Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Metamorphoses of Running

by Matt Gray

Life has a way of metamorphosing: caterpillars transforming into butterflies; a love for the outdoors turning into an obsession; an unexpected health issue inspiring action.

* * * * *

On June 2nd, 2012 I held my two-week old niece for the first time.  By far the youngest baby I’ve ever interacted with, and the first of her generation in our family. The immediate love for her, as I was told it would be, was remarkable and quite unexplainable.

Later that month, after that visit, my mom called to let me know that my niece had been diagnosed with Lymphedema: a rare disease for newborn infants.  The swelling in her leg had not been from an allergic reaction or a bug bite as we first assumed, but from a genetic mutation that kept her lymph system from working properly.  While it’s a manageable condition, Lymphedema certainly alters one life.  For a precious little human who has only been around for a month, that’s not a metamorphoses you are ready to understand.

* * * * *

Within those same few weeks in June, I went out for a trail run, something I’d never really done.
The mile-high air of Idyllwild, California filled my lungs with a beautiful rush.  I’ve hiked all my life, but jogging through the woods was a new and wonderful sensation.

I loved to run as a child on the playground in elementary school.  At one time, I even considered myself fast.  But in Jr. High, I was the acting waterboy for the track team (I was also the scorekeeper for the volleyball and basketball teams) and they needed someone to fill in for the half-mile. I made it four tenths of a mile and keeled over from terrible foot pain.  I hung up my running shoes for good.

Even after reading “Born to Run” last winter, I resisted the urge and the temptation to start running.  I blamed my lack of motivation on the long-term negative effects of running, the risk of injury, and the lack of enjoyment one has while moving through nature too quickly.  Yet I couldn’t hold out.  My feet began moving quicker than a walk, all on their own.  By the end of the summer, I was regularly trail running six to ten miles, and thinking about longer expeditions. In the matter of a few months, I’d metamorphosed into a jogging junkie.

* * * * *

What on earth do these two seemingly separate though simultaneously occurring stories have to do with one another?  Everything.

As my obsession and love for running grew throughout the fall, we came to better understand my niece’s Lymphedema and what it would mean for her growing up.  We also came to understand that there would be a lot of unknowns, because resources and advocacy for the disease is extremely limited.

On the winter solstice, after five months of training, my brother and I headed across Joshua Tree on our self-organized, first ultra-marathon (anything greater than 26.2 miles). Our goal was to complete a 32-mile jaunt in one day across possibly the most beautiful National Park in the country.  Supported by our dad, it was the jog of a lifetime. Neither my brother nor I had ever run an official 5k, 10k, half-marathon, or marathon. While amazing races in their own rights, the speed training to compete at those distances never interested us. The endurance to stay on your feet for six hours or more, however, seemed like the kind of thing we would love to experience.

While on that run, right around mile ten, we began talking about running for a reason greater than ourselves and our brutal enjoyment.  Anyone we’d mentioned the Joshua Tree 50k ultra to thought we were a bit crazy, but they were also very interested.  And anyone who has met my niece falls in love with her instantly, and almost always wants to know how they can support her life with Lymphedema.

So running to raise awareness, advocacy, and money for Lymphedema research and legislation, just makes sense. It also makes for an incredible motivation at mile 28 when you’re feet swell, a cold wind picks up, you’re out of food, your iPod cuts out, and the car is still a 10k away.

Though life does just fine metamorphosing on its own, sometimes it takes the incredible will and love of the human spirit to bring the change we need.  I’ll pound out mile after mile if that effort makes a difference for Juniper Sarah Gray and everyone else negotiating Lymphedema.

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