I’m sitting here, blinking back tears as I watch coverage of the explosion at the Boston Marathon.  I didn’t know anyone running.  I don’t know anyone who lives in Boston (a few in the state of Massachusetts, but the wonders of social networking let me know right away that those old grad school friends are safe and home mourning with their families).  I’ve never watched the Boston Marathon on television, and have never participated in a marathon in any capacity.  But I’m crying.  Not just because of the horrible senselessness of the act.  Not just because my heart hurts for those injured.  Not just for the families of those involved in the explosion.  But also for running.  For the spirit of the one sport that I at one time called “mine.”  And for the spirit of the sport that I am willing to sacrifice more than I ever thought I would to get back to.

When I first read Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to my daughter, I remember reading the lines,

I’m afraid that some times

you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win

‘cause you’ll play against you.

I immediately thought, “Dr. Seuss was obviously never a runner.”  Running is a game where you play nobody but yourself. And you always win.  You win because you’ve had a run today.  You win because you breathed the air differently today.  Inside a gym, out on a trail, down your neighborhood sidewalk.  It doesn’t matter.  You took in the air, and you appreciated the air.  You gasped for oxygen, and thought about how each breath fueled your body, maintained your life, and charged your legs, pushing them further and just a little bit further, until you finally knew that the force of all life, the thing that sustains you, is the very air around you. And that air became sweet.  Soot, smog, air conditioning, the odor of fresh dog crap, the damp musk of newly turned earth.  It was the sweetest, most refreshing, reinvigorating, soul-expanding air you ever tasted.

That’s why you win every time you run.

I miss running.  I took up running in the summer before my wedding.  I wasn’t trying to lose weight.  I was trying to test myself.  I wanted to see if I could do this thing that I had always heard was impossible.  I have a 25” inseam.  I stand 4’11” in socks.  My mother had always groaned, “Ugh, running! That’s for other people.  Not for short, Czechoslovakian ladies.”  Even my sister, who is a professional dancer (an athlete, and make no mistake about that) would complain about running, saying that she just “wasn’t built that way.”  Running was an irritating necessity brought on by her demanding artistic director.  It was “unnatural.”  It was something that “other” people did.  Tall people.  Naturally athletic people.  People who didn’t call a cheese course an entire meal.  People who ate celery.  Plain celery.  As a snack.

I had asked for a treadmill as a house-warming gift a few years beforehand.  And I used it to walk.  Then I used it to power walk.  Then I would jog for a few minutes while walking.  Then, suddenly, I was jogging more than I was walking.  I was jogging a lot.  I would slowly, cautiously, increase the speed, a tenth of a mile at a time.  I told my fiancé that I wanted to run a ten-minute mile (practically a land-speed record for my inexperienced, heavy legs).  Suddenly, I was running a ten-minute mile.  It was hard.  I would sweat more than I had ever sweat in my life.  But I was doing it.  I was running.

In the summer before my wedding, I took the enormous, frightening step of running outside.  In public.  In front of people.  Even, possibly, in front of them.  The “other” people.  The celery-eaters.  The gazelles.  The “real” runners.  I could still manage a ten-minute mile during short training runs, but my average pace over longer distances was twelve and half minutes.  Practically walking for the real runners.  But I was a mule.  Slow, but I’d go for miles.  By my second week running outside, I decided to try and run all the way to a trailhead a half mile away from my house.  Then I decided to run all the way down the trail (1.7 miles).  Then all the way back.  I arrived at my mailbox, and realized that I had just run four and a half miles.  Four and a half miles!! I had done it in less than an hour, too.  It was then that I knew.  This wasn’t impossible.  It wasn’t for the long people, the tall people, the people with the cool watches, the water belts, and .04% body fat.  This was for me.  I had won.  And I didn’t have to play anybody but myself.

I continued to run regularly until I was thirteen weeks pregnant with my daughter.  Then, exhaustion, work, nausea, nesting all caught up with me.  I took a hiatus.  I bought a jogging stroller.  I knew that this wouldn’t be a permanent leave of absence.  I WOULD be back.  And soon.

After Honest Girl was born, I was told that in six weeks I could resume exercise.  Because I had an episiotomy, I decided to wait until she was seven weeks old.  I went out on a sunny day in April, walked to the trailhead, and started the slow and steady pace (two minutes walking, one minute running) that Runners’ World recommended for getting back into the groove.  I knew that I’d be slow.  I knew that I’d be winded.  I knew my stride would be different (every now and then, my legs still don’t feel as though they are connected to my hips correctly).  I knew my breasts might leak.  I didn’t know that, forty-five seconds into that first minute of running, I’d start urinating uncontrollably.  I didn’t know that it would be more than my maxi pad (which I was still wearing to catch the persistent, almost never-ending spotting of after-birth) could handle.  I didn’t know that it would soak my underwear, my pants, and leave me sobbing in the wooded trail, trying to figure out how to get home without walking along the one road in town (there were no sidewalks in the village), exposed in the early spring sunshine.  I tried again to run, but every time I picked up the pace, it was as though the floodgates had opened.  Urine dripped down the leg of my cropped jogging pants, and into my socks.  Though it was still cool outside, I took off my light jacket and tied it around my hips as I turned the stroller around, wanting to race home, but being forced to walk slowly, deliberately, every now and then stopping altogether to focus on my muscles, willing them to respond, to close and tighten up.  But they wouldn’t.

I tried to run again four more times, until Honest Girl’s ten-week birthday.  Then, in a hot-too-soon sun, on a stretch of the trail that I called “The Sahara” because an obstinate farmer, angry at the county for building a multi-use trail through what he considered “his” land, had cleared all the trees and shrubs for a fifty-yard stretch, I wept on the phone to my OB/GYN.  “I can’t stop peeing.  It’s like my muscles don’t remember how to close anymore.  I’m afraid to have sex.  I can’t exercise.  Sometimes I can’t even walk.  I used to run.  I can’t run anymore.  Is this normal?  If it’s normal, I’ll just deal with it, but it doesn’t feel normal.”  My OB’s calming voice came over the line, “Come in immediately.  No, this isn’t normal.  You shouldn’t have to live like this.”

I went to a urogynecologist, then a urologist.  I had several catheters placed, and a scope put in my bladder to check for things like kidney stones, serious infections, or cysts.  I was praying for a kidney stone, or for a severe urinary tract infection.  Those were temporary discomforts, and very common after childbirth.  But it was more serious than that. The inner sphincter to my bladder (the place where my urethra and my bladder meet) had suffered nerve damage from my daughter’s birth.  The muscles had atrophied.  Short of a controversial and risky surgery, there was nothing I could do to fix the problem.  I went through two rounds of physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around my urethra (two months of intense Kegel-ing.  I was exhausted and sweating after each session, and that’s no joke), hoping that the urethra could in some ways compensate for what the bladder lacked.  “We will probably be able to alleviate the urge incontinence, but not the stress incontinence,” my physical therapist explained.  “When you sneeze, cough, laugh hard, or do intense exercise, you’ll probably still need to wear a pad, or even something heavier.

“So, what do you hope to accomplish by the end of therapy?”

There was no hesitation, no thought.  “I want to run again.”

She looked away from me, fussing with her appointment book.  “Running is one of the hardest activities on your bladder.  Every step is a stress on it.  You may never be able to do it without an adult undergarment.  But many people enjoy the elliptical trainer.  It’s low-impact.”

But.  But I was a runner.  A runner.

Suddenly, I wasn’t just playing against me, but against my body.  And I was losing.  I was losing the game I had always won.


My daughter is now thirteen and a half months old, and I haven’t run since her ten-week birthday.  Then, two bombs exploded near the finish line at the Boston Marathon.  Dozens of people are injured.  Blood streaks the sidewalk.  People are being wheeled out in a daze, badly burned, homemade tourniquets tightly wound around their legs, their arms, their heads.  Many more have been temporarily deafened by the blast, their eardrums shattered.  Several have been reported killed.

And the runners are saying they’ll be back to race next year.  And the year after that.


One of the biggest decisions I will have to make in the next year or two is one of timing.  I have decided that I am going to have that risky surgery on my bladder.  I am going to have a doctor make an incision through my vaginal wall, and implant a sling around my bladder, lifting it off my urethra and enabling the weak, tired muscles to close again.  If it’s successful, I will be able to run again.  I also will never be able to get pregnant again (the sling would break under the weight of the baby).  If it’s not successful, I may have intense chronic pain.  And I will never be able to get pregnant again (there is a high risk of loss of fertility after complications).  Meanwhile, I am four months pregnant, and my husband and I aren’t sure yet if this second baby will mean the completion of our family.  We still feel as though we may want a third child, but if we do, it will mean delaying the surgery, delaying my running, another three, four years, maybe more.  It would mean another four years of walking at a moderate pace.  It would mean another four years of losing against my body.  But choosing to run, choosing the surgery, would mean an end to my family, a closing of a chapter that I’m not sure I’m ready to stop writing.  It’s a terrible decision to have to make.

At least, that’s what I thought.  Until today.

If these runners can vow to run again with missing limbs, with stitches, with lost loved ones, with permanent scars, then why can’t I?  If they can be brave enough to stare down an act of heinous terrorism.  If they can approach the final straightaway of a long race, and look at the finish line in sight, and overcome the fear, the anxiety, the sadness, the anger that must surely rise up within them, then why can’t I?  If they can run in prosthetic limbs, why can’t I run in Depends?  I’m starting to realize now that playing against my body is playing against me, and I’ve always won that game in the past.  Why should now be any different?  Slow, slogging, heavy-footed, but liberated.  Why did I suddenly decide that impossible was here?  It never was before.

What happened in Boston will not stop runners.  It will not stop the Marathon.  It will not stop a community from coming out in support of their loved ones, who took on the challenge, who pushed to test themselves, and who will be back to complete the test next year.  Recovery from this horrific act is not an impossible task, any more than my recovery is, any more than a short Slovak girl learning to love a sport that she is laughably bad at.  Though what happened in Boston is heart wrenching, confusing, and fills us all with sorrow, the second that we start the often lonely game of recovery, that is when we win.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some adult diapers to purchase.