Finishing Kick: The Body As Gear

By March 26, 2009Running Times Magazine

Lessons on not listening to your body

By Rachel Toor
As featured in the March 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine

If there’s the opposite of a gearhead, that’s what I am. I could demo a dozen skis, from skinny wooden sticks to sexy, curvy performance tools and never know the difference. My cyclist friends are horrified by my low-end bike, and the fact that it doesn’t fit me. I am reluctant to try new running shoes, and sometimes wear old cotton shirts if I’m going out for less than a couple of hours on the trail.

I’m just not that observant. Little adaptations that make gearheads swoon pass me by unnoticed. I also miss big things. A friend likes to point out that I can run by the same strange rock outcropping or weird purple house 57 times and notice it only after the 58th trip.

I’m focused on other things. I never miss a misspelled word on a menu, have been known to edit park service signs, and once broke up with a guy because he didn’t know how to use possessives. I pay attention to the things I care about and am oblivious to much. Including my physical self.

One of the first things beginning runners learn is that it’s important to listen to your body. If something hurts, back off. If, during a long race, a peanut butter and bacon sandwich looks good to you, eat it. If you’re fatigued from overtraining, take a break.

Here’s what I’ve learned from the past 16 years of running. My body is a liar, a cheat, a lazy, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant bundle of sore muscles and tired bones that, given a choice, would rather lie around reading novels and eating Oreos than go to the track. If I listened to my body, I would rarely run faster than an easy trot. I wouldn’t go outside when it was wet, overcast, or the temperature was below 82 or above 93. If I listened to my body, I would end up in relationships with men I couldn’t bear to hear speak but whose kisses left me quivering.

Still, I’ve always wondered about women who gave birth to babies without ever knowing they were pregnant, who had ovarian cysts that weighed 30 pounds. How could they not know?

Now I know.

I went for a routine annual physical exam last spring, expecting it to take the usual 15 minutes before I was pronounced the outstanding physical specimen I believe I am. Within five minutes I had a diagnosis of a mole that looked hinky, and a uterine fibroid.

The mole was small potatoes, surgically, warranting an outpatient procedure and a warning not to run for two weeks. When I pressed my dermatologist on how long I really had to wait, he said two weeks. If I ran before that I might pop a stitch. I wouldn’t bleed to death, he said, but I’d have an uglier scar. I now have an ugly scar on my calf.

The fibroid was a different story. The first two docs I spoke with told me I was looking at six to eight weeks of recovery. Unacceptable. I was fortunate to know, socially, a marathoning gynecologist who advised me to find someone who could remove the thing laparoscopically. One of her partners did this procedure on a woman on a Tuesday, she said, and that Sunday the woman ran a marathon. I needed to find a doctor who would listen to me and my body. I did.

Dr. Fern consoled me when I felt like a failure because it took 12 days before I was ready to run. He said that my competitor/inspiration probably hadn’t had such a humongous tumor; even though my surface wounds were miniscule, the process of turning a soccer ball into a long strip of sausage had done violence to my innards.

I was a disappointing patient. Dr. Fern wanted to believe that he had helped me. Don’t you feel better, lighter? Nope. My abdominal muscles had kept the fibroid packed in. Nothing pooched out on my small body. I didn’t notice the slightest change, though my weight has been down three pounds since the surgery.

I’d like to say that in the future I will be more aware of my own body. That this was an object lesson. But really, the main thing I learned was that before you agree to a medical procedure, find a doctor who understands runners.