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Chronic pain means I won't be able to keep up my running habit forever

I fought against my chronic pain for years, now I am trying to accept it

The temperature hits 95 as I reach the back end of a neighborhood that blends into bay side cliffs. My plan is a forty-five minute run, about a third of which will be up hills that make the panhandle of Florida feel like a mountainous oven. Sweat and sunscreen pour down my skin as I struggle with a sub-nine-minute pace. A yardman whose shirt is completely soaked stares at me as I labor past him.

“It’s got to be 100 out here,” he says, shaking his head and wiping his red face. “Why are you running?” 

I smile and answer him truthfully. “Because I can,” I say. What I don’t say is that I couldn’t yesterday and I might not be able to tomorrow.

I didn’t mean to wait until 11:00 a.m. to start my run, but as is often the case, I didn’t sleep well. One of the cruelest tricks of chronic pain is insomnia. Most nights, I can’t sleep because I can’t get comfortable. The previous night was no different. I managed about an hour of sleep before a dull ache in my hips gave way to a burning, stabbing sensation that demanded a position change. I pushed aside the huge pillow under my knees, a prop to keep my low back comfortable. I flipped to my stomach and scooted down to rest my face in the massage cradle I recently affixed to the end of the mattress. Lying on my stomach relieves my back and hip pain but turning my head is hell on the bulging discs and tight muscles in my neck. I mostly solved the issue by installing the massage cradle, although my bedroom looks more than ever like a medical office. A collection of rollers rest near foam blocks, stretching straps, orthopedic pillows, and two TENS units.

On the run, the road steams under the sun and the air looks wavy. Odors, good and bad, are heightened in the heat. Gardenia bush, good. Yesterday’s seafood dinner in a garbage can, bad. I take in all the smells and the sounds of my run and pull off my hat in the shade to let the wind cool my head until I reach the next patch of sun. I’ve acclimated to running in the heat, but I’m still careful, so I stop at a park to cool my face and arms in the water fountain after gulping as much as my stomach can handle. The playground equipment is deserted, and a black snake shines like patent leather next to the sidewalk. One more downhill will take me into a swamp. I’ll enjoy slightly cooler temperatures and dancing dragonflies along the water before following the asphalt home. I observe every detail with appreciation reserved for someone who knows it may be the last time I get to run this route, or run at all.

I’m a lifetime athlete who’s completely unable to accept my temperamental body. As time passed and diagnoses piled up—fibromyalgia, cervical dystonia, degenerative disc disease, sacroiliac joint instability, psoriasis—I fought each one with every trick and tool offered by countless professionals. There were times when my life was reduced to medical appointments. I can’t play soccer anymore, had to give up tennis and sold my road bike for a grandma cruiser because my neck won’t allow an aerodynamic position. I quit a high-paying job in a nursing home because I can no longer lift patients. Through pain and unpredictable health, I almost always managed to run, even if it meant having to stop to pivot my body to look for traffic because my neck muscles had spasmed so hard I couldn’t turn my head.

When a pain management doctor told me to sign up for spinal injections, start heavy medications, and stop running, I complied for six months. Those six months were a miserable blur of procedures and mind-numbing medications. Most frustrating was that the injections, pills, and lack of exercise didn’t make a dent in my symptoms. I was rapidly on the path to painkiller addiction without pain relief. When I almost set my house on fire while cooking dinner in a haze of pills, I changed course. I weaned off the meds, cancelled future procedures, and bought a new pair of running shoes.

Ospreys circle overhead as I run up the hill away from the swamp. Their wings make shadows on the road and I imagine what it’s like to fly as I watch my shadow plod along the steep asphalt.

“This is a beautiful day,” I say to the birds, and I mean it. The sky is a brilliant blue and the oak trees offer a stunning display of bright new growth. An SUV driver looks at me like I’m a maniac as he drives past. I realize I’m smiling and talking to wildlife. I feel great — and grateful.

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