I put one foot in front of the other, forcing myself to breathe in and out in a steady rhythm. I put one foot in front of the other, again and again, for five kilometers. Other runners–skinnier, more muscular runners–passed us on either side, creating the illusion we were moving backwards. But no, we ran forward on the trail, the creek beside it swollen and muddy with rainwater, rushing faster than even the fastest runner.
I ran in a purple brain cap with the Miles for Migraine logo stitched on one side. I ran despite the fact that my head throbbed faintly under the cap, the beginnings of a migraine making itself known. I ran because it’s a minor miracle I could.
We passed the mile mark, and then the halfway mark. A man in a gray t-shirt directed us to turn around in front of him, and we leaned into the u-turn, still running. Half way, half way, I repeated silently, too out of breath to speak. My pace was off, two minutes per mile too fast, and it had winded me to the point I needed to walk.
No matter. I still put one foot in front of the other and drew long, slow breaths. When the tightness in my chest cleared, I picked up my feet and ran again, now dodging the walkers doing a 2-mile loop. The effort of maneuvering winded me further, but I kept running.
Two miles. Two and a quarter miles. Two and a half miles. Two and three-quarter miles. Finally, the finish line in sight. One final push, still going too fast, still winded, but too close to stop now. People in purple tutus and feather boas cheered when we cross the line, and someone handed me a bottle of water and a medal.
And that’s it. Sweat poured down my chest and my back. Even my fingers were slick with it, and twisting the cap off the water bottle took three tries. With the adrenaline running through my bloodstream, my legs feel as though they could run the distance a second time, but my asthmatic lungs disagree.
Thank you legs, I thought. Thank you, lungs. You carried us through to the end. You ran the race, and you finished. You were not the fastest, and you were not the strongest, but you were as fast and as strong as you needed to be, in spite of chronic, crippling illness.
I started running at the end of May because I wanted to improve my overall health. Back then, I couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time without getting winded. Last week, I completed my first unofficial 5k run in about 45 minutes. I still have to take some walk breaks on those “long” runs, but the point is that I did something I couldn’t have conceived of doing six months ago.
Running hasn’t been without its challenges. Between asthma, chronic migraine, and a bout of painful runner’s knee in June, it’s something of a miracle I’ve been able to keep running–and more of a miracle that I actually, really, and truly, enjoy it. I crave it.
There’s no doubt that running is tough. My gym-class-averse English lit nerd self always shied away from cardio, but there’s beauty in the rhythm of the breath, the strike of each foot on the ground. And the endorphin rush that hits after I finish a run is enough to get me through the day without wanting to stab anyone, which is another miracle in and of itself.
Which brings me back to the original reason I started. I never had too much trouble maintaining a healthy weight, and I never really cared if I had a little bit of tummy fat or how thick my thighs were (and they were thick, even at my skinniest). I practiced karate until I went off to college, and earned a second-degree black belt, so I also felt confident in my ability to kick butt and take names.
Then, in 2014, I started taking Prozac for chronic migraine. I gained nearly 50 pounds. People began asking me if I were pregnant, or when I was due. I had to buy pants in a larger size, and then an even larger size. My previously rock-solid self-confidence about my body evaporated. I still had confidence in my brain and my skills, but for the first time, I felt disgust over my own body.*
I never really fit the image of what the media portrays as the “ideal” woman. I am on the tall side and have always been curvy, especially in my lower half. My hips are wide and there’s no way in hell my skeleton can fit into any pant size smaller than an 8 or 9. I have those aforementioned large thighs and a big-ish butt with small-ish breasts. A super skinny size zero model I am not, and will never be.
But I let the lie that I should be that super skinny size zero model get to me. I bought into it, at least for awhile. I attempted to lose weight a number of times, but always failed, and always blamed myself. And sure, my eating habits were partly to blame, but it wasn’t a moral failing. I let the allure of easy, cheap processed food (especially pastries) get inside my head and let my eating habits backslide because I didn’t think I was worth it anymore, or because my head hurt so damn much I needed some sort of physical comfort, and food was easy. I was going to be chubby anyway, so why bother?
Then I started running. I’ve lost at least one pants size and a good 15-20 pounds since the beginning of 2018. And that’s great. But it’s almost beside the point. As the summer months went by, and I kept running, and running, and running, I felt a sense of amazement at what my body could accomplish, even with all those extra pounds. I felt physically powerful and empowered. I saw the harmful things I’d been telling myself about my body for what they were–lies based on an unachievable ideal that just made me feel crappy and didn’t help me achieve my goals.
My goal is not to be skinny, or attractive, or to live up to someone else’s idea of who or what I should be. My goal is and has always been to be the best damn writer I can be, and to achieve it, I need to be healthy. Not skinny, not pretty, not… whatever. I need actual health. I need to be able to hold down a job so I can pay my bills. I need to have enough energy that I can actually wake up early to write every morning. I need to manage my chronic migraine so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart.
Running has become a non-negotiable part of my wellness routine. It’s reminded me that my body is an amazing conglomeration of bone and blood and flesh that deserves to be cherished, not vilified. It’s reminded me that I absolutely can achieve my (realistic) goals when I apply myself. (I don’t mean goals like publication or getting a particular job that rely on other people’s decisions, I just mean goals that are in my control, like finishing a novel or sending a specific number of job applications.)
Ideally, I’d like to lose a bit more fat and put on more muscle, but I can honestly say at this point it’s not because I want to look better. I want to feel better. I want that post-run rush that fills me up for the rest of the day. And, yes, I want to run faster. But even if I knew I’d never lose another pound of fat, I’d keep putting one foot in front of the other.
It’s a huge difference–deriving self-esteem from what you look like versus what you can accomplish. Looks are transient. Talent much less so. My hope is that eventually, every girl will grow up in a world that values her smarts, her talents, her ideas, and her skills, not whether or not she measures up to the current unrealistic beauty standard.
These messages from the media about what women should look like–and that we should feel terrible about ourselves if we don’t live up to those standards–are so pervasive and so insidious that they affect all of us, men included. For awhile, I let myself get lost in them. Running helped me find my way out. It may not be your thing, and that’s okay, but I hope that you–wherever you are on the planet, wherever you are in your journey–will find the thing that leads you out of that mess, one step at a time.
The Adventures of Miss Migraine is an ongoing column about my life with chronic migraine. June was National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, and I ran as part of the Miles for Migraine Virtual Challenge to raise money for migraine research. Read parts one and two.
Ten of you fantastic people helped me raise more than $400 for migraine research in June! I will be sending you all cards, but in the meantime, thank you! Overall, Miles for Migraine was able to raise $3,500—quite a bit short of the $10k goal, but still nothing to sneeze at.
While my original plan was to train in June and July and run a 5k in August, that bought of runner’s knee I experienced mid-June delayed our progress quite a bit. Our new plan is to train through September and run the Miles for Migraine 5k race in Philadelphia on October 6.
Unfortunately, runner’s knee is not the only setback I’ve dealt with so far. I also had trouble getting past the third training week workout because of my asthma, which would kick in around the 2 minutes of running mark and leave me wheezing and gasping for air. My doctor gave me a new inhaler, which I use about 20 minutes prior to each run and helps significantly.
I’m not yet tracking how many miles I run, as I’m still focusing on time spent running. Again, my progress hasn’t been as quick as I’d have hoped, but the important thing is that D.J. and I have stuck with our three-runs-per-week regimen since late May, with the exception of the weeks in June I had to use the elliptical instead of running.
Something else that’s interesting is the way the connection between my migraines and exercise has changed. A workout can still trigger a migraine, especially if the weather is bad or I’m already on the edge of one, but for the most part, running hasn’t caused any migraines. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s helped keep them at bay. I feel significantly better after a run, and have been generally less migrainey the past two months than the months prior. Now, I feel crappy if I have to miss a run–D.J. and I have even woken up at 5 a.m. multiple times to get our run in before he has to go to work!
Most importantly, though, Miles for Migraine sent me this cool brain hat and a medal, which clearly means I win, right? ;p
Again, thank you all for supporting me, donating money to this important cause, and spreading migraine awareness!