Breathe & Believe

About a year ago, I wrote a post called Believe: My Personal Faith, which discussed the word I was using to deal with adversity- specifically my enigmatic autoimmune conditions leaving me unable to run. At the time, I was wholeheartedly engrossed in the power of the word “believe”- trusting that this was temporary; that my body would soon decide to heal itself; that I would one day be happy, healthy, and flourish; that I would stop complaining to my family and stop withdrawing from social interaction, because I would soon run again and everything in my life would be better. This word will always hold a special place in my heart. In the past few months, however, I have realized a fundamental flaw in my philosophy. Placing all faith in a brighter future prevented me from relishing the present. In essence, my persistent belief was a defense mechanism, providing comfort that this mental anguish was temporary, that the pain would soon pass.

There is no doubt that the word “believe,” allowed me to endure, but my definition of strength and belief involved constantly pushing my body to its physical and mental tipping point- thinking that my life was not fair, beating myself up for it, and justifying that if I just tried harder and suffered further, I would eventually get what I deserved. To me, believing was going, going, and going coupled with frequent emotional outbursts- life isn’t fair, I hate my body, why me?

In my last post, I mentioned the two wonders that a life without running has brought me. Podcasts were the first, and I am now going to discuss yoga. I began practicing yoga regularly at the beginning of the summer, and it has utterly transformed my outlook on life. By uniting breath and movement, body and mind, I have learned to approach hardship with acceptance rather than reactance. This may sound a bit abstract, but it’s actually quite simple. Instead of getting bogged down by the time it takes to measure out all of my portions of food, I acknowledge this annoyance, measure it all out, and get back to my homework. Rather than waking up in the middle of the night with a low blood sugar, becoming angry about needing to take glucose, and scrutinizing myself for inaccurately predicting the exact dosage of insulin to balance the carbohydrates in my dinner, I simply acknowledge the annoyance and go back to sleep. Instead of demonizing my body for inflating like a balloon anytime I eat anything, I tell myself that it’s okay to be upset and move on. I am in no way ignoring the pain that my illnesses cause me on a daily basis, but I am substantially minimizing the mental toll they take on me.

Yoga is not about self-improvement, it’s about self-acceptance.

This quote sums up what yoga has brought me- the ability to accept the reality of being unable to control my body. Rather than relentlessly attempting to move forward, I am stopping to breathe. I am uniting my mind and body- using the core principles of yoga to heal.

I am currently in a course called The Dalai Lama’s Ethics, and we are learning about the importance of self-compassion. Before practicing yoga and taking this course, I would’ve dismissed the term “self-compassion” as weak. Indulgent. Unnecessary. My only self-care involved waking up when it’s pitch black, when some of my peers are still up from the night before, cranking out cardio to the point of exhaustion, and feeling extremely guilty upon ever not doing so. Sure this alleviates stress, but I doubt that this was what His Holiness envisioned. I don’t know why, but after all these years, everything changed on my yoga mat. I realized that destructive thoughts and behaviors were leaving my body in perpetual fight-or-flight mode and decided that something needed to change. Since being more aware and accepting of my distressed somatic symptoms and cognitions and actively striving to breathe both on and off my mat, I have realized the truth in the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on self-compassion. In order to have compassion for others, we must first accept ourselves. For many years, I felt alone in my struggles with medical adversity. Since I was such a unique patient, I doubted that any of my peers could possibly relate. But an inability to physically feel what I feel does not necessarily prevent them from treating me with compassion. It is only a few weeks into the semester, but being open and accepting of my own struggles and empathizing with those of others has already taken relationships to new levels.

I still want to push myself to my greatest potential, and I still have hope. I still believe. I have concluded, however, that believing without breathing, acknowledging, and accepting is unsustainable. Now, I breathe and believe.

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Stars in a Dark Abyss: Podcast Palooza!

Although I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, I wholeheartedly believe that sparks of light can be found in the darkest of times. I have written before about my struggles with losing an integral part of my identity- about not being able to run- and my stubborn and mysterious injury has not ceased to agitate me on a daily basis. An inability to run, however, has forced me to seek out other outlets to find the stress relief, strength, clarity, and inspiration that my soul craves. My running hiatus has now lasted more than a year and a half, but I have finally discovered two very bright stars- podcasts and yoga- in what was once an abyss. These are not just additional interests or hobbies, but fundamental lifestyle changes that I will continue to appreciate once I run again. This post is a collection of my favorite podcasts; a yoga-related piece will follow shortly.

Before discussing my personal favorite podcasts, I must mention the benefits I’ve experienced from making podcasts part of my daily routine. I begin each morning with 90 minutes on the elliptical. 90 minutes is a large chunk of time. Not only do podcasts make this time go by faster, but they make it truly worthwhile. Rather than merely burning calories and getting an endorphin rush, I am quenching my intellectual curiosity before most of my college peers are awake! Perhaps the best part of podcasts is that they generate more questions than answers- I find myself thinking about these ideas throughout the week, and as an aspiring researcher, I am constantly coming up with interdisciplinary questions to pursue in the future. Additionally, podcasts have exponentially increased my awareness of the world. It is rare that a day goes by without me hearing something related in a class or from a friend and want to interject (but don’t want to be that annoying person!) “I heard on a podcast…”

Here are my top podcast picks- try some of them out, and please let me know what you think! Also, I should mention that the “I don’t have time” excuse does not apply to podcasts- listen while you’re working out, cleaning, cooking, or driving. Enjoy!

Running On Om

The runners and yogis interviewed on this podcast are not merely runners or yogis, but wellness pioneers who use innovative practices to create meaningful change in the world. Each episode explores the mind-body-spirit connection by providing raw conversation with those who have achieved success not by following a traditional path, but by doing their “om” thing. They take what they have learned through their passion off of the road or mat and into the world. For example, Dr. Melody Moore, a clinical psychologist has integrated empirically-supported psychological treatments with yoga interventions for adolescents with eating disorders. I am constantly inspired by the stories on ROO, and they have significantly influenced my future career goals.

Selected Episodes: Melody Moore on Healing Eating Disorders Through Yoga and Self Love; Lauren Fleshman and Dr. Melody Moore on Changing Eating Disorder Culture in Running

 

On Point

This is not a podcast that I typically listen to. As I grapple with my personal religious beliefs, however, I have found the selected episodes below extremely thought provoking. The number of religious ‘nones’ in our country is rapidly increasing, and these episodes explore this phenomenon. Here are some key questions they address- Do we turn to religion because it easily provides us with beliefs, belonging, and behaviors? Can boutique fitness studios, such as SoulCycle or CrossFit, that many now claim is their “religion” fulfill these key functions? When we are raised with religion, stray from it as young adults, and then have kids, why do we innately feel guilty and thus raise our children with religion? What is the future of morality, be that religious or secular?

Selected Episodes: ‘Nones’ And Religious Identity Today; A Guide to A Godless Morality; Boutique Fitness Craze

 

Freakonomics

As someone with absolutely no interest in economics, business, or anything of that nature, I was reluctant to listen to this podcast. Well, one year later and I have listened to more than 100 episodes! Each week, Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt discuss “everything you always wanted to know but never thought to ask.” Sometimes they explore questions that I am already familiar with, like the concept of grit or organ donation, but use the most creative means to address it. For example, I am fascinated by the ethics and medical process of organ donation, but on Freakonomics, I heard from the economist who devised the algorithm to help transplant recipients find donors. Other times, the topic is something I’ve never really contemplated but am suddenly curious about- like why it seems there is a mattress store on every corner!

Selected Episodes: How to Get More Grit in Your Life; Make Me a Match; Are We in a Mattress Store Bubble?

 

Hidden Brain

As a psychology student, I am naturally drawn to this podcast, which is hosted by NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed almost every episode, but my favorite one is definitely Dream Jobs. It discusses the practice of job crafting, or creating a career that combines our passions with our skills, and of cognitive crafting, or reframing how we interpret our daily work. For example, hospital custodial staff who aim to provide a more pleasant experience for patients, such as offering to get them a glass of water, or informing a physician that they haven’t had a visitor in weeks, feel much more of a purpose than those who see their jobs as simply cleaning. Furthermore, these individuals identify as healers, and find greater meaning in their work.

Selected Episode: How To Build A Better Job

 

Fresh Air

This has been my mom’s favorite program on NPR for years. Although I do not listen to it regularly, this selected episode provides a great overview on the power of the mind in healing the body. I find it ironic that some people are opposed to psychoactive drugs for fear that they will change their brains. As this podcast demonstrates, placebos, virtual reality, and meditation can be just as effective in physically changing the brain’s neural circuitry. Rather than demeaning the placebo effect, this podcast argues that we should be harnessing its power. I’m quite interested to see where this goes in the future, and it is especially relevant as I begin to bring yoga and meditation into my everyday life.

Selected Episode: How Meditation, Placebos And Virtual Reality Help Power ‘Mind Over Body’

Happy listening🙂

 

 

 

 

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The First Boy I Brought Home from College

This is not what you’re thinking. He wasn’t a jock, a rebel, or a nerd, and this wasn’t a love affair. It goes more like this…

A 20-year-old white Jewish girl and a 40-year-old Tibetan monk walk into 7-Eleven. They buy Slurpees, smile incessantly, and take selfie, upon selfie, upon selfie.

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My friendship with Jamyang Gompo, “James Lama,” began in the fall of my sophomore year. We were both in a small interdisciplinary course called Science and the Nature of Evidence: Are We Our Genes? James was one of six monks in his cohort of the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a partnership between Emory University and His Holiness the Dalai Lama designed to bridge western science and eastern spirituality. Every two years, Tibetan monks from various monasteries are chosen to study science at Emory for four semesters, after which they return to India and teach science to their peers.

While I didn’t personally interact much with James during class, I couldn’t help but notice his smile-he was constantly radiating this jovial energy, and his vibe intrigued me. On a whim, I invited him to get lunch in the Emory dining hall. Shortly after our first meal together, he asked me to be his philosophy tutor for the following semester. I had never taken a philosophy class, but I agreed. The rest is history. Just five months later, my family was on our way to O’Hare to pickup James from the airport. Some of my fondest memories are from James’s time in Chicago- riding on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, ordering Lou Malnati’s pizza, playing board games, cruising around in my dad’s convertible, and watching lots of Tom and Jerry.

This blog post is much overdue, purely because I could not (and still cannot) conceive how to express our relationship through words. If you know me well, you know that when I talk about James I get so excited and happy and just can’t shut up. For now, I’d like to share the most integral lessons I’ve learned from our friendship, along with some photos that I guarantee will make your heart smile.

Simplicity is a gift.

This was going to be James’s first and only time staying with an American family, so I wanted him to choose all of our adventures, meals, and daily activities. I was struck by the distress that choices brought James. He insisted that I choose everything, and I quickly learned that the plethora of trivial choices that we all make each day is a foreign concept to James. In the monastery, every single monk eats bread and jam for breakfast every single day. There is one kind of bread and one kind of jam. When my mom offered James various types of cereal, oatmeal, bagels, and toast for breakfast, he said just bread would be fine. When she put orange marmalade, grape jelly, and strawberry jam on the counter, James could not believe the myriad number of breakfast options in a single house. The same thing happened when I asked James what pizza toppings he wanted or what board game he would like to play- he always insisted that I choose.

In the United States, we are conditioned to think that more choice is better, yet having to make countless minute decisions each day exerts cognitive resources that could perhaps be conserved, and thus devoted to more valuable pursuits, if our lives were simplified. I can’t help but think how many hours I’ve wasted standing in front of my closet throughout the years, when I could just be wearing a red robe like James!

 

Full presence is powerful, and patience really is a virtue.

Before James came to Chicago, I wanted to plan where to meet at the airport, so I asked him if he would be checking a bag or only bringing a carry-on. James could be an icon for the growing minimalist approach and downsizing movement in our country- he arrived with solely his school backpack. The bag I carry around campus weighs significantly more than what James brought for a four-day trip! But because he was not carrying around any extra baggage, he was able to be fully present, aware, alive- something we should all be striving for.

Living in the present frees us from dwelling on the past or fretting about the future, but reaching and maintaining full presence is quite difficult for many people, including myself. When Uber was taking ten minutes longer than expected to arrive to take us to Union Station, I became extremely frustrated and worried that we would miss our train home. Based on my visceral reaction, James grew concerned as well. I explained that if we missed this train, we would have to wait 30 minutes for the next one, and that the train ride was an hour long. He informed me that the train ride from his monastery to the closest airport is three days. Well, that sure put things into perspective!

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Living with a family of runners, James was compelled to try foam rolling!

Cultural barriers are an illusion.

Before meeting James, if you had told me that one of my closest friends would be a Tibetan monk, I’d tell you that you were crazy. What could two people of such disparate cultural upbringings possibly have in common? A lot- intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, a desire to find and emit positivity, and a drive to develop meaningful connections with others.

James is the Knenpo of his monastery, which means he has achieved the highest level of Tibetan Buddhism philosophical study and now acts as president. But our typical conversations do not concern philosophical principles or scientific inquiry. I have not become a devout Buddhist monk. I do not turn to James for spiritual guidance. Rather, I turn to him to feel happy. I do not think of James as a holy religious figure, but simply as a good friend. He loves Starbucks coffee (but the closest one to his monastery is 10 hours away!), wearing Ray Bans, and telling jokes. His favorite American joke is why was 6 afraid of 7 (my mom had to bite into an imaginary apple to explain that 7 “ate” 9!) and for his birthday, my family sent him a selfie stick, a Tom and Jerry (no words makes for easy understanding!) DVD, and a children’s joke book. He exclaimed that we “knew just what he needed”- not what I would have ever expected a Tibetan monk to say!

In a world full of religious, ethnic, and cultural conflict, our friendship highlights the ability of humans to find meaningful connections regardless of background. Sure, the language barrier creates challenges at times, but we usually just end up laughing- acknowledging how hard we are trying to express our thoughts so that the other can understand. Smiles and laughter make up the most potent language of all- the universal language of friendship.

So that’s the story of the first boy I brought home from college! It’s definitely not what I expected, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. James is now back in India. His two years at Emory ended a few days after his stay with my family, but we still talk via Facebook multiple times a week. He is truly one of my closest friends, and I am confident that it will remain this way for many years to come.

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More Unique Than Most

Note: I have been a bit apprehensive about posting this piece. The tone may strike as a contrast from my typical upbeat stories, but it’s just not everyday that I get hit by a beer bottle while running, spontaneously cross paths with inspiring individuals, or develop a guiding life mantra! I initially created this blog to share my active adventures while living with chronic illnesses, and I feel that accurately depicting the daily struggles of dealing with autoimmune conditions is imperative. I promise that my next post will be more cheerful, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy a raw look into my mind.

 

American parents are notoriously known for making their children feel special. They truly believe, and instill in the minds of their offspring, that they are different from the rest, outstanding, exceptional. But there are some realms where being special is a curse rather than a blessing. The medical field is one of them. Throughout the past several years, I have been told by countless distinguished physicians that my body is “very interesting,” that my medical history is “quite strange,” and that I am “unique…more unique than most.”

While I do hold an enormous appreciation for research, tremendously value the heartfelt relationships I have developed with my physicians, and am glad to ignite their intellectual curiosity, perplexing the University of Chicago’s most decorated doctors certainly has its costs. Comorbidity is the norm rather than the exception when it comes to illness, but I take that to an extreme. If I was just a “typical” patient-  one with diabetes who responded to insulin in a predictable manner, one with food allergies who reacted moderately, or one with a defining set of connective tissue disease symptoms, rather than symptoms from a variety of clusters- my medical trajectory would be fairly straightforward. But I am unique. My conditions are labeled “undifferentiated,” as they do not fit a presently defined syndrome. My hematologist suggested that I attend medical school and try to study individuals like myself, whose autoimmune systems have gone awry. I appreciate her confidence in my scholastic ability, but no patient wants to be told to go find her own cure far into the future!

Most of the time, I am able to maintain a relatively positive attitude- focusing on what I can control and pleading that my body cooperates. But sometimes I just cannot stand feeling that my body is constantly fighting against me. I exercise for a minimum of 90 minutes a day and weigh 97 pounds when I wake up, yet I often get so bloated throughout the day that children ask me if I am pregnant. I rarely eat dessert, and when I let myself have a treat, my blood sugar skyrockets so high, becoming pretty much unresponsive to repeated insulin injections and leaving me feeling quite ill. When I wear a dress on the train to work, I get an itchy red rash on the back of my thighs from the seat, perhaps due to some residue of food I am allergic to. So I often do feel angry, but then I get mad at myself for feeling this way. I have a loving, supportive family and have had a very successful college career. While many adolescents are stuck in the hospital, I am out living an active life. I should be grateful; these thoughts of anger are absurd.

But every now and then, my conflicting emotions are validated. While reviewing an extensive array of symptoms at a new rheumatologist last week, the fellow remarked, “Any symptoms of anxiety? Depression? I mean, how could you not!” The next day, at my annual checkup, my pediatrician took a break from thinking about my puzzling body to discuss my plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and future career goals.

“So what’s the secret? How do you do it?”

“Do what?” I asked.

“All of it. What keeps you going? Most young people who have grown up with chronic illnesses have given up by now.”

I do not think either of these people intended to induce so much emotion, but I was crying the whole ride home. I cannot pinpoint why, but I have felt a plethora of conflicting feelings in the days since. Frustration at the voids of modern medicine. Anger at the seemingly impossible feat of attaining mind-body harmony. Grateful for the resources that have allowed me to cope relatively successfully. Miserable for all those children and young adults who have fallen victim to their illness. Most of all, though, validated.

That night, the suggested intention in my yoga class was, it doesn’t get easier; you just get stronger. I felt as if the teacher had read my mind. My body is exceptionally unique, and my chronic illnesses will not relent. They will continue to throw me physical, social, and mental curveballs for years to come. There will be good days and bad days. I can work towards accepting that. Unless some miraculous medical discoveries are rapidly made, it will not get easier. But I will continue to get stronger.

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Radiating Positive Energy

 

Once again, this blog has seen a lengthy hiatus. For a time, I had mentally resigned. I created Miles with M.E. to share my “running reflections and autoimmune adventures,” but my running career for the past year and a half has consisted of countless orthopedic and physical therapy visits yet little progress. A blog chronicling my frustrations with my body’s seemingly inability to heal would certainly not prove enlightening. Thus, in a mental slump and confusion of a worthy purpose of this blog, I simply gave up- until two special people came into my life. We all know those corny sayings about people walking into and out of our lives and those special individuals leaving footprints on our hearts. More profound, and less corny, I feel, are those who stay in our heads- fundamentally changing how we think, how we interact with others, how we see the world.

You may remember Jim, the cancer survivor who befriended me at the Winship 5k in October of 2015. I think about Jim quite frequently, and last month, we met for lunch at the Emory Farmers Market. We hadn’t seen each other since the race but had emailed back-and-forth every now and then, and Jim suggested that we get together. In my original post about Jim, I discussed how he restored my faith in humanity, and our recent discussion had an even stronger effect. Jim came to lunch extremely prepared. He had spent the previous day analyzing my running form in online race photos and subsequently researching corrective exercises, and he brought resistance bands with to demonstrate them. He also pulled a supplement beverage out of his backpack and informed me of the vast benefits he had seen with his own autoimmune issues by incorporating fermented foods into his diet. Most meaningful of all was the extent to which, explicitly and implicitly, Jim informed me that I was in his thoughts and prayers. I have often questioned whether pure altruism exists, but if it does, Jim embodies it. This man, whom I have spent no more than a couple of hours with in my life, truly cares about me. He is a compassionate healer seeking to rejuvenate my body and mind, and he has encouraged me to believe in the goodness of the world.

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Now, let me introduce you to Lexi. I met Lexi in Club Med Sandpiper Bay over spring break. While her official title is fitness instructor, I think mender, warrior, or spiritual gangster are far more appropriate. Never before have I met someone who radiates such positive energy. I had practiced yoga occasionally throughout the years, but it wasn’t until Lexi’s class that I felt anything deeper than physical exercise. The quotes she read about calming the body and quieting the mind and the words she spoke about human interconnectedness- the oneness of the world- captivated me. I got to know Lexi quite well throughout the week, and what perhaps stood out most was her awareness of the world. During morning power walks, she would just notice ever little detail in nature, beauties that the rest of us would mindlessly miss. She was present and child-like, always trying out new ways of playing with her body and encouraging guests to do the same. I have learned about the positive effects of mindfulness, spirituality, and play through my interdisciplinary classes and various podcasts and articles that I read on my own. It wasn’t until I saw someone embody these qualities, however, that I gained the courage to incorporate them into my own life. I was quite comforted to learn that Lexi has not always been like this- that we can all actively change our ways of being- and that she still feels she is on a spiritual journey- that no one is perfect, that we can always grow if we so choose. Saying goodbye to Lexi was extremely difficult, but she reminded me that we are all connected. Before meeting her, I would have found this extremely cheesy. Now, however, I find myself wholeheartedly believing in oneness- I truly feel that her teachings are present within me.

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So, you may be wondering- what do Jim and Lexi have in common, and what do they have to do with Miles with M.E.? These two individuals reignited my positive energy and instilled within me a creative purpose and determination to spread goodness in the world. While this blog may, at least for some time, not be narrowly focused on running, my hope is that my posts offer glimmers of happiness, spark creativity, or inspire you to actively choose to enhance your holistic wellness. I would be lying if I said I no longer complained every time I am upset or have an autoimmune flare, but Jim and Lexi have truly empowered me- allowing me to realize that I am in control of the energy that surrounds me. I have become increasingly aware of and bothered by the plethora of gossip and complaints in our daily interactions and thus made greater efforts to seek out environments that support my thriving.

It is difficult to fathom how one person can have such an enormous impact in such a short time. What I am still reconciling even further is the question of why I met Jim and Lexi. I find it hard to believe that the timing of these encounters was purely coincidental. Skeptics would deem it as chance, and I have previously expressed my rejection of everything happening for a reason. Religious folks like Jim would say that God brought us together. Perhaps I am somewhere in the middle then, feeling that some spiritual energy brought us together. I will continue to grapple with exactly what I believe, but I am alright with that.

Thanks to Jim and Lexi for radiating positive energy and empowering me to rekindle this blog.

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The canvas I painted last night!

 

 

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An Unconventional Community

When you hear the word community, what comes to mind? I think of a tight-knit group of individuals who share similar backgrounds and familial upbringings, who really feel that they know each other, who possess some sort of mutual understanding, and who provide sincere support. In this sense, it seems that a strong community must be inherently small and develop overtime. Contrast this with distance running. Marathoners are in the athletic pursuit of an individual goal and are often seen as selfish, as they devote so much of their time to training, potentially at the expense of other familial or social responsibilities. At face value, running a marathon appears incompatible with community- they are almost opposites. Every time I interact with other runners, however, I am reminded that running provides the most beautiful sense of community I ever encountered.

For more than a year, I had been planning on running the Chicago Marathon. Prior to my injury, I would visualize every aspect of the next Columbus Day weekend on a daily basis- eagerly picking up my bib at the expo, entering the starting corral shaking from both the frigid morning temperature and nervous excitement, running hard through my Windy City home, and wrapping myself in my well-deserved silver blanket. Not being able to make these visions a reality has, at times, left me as an emotional wreck, but my dad was still running the race, and I wanted to make the most out of the weekend. Therefore, while the rest of my family was still sleeping, I took the 6:00 AM train downtown to the Runner’s World shakeout run with Bart Yasso, Sara Hall, and Deena Kastor. Initially, I was concerned that showing up at a shakeout run for a race I wasn’t running would be quite awkward, but I could not have had a more uplifting experience.

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Deena Kastor

A hundred or so strangers gathered at sunrise to run along Chicago’s lakefront trail. While we didn’t know anything about one another before this morning, we were united by this common identity as runners. We shared the defining characteristics of self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, courage, and a zesty passion. We felt the same emotions of anxiety, enthusiasm, and joy surrounding our goal progression. While we came from different backgrounds, training for a formidable race joined us in a unique journey. Moreover, we each had a story, and sharing our stories resulted in powerful social support. We were not merely a group of selfish strangers – we were a strong community.

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Not only is the running community sincere, but it is the most welcoming community that I know. I felt more support from this community than I often do from my peers, along with a sense of empathy. All runners know how much not running sucks, and sharing experiences with individuals from all walks of life was quite fascinating.  While I was unable to participate in the shakeout run itself, I felt a greater sense of belonging just casually chatting with fellow runners than since I have run myself.

Perhaps my most profound realization of the weekend was the unique accessibility of the running community. There is little social hierarchy in this sport- elite runners are just ordinary people. Runner’s World Publisher Molly O’Keefe and Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso smiled to see the girl who got hit by the beer bottle (at least my story is memorable to my favorite journalists!) Two of America’s greatest distance runners of all time, Deena Kastor and Joan Benoit Samuelson, are my biggest inspirations. I emailed Deena prior to this weekend, she sent me a sincere response within a couple of days, and greeted me with a big hug and warm smile on Saturday. To me, this hug was the equivalent of a typical teenager getting a personalized greeting by Taylor Swift! We had a friendly conversation, and the next morning, 42-year-old Deena broke the U.S. women’s masters marathon record by nearly a minute- proving that excellence can come later in life and that several months without running does not mean an end to my participation in this sport.

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Bart Yasso

At the race expo, I approached Joan- who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon, the first year in which women were allowed to compete- like a little kid in a candy store. We discussed the physical and mental difficulties of dealing with injury, and she stressed how young I was and how much potential the future held. Talking to her felt like talking to my mom- she was just so down to earth, caring, and kind. Joan emphasized the importance of listening to our bodies, and she could not have set a better example herself- she reluctantly sat out of this year’s Chicago marathon due to a stomach virus. As mentally tough as we might be, sometimes the body rules over the mind, and we just have to accept that and move forward.

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Joan Benoit Samuelson

Immersing myself in this running culture when I am physically unable to run is a blessing and a curse. It makes me more upset that I cannot do what I love, but hearing stories of others, ranging from novice runners to world record holders, reminds me that I am not alone and gives me hope for the future. When I can run, I will be more passionate and determined than ever before. For now, however, I will continue to connect with others in this special sphere, this sphere in which I have been fortunate to find a profound sense of community.

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Believe: My Personal Faith

It has been one year since I last posted on this blog- one year since my empowering encounter with Jim, and two years since the beer bottle incident. My introspection has skyrocketed in the past year, but I have failed to craft my thoughts into words. In one of my courses this semester, Ethics: Human Goodness, we have been discussing the power of narrative and the importance of documenting our experiences. Ideas for blog posts pop into my mind quite frequently, and I am grateful for this class for finally re-catalyzing my commitment to sharing my adventures and expressing my feelings here. One post cannot make up for a year’s absence, and I promise that I will get back to my lighthearted stories soon. Today, however, I will focus on something deeper, the greatest lesson I’ve learned in the past several months- the power of believing.

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If you ask me to describe myself, my passion for running immediately comes to mind. My athletic identity is perpetually salient, as, to a large extent, I centralize my life around this sport and its culture. Aside from the physical activity of running, I begin each day by reading Runner’s World magazine, have a Twitter solely for the purpose of following elite runners, and schedule all of my holiday plans around races. When I think about the future, where I’ll be in five or ten years from now, I imagine traveling to different races, setting new goals, and surpassing them. I am a runner at heart- yet for the past several months, proximal hamstring tendinosis has kept me sidelined. I have felt an emotional overload like never before- anger from being entrapped in the dungeon of the gymnasium, confined to the elliptical rather than free to roam the forest preserves; anger at the time and money I have spent on failed treatments from orthopedics, physical therapists, massage therapists, and chiropractors. Sadness from missing out on an abundance of races, including next week’s Chicago Marathon, and simply of being unable to engage in my most beloved activity; sadness that causes me to cry myself to sleep more often than I’d like. Confusion as to why this is happening to me right now, when I was in such good shape and loving running more than ever before; confusion as to what I have done to deserve this and why all of my autoimmune conditions make healing so difficult for my body. My injury has made little improvement in several months, and I have not been able to run since February. But for some reason, perhaps irrational, I keep holding on to this little bit of hope, believing that things will get better.

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If you look around my apartment, it’s clear that “believe” is my favorite word- it’s plastered on my bulletin board, training journal, medal rack, and a canvas. This word has been special to me for a while, but in the past few months, it has become the mantra that I live by. I would be the last person expected to get a tattoo (can’t you just imagine me having an allergic reaction?!) yet connecting my mind and body through this word has definitely crossed my mind. Sometimes I wonder if I should just give up hope of getting better and returning to running- but I just can’t. I have a plethora of life goals, and running is what most excites me about the future. Running is engrained in my identity, and it is too important to simply discard. Based on experiences I’ve encountered and witnessed, I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I am not a religiously devout individual, and I am not sure that I believe in god. Recently, however, I have coped with adversity by establishing my own faith- believing that things will get better. My personal spirituality is synonymous with “believe.” It has allowed me to make peace with my injured body, focus on circumstances that are in my control, and not let go of my dreams. Believe.

Believe

Jim

An Empowering Encounter

I have been pretty terrible about updating my blog lately. Since I’ve been back at Emory, I’ve only posted once. Thoughts of new posts constantly come to mind, yet with classes, research, volunteering, extracurricular activities, and of course, running, I just haven’t found the time to write. This weekend, however, was very special- in the midst of stressful schoolwork and homesickness, I had a chance encounter that completely restored my faith in humanity.

It began Friday afternoon when, after picking up my race bib and t-shirt for Saturday’s Winship Win the Fight 5k, I was walking to a lab meeting. Suddenly, an older man approached me and asked about my ankle. I was quite surprised, but he seemed friendly, so I briefly explained the beer bottle incident, which coincidentally happened exactly one year ago (the Friday afternoon before the Winship 5k, which I had been planning on running!) Surprisingly, the man seemed relieved. We continued talking, and it turned out that Jim is a melanoma survivor. His calf was affected by cancer, and the sight of my ankle had worried him. I asked him if he was running the race, which he was, and we began discussing our favorite races and times. As we parted ways, we wished each other luck, and he told me that he hoped to see me on the podium tomorrow. That would have been enough. Sad as it is to say, it’s not everyday that a random stranger strikes up a conversation with you. I thought about Jim for the rest of the day and what a special encounter it had been.

Come race morning, I was warming up with tears in my eyes. I could hear the Winship Cancer Institute speakers, which made me think about my cousin Jimmy, a pediatric oncologist, who passed away a few years ago. I hadn’t realized what an emotional event this race would be, and as I finished my warm up, I heard, “let’s hope there’s no beer bottles on the course this early in the morning.” I turned around, and there was Jim! We entered the start corral together and discussed our families and backgrounds while waiting for the gun to fire. This was the first race I’ve run without knowing anyone- in fact, I’d never run a race without my mom or dad on the course or in the crowds. While the race was held on Emory’s campus and had around 3,000 runners, walkers, and joggers, I did not see any fellow students! It wasn’t really the type of event one typically attends alone- there were teams with hundreds of people in matching t-shirts, groups of cancer survivors, and families running in honor of loved ones. But I did not feel alone at all- I had made a lovely acquaintance, and I was running for a compelling cause.

It was a challenging course (the name of the area, Druid Hills, gives it away) but my endorphins were in full gear. I was the third female to cross the finish line, but rather than analyzing my splits and cooling down, I just wanted to see Jim finish- and he did, in under 26 minutes, and was handed a white flower, indicating he was a cancer survivor. And Jim was right- we did see each other on the podium! We both placed in our age group, and he was elated that both he and “his adopted daughter for the day” had medaled.

I had been on cloud nine the whole day after my encounter with Jim when I received an email from him. Without knowing anything about me but my first name and that I was an Emory student, Jim had found my blog. He deeply touched my life, and it seems I made an impact on him as well. I don’t know what else to say about this weekend. Jim has the spirit of runner- a fighter, an unstoppable machine, a pure human being. We were brought together by chance, and I hope to see him at next year’s race. Jim made me appreciate running, living, and human goodness more than ever before. Miracle moments like these are few and far between, but they truly are empowering.

Jim

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Change: Goodbyes & New Beginnings

Change is something I have always struggled with. This is not unusual- as human beings, we are creatures of habit- yet I have always felt I experience more anxiety than my peers. Perhaps my medical conditions are to blame- a new environment means a new sleeping, eating, and exercise schedule, which can (and has!) thrown off my blood sugar (I have had to get up almost hourly in the night for the past week to check my blood sugar and often have glucose.) A new environment means new people to educate about my allergies (more detailed post coming soon!) A new environment means being away from the comfort of my family. So how do I deal with the stress of change as I transition from a relaxed summer at home to sophomore year at Emory? I cling to the activity I can always bring along- running.

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It might sound strange then, that the day before leaving for school, I finally decided to donate my old running shoes. Facebook was bombarded by the Ice Bucket Challenge and while I didn’t particularly want to dump ice on my head, all the hype lead me to think of an easy act of goodness. Just as I have trouble with change, I have trouble parting ways with the things and people that I love. Therefore, I had seven pairs of Nike Lunarglides piled in my laundry room, too worn on the bottoms to run in but otherwise perfectly fine. My mom had been nagging me (along with my dad and brother) to get rid of these useless shoes for quite sometime, but I always refused, explaining the value of all the miles each pair of shoes had carried me in and the memories that they brought back.

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Well, since I was all packed and had nothing to do on that last day, I took all of my running shoes outside, got Daniel’s as well, and had a running shoe photo shoot. It provided an hour of entertainment, some of my favorite photos, and a realization- I had a ridiculous amount of shoes for no reason. I did some research online and found an organization called Share Your Soles, which donates shoes to severely impoverished people in several parts of the world. My shoes have been with me for a long time, but it’s time to give someone else a new beginning.

 

So next time you’re dealing with a change in life- however large or small it might be- find something constant to take with you. I find it best if it’s an activity you can do alone- something to bring you comfort and clear your mind- but even better is when you can take your passion and find others with similar interests. I’m trying a new strategy I’d like to call the “say yes” approach- when someone asks me to do something for these first few weeks of school, I’m going to say yes as much as possible. It’s worked- I’ve already found some great new buddies for morning runs!

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No Risk No Reward + DIY Race Bib Book!

Nearly every Saturday morning this summer, I have dragged my mom along to accompany me on my long runs. Perhaps dragged is not the correct word- she admits to enjoying biking alongside me on the trails. However, every Friday night, she questions my motives- “Why do you have to run ten miles?” She has a point- I have no upcoming long races on the calendar, and my body could probably use some rest- but these longs runs are the highlight of my week. While they can be physically and mentally exhausting, they are what make me happiest.

Whether or not you’re a runner, I think it’s nearly impossible not to be fascinated by the runner’s mentality. We push our body through pain, as overcoming doubt and challenge makes us feel like we can conquer anything. With each tough run, we grow stronger, eventually reach our goals, and thus set new ones. As runners, we constantly push ourselves through suffering because we know it will ultimately make us better people. This summer, I’ve collected a variety of quotes about this phenomenon. Here are some of my favorites:

“People ask why I run. I say, ‘If you have to ask, you will never understand.’ It is something that only those select few know. Those who put themselves through pain, but know, deep down, how good if feels.” -Erin Leonard

“If you’re doing it right, at some point you will want to drop out of just about every race you run.” -Mark Remy

“Stepping outside the comfort zone is the price I pay to find out how good I can be. If I planned on backing off every time winning got difficult, I would hang up my shoes and take up knitting.” -Olympian Desiree Linden

“Happiness is pushing your limits and watching them back down” -New Balance Ad

So challenge brings us the greatest happiness- quite fascinating, in my opinion at least!

I had been searching for a creative way to display my race bibs for quite some time, so I decided to make them into a book. Like my medal rack, my race bib book is already giving me running motivation and exciting me for the future. This book was extremely simple to make and only cost a few dollars (not including hundreds of dollars in race fees!) All of the materials can be found at Target, and you can customize it however you like.

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All you need is a bright polypropylene folder, two loose-leaf rings, Sharpies, a hole puncher, and scissors. Cut the folder to a size that is a little larger than your largest bib (I cut mine to about 9 x 9.5″) and decorate however you would like. Line up your bibs in chronological order and place on rings. If you have bibs of different sizes, you may have to punch holes in the larger bibs. Simply punch corresponding holes in the folder, place on rings, and you’re done!

You may be thinking, “I don’t have any race bibs to place in this book.” Well, if you create this, think of all the motivation it will give you to race🙂