Running Again

Seven years ago, I did something pretty astonishing, for me, something I never thought I’d be able to accomplish: I ran the New York Marathon. I finished a good bit slower than I wanted to, in no small part because I was having too much fun to go any faster. This was November 1997: I’d turned 30 a few months before, I was madly attempting to finish my dissertation, and I was in the thick of the job market. A marathon seemed only fitting, a clear, if somewhat literal, way to celebrate the changes in process in my life, and a way to begin saying goodbye to the city that I so loved.

The marathon experience itself was amazing — seeing the neighborhoods of New York, many of which I’d never before set foot in, at ground level, watching the thousands of kids who’d turned out to hand out orange slices, feeling the complete overflow of emotion when, after finishing, I made my way to the meeting point only to find that all of my friends had showed up, with dry clothes and fresh socks. The dry clothes were much needed: it began raining at mile 13, and by mile 20, I was about the wettest I’ve ever been in my entire life. But I didn’t care. I just kept poking along, and when, at mile 23, the person I’d been running with finally fell by the wayside (he’d been suffering for ten miles, having gone out drinking the night before; feeling some kind of weird responsibility to him — weird because I didn’t know him from Adam, but had only met him at a tune-up race two weeks before — I stuck with him until nearly the end), I opened up my run, and finished running harder and stronger than I think I may ever have, before or since.

The marathon was an amazing experience. Training for the marathon, on the other hand, nearly killed me. In my early 20s, I had a weird health crisis — the virus of unknown origin was, annoyingly enough, just par for the course in my medical history. Back then, however, the crisis was pretty serious: my doctors were uncertain whether I had rheumatoid arthritis or the beginnings of lupus. I’d gone from completely normal, as I’d been my whole life, to unable to climb a flight of stairs, unable to hold a pen, unable to wash my own hair, in about six weeks. Every joint in my body was affected, and at the peak of my treatment, I was on two drugs for the arthritis, and three more to counteract the side-effects of the first two. After about two years, though, the disease, whatever it was, went into full remission, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

It left behind a few reminders, though, most notably for the purposes of this story, bad knees. I began running at age 26, for the first time in my life trying to get into some kind of decent physical shape, and always had trouble running more than three miles at a time, or running more frequently than every other day. This made training for the marathon, four years later, more challenging than I might have liked it to be. I spent the better part of six months achy and sore, and grew — and this is the worst part — to dread running. Just the thought of putting on my running shoes was enough to depress me.

I stuck with it, though, and completed my training, and ran the marathon. (And could easily have met my goal time, had I not saddled myself with a hung-over running partner.) And the marathon was great. And afterward, I took some much-deserved time off from running.

But that time off stretched out way longer than it ought to have. Things on the job market got nutty, and finishing the dissertation became a priority. And then there was graduating, and moving, and settling into a new job. Periodically, over the next several years, I’d try to start running again, and I’d manage a couple of weeks’ worth of runs, before the ache in my knees once again resulted in a resurgence of the old dread. Running became a slow form of torture, and given that it was voluntary, I’d eventually just stop.

I’m telling you all this now because, in the last four months or so, something’s changed. Part of it, I have to attribute to R.’s presence here: he made me take my vitamins nearly every day, among which is included a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement that I think has made a phenomenal difference in the health of my knees. Running doesn’t hurt like it used to. And so I’ve been running more.

And I’m thinking seriously about giving the marathon another shot.

It’s probably crazy. I’m busier than I’ve been in my life. But there’s some part of me that needs a physical, attainable goal right now, something to drag me up out of the bad election-R. gone-work stress-no book-rejected grant application-doldrums that I’ve been languishing in.

Long story short: I’m off to run. If this goes well, you may be hearing more about the training process in the coming weeks.


  1. Hi, Kari. I did read Hillenbrand’s memoir of her illness when it ran in the New Yorker, and found it both fascinating and, in certain elements, familiar. My illness was pretty different, though; I had a bit of fatigue, but not the crushing kind that overtook Hillenbrand. My symptoms were mostly restricted to joint pain, swelling, and immobility. Whatever it was I had, my doctors never were able to pin it down; most of the classical signs of both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis were absent, but one major clinical indicator (the anti-nuclear antibody test) was always elevated. That indicator remains borderline-high to this day, but what it indicates is far from conclusive; it suggests an auto-immune issue that could well someday resolve into lupus, or it could be a lingering nothing. Lupus would explain a whole lot of other health weirdnesses I’ve dealt with over the last several years — the apparent attack of appendicitis that was unaccompanied by fever or elevated white cell count, and that they thought for a while might have been ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease; the blood clot in my leg two and a half years ago that came out of nowhere, unprovoked by long flights — but they won’t be able to diagnose that unless I get a whole lot worse. As long as I’m healthy (which I am, extremely so, all these weird health crisis moments notwithstanding), I’m happy to let sleeping dogs lie.

    Interestingly, on the un- and mis-diagnosed disease front, the stories that have over the years sounded to me most like my own experience have been the stories of folks who’ve been diagnosed with MS, only to have their symptoms clear up when they have their silver-amalgam fillings removed. The argument is that the mercury in silver-amalgam fillings can leach into the bloodstream, and that, in some particularly sensitive folks, it will trigger auto-immune responses. As it happens, while I was in the midst of being treated for the mystery disease, my dentist discovered that the chemistry of my mouth had caused all of my silver-amalgam fillings to begin breaking down, and so he took them all out and replaced them with composite fillings. At the exact same time, my rheumatologist finally began to pull out the pharmaceutical big guns, and prescribed me anti-malarial drugs. I’ll never know which of the two did it, but within a couple of months, my symptoms started rapidly receding.

    So go figure. The marathon was about five years after I’d gone into remission, and was a great declaration, mostly to myself, that I was better than I’d been before I got sick. Now, watching forty begin to loom on the horizon, I’m feeling the need for another such declaration of the “getting better all the time” variety. We’ll see how it goes…

  2. Eek, didn’t know about the mercury hazard in the fillings! Anyway, it’s the “un- and mis-diagnosed” part of your story and Hillenbrand’s and so many others that gets to me. I’ve experienced my own version of it–a spinal cord tumor that took far too long to diagnose. I’d really love to get an inside look at how they _teach_ diagnostics in medical school.

    Good luck with the running!

  3. I’m just barely recovered enough from the Marine Corps Marathon to offer, for what it’s worth, runnerly support. Clearly, 26.2 miles of repetitive trauma is questionable behavior, but that euphoric finish you describe felt entirely worth it.

    Unfortunately, we had a relatively warm day. I imagine the L.A. marathon sort of guarantees that kind of weather. If you feel like heading up the coast for more amenable race-day temperatures, I hear good things about the S.F. marathon. Imagine training in Los Angeles and racing in San Francisco!

    Apologies for the unsolicited advice, but the Excel running log template available at is great for the obsessive-compulsive runner, who needs to know how many miles are on those shoes, what her average pace for a year’s worth of long runs is, and what the pace-per-mile caculation would be for fifteen miles run in two hours and three minutes.

  4. Hi, Dave. Actually, I was inadvertently in NoVa right at the tail end of the Marine Corps Marathon, during my little travel delay last week, and R.’s hotel was filled with folks who’d just run. That’s part of what got me thinking about the whole marathoning thing again — seeing the exhilaration of those who’d finished. (Of course, alongside that were the plethora of folks hobbling around with one shoe on.)

    L.A. in March should actually be pretty amenable; the average high in March is 70, though with some occasional weirdness. S.F.’s not a bad idea though; I should file that away for future thought. What I really want to run someday, though, is the Big Sur Marathon, which is supposed to be unbelievably gorgeous.

    Thanks for the link to the running log; I’ve been using an old-fashioned notebook log for a while, which is nice for the flipping-back-through, but the kinds of calculations that the Excel log can provide are really appealing.

    Though I don’t know what you mean by obsessive-compulsive.


  5. Oh, and Kari — good grief! That must have been frustrating and terrifying. I’m curious about the teaching of diagnostics, too; I fear that there’s too much of an emphasis on an Occam’s razor-like approach, in which the simplest (i.e., commonest) explanation is the one relied upon, at the expense of a sufficent curiosity about other possible causes…

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