Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Impossible Has Happened

"In the year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened." - Vin Scully calling Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit walk-off home run for national TV of game 1 of the 1988 World Series.


Not long after qualifying for Boston at the 2016 California International Marathon in December, I decided that I was going to focus on my health.  I needed to step away from running, not knowing the effects of the interferon treatment protocol I was about to take to address my recurrent respiratory papillomatosis.  In other words, I retired from competition not knowing if I would ever be able to return, or for that matter, ever run again.  

Then 2017 came and went.  Running got shorter and shorter, slower and slower and less frequent.  

Then 2018 arrived.  I was part of a drug trial at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC which was prematurely cancelled.  My condition did not improve.  2018 went.  Running turned into jogging.  

In April 2019 I made it official.  I could no longer run, at any level, and was no longer going to try.  This was a very emotional revelation, when I knew that it was over and there was nothing I could do about it.  Jogging turned into walking.  The months that would follow in 2019 would only solidify the notion that running was something of the past for me.  In December I would require knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus in my right knee.  

Just about when COVID-19 was starting to be a household term in the spring of 2020, I started noticing that I was feeling fatigued more and more.  I was going to bed early, and having to take several naps during the day.  I had zero energy even for normal daily activities, which I attributed to the interferon injections.  Though I had been taking it for three full years at that point, I wondered if it was causing anemia based on my symptoms.  

In parallel, I was having some irregular heart rate issues.  Upon any activity such as going up more than a few stairs or other minor exertion, my heart would begin to beat rapidly and if I did not immediately sit down to recover, would spiral out of control at an insane rate.  In early June, I could run about 10 steps and I would be so out of breath that I would gasp for air.  

I didn't know if I had developed a new arrhythmia or worse, but I knew that I needed to seek medical attention.  When I met with the cardiologist, I knew immediately that something was seriously wrong.  The scale reading showed I was 157 pounds, a weight I had not seen since I was at the height of ultra running in 2014.  Post retirement and as recently as Christmas I had been stable around 172 pounds, so without an increase of exercise or change in diet, there was no GOOD reason why I should drop nearly 10% of my body weight.  My mind raced immediately to some form of aggressive cancer.  Deep sigh. 

After a months worth of tests, I was finally diagnosed with Graves' disease.  The fast and irregular heartbeat, heat intolerance, fatigue, weight loss, light sensitivity and double vision could all be attributed to an autoimmune disorder stemming from the interferon which resulted in my thyroid being hyperactive and accelerating my body's metabolism at an alarming rate.  My TSH was <0.01 mU/L with the normal range being 0.40 - 4.00 mU/L while my T4 was 3.25 ng/dL with a normal range of 0.76 - 1.46 ng/dL.  

But, I had never been so happy to get such bad news.  Though mildly common (about 1 in every 200 people have it) it would be treatable with a single radioiodine therapy that would shock my thyroid into stop producing so much hormone.  It likely would swing too far the other way, and eventually I will have to take daily medication to regulate it back up to normal.  So on July 30, I took the radioactive iodine pill and for 5 days following, was mostly isolated from Rachel and Fiina to limit their radiation exposure.  And I felt REALLY BAD.  The symptoms typically magnify for a few days before they get better and I had a hard time getting out of bed until through the weekend.  I was skeptical if this was actually working for me. 

Then on Sunday August 16, I took Fiina Beagle for our typical weekend long walk -- Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles.  But something felt, different.  The normal 17-18 minute walking pace was replaced by small sections of running.  It was not very far or very fast, but Fiina and I were jogging toward the end and we averaged under 15 minute miles for the 8 mile three lake loop.

"I don't believe what I just saw!" - Jack Buck calling Kirk Gibson's pinch-hit walk-off home run on national radio for game 1 of the 1988 World Series 


And if you saw me, I was running.  
  • Aug 17: The very next day I thought I would try to just run.  And I did, sort of.  4 miles in 43 minutes but stopped to walk 22 times.  At 10:44 pace I still declared it a victory as the last mile was under 10 minutes per mile.  
  • Aug 19 (+2 days): At 6:44am I stepped out the front door and ran 5 kilometers, steady state, no walking.  The benchmark had been set at 31:40 (10:05 pace).  
  • Aug 25 (+8 days) : After a failed steady state run over the weekend that turned into repeats and fartleks, I had my longest stated state run with NO STOPS.  Back to the 4-mile loop fro the previous week, I was a touch slower at 10:50 pace, but was able to hold pace and not walk until the run was over.  This was encouraging as it was 75 degrees and 84% humidity for the 6am start.
  • Aug 27 (+10 days): Back to the 5km time trial, this time breaking the 30-minute mark, running 29:16 on another muggy and warm morning run.  No warm up, just 9's out the door.  
  • Aug 29 (+12 days): With ideal temperatures, I was ready to run in public and headed to Lake Harriet.  I hadn't intended to time trial again so quickly, but in the first mile I was out waaaay to fast and realized that it was on.  I would have splits of 8:13, 8:32, 8:38 and a slow kick for a new TT benchmark of 26:21.  
  • Aug 30 (+13 days): Having gone back and read some of my old books I training, I was ready to try the track again to see what it felt like to run a perceived hard effort, one lap at a time.  So on a Sunday morning, I was out the door by 7am and warmed up over to Minnehaha Academy.  Only recently had I learned how the public gained access to the rubberized track and was excited to try some 400s.  The goal pace based on my 5km time from the day before was around 1:55 per lap (or just over 7:40 pace).  It was harder than I thought it would be for an 8x400m session, but managed splits of 1:55, 1:53, 1:52, 1:51, 1:50, 1:51, 1:49, 1:47 for an average pace of 7:25.  It was a slow cool down back home, but I was beaming with excitement from moderate success on the track, a place I loved to train from back when I used to train.  
  • Sept 3 (+17 days): After a two-day trip back to Huntsville for work which featured some lackluster jogging in soupy 90% humidity, I was back home in Minnesota and ready to stretch out my legs.  Just a short run, but looking for steady state at a pace that felt comfortable.  This turned out to be just over 9 minute miles for 3.5 miles but with only a stop to stretch at the turn, I was left not feeling as gassed as I had been on similar runs.  My legs felt a little heavy but breathing and heart rate were under control.  
  • Sept 4 (+18 days): I went back to the track at Minnehaha Academy with a plan to run the same pace as the week prior, but for slightly longer repeats, 6x600m to be exact.  The temperature was to my liking as I had to put on arm sleeves and gloves in the warm up for the 6:30am start.  I found that right from the start, my 400m splits were faster than last time and I was able to finish up at 2:48, 2:46, 2:44, 2:43, 2:42, 2:40 for a 7:19 average pace.  So in just a week, I was running faster, for longer repeat distances.  I could tell that I had a little bit of acid build up when trying to kick, but overall my legs felt like the turnover was there.  Still in comparison, I once ran a trail 50km race just a tad slower pace, so I am still keeping all of this in perspective.  
  • Sept 5 (+19 days): The next test would be to stretch out the distance a little and slow the pace.  The running paths around Medicine Lake in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities are very quiet, and apparently featured far more rolling hills than I remembered!  Regardless, after a slow warm up mile, I was able to sustain 9:15 pace for the next 7 miles.  I definitely started to feel leg fatigue in the second half and had a few more stops to rest than hoped.  I realize that I bit off more than I could chew as if I was looking for a steady state run I should have targeted a route more in the 5-6 mile range based on my fitness.  
  • Sept 7 (+21 days): On another cool morning, I was out early to run a loop around Bush Lake in the southwestern suburbs.  I had a pace of something in the low 9's in my mind but with an 8:47 first mile I knew that it was ON again!  Mile two was flat, and I cranked out an 8:33 without laboring.  The rollers started next which slowed the pace to 8:40/8:36 for miles 3 and 4 before a steady drop back down to the beach in the 5th mile which I clocked an 8:25.  Total time 43:02 for 8:36 average pace.  

So in the year that was so improbable, the impossible has happened.  I started running again!

I don't know where this goes from here.  All I know is that I am going to enjoy running again and take it day by day.   I am just happy to be able to explore my city or in my travels, afoot at a decent clip.

Maybe there is a race or an ultra run in my distant future.  Maybe.  But not right now.