Friday, July 25, 2008

Running on Empty

The price of so many things has gone through the roof. Gallons of everything, from milk to gasoline are at record highs. My weekly grocery bill is the same as the GNP of some small developing nations. It’s mid-summer, and cucumbers are over $1. EACH. I can almost hear my mother clucking her disapproval and saying "Highway robbery." It is becoming more and more difficult and costly to fill our tanks both mechanical and physical.

Then there is our psychic tank. Running has always served me as the proper fuel, a way to recharge my flagging internal battery, lift my spirits, and provide an outlet for my stress, anxiety, and temperamental moods. When I started running a few years ago, I used to joke that I did it so I wouldn’t be relegated to the scourge of dumpy soccer moms everywhere: the dreaded pleated jeans. My vanity led me to discover the more substantive rewards the sport offers beyond wearing the cool pair of Lucky Brand jeans hanging in my closet. Some runs were not geared for anything more than to “bleed the pipes”. I’d start out angry or sad or pissed off at some offense - real or imagined - and feel reborn by turning up the volume on the iPod and running as hard as I could. It was almost always fun, the simple fun I remember from running down empty school halls without some monitor demanding my pass and telling me to slow down. It rarely failed to put a smile on my face.

I don’t think I ever took running for granted. I’d had enough injuries that put me on the sidelines and I was all too aware of what I was missing. Recently, my running has been a challenge in so many ways. My slowly degenerating thyroid - under attack by my own body – isn’t functioning as it should, and I frequently feel tired, my heart rate measurably higher, and my muscles feeling shot. What used to be an easy recovery run 8 weeks ago now feels like the last 5 miles of a marathon. My legs are heavy from nearly the start, there is little or no spring in my step. My heart rate starts to rise quickly and steadily, 140, 150, 160…and within a mile and a half is nearing 170, a number I usually see after repeated hard half-mile intervals, a tempo run at 10k race pace, or a long steep hill climb. The effort is palpable. But I’m going slow – 2 full minutes slower than my “hard run” days, topography chosen to deliberately avoid inclines. These days, the velocity of my heart is tied inversely to my spirits: they ride the same see-saw with one rising, the other falling in perfect tandem. Everyday is a struggle. Running is no longer fun.

I still keep running and try and find some grander purpose or lesson (“this will be great mental training for the last 10k of the next marathon – I’ll be so mentally tough!”) but even that has an element of looking forward to when I feel better, and I have no clue when that will be. It is yet another reminder of how hard these days are. In some ways, my body has become a lover who has abandoned me; I feel oddly betrayed. I have no idea when these days will be behind me, and for now I’m left without that which makes me feel better spiritually. Running has become a double agent, sabotaging my happiness and giving secrets to the enemy: It is a source of stress. I’ve taken to inserting walk breaks when my heart rate spikes, and while I’m trying to mentally coax my heart beat down – watching and cheering the falling numbers on my monitor – another inner voice chides this; walking just feels like surrender.

I find myself envying my kids. I watch my sons cut through the water during a swim meet race, overflowing with energy and the ability to recover in the time it takes to chug a Gatorade. I look at them and think “I wish…” But I’ve also learned enough in this life to understand the danger of spending too much time looking backward, pressing some mental rewind button because the fact is there are no do-overs in this life when it comes to the days ticking off the calendar. I have only the here and now and there are no guaranteed tomorrows. In five or ten years I hope to be able to reflect on this time, and don’t want to say “I wish… if only I’d…” I only hope I can be strong enough today – right now – to mitigate if not wholly prevent regret tomorrow. I need to do my best to live ‘in the moment’. I’ll have hope that in the future my body responds quickly to the medication. That the overworked muscle in my chest will be humming efficiently, my muscles and spirits will follow suit, and I can look to the sky and say “Thank you for this day” and really mean it.

When I used to feel my motivation flagging, I’d think of a fall race: the smell of autumn leaves mixed with Ben Gay, the current of anticipation at the starting line, the rush of possibility. I could get addicted to the feeling of crossing the line after a great race. Today, I miss that. But I miss more the simple feeling of being able to crank out a last fast mile on a training run, to climb a hill and whisper “I own you”, to race Father Time and feel he’s outgunned, to run and not need to look to the past for inspiration, but to find it right there, in that moment.

My mission, my goal has become much more humble. On the days where my physical and mental tanks – which are so interdependent – are approaching “E”, I’ll summon all my discipline to look neither backward nor too far ahead. I’ll focus solely on the challenge of that moment. And I’ll hope - with every beat of my heart - that it’ll be enough.


Masters Lurker said...

"Walking feels like surrender." It isn't. Maybe it is just a time in your life when it is a smart thing to do. Hard for a type "A" to hear. You have pushed your body hard in the last few years, including ending up in a medical tent or was it the hospital (I am old, I forget:-)).

Give your body a break and let it heal. Just walk (and not type "A" powerwalking).You made it to Boston. Most don't. Reflect and heal and start a new running life (it doesn't have to be hard driving racing) when you are well enough.

Masters Lurker

Deck Ape said...

Your body feels like a lover that has betrayed you... That is so poetic. I have to remember to use that one... :D

fvbabashak said...

Thank God you're back, my friend! Your writing inspires all of us lucky enough to read it. I went back and reread some of my favs. Of course, Kleenex were involved.

Anonymous said...

You will find the right meds and it will be like you are a new Monica. Given that positive outlook and a stick-with-it attitude are 50% of success with running, you are bound to make a comeback. What is that saying...Pain is for the moment..."victory" is forever? Victory comes in many forms. So, just keep plugging along, looking for a medical resolution, and Boston will be there for you when you are ready. In the meantime, the older you get, the slower your qualifying time gets! Now, THAT's a positive way to look at it. Stay true to your positive spin. Your head sure is on straight. Your friend in chatter and running. Jen R.

Gettin Older said...

I just typed a long heartfelt response to your essay. But Blogger was down and it all dis-appeared.

I have your blog linked to mine and I was so happy this afternoon to look and see "2 hours ago" instead of "5 months ago" in the last updated field. I was getting concerned about you and was going to wait until you were in Starbuck's or some other loud place and give you a call this weekend when my cell phone is free.

I learned a simple prayer a while back from a really wise person. I still use it often either before or after a run. It is just a sentence. "Thank you Lord for this day." Since I'm normally an early morning runner, it puts me in a good frame for the rest of the day. If I happen to be running at night, it is a suitable ending for the day as well.

You and your effusive encouragement when I started back to running are high on the list of reasons that I am still running and still posting on RWOL. I may never be able to grab that BQ Brass Ring, but that will not stop me from reaching for it. I want you to know that walking or even taking a break from running is not a defeat. Running should be a joy, it should not be a chore.

While you are getting your meds adjusted, I might be a good time to work on strength training instead of Cardio work. It will make you a better runner when you are able to return to the running that you love.

Please keep in touch. You are allowed draw from the group as well as putting in. You have been helping to refill a lot of us for a long time. It is OK to come to us and get a refill as well. We both know several people who have continually and amazingly been able to work well with the hand that they have been dealt. I have seen that in you as well.

Blessing s and (((huggs)))


runnergeel said...

Hey geel,
boy I've got to give it to you. you are strong so strong that I am in awe of you once again. A bump in your road that it seems you are gonna kick it's butt to the curb! press on are the one person that can do this.
PS I think I miss you so much these days. Maybe I should come here more often.
big Hugs and lots of love your way

Anonymous said...

As someone who had to admit the thyroid issue, denying and eating soy by the pound to try and holistically deal with it, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I accepted the script, went to a specialist and am ramping up for another attack on the BQ. It's hard to adjust, but it will. You are a fighter. I saw three MD's before I found one that KNEW I had to feel good enough to run, and worked with me. (My hair stopped falling out so fast too...!) Wonderful blog Moonie ! A thanks to you !! G2G

Margaret said...

Wow! Your writing is remarkable. There must be a book in the works one day. I am so sorry to hear about your health. After all the hours of talks we have had I didn't no you were struggling. Take care of you.

JohnTheDork said...


You will always be considered one of my gurus both in running and in life. I have so much admiration for you. I admire your grit, determination, search for excellence and purpose, dedication, courage, fortitude, fitness and of course, your kindness. Life definitely is very unpredicatable and I am so sorry you are having a tough time physically and emotionally. Just remember Monica, that you are the embodiment of a runner. You run in such a way as to always challenge yourself and to always seek the pinnacle of possibilities. When all is said in done in life, the times we ran for the mile, the marathon, etc. won't mean much. You can take comfort in the fact that it's not the speed of your runs that makes you so special, it's the constant pursuit of excellence and heart that you put into your running as well as life itself and to your family. Just wanted to let you know that I am as proud of you running a 3:40 marathon as I would if you ran/walked a 5:30 marathon because it's what's inside your heart and soul that can never be taken away from you no matter what your body says. What's inside you defines you as the runner and person that you truly are and will be the person that you will always be remembered as.


Anonymous said...

Boston Billy,

Running is very simply mind over matter, if you don't have a mind it don't matter. In your case we are not sure. But let me share with you some words of wisdom:
1# Stop your complaing
2#If you can't or won't run with the Big Dogs just stay on the porch.
3# Go hard or stay home, any questions refer to 2# above.
4# Group pain is the drug of choice for long distance runners.

See you soon, on Thursday AM. You can turn left with me.

John Fenton said...

Monica, That was beautifully written and very moving. One of your best. (You really do have a flair for capturing emotion in your writing.)

I'm glad you had a "good" run today. I hope it marks a trend.


GB said...

Monica, if I had read this last night, I would have cried even harder than I already was. There I was, whining like a little baby when my health is as good as it can get. Here you are, RIGHTFULLY venting your frustrations because your health is not where it should be! I am so sorry you had to read my silly negativity!!!

I feel for you, Monica, and I can just imagine what you're going through. I hope the thyroid issue improves soon, and that your heart goes back to its normal rhythms. You so deserve to enjoy running again! I know its just waiting for you to come back and kick it in the arss.

For now, little steps. What you are doing... focusing on the here and now, is better than anything! It is more than good enough. I'm so glad you can see what you've got going in life, and that it's still good even when you're not running like you want to be.

God has plans for all of us, and right now you're living his plan for you. I wish we lived closer. I would really enjoy hanging out with you and benefitting from your wisdom!

Love you Monica!!!

Andrew Hersey said...


Thank you for sharing this. Please know that your words and your actions are an inspiration.

I've faced my own health and running troubles - thyroid disorder and cancer - and I know some of what you're going through. You're doing exactly what you need to do - never taking running (or anything else) for granted, and facing every day and every run with as much strength and grace as you can. Keep at it - you WILL come back.

You're in my thoughts, and I will look forward to seeing you at another race.

Your Charlottesville running friend (Bear Creek 10M and Frostbite 15k),


Monica Cassier said...


Thanks for dropping in!! You didn't have to remind me where I met you - I remembered right off the bat (which for me is huge!).

Hope you are doing well, and hope to see you at bear creek (don't FALL THIS YEAR!!!) and frostbite (I'm hoping I can make it a 'target' race). Thanks for your words of encouragement, and for sharing your own story. I'm humbled by those who fight through so much more than my own struggles.



Andrew Hersey said...

Hi Monica,

I don't think anyone's struggles are any harder or any easier than anyone else's - perspective is everything, and struggles are never easy.

Looking forward to Bear Creek again, definitely! And I am hoping to do the half-marathon there in November. I'm sure our paths will cross again before too long...

Stay well, my friend...


Gregory said...

Hey Monica,

Been awhile since I stopped in (sorry) but glad to see your "beautifully written" post. Hang in there as things are not always a bed of roses but there will be better days! Just keep on keeping on or as I like to tell myself - Just keep plugging away!

Gregory (Pudov)

Anonymous said...

I read this after Cherie posted a link to your blog on the RRRC messageboard. I used to live in Richmond, but moved to Philadelphia in no small part because of allergic asthma that I began to experience only after moving to Richmond in 2000. It might have been adult onset asthma that set in as I hit my thirties. Whatever the origin, the effect was clear. Running, which I had used in the past as a way to provide me a sense of transcendence over the daily grind, could instead be a complete struggle that reminded me of my weakness and material determinedness. The shift forced me to become an incrementalist -- to do what little I can on those days when I have very little energy or simply cannot perform as I have in the past. So I can always give myself goals realistic to my current situation, and trust that sometimes, maintaining what one can for a time when my body might be more ready to make the progress I desire is an opportunity that many people in the world cannot share, or have not embraced. It is certainly not like starting completely from scratch, or tantamount to never having been a runner. My younger brother has had two ruptured discs removed from his back, so he cannot even run badly like I can! 'and when I run badly, I actually pass people on well-tread paths sometimes. Peformance is all relative.

I found a combination of medications that helped to improve my situation somewhat in Richmond, and it is reflected in my shorter distance races from the time in early 2006 when I had a bit more relief from my asthma until I left Richmond. (I never had much success training for long distances, although I did obstinately continue to run marathons). I went from struggling to break 50 minutes in a 10k to someone that set her sights on breaking 46 minutes when I could manage more consistent running. I really believe I did not have mental barriers to better performance, or train stupidly, but my obstacles wer physical ones, and those are real. You cannot be so hard on yourself that you hold yourself accountable for what you cannot control. Often when I do really struggle, I think of it as providing me the experience to handle the last part of a race (like a marathon). I do not see walking as a failure, and do not mean to say to push through days when your heart rate is not cooperating. But there is something about taking on goals that one realizes will cause a bit of suffering. It is forcing oneself through a surmountable level of suffering that binds both people fighting just to do a first work out, and the person prepared to race, and to give one's best the last mile or miles of a race. I think you have to take pride in the simple effort to continue to push forward. It is much more admirable to press on and have faith when something is a struggle then to do something that always feels natural and good. (Sorry if that sounds corny, but I need a pep talk too!)

I had trouble when I moved here to Philly because I had he misfortune of moving above 2 smokers, and my health really deteriorated. Still, I am one of the fittest people in Philadelphia ;-) I did take up weights, as someone suggested, to try to compensate for my lost time dedicated to aerobic activity, and at least imagined that my abs got stronger. The smokers are now gone (attrition from the asthmatic that suggested they try to sometimes go outside, perhaps), so I have tried to pick up the running again. Sometimes it is a struggle, but at times, I do feel strong.

I hope you soon feel better physically so your body can follow your will.

Marit Bank