One Foot in Front of The Other

I was once a runner.

I wasn’t always. I took it up after I left NYU in 1995. I’d been teaching myself to cook at college, and turning out to be unfortunately, deliciously good at it, so the second half of my sophomore year, I set myself once again on on the downward spin of my customary yo-yo diet.

Up to that point, I had never really been athletic at all. I hated team sports growing up – disliked competition because I’d always been a bit too emotionally sensitive to deal with losing. Because of that, I tended to work out alone, choosing bike rides, power walking, and aerobics tapes, all of which I know I thought burned more calories than they actually did. But at age 20, I decided I wanted to get into better shape than I’d ever been in, and to that end, running – something I’d never been at all good at – felt suitably hardcore. Growing up, I’d always been at least the next-to-last to finish the 600-yard-run, huffing and puffing and trailing along way in the back with any heavyset classmates. I’d only run a mile without stopping one time, despite the much dreaded Wednesday Mile in my high school P.E. class, so I set that as my first goal.

Back at home in the leafy planned community I grew up in in Northern Virginia, there were miles of trails stretching out through the woods in every direction. I’d always loved being alone with my thoughts in the woods, and more of that as part of my new commitment to fitness, in my mind, sure beat the idea of endless circles on a shadeless, baking track on a humid Mid-Atlantic summer day. I started on the trails I’d always used, and as I upped my distance, branched into other neighborhoods, and then further afield.

I soon took to running at Burke Lake, the nearest large park, which has an almost-five-mile circuit through the woods along the lake’s shoreline. I’d run as much as I could of the first mile, walk a bit, run a bit more, walk a bit more. Each day I’d mark down on my calendar how fast I’d finished the trail, and gradually the number started creeping downward.

The first time I ran the whole 4.83 miles without stopping, I circled back into the parking lot to find a huge flock of geese milling around. I raised my hands above my head in triumph and jogged through the goosey crowd, feeling as if my personal accomplishment had been granted the reward of a reasonably receptive audience, even if they were a bit more prone to pooping in public than your average race spectators.

Once I’d gotten my endurance to the point that I manage the lake trail without trouble, I discovered that I truly loved to run, and that I could keep putting one foot in front of the other for seven or ten miles if I wanted to. I wasn’t fast, and I didn’t suddenly develop the competitive streak I’d never had, but running became my favorite form of exercise. I loved its repetitive, meditative nature and the time it gave me to turn problems over in my mind.

I came to know the lake trail like the back of my hand. I’d start from the parking lot near the dam, kicking things off with a sharply winding downhill, crossing the dam’s asphalted width in full sun, then diving into the packed dirt and shade of the main trail. I psyched myself up for climbs and sprayed loose gravel on their downhill sides. Month by month, I watched the seasons change in the woods. I looked for new wildflowers along the trail – bluets and violets in the spring, crown vetch in the height of summer – and noted the date of each find in my Audubon guide at home. The time I spotted a cluster of otherworldly Pink Lady’s Slippers in the forest understory, or when I came face to face with a tiny dappled fawn sitting alone in a trailside clearing, were red-letter days that fed my soul.

I definitely achieved my goal of getting in the best shape I’d ever been in. I ran a pretty solid 25 to 30 miles a week for a while. Sometimes back then, instead of taking the car, I’d ride my bike the 4.5 miles to the lake, run the trail, and ride home. Having so much more endurance made me feel at times like a totally different person than I’d been before I started running, and boosted both my confidence and my happiness.

I stuck with the running pretty well for a year or so, but taking a management job at Whole Foods started eating into my running time the next year, and at the same time I was running out of patience with the carrots-and-nothing diet required to keep my weight as low as I’d gotten it. The year after that, Chimp and I moved in together in a closer-in suburb, and I started working mostly mornings. All of that conspired to make it tougher to get to the lake, and I said a mostly-goodbye to it and a more permanent one when we moved to Michigan in 2000.

Kalamazoo, I found to my dismay, didn’t have a park system like Northern Virginia’s. Not many places do. Besides that, it was tough to get any miles at all in outdoors half the year without crampons and a snowsuit, so two years later, I bought a treadmill to use during the frigid winters. It was just as helpful when we moved to Fresno in 2003, at the other climactic extreme.

Lacking Burke Lake but having a treadmill, my usual habit, six days a week, was to get up in the pre-dawn darkness, shut the door to the room where the machine was, strap on my sneakers, point a fan at my back, turn on the music, and pound out a quick three miles before getting ready for the day.

And then I got sick.

Some people I know with ME/CFS talk about how they had to scale back their workouts, or how their recovery time got longer, or how they have had to drop aerobic exercise but can still lift weights a little. Not me. I was instantly unable to exercise at all. My stamina dropped like a stone and never recovered. A few months into my illness, I turned on the treadmill and climbed on, determined to do something. I walked my last mile on it at the absolutely glacial pace of 25 minutes.

A couple months later, I remember being at a trade show for work, and feeling a sort of dazed amazement at watching people walk around the huge convention hall without any difficulty. They could just start walking, and walk for as long as it took to get from point A to point B. It’d only been a matter of months since I’d lost that ability, but it already felt like I was observing an alien race.

The sicker I got, the shorter the distance I could walk. It went from blocks to a block to maybe around a store to across the room, and then I couldn’t walk at all. I spent more than a year like that from late 2007 to early 2009, totally bedbound, unable to get up and walk across the room for any reason. Couldn’t have saved myself if the house was on fire. It was the worst sort of misery, being totally helpless, totally bored, a prisoner of my own body. And I know eventually, someday, it’ll probably be back.

But since 2009, my mobility has been improving, and this year it’s better than it’s been since 2007. For a long time my gait was very tottery because of the muscle wasting caused by my years lying in bed – more like swinging from point to point on stilts than actually walking. But I’ve been doing enough of it that it’s starting to look more like walking. I’m able to go farther now, and my balance is improved. I wouldn’t say my calf muscles look normal, but they look perceptibly better.

This spring I started tending my deck railing garden outside my dayroom myself, and then when the snap peas that Chimp planted came up, I was able to step off the deck and harvest them. Within the last week, on several days I’ve struck out for the squash plants along the fence to bring in their yield, and have been sort of half-surprised to find myself out that far, and then half-surprised again to successfully navigate the incline to get back to the house.

The other night, I was standing at the kitchen sink, washing a bowl of cherries while gazing idly out the window at the gathering dusk. A fit young woman came powering up the steep incline of the street our house sits on, attacking the hill with determination. I watched her shirt swing around her as she pumped her arms to pull herself up the grade, and felt a pang of sadness. I used to be that woman, I thought.

I looked at the cherries in my hands and remembered the years I couldn’t have helped myself to them. I smiled to myself, turned around, and relished the 20-foot walk back to my dayroom.

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30 Responses to One Foot in Front of The Other

  1. Zander says:

    That was beautifully written and moving as always

  2. Lauryn says:

    Great post Joc! Wonderful evocation of the magic of trail running, and of being able to write “standing at the window washing cherries.”

  3. kathy d. says:

    Your writing is just great. I felt like I (a total non-athlete, non-runner) was running along with you.
    Well, congratulations on the progress you are now making. I think it was the incisive Katrina Berne who said at her no longer existing website (sadly, it was wonderful) that we should not compare ourselves with what we could do pre ME/CFS but only compare what we have done since we got this darned disease. I think it’s good advice, although sometimes hard to follow.
    I’ve never been an athlete, hated Phys Ed as a kit, only liked to catch at baseball and later, play badminton. But books and crossword puzzles have been my activities — and now using the Internet for reading and commenting) mostly and more so in recent years as my ability to do things has declined, but never did athletics.. Does aging have something to do with it? You bet.
    It sounds like a perfect scenario: tending your garden, washing its produce, enjoying the sunset.
    Even though you can’t be the runner you were or the athlete you saw outdoors, you have a lot there. The beauty of nature means a lot, I say, as I look out over apartment buildings.
    You’re doing so well. Enjoy it.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks as always, Kathy. I agree with Katrina’s statement. We have to be careful what we compare to.

      I do miss my nature walks now, but you’re right that I’m glad I have a yard that gives me a little contact with the outdoors. What you say about looking out over apartment buildings – I remember how I felt deprived of nature when I was living in NYC. It was hard to live without being able to go out into the solitude of the woods and recharge. I remember one time I was on the Greyhound going home for the weekend, coming out of the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey and being totally surprised to see the leaves had changed! After spending a couple years there that way, I think I knew as much as I loved New York that I didn’t have the spirit to stay for good. It still has a little corner of my heart, though.

      Speaking of reading and commenting, I’m so glad we have these online communities that understand our mental and physical limitations. I think about how many years it was after I fell ill that I finally knew some other people with the disease – I might have adjusted better had I found others sooner.

  4. Sue says:

    Lovely post, Jocelyn. Reminds me of what one person said on Jamie’s blog: “I no longer reach for the stars; I reach for the possible.”

    • Jocelyn says:

      Sue, that’s it precisely. We have to do our best to enjoy ourselves within our circumstance, because this is the only one we’re likely to get.

  5. Lew W. says:

    Sweet! To rejoice with cherries, and looking out a window.

      • lewwaite says:

        Again, my paternal grandmother, Rose, way in the back of her city lot there was a gnarled cherry tree. Every year she “canned” (actually *quart jarred*) lots and lots of cherries–wooden shelves lining the walls of the wooden stairs that led down into the cool-in-the-summer basement. But not just cherries, no: green beans (see earlier comment), tomatoes, pears and much more … but my memory dims.

  6. Tamara says:

    Another beautifully written post, and something I could completely relate to. I was never really into athletics but I did dance (baton twirling) and was able to continue dancing when I first got M.E. And then, during college I had to stop just so I could keep going to college. When I got to university, I joined the cheerleading squad, but didn’t manage to continue with it throughout the first year if I wanted to study. And then this past year I have been practically housebound (and can only go out rarely with a wheelchair) which feels so awful as I am no longer able to exercise at all.

    But as Kathy D. said, we should only compare to what we have been like since so ill. I realise through reading this that while I still am unable to dance or walk far, I am now able to do the washing up which I haven’t been able to do for most of the past year. Every little step forward is progress and should be celebrated as such. I don’t know how I’m going to celebrate, but I am jealous that you have cherries.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thank you, Tamara. I’m sorry to hear you’re currently housebound. I understand about the tradeoffs – so typical of M.E. You can have one or the other, but not both, and then sometimes it turns out you can’t hold on to either.

      And it is amazing what it can make us grateful for, isn’t it? I have definitely seen that gratitude perceived by well folks as a sort of indomitable spirit, but I always tell them you’d be surprised what you can adjust to/learn to appreciate.

      Too bad I can’t send you cherries! They are my favorite fruit and when they’re in season (locally, California, or Northwest) I make myself sick on them to make up for not being able to get them 9 months out of the year.

  7. kathy d. says:

    My gardening suggestion here — since I live in an apartment building — is window boxes. It doesn’t take a lot of work. Someone else can do it for you. All it would need is regularly watering. But looking over at a kitchen window with flowers blooming is very uplifting.
    Or if one can’t do that, just line up flowering plants along your window sill(s) and enjoy.

    • Jocelyn says:

      I actually bought a whole bunch of deck brackets and window boxes this spring and had Chimp install them on the deck! I had to have him move them out into the yard eventually, though, because it turns out that the edge of the deck roof casts more shade than I’d thought it does. I still have a row of herb pots and lettuces on the railing that are doing pretty well. Herbs are definitely my thing.

  8. Oh wow. You are doing so great to be able to walk that 20 foot and you know it and appreciate it,that is such a great thing. I’ve just lost my ability to walk (which like your running, was a big part of my identity and lifestyle) as far, as fast or easily as I’d like to with this latest bout. I’m grieving it still but your post encourages me and reminds me that I may yet find my legs once more. In the meantime, I can be grateful for those 20 foot lengths and baby steps. 🙂

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks, IE. I’m sorry to hear about your walking – it’s such a blow to lose mobility. I honestly think it’s the hardest part of the illness. Everything else – the exhaustion, the pain, the cognitive problems – those can be gotten used to, but not being able to go where you want, when you want, is something so concrete that can’t be gotten around. So I totally sympathize. I hope you get it all back. I hope we all do someday.

  9. kathy d. says:

    Getting used to living a life inside one’s home basically is hard to get used to. I have had to get used to that but make good use of phones, the Internet and the good old library, where I feed my crime fiction addiction — not to mention the little grocery store around the corner, often the only place I can shop, when I can’t make it to Whole Foods. However, that little store has my other addiction, chocolate frozen yogurt. My mood is definitely helped by chocolate and books.
    I went to Whole Foods yesterday. It was one of those days where it felt like I had hiked 5 miles — reality check: it’s 4 1/2 short blocks.
    I think being homebound takes continual readjustment because it’s dealing with losses.
    I’m happy now because I found a wonderful website last night with terrific mystery reviews written by an Australian woman writer. I just sat here reading. However, I couldn’t read another website with long posts I do want to read but couldn’t last night.
    And, too, I am grateful for the websites on the Internet of sister and fellow ME/CFS sufferers,
    including at the top of the list, this one.
    P.S. I remember a photo of your cats looking out of the beautiful wooden-framed glass doors at the lovely yard, deck and potted plants. I wish that was my window view — with the cats, too!

  10. hiddenlives says:

    Thank you for this post.

    My experience was like yours – boom! – life changed not “scaled back.”

    Not having been built for running, I was a distance swimmer whenever I had access to a pool and a speed walker eating up miles every day. I do think that my prior fitness has played a major role in my ability to live with this disease for decades, so I’m thankful for it even as I miss doing those things.

    Like you, I try every day to take pleasure in this hidden life where a few feet are often a marathon. I think sometimes we are no less than heroic in our perseverance both in the emotional realm and the physical.

    May you find strength and best of all –

  11. Kathy Gray says:

    So glad to hear your are improving and still keeping up with your No Poster Girl.
    I hope that one day you will publish a book!
    You really are extremely talented, your brain has certaintanly accomplished tons!!!
    Way to go!
    Miss you,

  12. Do you do blog awards? I just wanted to say thank you for being such an inspiration and encouragement to me. ( 🙂

    • Jocelyn says:

      Thanks, IE! That’s very kind of you. No, I’ve never really done blog awards. Obviously I have to pick and choose what blog stuff I have energy for, as most of us do, and that’s one of those that I’ve not pursued.

  13. kathy d. says:

    I have a question. I have had a lot of family loss and stress for the past week. And I’m exhausted. Today I stood up to answer the door and almost fainted. I had to hold onto the door frame and then I started shaking all over. It didn’t stop until I laid down. I’ve had short moments where my hands shake if I’m really tired or picking up heavy things with my hands. But I have never experienced my whole body shaking. Has this happened to anyone here before? It scared me.

    • Jocelyn says:

      Kathy, you know I’m not a doctor, but shaking can definitely precede a faint. Stress (which our bodies use up a lot of energy dealing with) and standing up quickly might be okay separately, but maybe you’re just tired enough that your body couldn’t manage both.

  14. Wonderful post! I admire your willpower and how positive you are despite your terrible illness! I wish you all the best in the world and I look forward to more of your posts!

  15. Pingback: No Poster Girl

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