25. Running. And Clare.

In my previous post I mentioned there were a few more things that made a huge difference in my concussion recovery, and I'm going to cover them in these couple of entries.

For anyone who has read through my entire blog, it’s clear that I have talked about a lot of different doctors and treatments – some that were horrific, some that were spectacular and everywhere in between.  Once I began to get on the right path to recovery, it took a lot of trial and error figuring out the perfect combination of treatment and lifestyle measures to combat my symptoms.  Reflecting on all the progress and the setbacks, I think a good way to describe my recovery is with an analogy coined by one of my doctors: 

My recovery has been like “peeling back the layers of an onion”. 

I was a broken human being when I first saw Dr. Kutcher and Dr. Colwell at the Sports Neurology Clinic in March 2015, nearly a year and a half into my concussion recovery.  The onion that symbolized this recovery wasn’t even ripe yet, its outer layers damaged and torn from so much trauma and inappropriate treatment.

At the clinic they worked with me to identify some of the issues with my neck and nervous system. They got me on the right track and helped pull me out of rock bottom.  Slowly, the damaged outer layers of the onion were removed, and the inner layers began to peel off more smoothly as I underwent more months of rehab, more trial and error, more progress and even some setbacks too. 

When I visited Terry’s MyoWorx program in December 2015, an enormous chunk of the onion was peeled off.  I continued with that rehab and started exercising more, slowly chipping away at the onion, learning more about my body and slowly regaining my health as each day passed.  A few more trips to MyoWorx, along with increased physical activity and added rehab for my eyes and ears, put me in a good place by May 2016.

The onion wasn’t entirely peeled though.

My next big step

The progress meant I needed to keep pushing my limits and introduce new activities to see how they impacted my symptoms.  So I decided to try running.

Running was the last big physical activity that I had yet to try, and it was the one that gave me the most anxiety. I was afraid that my body wouldn’t be able to tolerate the aggressive movement, inevitably leading to more pain and setbacks.  Even so, I knew that it was time to just… get on the treadmill. 

So I did.

I hopped on the treadmill at the gym one day in early May.  I vividly remember that moment; I warmed up and took a deep breath, scanning the surroundings of the busy gym floor before stepping onto the treadmill and slowly increasing speed.  It felt so liberating to be initiating this movement after so many years cooped up, blinded by pain and fearing activity of any kind.

I ran three miles.

And I felt really crappy the next day. But I refused to take the setback as a signal that I should stop.  Instead I took it as a signal to keep going; to tear down the door instead of timidly knocking on it.  I hadn’t forgotten the advice of my doctors – exercise was a critical part of recovery, and I had to continue building up a tolerance and normalizing my nervous system. 

So I ran again.  And I felt crappy again. 

But I ran again the next day anyway. 

And then..

The following day I woke up and felt better than ever.

So I kept running. 

A new benefit

I concluded that the aggressiveness of running was actually a benefit rather than a hindrance to my recovery.  This is because it challenged and worked my neck muscles in a way they hadn’t been since the injury, allowing my body to build up a tolerance to everyday activities a lot faster.  If I stretched immediately after my runs while my muscles were still warm, it loosened them better than any other combination of activities.  

The positive effects weren't permanent though.  The relief I experienced often wore off as the day went on, and I’d feel my muscles tense up, causing more headaches and symptoms. To combat this I started running twice a day.  I know it seems weird, but at that time this approach seemed to give me the most relief.  It did, however, take a toll on other parts of my body – particularly my ankles and hip flexors –  that hadn’t yet adjusted to my new, vigorous running schedule after so many years of inactivity.   

Even so, the ecstasy I felt at the fact that I was able to run again heavily outweighed my frustration with the new pain and tension in my lower body. 

I felt optimistic that these kinks would work themselves out, just as some of my other symptoms had in the past.  However, a few weeks after I began running, I was hit with a curve ball that had nothing to do with my health.  

The loss of a loved one

On May 22nd, 2016, one of my best friends from high school passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly.

It is hard to find the words to express how heart-breaking this news was. 

Two of my best friends from high school. Clare (Right) and Maddie (center). 

Two of my best friends from high school.
Clare (Right) and Maddie (center). 

Clare was one of my dearest and closest friends.  She was truly one of the kindness and most caring individuals I had ever met, and she had been my biggest cheerleader.

She supported me unconditionally throughout all of the highs and lows of this crazy journey of mine – periodically checking in with a text or call, inquiring about my doctor appointments, encouraging me on the bad days and shamelessly celebrating my progress on the good days. 

It was people like Clare who gave me the strength to continue persevering during the lowest, most challenging times of my life.

I could write a lot about how this has affected me emotionally, but I think I’ve spent enough time writing about difficult times in this blog. 

What I will say is this: Clare has always been a motivating force for me, and her passing only amplified my desire to find my way through this and finally complete my recovery.  Regaining my health feels a lot like a second chance at life, and I owe it to Clare to make the most of that gift. 

The half marathon

This motivated me to keep running instead of recoiling.  One week after Clare’s passing, I was scheduled to run a 3 mile relay leg of the Vermont City Marathon with the LoveYourBrain team. I considered dropping out given the circumstances.  But instead of staying at home consumed with grief, I traveled to Vermont. 

The day before the race I started to feel like 3 miles wasn’t enough to satisfy the mix of emotions I had inside me after such a tumultuous week. Clare had been so excited that I was running again, and I felt motivated by her, and the strength she gave me for so many years, to take it further. 

So I signed up to run the half marathon – 13.1 miles.

I drew “Team Clare” on a headband and ran the next day holding her close to my heart, and I pulled it off. 

Completing a half marathon was undoubtedly a momentous step for me, especially considering I had only begun running a few weeks prior, after two and a half years of… not running.  But one thing I’ve learned is that the body has the capacity to overcome and endure almost anything if you challenge it to.  

I also think it serves as a good reminder for anyone out there struggling with symptoms that there is hope for recovery.  Five months before I ran in this race I only spent a few hours out of bed each day, and the hours I did spend out of bed were painful and disorienting.  Hope was a very important thing to hold onto during that time.  I never lost site of my goals, and people like Clare were always there to remind me I would achieve them one day.   

Fortunately, the run also gave me new information about my body, which helped pinpoint some of the underlying issues contributing to my symptoms (aka more onion to peel).

I’ll write about that in my next post, but in the meantime, check out the “Clare’s Kind Cupcakes” Facebook page and the video below to learn more about Clare and how her family and friends are honoring her memory.  It’s a great excuse to bake delicious cupcakes and, more importantly, do something nice for someone else!  

Thanks for the inspiration, Clare.