MuckFest Recap and Lessons Learned

I have so many updates to share, but figured I’d start with a quick recap of the MS MuckFest 2014. As you may know, this event was the impetus for my running training program, and while the main reason we did it was to support my brother, an MS patient, and the MS Society, it was a very personal event and milestone for me.

While I love to exercise, I am not athletic. Growing up, I was either sick at home, in the hospital, or sporting a variety of casts, splints, and braces because I got injured easily and often. True story: I broke my finger typing once, that’s how brittle my bones were from steroids. Add to that my constant wheezing and coughing, and it’s easy to see why I was a bit…lacking in confidence in athletic endeavors.

I’d been feeling pretty good heading into the race—I’d run my longest stretches without stopping and maintained a decent speed all week, and the strength training I’d been doing had definitely made a difference. However, there is still so much I am learning about myself as a runner when it comes to pacing, strategy, and conditions, and let’s just say I learned a lot on April 26th.

We were part of a larger team but my husband and dear friend and I ran as a smaller pack…we certainly weren’t the fastest, but we did every obstacle, and that was one of my two major goals for the day (and I did it without breaking, straining, or spraining anything, even!) A couple of the obstacles were truly physically challenging, but most were mentally challenging, especially the ones that involved heights or extremely confined spaces. Most were things I had never done before, and I am already looking forward to next year’s event when I will have a better idea of what to expect and will run with the confidence of knowing I can do this because I have done this.

Honestly, the biggest challenge of all was the weather: It was beautiful the day before the race, but that morning it was 40 degrees and it was pouring (cold) rain the entire time. We were in the first wave and already the hilly course was so muddy and slippery that simply trying to run them to get to the next obstacle was an event. I now understand the power of the term “bone-chilling” because jumping into pools of mud in the freezing rain is pretty wretched. We could see our breath when we hosed ourselves off afterwards. Awesome.

Still, everyone there had a great attitude about it and no one complained. The way I see it, every year after this will be easy because our first year we did it in terrible conditions. Right?

Anyway, my other goal was to complete the 5K course without walking at all, and that totally didn’t happen. Most of my runs have been in fairly temperate weather, and I learned something important that day in the raw, freezing rain. I learned it again a few days later when I ran in 93-degree weather in Florida, with high humidity.

I don’t run well in extremes. Duh, right? But it’s actually more nuanced than that. Specifically, I do not start well in extreme weather.

Once we got into the meat of the race, I found my stride and was doing great, just like halfway into my run in Florida when my lungs settled down and I found a good rhythm. But within the first 20 seconds of the Muckfest, my lungs just closed right up and I was gasping before we made it to the second obstacle. I couldn’t believe it. It was like I hadn’t just spend eight weeks running 3-4 times a week and slowly building up my lung capacity. For a bleak moment I thought I was going to need to get off the course and dig up my inhaler, but I got some recovery time waiting in line for an obstacle and eventually my lungs calmed down.

I’ve since tested this a few more times, and if I start out fast, my lungs close up every time. If I start out fairly slow and stay steady with that, I have more speed and feel better later on. It takes my lungs a really long time to catch up to the work my body is doing, and unless I want to start burning, gasping, or cramping, I need to respect that is how my body works and roll with it. I’ve been reading a lot about negative splits, so this makes a lot of sense to me. I will never be fast but I’d like to be consistent and to build onto my distances—and I can only do that if I can breathe. So slower starts, especially in extreme weather, it is.

We’re already planning on next year’s MuckFest, and I have some 5K races in mind but know I need more training before I do them. My Couch-to-5K app disappeared from my phone (eight weeks of data gone!) so I’m starting over at Week 1 and focusing on adding in more speed (but not at the start!) and more hills this time around, coupled with longer treadmill runs. I still have a long way to go, but starting over with C25K has shown me that my lungs have started to adapt.

All in all, it was an awesome day. I never would seen me doing something like this, never mind enjoying it. I wasn’t fast, coordinated, or graceful, but I finished, and that’s enough for me.

On Running and Chronic Illness–An Update

There are many reasons I decided to start trying to run. Notice how I phrased that—I am still such a novice that I can’t really say “I run” and am not even close to saying “I’m a runner” but I am almost 7 weeks into the C25K program and I’ll be the first to admit I am shocked at how much I love it.

Or to be more specific, I am pretty miserable during it, but I absolutely love how I feel when I am finished, physically and mentally. Each time, I feel stronger, I feel more confident, and I also cough up more junk than I ever have with any other aerobic activity, so I know it’s doing great things for my lungs.

Ostensibly, I first started training for a 5K because I signed up to do the MS Muckfest, a 5K obstacle course in the mud. I knew the actual running would be in fits and spurts as we moved through the obstacles, but I figured if I could run that amount, I’d be in good physical shape for the event. (I’m also combining it with strength training at the gym and Jillian Michaels’ Shred workout, to build up my core and arm strength.) The event is this Saturday, and while I have a couple weeks left in the C25K program, I definitely think it’s made a huge difference.

It’s hard, of course. The first week I almost laughed at the notion I could run more than a couple minutes without getting winded. Even though I’ve exercised regularly for years, my lungs burned the first few days. A couple more weeks in, I was logging longer running spurts but wondered when I could do a whole workout without getting a cramp from improper/poor oxygenation. I played around with when I took my inhalers and used my sinus spray, and looked for flatter routes so I could just focus on breathing—hills and speed can come in time.

Seven weeks in, I look forward to it. I still have such a long way to go but my goals are changing, too—I want to do a straight 5K event, but next summer, there is a 7-mile road race I’ve always thought looked fun. I am not fast and I am not graceful, but I now know if I keep plugging away, I will keep seeing improvement in my stamina and endurance. I cheered on runners at the Boston Marathon the other day, and was so inspired by their dedication and grace. I still can’t imagine actually running 26.2 miles (huge shout-out to my friend and inspiration, Audrey, who rocked Boston the other day and looked totally amazing when I saw her at the halfway point), but I can more easily understand why people do it.

The Muckfest was a good catalyst for running, part of it is also that running has always been something I just couldn’t do, and I hate that feeling. But it’s more than simply wanting to conquer something that has always challenged me. I explained it once to my husband as we finished a run together—that second wind they tell you about? It’s totally real. That feeling of just tying up my sneakers and taking off down the road? I have never felt more free.

A lifetime of illness, of surgeries, setbacks, crises, broken bones, etc., will shake your faith in your body. The disappointments tally up, and the sense of feeling hemmed in is profound. I am very confident in other aspects of my life, but my confidence in my body to do what I want and need it to, to depend on it, has always lagged behind. (With the major caveat of carrying a baby and keeping her safe—however rocky, my body did its job then).

So those are the reasons I started trying to run. The biggest reason I am planning on sticking with it? My three-year-old daughter. She watches us run and she puts on a headband and starts running around, too. She knows we signed up for an event and she asked to run a race of her own, and is now registered. (I am not sure which she’s more excited about—the actual running part, or the official race t-shirt she will get).

I don’t care if she ever runs a 5K, I don’t care what sport she ends up playing or if she’s ever the fastest or the first—I just want her to be confident, and to feel strong.

Pub Date Reflections, Paperback Release, Spring Events, (and More)

Thank goodness it’s April! While winter often felt endless this year, now that it’s finally spring and the illnesses and setbacks are behind us, I realize I need to post some updates about some great events lined up for the next few months.

Incredibly, a year ago today was the official pub date for In the Kingdom of the Sick. I more grateful than ever for the constant support, encouragement, and enthusiasm for the book and the issues it raises, for the press and publicity it received last spring, and the ongoing interest and opportunities to discuss these issues further. The paperback version of In the Kingdom of the Sick is set to pub this July, and I’m looking forward to more events, posts, and activities leading up to that.

On May 3, my friend Cheryl Alkon and I are presenting a session on writing nonfiction/health books at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace literary conference at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. It’s a wonderful three-day event “designed to give aspiring writers a better understanding about the craft of writing fiction and non-fiction, to prepare them for the changing world of publishing and promotion, and to create opportunities for meaningful networking.” I always wanted to attend when I was in graduate school and just starting to look for an agent, so I am really thrilled to be able to present.

If you’re in the Madison, WI area, I’m participating in a panel on electronic medical records at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on May 9. It is described as “a free public dialogue exploring electronic medical records (EMRs), a rapidly disseminating technology with great potential impact,” and is free and open to the public.

More locally, I’m participating in the “Connected Patient Panel: Exploring the Role of Online Patient Support Communities, Twitter Chats and Patient Advocacy” for the New England Society for Healthcare Communication’s Spring Conference (NESHCO). It’s on Thursday, May 15, 2014 from 12-1 pm at the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa, Mystic, CT.

And up next on the personal side? An update on my C25K training and thoughts on why I really like running—even if I am still a struggling novice.

Thanks again for all your support, and for listening despite the unintended silences!

On Running and Breathing (at the same time!)

It has been an extremely cold winter here in Boston (and from the sounds of it, so many places around the country.) Between absolutely frigid temperatures, a lot of snow and ice, and two rounds of viruses that lasted several weeks, I’ve had false starts with the Couch to 5K running program.

Wait, yes, you heard that right. I am attempting to run. On April 26th, my intrepid husband, brother, and some good friends are doing the MS MuckFest 2014 in Devens, MA., a 5k obstacle course in the mud. One of my brothers was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago, and my husband thought this would be a great way to show our support and would also be a great motivation for us to train together and do something together that is out of our mutual comfort zone together.

(Obligatory if completely sincere plug here: if you’re local and would like to join our team, we’d love the company! If you’d like to donate, you can do that, too.)

Now for some context, I actually really enjoy exercise and, illness and infections pending, I do it regularly. I’ve done years of ellipticals and Stair Masters, and more recently have really enjoyed classes (yoga, Zumba, hip hop, etc.) and home training workouts like Jillian Michaels’ Shred. It’s great for my mind and my stress levels, but pragmatically speaking, it is really important for people with PCD to move around and shake up these lungs of ours—ideally, this helps us cough and clear things out.

I am not at all athletic, but I have fun and I know my muscles are getting stronger, and know that is good for so many things. But I have never, ever been able to run. Ever. My chest tightens and I wheeze fairly quickly, and I get short of breath in a way I don’t in any other activity.

My goal is to be able to run a straight 5K prior to the obstacle course, because that would put me in pretty good shape physically and well, because I have never been able to run and I really want to be able to. Honestly, I am a little scared because for years I’ve told myself I can’t run, so it’s a big shift in thinking. I keep telling myself that lungs are muscles and though it might take longer than it does for other parts of my body to acclimate, and it might take longer than it would for someone without PCD and bronchiectasis, if I just take it step by step I can build up my lung capacity and train myself to breathe better when I run.

From friends and online forums, here are some basic tips I’m keeping in mind:

1. Start gradually—this is why an app like C25K makes a lot of sense to me
2. Breathe through your nose, since it warms the air and is better for your lungs
3. Cover your face in really cold weather, since the cold air effect is much more pronounced

Runners out there, what else would you tell a newbie like myself? And people with chronic illness and in particular, those with respiratory challenges, what helped you conquer the running demon? I appreciate any and all insights you have to offer!