Thursday, November 3, 2016

Selling my soul to get to Javelina

I sold my soul to the devil at least six times just to make it to the start line of Javelina 100.  Each time I sold a soul, I wondered if I'd had any left to get me to the finish.

Remember how I vowed, or maybe just hoped, that I wouldn't spend August injured after reaching a new mileage high in July (as has happened for the past 2 years)?  Right.  I got injured.

The sharp, shooting pain in my knee began 2 weeks after Howl, when I was trying to run this local event called 24 Hours of Towers. I had no intention of going 24 hours. But I did want to attempt Towers 3 times (1,700 feet of gain each ascent) because the most I'd ever done before was twice. My quads were still sore from Howl the whole time, but on my second Towers descent, there it was, bright and white hot, screaming, searing pain on the outside of my right knee.

There was no point in worrying just yet. Javelina was 2 months away. I would get myself down the mountain, and this would pass.

Upper right: This was Will's first Towers summit. He said it made him feel tired and proud and hungry. Lower Left: Me, smiling at the top of Towers, feeling good for the last time in what would be a very, very long time. 

It would not pass.

The pain was really only there while I was running. I would take a few days off and then try it again, and sometimes I would make it 2 miles before the pain returned, sometimes only a quarter mile.  I tried everything. Rest, ice, ibuprofen, KT tape, strengthening and stretching, rossiter. I made an appointment with a knee specialist who couldn't see me for another 2 weeks, at which point, I hoped the injury would just be better.  But the pain always came back. Sometimes I could manage as much as 6 miles, by running a half mile at a time with a quarter mile walk break in between.  This felt abysmal and terrifying. I was always waiting for those daggers of pain to return, and they always came back, at some point during the run. I stayed on a miserable 1/2 mile dirt loop right by my house so that at least when the pain started, I wouldn't have far to get home.

Days passed, weeks passed. I became a very unhappy person. It killed me to see other people posting their long, long training runs and happy smiling faces. I took a leave of absence from podcasting with my friends about our journey to Javelina.  I knew I had to accept that there wasn't enough time, I wasn't going to make it there.

School started again, both for Will and me.  One of the classes I had worked very hard preparing got canceled, because whoever was in charge of putting it on the registration website had forgotten to do so, and therefore no students had known about it or been able to sign up. I guess I should have made sure that other people were doing their jobs, but I didn't check until it was too late.  Unlike real professors, when one of my classes gets canceled, I just don't get paid.  Maybe that doesn't really matter. I get paid so little anyway.  I would have said my life felt like a joke, but really it felt more like a waste.

Second grade started off somewhat promising for Will, because he seemed to like his teacher, but it was only a week until he cried when he got off the bus and asked me, "Mommy, am I dumb?" The education system tests children to within an inch of their lives (sometimes even beyond that), and Will knew that he had been placed into the lowest "reading level" of his class.

"No," I assured him, referring to the two minute conversation we'd had over the summer that changed everything. "You are not dumb. You are dyslexic."

I'd given his teacher a full week into the school year, which seemed like enough of a grace period. It was time to find out what the education system could do for a dyslexic child, and I knew, even as I tried to hang onto a modicum of calm and strength, that I was doubling down for the biggest fight of my life.

What I found out, as I went into the arena, was that it is actually possible to black out from rage. Like, literally pass out from anger at the response you get from teachers and "reading specialists" who don't do a fucking thing for the 1 in 5 dyslexic children in schools. These people often don't even "believe" in dyslexia, and they just look at you, blankly, showing you test scores that assure you your child is "below average" and then suggest that you sign him up for an after school homework club.  Sometimes, as an added bonus, they stress the importance that you make sure he keeps up on his 20 minutes of reading each night--completely ignoring the fact that he can't read because he is dyslexic and they are doing nothing to help him. 

To say that this fight has taken a toll on me is a drastic understatement. For two years I've had to listen to elementary school teachers tell me that my child is basically stupid and they can't understand why he doesn't improve with more of the same. I had to find out on my own what dyslexia is, that my kid has it, and what to do to get him help. It has been a long, long, long and very expensive road, and I am only on the beginning of it. For several weeks this fall, there were nights I went completely without sleep, days I went mostly without food, and I became a husk of a person-- feeling like I was only keeping myself alive so I could continue this fight.  In every way, I am shredded and empty.  

Outside the tutoring center. We will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on private dyslexia tutoring (not to mention, an official diagnosis) because the education system doesn't have enough money to follow the law and screen for learning disabilities or provide Free Appropriate Public Education to all children, even though this is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (A school reading specialist who hasn't been trained in the methodology that dyslexic children require is not Free Appropriate Public Education, but having someone called a "reading specialist" is apparently how they get around it).

Near the middle of September, Rob ran the Black Squirrel Half Marathon. After the race, I talked to one of his friends, who had also had an IT band injury, and he gave me the contact information of his physical therapist.  Her name was Teresa, and she used a technique called Dry Needling.  "I've never had an injury she couldn't fix," Rob's friend told me. And I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe I could still salvage the absolute shit show my life had become and make it to the start line of Javelina 100, the race I registered for last May when I thought that everything was going to be fine. I'd been injured for nearly a month, but I had six weeks left to train.  If Teresa could fix me right away, maybe I could make it, and maybe my life would mean something again.

I sent her a text. She replied. Her first available appointment was just a few days away, on that coming Tuesday, during the time when I had set up a meeting with Will's teacher and the school "reading specialist" who doesn't even know what the Orton-Gillingham method is. (Note: the Orton-Gillingham method is how dyslexic children must be taught in order to learn how to read. It was invented in 1930).

Rob offered to go to the meeting alone.

I sold my soul to the devil and told Teresa I could take the appointment.

Teresa lives in the mountains.  Way, way up in the mountains, like a 50 minute drive away from our house on the absolute edge of town, and she sees people in her home.  The last 10 or so miles of the drive are on a dirt road so steep that my Prius started rolling backwards at times.  She doesn't deal with insurance, you pay her in cash.  You sign a waiver saying that she's explained to you the risks of what could happen if she nicks an artery or nerve with the dry needles.  Each appointment costs more money than one of Will's very expensive sessions with his Orton-Gillingham certified dyslexia tutor.

And Teresa is worth every penny.

Sunrise on the long drive up to her house.

She spent nearly 3 hours with me on that first visit.  She figured out that my knee hurt because I have scoliosis. I've always known I had scoliosis and that my back is completely messed up, but what I didn't know was that this messes up my hips, which makes my piriformis pull on my greater trochanter, which pulls on my IT band, and I end up with pain on the outside of my knee.  She stuck needles in my piriformis so that it would relax, and she didn't hit any nerves or arteries.  It didn't hurt as bad as I expected, but nonetheless, I almost passed out. On one of the sticks, my muscle contracted so strongly that it bent her acupuncture needle.

The day after my appointment, I ran 5 miles.  And the day after that, I ran another 7.  All pain free.  None of this shitty half-mile run, followed by a quarter-mile walk.  I was running. For the first time in almost a month, I began to believe I had a chance to make it to Javelina.

My knee started hurting again that weekend, but I made another expensive appointment with Teresa for Tuesday. To hell with all the money we were bleeding out on dyslexia tutoring and physical therapy.  I would sell my soul to the devil six times over just to show up to the start line of this race healthy.

I managed a 27 mile trail run that weekend, 5 weeks before the race. I climbed up the thirteen switchbacks on Howards, and then I stood on Westridge, overlooking the mountains and Teresa's house somewhere below.  I sobbed.  I screamed.  I was so, so angry at what my life had become, at my meaningless PhD, at the future my precious child might suffer because the language processing areas of his brain work differently than that of neurotypical people. 

This is the place where I come to scream.

I made it back to my car at the trailhead almost 6 hours after I'd begun. I learned that there is a well of raw strength inside me that is far deeper than I ever thought possible.  I had eaten peanut butter pretzels during the run to keep up on calories, but I truly believed that if need be, I could run this entire race fueled by rage alone.

Every run after that was double digits. Every day. I went from zero to 50, 60, and 70 miles a week.  I reneged on my beginning-of-the-semester promise to myself that I'd use my time wisely-- develop other courses to teach in the future, keep on top of things in the professionalization workshops I was still in charge of leading.  All I did was run, and drive Will to his dyslexia tutoring (a half hour away) after school. If I was going to sell my soul to make it to Javelina, I would sell it all the way.

The family of Will's best friend invited him for a sleepover on the last night of September, and it worked out well for training.  I made Rob go with me to Horsetooth Mountain after I dropped Will off, and we ran together for 5 hours in the dark.  When most people worry about Javelina, they worry about running in the heat of the day.  I was worried about running in the dark, since I've had problems with nausea and migraines after too many hours of that bobbing cone of light from the headlamp.  Rob and I worked out the details of battery changes and pacing.  At midnight, we stopped for a minute to turn off our lights and look up at the Milky Way. It was October 1st, the day we had met 19 years ago.

19 years ago, I never would have dreamed that one day Rob would make me run up Horsetooth Mountain in the dark.

I kept running through two more weeks of big miles. My knee held up, and it seemed like a miracle. I gradually stopped worrying and waiting for the ever familiar stab of pain to return. I felt strong and invincible. Then, on what was to be a routine morning 20 miler, there was a sudden burning in my left ankle that I feared could only be explained by a ruptured Achilles. I managed to hobble home, but this knocked me down a dozen notches. It made me remember that no matter how good I was feeling, at any moment, the circumstances could change. If this had happened during the race, I would have had no choice but to drop.

A picture from that run.

I texted Teresa, but she was out of town. I panicked.  I gave it a couple of days, dosed myself up on ibuprofen, used my last pre-paid rossiter appointment, and applied massive amounts of KT tape. By sheer force of will, it held up for one more 82 mile week. 

During my last long run of this training cycle, it was 34 degrees and raining. Of all years, this year in Colorado, winter had already begun. This wasn't the best set up for attempting a hundred mile race in the Arizona desert, but it was the best I could do. I reasoned that if peanut butter pretzels and rage could get me through the heat of the day, at least I would be well prepared for the cold of the night once the sun set.  It was time to taper.

Last long run out at Lory

I tapered as hard as I had run. My body was completely beaten up. I'd accomplished everything I'd wanted to during training, but it had been so compressed due to the time I'd taken off for injury.  I was ragged, hungry, and jagged skinny.  So many other areas of my life had been lacking in attention just to get in the miles, keep up the fight as Dyslexia Mom.  My ankle was dodgy at best, and I ran very little during the last two weeks before Javelina.

Pineridge trail, if I squint and add a filter, it looks kind of like the desert.

On the Monday before the race, I wanted to do one more night run and try out the spare headlamp (i.e., the one I'd use only if something goes terribly wrong with my real headlamp).  I felt so terrible on every step of this run. I couldn't quite figure out why.

And then, there it was, the sharp, shooting pain in my right knee. 

I made it home, but I completely panicked. It was too late now to try to get in to see Teresa, or another PT, before we left for Arizona. All of this, all of this soul selling, only to be back in the very same place with the very same pain in my knee. Why did this keep happening to me? Why couldn't I just stay healthy?

Rob and his friend Stephen tried to calm me down. Pre-race jitters. It happens every time. How many races have I run, lining up on the start line with a nagging injury, even a stress fracture, and once the gun goes off, everything is fine? All of them, almost all of my ultras I have run with an injury.  This too would pass. 

I packed my bags like this was still going to happen.  After all, the entry fee had been paid months ago.  Rob's dad had already driven 1000 miles here to take care of Will while we were gone. There was nothing left to do but show up and hope that I could run through 100 miles of pain.

We left for Phoenix. Every time we got out at a rest stop or gas station, I walked around and my IT band snapped, my knee hurt. My ankle was marginal at best. I thought, you know what, I give myself maybe a 10% chance of finishing this thing.  It had happened-- I'd sold every possible soul just to get to the start line, and I didn't have any left to get to the finish.

Thanks for reading. Part 2 to come.