed no progression. Stable gives me hope. After stable, maybe regression will follow. After regression, maybe I will get to dance with NED (no evidence of disease). I am assuming that we are on the upswing. I am so grateful. Black Warrior 50K was my reward (and punishment) to my body and mind for doing so well.

Keith, the race director, allowed Andy (FL) and me to start the race early. I kept up with Andy for the first 8 miles, before he found his groove. He has been having back problems, but he says that he does better if he starts off really slow so that his back warms up and then he increases his pace. Other than that, I was alone most of the day. The weather was a little warm. Everyone wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts, while I sported long tights and a long-sleeved shirt. I tied my jacket around my waist and stuffed my gloves into the pockets when it became too warm, but I was pretty comfortable all day. Another runner asked if I was hot in all of my gear. How do you explain without getting into a deep conversation about your health issues? I usually say that I'm just not running as fast as everyone else, so I'm not overheating at all. But for some reason, I wanted her to know that I was cold most of the time because of the chronic anemia. But maybe she didn't understand the symptoms of anemia, and I just confused her. I should have just stuck with the lack of speed answer. It was also the truth.

I didn't eat a lot at the aid stations, although they had plenty of food. My stomach feels so full these days. I eat a lot of small meals throughout the day, but I'm not losing any weight. Nothing tastes good to me. The chemotherapy has killed the taste buds. A potato chip tastes the same as a cookie. I'm just going through the motions of chewing and swallowing. I drank a lot of Mountain Dew to combat some of the fatigue, but it didn't last long. A mile or two outside of an aid station, and I was dragging again.

I am still waiting for the nail on my right big toe to fall off. The nail has partially separated from the toe bed, and it's dark and ugly. It hurts on some of the down hills as it hits against the top of the shoe and feels even worse when I stumble into a root or rock. The tips of my fingers underneath the nails, which are a light purple, are really sore some days, too. Today is no exception. I squeeze my hands into little balls to calm the tingling sensation throughout the day.

Emotionally, I was happy. I was amazed that my legs were working. It was a good feeling. I was out in the forest, enjoying the day, shuffling when I could, encouraging the runners who passed me, joking with the horse people, and giving them the right of way on the trails. They were all very courteous to us runners who were invading their trails for a day. They were impressed that we were running 31 miles that day. Ten hours passed quickly. Despite my struggles, it really was a beautiful day to be out on the trails. I would rather be here than at home on my couch with my feet up watching senseless television.

At the start of the race, we are on a dirt and gravel road for about 2.5 miles before we hit the single track trails. At the end of the race, we run that same road again down to the finish. Towards the end of my races, I always have a little talk with God. While I shuffled and walked the last 2.5 miles to the finish, I thanked him for allowing me to arrive safely, for a beautiful day, wonderful trails, friendly volunteers, Keith for allowing me to take an early start so that I would get an official finish time, and Andy for keeping me company for the first 8 miles. Most of all, I thanked Him for allowing my legs to move 31 miles that day. And then on that lonely dirt road, after 10 hours, after willing my body forward, exhausted from the effort, the tears flowed uncontrollably and I cried. I'm still here, I told God. Thank you, God, I'm still here.