Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Coming Down From the Mountain

They say that not all who wander are lost. That statement, however, does not apply to me. I am pretty much always lost. My Grade 8 Social Studies teacher once told me that women are bad navigators because they lack naturally occurring metals in their nose that act as a compass. (He also once did my astrological chart and told me that I would be very successful in life but unfortunately no one would ever love me…but that’s a blog post and/or therapy session for another day). By that logic, I must have terminally low quantities of nose metals because no one can throw a GPS into fits like I can. In the times before smartphones, I routinely had to phone friends to ask questions like, “Hypothetically, how would one end up in Kentucky when one was trying to get to Chicago?” or “I am at a place with a big tree and kind of a weird bird and it’s raining. Could you come and get me?”

Training for the Scotiabank Half Marathon has put my navigational deficiency into sharp relief. I tried to walk North Vancouver, discovered the pedestrian path of the bridge was closed for construction, and suddenly I’m in the woods going past tree forts built by homeless people and someone comes out of the bushes and I start to run ("run") and, poof, I’m in Burnaby. I attempted to make it 14.5 kilometers to my parents’ house in New Westminster and 18.5 kilometers later found myself slogging up the massive Canada Way hill, once again mysteriously in Burnaby. The only silver lining is that I’ve put myself weeks ahead of my training schedule just by adding unintentional kilometers on to every training session.
New blog series: "Where's Arley Now? No, really, where am I?"

My amazing personal trainer and pilates instructor Christie Stoll recently lent me the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed (aka that movie where Reese Witherspoon yells at trees). There’s a scene in the book where Cheryl – who is hiking the 1000+ mile Pacific Crest Trail -- encounters an unexpectedly snowy pass. Some of her fellow hikers choose to slog through it, but she decides to come down to go around the dangerous area. When reading this scene, my first thought was, “Oh, sure, she takes the easy way out.” (In fairness, I would not have even started the Pacific Crest Trail because I would have taken a wrong turn on the first day and ended up in the ocean). Later in the book, Cheryl Strayed learns that those who tried to push through the snowy pass actually ended up exhausting themselves and giving up on the whole hike. Following her instinct to come down and avoid danger was a smart one.

I have been trying to take this lesson to heart. When you have my litany of muscoskeletal problems – one wonky knee, two arthritic feet, three subluxed ribs and a partridge in the pear tree – the chance of injuring yourself is high. Through most of May, it felt like some higher power was playing a very bad game of Operation with my body. First, the arthritis in my feet started to flare up. Then, part of the top of my left foot started to burn and tingle – back problems? Shoe problems? Flesh-eating disease caused by those shoes I bought for $5 from a man selling them out of bucket on the street in East Van? – and my subluxed rib came out. Finally, my knee decided to tap out.

I will save you the history of my knee problems, but suffice to say that if the children’s rhyme about the hip bone being connected to the knee bone is right, then when the ass muscle isn’t connected to anything, and the hip bone’s connected to several pounds of reinforced titanium, the knee bone has a hard time staying where it’s supposed to.  (Yes, even my knee cap wanders off and gets lost). Three weeks ago, it started locking up and I began to feel an awful tearing sensation in the back of my knee. All of this was new. When it seized up for five minutes in a pilates class, I went to the walk-in clinic. Was it a bone chip? A piece of floating cartilage? Had I managed to contract Runner’s Knee without ever running a step? No one knew.

So, I took Cheryl Strayed’s advice and came down from the mountain. I stopped training and focused on icing, taking anti-inflammatories, stretching and trying not to sulkily spend hours listing to that John Prine song that goes “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.” For someone who has a long and storied history of pushing herself too far (see: that time I fractured my back and decided to treat it with two strips of athletic tape and Percocet and won an MVP award but scored on the wrong basket once and also lost feeling in my left arch for two years) this is actually a big deal for me.

I was not sure whether I would be able to do the half marathon at all, which was upsetting to me because my friends and family have been so amazingly generous and I did not want to let them down. After several long weeks, however, the swelling’s gone back down and the pain is less, though the knee still clicks and locks up on occasion. I’ve lost a lot of fitness and stamina in my weeks off, but I have made peace with the fact that even if I don’t complete the course under three hours, I will count even dragging my carcass across that finish line at all to be a success. 

I originally decided to do the Vancouver Scotiabank Half Marathon for two reasons. The first was to give back to the community that’s given me so much. The second, however, was to prove that my version of success doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s. No matter how hard I train, I will probably always be the last one across the finish line. I will still be passed by old men with knee socks and fanny packs on the Grouse Grind. My downward facing dog and my backwards bend will look pretty much identical. And, though it has nothing to do with my disability, my lack of navigational ability will probably mean that probably 50% of the time I’m going to accidentally end up in Burnaby. But at least I’m out there, slogging away, finding a new normal. Gimpy little baby steps.

(And, hey, if you want to donate to my Scotiabank Half Marathon quest, you can do so here. You'll get a tax receipt and a personalized thank you letter and also a big, sweaty hug if I see you on race day).

Thank you all for your support.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Walking the Scotiabank Half Marathon Post Hip Replacement

On June 28th, 2009, I stood out front of UBC Hospital wearing a pair of leather Mary Janes. I was not allowed to leave the hospital barefoot, but my legs were so weak that I could only walk by scrunching my toes along the floor. I tried to take a step, but the rubber soles only scuffed against the pavement. I was fixed in place by a forcefield made of half a pound of rubber.

Mika and I on a very slow walk
That summer, I walked barefoot around the block as my hip replacement clunked around like a loose heel on a shoe. Sometimes my cat would join me. She would get annoyed by my slowness and sprint ahead in and out of bushes, then tire halfway through and flop down on someone’s driveway until my mom carried her the rest of the way home. I did my exercises twice a day in my childhood bedroom, napping, fading in and out of shows about home renovators and people with 19 children. At night, I slept under a ceiling fan that, decades ago, I had decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars and letters that read Arley Was Here. When the fan turned on, the letters blurred into a glowing circle over my head as I laid awake worrying that I would never get better, that nothing would improve, I would be stuck forever in this bedroom with the ceiling fan announcing that Arley Was Here Still Living With Her Parents And Had Not Worn Anything But Gym Shorts And T-Shirts In Over A Month.

Things did, of course, get better. I went to physio at Burnaby Hospital’s hips and knees clinic. I found a new surgeon, who diagnosed me with a torn gluteus medius, and I underwent another surgery to try to repair the gluteus medius and the hip replacement. (The gluteus medius reattachment failed. Cue a lifetime of half-assed jokes).

I graduated to a cane, then I ditched the cane because I thought that staggering around like a sea creature was somehow sexier than walking with an assistive device designed for old people and I was trying online dating. I earned the ire of the elderly women at deep water aerobics with my misplaced competitive drive. I wildly overestimated my physical abilities and tried to do the Grouse Grind, where I was passed by an endless parade of fit people, then children, then fat old men with their socks pulled up to their knees, then tourists limping in flip flops, but I did not die. I wildly overestimated my physical abilities and did a 20km+ hike to Garibaldi Lake, which caused all of my toenails to fall off, but which also did not kill me. I met an awesome guy, got engaged, and now boast a wardrobe that is only 30% comprised of workout gear. Okay, maybe 40%.

Hiking near Squamish
Today, I still walk like badly done stop motion animation. I will spare you the laundry list of my physical maladies, but suffice to say that if my muscoskeletal system was a house, it would be on Holmes on Homes. As a former Paralympian, however, I missed having a challenge. When one of the organizations I work for, BC Wheelchair Basketball Society, was announced as a charity for the Scotiabank Half Marathon, I once again wildly overestimated my physical abilities and decided to sign up. If I couldn’t run it, I would just walk it, and if walking proved too difficult I would just flail away in the direction of the finish line until I staggered across it.

Because the Scotiabank Half Marathon course closes after 3 hours, I decided to test my range at the four-hour Fort Langley Half Marathon, which unfortunately took place the day after I returned from a week working at the Canada Winter Games. I’d decided to go hiking the day before and got my shoes stuck in the snow, so they were damp. I was dehydrated from a week of event coverage, where I survived pretty much on coffee, popcorn and Starbucks’ lemon-cranberry scones (carbo-loading!). I had not trained. I was running on two hours of sleep. I remembered on my way to the race that I probably should have brought some of those replenishing gel pack things…or at least a bottle of water. I checked in at 6:30 am to a beautiful sunrise and wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Still, I was optimistic. Armed with a copy of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” which I listened to on repeat for the entire duration of the race, I set off to walk 21.5 kilometers. Several people stopped to ask what was wrong with me. Several more asked if I needed medical assistance. One suggested an IT band brace. One suggested that the medics could be here shortly if I needed them. A guy drove up in a car and asked if I needed help, then returned again to tell me a story about his friend with brittle bone disease, then returned again with a printed photo of a double amputee running a marathon to inspire me to finish. Around the 15Km mark, my gait pattern began to resemble that of Jack Torrance's in the "Here's Johnny" scene of The Shining. Still, I finished in 3:04, and I was not last. (Eighth to last…but still).
Celebrating after the Fort Langley Half Marathon
And so, on June 28th 2015, exactly six years after I left the hospital after my first hip replacement, I’ll be walking the Scotiabank Half Marathon in support of BC Wheelchair Basketball Society. Wheelchair basketball changes lives. It certainly changed mine. I want to give back in a small way to an organization that has given me so much over the years.

So far, I’ve been overwhelmed with the support I’ve received. My family and friends helped me reach my fundraising minimum in about three hours. My amazing personal trainer Christie Stoll at Spartacus Gym went above and beyond to set me up with a strength program to correct my imbalances and a walking plan to improve my speed. Even the sales guy at The Running Room on Cambie turned out to be a physiotherapy student and spent nearly an hour learning about my condition and finding me a pair of running shoes that would improve my foot pain.

Right now, I’m off to go walk 11.5 kilometers in the rain. I still need to shave five minutes off my time to cross the finish line in under three hours, but I plan to using the same strategy that allowed me to walk around the block in under 30 minutes that summer six years ago: trusting experts, doing a little more than yesterday, and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Gimpy little baby steps, yo.

(If you'd like to sponsor me for the Scotiabank Half Marathon, click here. I'm grateful for any contributions).