Helping a Runner Run Boston Strong

This is reposted from the 10 for 10 project blog:


April 2, 2014

Yesterday, I completed my last 20-miler in my training for the 2014 Boston Marathon. This is the first time in three Boston Marathons that I’ve reached this point in training injury-free. While I’ve learned a lot from my injuries, I give most of the credit for my fitness to the work that I have done with Nina Judith Katz, herbalist and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner. Nina first started working with me right before my first Boston Marathon in 2009, when I tore a calf muscle 3 weeks before the race. She supported me through the remainder of training, and helped put me back together after I successfully — if foolishly — completed the marathon with my leg wrapped. In 2013 when I started having similar muscle strain early on in training, I returned to physical therapy, but also to Nina right away. From late January on, we worked together, doing a combination of shiatsu, medical qi gong, dietary adjustments and herbal remedies.

The Mind-Body Connection

My physical therapist had identified a lot of tightness in my hips, hamstrings, and calves that was leading to poor internal rotation and repetitive strain on the area of the calf strain. Nina picked up on the same issues, and taught me a qi gong form that I began to use as a warm-up before exercise, an ancient form based on the movements and postures of a bear. The series of slow, martial arts postures strengthen the core and legs, stretch hip flexors and glutes, and use the whole range of motion of hips, ankles, knees, and shoulders. Although based in a more ancient system of diagnosis, the bear form addressed the same areas as those identified by the physical therapist’s exercises. Nina’s treatments always left me feeling looser, calmer, and pain-free, but the mental and emotional preparation we did was equally valuable as the physical healing. Nina explained my chronic running injuries in terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine as an imbalance related to (but not caused by) an excess of anger that was manifesting in energetic blockages. When she worked on the troublesome meridian along my outer leg (the iliotibial band, for you sports physiologists), I would feel anger washing over me and my legs would want to lash out. At that point, I had been working for about 18 months with a counselor to address worsening anxiety and depression related to trauma experienced earlier in my life. The qi gong exercise Nina taught me — with its growling, stomping, big movements that culminated in a restful “hibernation” — was the physical manifestation of affirmations focused on taking care of myself, setting clear boundaries, and being able to express and advocate for my own needs and feelings.

Becoming Embodied

As runners, many of us are skilled at pushing through pain and fatigue, at ignoring the information our bodies give us, and sticking to the training plan at all costs. I had learned long ago that constantly pushing myself to the limit — running whether literally or figuratively from one obligation to the next — was a great way to avoid feeling anger, fear, and sadness. Re-tearing my calf last year was, in a way, a “hitting bottom.” I quite literally could not run anymore, losing one of my best coping mechanisms for stress, and suddenly having a lot of time on my hands to look at myself. With 12 weeks of training still ahead of me, I took to the pool for all of my training runs, during which Nina instructed me to do mental rehearsals of running on the road. I kept up a constant monologue in my head, scanning body parts and form, willing the muscles to fire and release, making tiny adjustments to reduce strain or discomfort. Without the welcome distraction of an iPod, I practiced both attending to my senses and fending off boredom on my long pool “runs”. In late February, 2013, when I was able to return to running on the road for my weekly long run, I ditched my earphones at Nina’s insistence. She reasoned that I had to continue to attend to my body, going so far as to say that my injured calf was fearful, and needed to learn to trust that I would take care of it. And, in fairness to my untrusting calf, my track record of taking care of myself was less-than-stellar. I was a patient and caring mother, a tireless worker and community member, but I always put my own needs last, skipping meals, shortchanging myself on sleep, ignoring my introvert’s need for quiet, running, running. As I grew in my ability to listen to my body and to sit in silence with myself, I came to trust myself more. Nina added tools to my self-care toolbox: qi gong, herbs, foot baths, affirmations, chants, and a fledgling understanding of the energies at play within me. As I practiced the bear qi gong, I began to manifest more of that “mama bear” energy in my own life, foraging for what would sustain me, nurturing, hibernating, and occasionally letting a big paw swipe out protectively if my cubs or I were in danger. In addition to mental and emotional preparation, Nina provided me with practical and intuitive suggestions for physical conditioning. Over time, she added more qi gong exercises, so that I had a full warm-up and cool-down routine. For the first time in the 7 years since I had my first child, I was actually able to get in the door after a run and do a thorough stretch, in part because she suggested ways to get both boys engaged in “helping” me to stretch. Additionally, Nina helped me with nutrition, giving me suggestions for energy that were healthier than my usual caffeine-addicted ways, and making sure I was getting enough protein and minerals to support my muscles and bones during high mileage. We also collaborated on a concoction that gave me electrolytes, minerals, and energy while combating the nausea that is common after a hard effort and too many sugary “performance” gels and drinks.

April 2013

I ran the first half of the 2013 Boston Marathon without headphones. Then, I turned on the music and let it carry me home. Around Coolidge Corner (mile 24), I felt something in the crowd’s energy shift, heard sirens, saw looks of concern. As I neared Kenmore Square, I saw runners going in the wrong direction, tears in their eyes. Had they DNF’d so close to the finish? What was wrong? As I crossed over the Mass Pike into Kenmore, my husband Jesse, who was also running that day, walked back along the course toward me. “They’ve stopped the race. There were bombs, and there are people dead at the finish line. We have to go back and tell the other runners to stop.” We all now know the details of the bombing and its aftermath, the lives and limbs lost, the manhunt and lockdown that following Friday, the stories of many of the victims. At the time, though, we were all in shock, just putting one foot in front of the other. Miraculously, I had no pain after the marathon, even after walking back across the river in the freezing cold. The following Saturday, I went out for an easy 6 miles along the Mystic River. I ran and I cried. That was the norm for a while, running and crying. Less than a month later, on Mother’s Day, I completed the Cox Providence Marathon in an attempt to get some closure by actually crossing a finish line.

Right on Hereford, Left on Boylston

Things got better for a while, until October, when I found myself again at the end of the marathon course, where it intersects with the Tufts 10K. I made the turn from Mass Ave. onto Commonwealth Avenue and broke down sobbing. Luckily, in a race surrounded by 6,000 other women, there was no shortage of hugs and Kleenex to carry me past the intersection with Hereford St (the turn to the Marathon finish line). After the 10K, when I started building my base mileage for Boston 2014, I noticed that I was having trouble getting out the door for the activity that I usually count on to maintain equilibrium when juggling work and family. I had continued to work with Nina, and as part of my training plan, we began to process the anger, fear, sadness, and survivor guilt that were holding me back. I have heard from many other runners that they faced similar challenges with motivation early in their 2014 training. I feel grateful that I have had the opportunity to prepare mentally and emotionally for the 2014 Boston Marathon through my work with Nina, doing mental rehearsals of the course and all the things I expect to find challenging – the crowds, high emotions, triggers like police and military, and, of course, the turns onto Herford and Boylston approaching the finish line. On my 20-miler yesterday, I got a chance to see how my preparation paid off, as I was pain free and also fear-free, able to stay centered amidst the excitement and tears of charity runners, fire fighters, military marchers, and supporters. The confidence that I have in my ability to care for myself – body and mind – means even more to me than the knowledge that I am ready to go the distance and cross the finish line in 21 days.