A year ago I was a runner. Training was going well. My body was holding up (no injuries), my track workouts were consistent, I was running doubles and my mileage was starting to get up where I wanted it. I ran a see-where-I-am half-marathon in July in 1:35:20 and learned a lot (for example, don’t run a 6:08 split for the first mile). Running was my passion and I was excited to take the lessons I had learned in that half and apply myself to become the absolute best runner that I was genetically capable of becoming.
Then, I woke up one morning in August and noticed that it hurt to breathe. I went on my normal run, and it seemed okay, but over the next few days it got worse. It hurt to talk and even to take shallow breaths, I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t eating. Being a runner I am used to ignoring twinges until they really become a problem, and by the third day I was forced to admit that this was a problem, and if it was a strained chest muscle (my suspicion) maybe at least I could get some stronger pain killers because the Ibuprofen was not cutting it.
I got an x-ray and, after finding fluid in my lungs, the doctor sent me to a clinic 30 minutes away to get a CT scan. I knew I was in trouble when the scan lady came back with oxygen and told me that they had called an ambulance. Apparently I had multiple blood clots in both of my lungs, a potentially fatal condition.
I had just turned 26. I made good life decisions. I hadn’t been in a hospital since I was born. The next two weeks were probably the worst of my life. I couldn’t lay down and breathe at the same time, everything hurt more than I had ever known anything could hurt, and the doctor told me that the blood clots had cut off circulation to parts of my lungs which resulted in “infarctions” or basically that parts of my lungs had died as a result of lack of oxygenation. He said I would have to wait and see how much lung function I recovered and that because there was no discernable reason for the clots, I would be on blood thinners for the rest of my life.
I started trying to recover my fitness immediately. I was told to do very VERY minimal activity because a side effect of the antibiotic they had me on for pneumonia was tendon ruptures, and also there could still be clots between my heart and lungs (as it takes around six months for clots to dissipate) and they didn’t want me to further damage my heart. Walking was hard. Running was impossible. I was really stressed, and the way that I usually deal with stress (running) was entirely inaccessible to me.
And that’s when I remembered my bike. I started riding inside on a spin bike. There were no hills that way so I could keep close tabs on my heart rate, and I could stop whenever I needed to stop without being stuck miles from home. And then, a couple of weeks later, I started riding my real bike, a Kona Honky Tonk named Lydia. We had spent time together before. I liked to bike commute when it was convenient. But my bike had always been merely an inexpensive, but slower and wetter, way of getting somewhere.
Running was soul-killing. Because of the lung damage, etc. my heart rate jumped up FAST whenever I tried to run. I was jogging at 12-minute mile pace with walking breaks. Whereas before, running was the highlight of every day, relieving stress and helping me to gain perspective, at that moment in my life, running, or more accurately trying to run was torture.
But cycling was a different story. On my bike I was free. I could exercise. I could get places fast and feel like an athlete again. And most importantly, with biking, I didn’t have a constant comparison of before the clots and after. It was new and exciting and I fell in love.
At the start I had to walk my bike up hills because my heart rate would get too high. But as the weeks and months continued these breaks disappeared. I started riding to work. I made a rule that if a destination was within 6 miles of my home I had to bike there regardless of the weather. I bought a Honey Stinger waffle and biked to Gresham (a little over 18 miles), ate it (it was great), and biked home. I crashed my bike for the first time and got over the fear that because I am on blood thinners all bike crashes will be fatal. I got banged up a bit. Lydia got banged up a bit, but we both emerged stronger and more confident on the other side (well I did anyway, she needed some brake adjustments).
Running has come back slowly. I am not the same runner I was, and I don’t know if I will ever PR again (though I have definitely not given up hope and am going to work my ass off to run a sub-3 hour marathon some day). But this whole ordeal has introduced me to a new love. Last week I biked all of the way to work and all of the way home all five days (over 14 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing one way, which is significant for me). I live on a main bikeway in Portland, and I went from being passed by everyone, to breathing deep and racing my way home. My mantra is light and strong and I smile so much I am always fishing bugs out of my mouth.
Right now my bike is a symbol of strength and flexibility. It reminds me that my life isn’t under my control, but there are no dead ends. Life is hard. The last year has been hard for me and it’s been hard for many of the people I love. But in the midst of struggles there is still joy. And that joy is worth pursuing and worth working for. I love running. I love my bike. And if someday I can neither run nor ride, I will find something else to do.
PS from Fatty: Don’t forget, the contest to win a trip and a bike, all while fighting cancer, is still on. Click here for info on the trip, then click here for information on the bikes, and click here to donate. Thanks!