I expected my shins to be the part of me that gave up first. Because my shins have always been my weakness running. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be my lungs. But two weeks ago there I was, sitting in an Italian clinic, clasping an envelope of chest X-rays, and trying to navigate the language barrier between me and my doctor.
Me: Can I exercise? Like … um … run?
Him: [eyeing me warily]: A little. But not a lot.
Since we already had issues communicating I figured trying to ask when I could start training again for the 50 mile ultra marathon I was running in December wouldn’t quite translate. Especially in a country where women and exercise do not really go together. So I took my antibiotics. Ate a gelato. And went home to my apartment on Lake Como.
Directly across from our balcony was a mountain that tempted me every day. Every morning I looked for a trail curving its way to the summit. Every evening I wondered what the world looked like from the peak. I stared at that mountain and squinted, trying to find the pathway to the top. Because there has to be one. There always is. Sometimes you just can’t see it. And sometimes you never get there.
When I first arrived in Varenna three days earlier I looked at that mountain wondering if I would climb it. I wanted to know what it would feel like to stand at the top. Now, I had my answer.
So that mountain came to symbolize my new challenge, my big setback. And my renewed commitment. At this point in my training, I am supposed to be steadily building mileage. Hitting 20-plus milers on Saturdays. And following up with another long day on Sundays. I am not supposed to be starting from 0.
When I was lying on the table at the hospital the muscles in my back and rib cage tensed. I could see them twitching, pulling the skin like fingers across my bones. I could barely breathe. The doctor pushed lightly on my abdomen and traced my ribs. I started to cry.
Him: Why do you cry?
Him: [smiling] Why not?
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure why I was. Maybe I was scared. Maybe because I was in pain. But deep down, I suspect it was because I was not just suffering from pneumonia. This was a setback that might leave me halfway up my mountain. Saying, good job K, you trained hard. You did great. Look back at how far you’ve come! But this wasn’t your day. This wasn’t your race. Maybe next time…
When I got back to our apartment I pulled out my X-rays and looked at myself. If you take away my blue eyes. Subtract my hair. Remove my skin. And the muscles. And the fat. Right there, I thought. This is me. When everything else disappears, this will be what remains. These bones will tell the story of my life. I wonder what weight they will carry beyond what is tethered to the frame. I wonder if they are really as strong as the X-rays indicate. I guess I will find out.
So when I returned stateside I asked my doctor, “When can I start training again?”
Two to four weeks. Maybe. You might not feel normal for months, she said.
I looked online for answers. I didn’t like them. I called my dad. Then I stopped searching. I am like nobody else. This is my body. And my lungs. I don’t need an X-ray to tell me I am unwell. And I don’t need a timeline to tell me when I am better.
So for the first time in two weeks I ran yesterday. 5 miles. My lungs burned. And my chest ached. But my legs felt strong.
I ran 8 today. And to test myself I added some hills. My lungs didn’t burn as much. My chest didn’t ache as bad. And my legs pushed me up and over the climbs with ease.
How funny I thought. My legs will carry me when my lungs can’t. The part of me I doubted most in the beginning is the one part of me working best. Sometimes you are stronger than you think. The strength just comes from somewhere else.
I can’t say I am happy that this happened. That would be a lie. And I won’t pretend that getting sick will make me stronger on race day. Because in all likelihood, it won’t. But it has taught me that sometimes you can’t give your everything. Sometimes you need to pull back so that you can give more later. I will remember that on the hills during my race. This illness has also taught me that this race is even more important to me than I originally realized.
Because I have done the work. I have put in the miles. This is my race. It took traveling 6,000 miles to reinforce that message. But that is why I love traveling. So that I can pare down to my basic needs and fly away so that I can learn how to go home and be better. And that is why I love running. So that I can pare down my body and my mind so I can climb a mountain and be faster.