25/05/2013

Why I Run…

This is always a popular topic of conversation on forums. At the moment, on Twitter, several new sites are asking the question, attempting to build up a motivational portfolio of thoughts from those who are happy to share stories of battling weight problems, or illness, or simply to challenge yourself (mostly in later life). Me? I run for other reasons.

When I was 15 I discovered a lump. To not build any unnecessary tension or stress, or even create an air of drama, for the reader it was just epididymal cysts, nothing more, something incredibly common and nothing to really worry about. But, without any medical knowledge, and not be able to speak to either half of newly remarried parental units, I suffered in silence, and stressed and built up a fear that hasn’t gone away since.

Hypochondria is an absolutely bastard of a disorder, linked to social anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, the slightest of change in bodily sensations or appearance is immediately catastrophized. Basically a headache is a tumour, a mole is skin cancer, a lump is lymphoma  a belly ache is stomach cancer, ball ache testicular cancer and that’s where it all started, after all.

I have been hospitalised by my hypochondria in the UK, since moving back from the US. A couple of years ago house guests (the chef being from Taipei) decided to make dinner to thank me for cooking all the time, and the use of the spare room during their transition to the old country. Dinner was a chicken that had been cooked the traditional Taiwanese way, namely, after steeping the raw carcass in a puddle of soy, garlic and herbs for a week in the fridge. Well, this was all too much for my bidirectional digestive system to handle, and chest pains soon appeared that were so severe my disorder could only come to one simple (and incorrect conclusion): that I was dying of a heart attack.

Of course I wasn’t but the night at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital Intensive Care Unit with people who were dying, put me to the sword, and now I have a 3 weeks rule before I bother a healthcare professional. I was hooked up to a heart rate monitor with alarms going off if my pulse dropped below 55, or went above 90. When I sleep, it is less than 55. So I would drop off, my heart would slow, setting the alarm off next to my head, which would wake me up, scare 50 shades of shit out of me, and set my pulse racing up, beyond 90, and setting another alarm off and the nurses running toward me.

The next morning the senior doctor (army of interns hovering around him and on his every word like flies around a steaming pile) diagnosed me a stress monkey with no physical ailment at all, and so I was allowed home.

Something not dissimilar had happened when I lived in New York for the second time (2002-2008). I had the most complete of medical insurances. In investment banking, back in the days before we were pilloried, we were looked after.

I was tense, had chest pains and went to the doctor, paying the $5 co-pay. The doctor took my pulse, took some blood, took blood pressure readings, put sensors on my key joints and decided that I should see a heart specialist. She decided not to mention that 5 cans of coke a day and 11 cups of coffee may have been a contributing factor. But she did not and this, of course, scared the 50 shades out of me again.

Another $5 co-pay later and I spent a day in a Lexington Avenue cardiologists having sonograms, ECGs as I walked on a treadmill, and enjoyed half an hour in a very expensive looking 3D X-ray machine that took pictures of my heart as it beat.

Nothing was wrong with me, but every time I went to the doctor they would always refer me to a specialist. I am not saying that money was their aim, but even the slightest of something, anything, and they would send blood and urine for tests and leave worrying voice mails telling me the tests were inconclusive. This raised my stress levels more and turned me to one of the truly worst things in the world: WebMD.

WebMD and WrongDiagnosis.com should not be there. They foster obsessive behaviour, they feed the demon felt by anyone with health anxiety. Go ahead, choose a couple of innocuous symptoms and put them in. See what it says. I am guaranteeing you will see one of the 5 SILENT KILLERS. And not
, that is not a Jackie Chan movie, although it should be. Good title.

As a fully paid up hypochondriac (if there was a union I would be the shop steward), anxiety sufferer and all around obsessive compulsive nut job, I think it is important for people to know how an episode comes about, so let me tell you about the most recent.

Last Saturday I had decided to visit my middle brother in Kent. I am, after all, a Man of Kent, so time to go to the home county. I marched from my home by the Tower of London and got as far as Whitehall where an anti-austerity march blocked my way.

I was feeling great at the time. No stress. No hypochondria. I was not obsessing over anything, so I stopped, took out my nice shiny new Sony Xperia Z and took some photos of the crowd.

I was looking up at the camera to get a good angle, then, after taking the shot, looked down at it as I was walking along and suddenly felt really dizzy, as well as going deaf in my left ear. I was going to fall over, and quickly stumbled to a nearby tree and rested against it for 10 seconds, sticking my finger in my ear and wiggling it until I regained hearing.

Long story short, I got to my brothers and had 2 more bouts of dizziness. I had poured olive oil into my ear canal, and then used Otex with the squeezy ball again and again, in between exploratory excavation work with my fingertip.

On Tuesday I was in the London Clear Ear clinic, with an ENT micro-suctioning my ears as far as the membrane and dealing with untold amount of swelling after, as he put it “looks like someone’s been jamming their finger in here as hard as they could.” I can’t think why.

Of course, I haven’t really had any further dizzy spells since but that was what we call in the health anxiety business “a trigger” so now I am hyper-focused on the chance that there may be. I am acutely aware of my vision, and how one eye may, or may not, be as strong as the other. There may be permanent damage to my ear (according to me, not my ENT specialist). Could be a tumour, the initial onset of MS (thanks WebMD), the grinding of my vertebrae into my spinal cord at my neck or even, and most likely, nothing. I am obsessed at the moment with the chance of the dizziness returning. I am deliberately focusing on near then far objects to test myself. This is called ‘checking’. I have asked friends and family for their advice. This is another form of checking called ‘reassurance seeking’. And they tell me there is nothing wrong, and I am a crazy hypochondriac. But I haven’t always been.

About a year and a half ago my hypochondria was not going so well for me and I finally decided to seek professional help. I found a therapist who specialised in treating forms of anxiety with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – in a nutshell, changing the way you think.

The sessions went through exercises to help me deal with the immediate catastrophizing that I do when I find a new symptom, rather than running through my check list of WebMD, prodding it until it actually hurts, and seeking reassurances. They also looked at the cause of my illness. Why do I feel like I have something nasty, when I don’t?

And, even though it may not be right, one possible cause was that I had very low self worth. I have been very fortunate in my life and career. I bounced from a great job at the worlds oldest insurance society to investment banking, to the US, to both coasts, to the UK, to the government. None of it was too taxing. I passed everything at school, at college, at university (both times) and was accepted on a doctorate program that I couldn’t really be bothered with. I even took on a lot of hobbies; stained glass, French, Afrikaans, Serbo-Croat, swimming, snowboarding, painting, interior design, animation, movie making, and finally wrote a number of plays, several optioned screenplays, and 5 published books. I never actually put too much effort into getting those jobs, or taking those exams and, or even writing the books, and because I didn’t struggle I don’t think I feel that my experiences have been worth anything. You know, you see the guy who wins the lottery and then a few months later is broke and on the way to prison for not paying taxes. He never earned it. He didn’t value it. It was throwaway. My life has been like that for the most part. It has all been too easy.

And so I had this brilliant idea – let’s find something I cannot do, something that is not easy, something that will challenge me, and I will feel rewarded (if that’s the right word) when I achieve success within it.

I didn’t mention it early, as it wasn’t hypochondria related, but I have actually broken my left leg at the knee, and left ankle – both at university, both stupidity, and, as I know you don’t die of a broken leg, or fractured ankle (unless it starts to smell a lot like almonds) I just ignored it. What it did do, though, is give me shin splits just walking, and cause a massive imbalance that screwed up my right ITB. I could, therefore, not run.

University was a long time ago. I started my undergraduate degree 1993 and graduated in 1996. The break happened in my first and last year. So it had been realistically since I left school in 1990 that I last ran, so there is a challenge right there.

Having not run in 21 years, with a known injury, running any sort of distance would be a real challenge to me, and completing a race, not matter how small, would be a major achievement that would fix me in one of two ways. First, it would prove to my hypochondria that I was physically capable of performing such a feat, that if I was dying of any of the major illnesses my brain concocted this week, I could not. And second, it would give me something I could proud of doing, something I never thought I could, that would set me apart from my lesser self, and give me the shot in the arm I needed, and so the game afoot.

Friends and family were challenging themselves too, this was February 2012 and I had not started running yet. They had signed up for both the Amsterdam Marathon and the Dublin Marathon a week later. Craziness, I know, but there were two circles in this Venn Diagram, that didn’t intersect until after they had each booked a race. I knew I could not prepare myself for a marathon in 8 months having not run in 21 years, and not knowing if I could even run. Regardless though I signed up for the Amsterdam Half Marathon, October 21st 2012 to be run on the same day, so I could journey there and be part of something.

I needed a plan, and more so, I needed to see if I could run so I pulled on my New Balance sneakers and went to the Virgin Active Barbican. They have Technogym running machines that allow you to do all the normal things – like run – but also have fans built in, which I really liked, although not the first time. I tried to run, but didn’t know how fast I should, so either went too fast, or too slow, and ended up with burning shin splints after 2 mins. An utter disaster you would say? But not me, and this is the rub, this was a challenge. If I couldn’t even walk after a 2 minute run how the hell was I going to complete the Amsterdam half without looking like a complete failure to all friends and family there? So I started to analyse the task at hand. I am, after all, a professional analyst so it’s just a case of finding out all the variables, and tweaking them.

The shoes were clearly wrong. So I researched those that would be fit my Hobbit feet.

And no, those are not my feet, mine are much prettier and are size 8.5 UK with H width. If you don’t know about widths then it goes A, B, C, D, E, EE, EEE, EEEE, F, G, H. H is for hobbit. Buying shoes is a swine, and at Church’s I can only buy one style, and they still need to be stretched, and they still rub even when stretched. My feet are also completely flat. I have a toddler’s feet. I run about with stupid looking fat baby feet that are as wide as they are long, good for walking across marshland, but little else.

I made the mistake of trying to self-diagnose my foot motion and bought Nike LunarGlides and Pegasus as shoes to fix me. This was actually a mistake, but that is another blog post from last year. Go read about my shoe dilemma that ended with physiotherapy, ITB issues, Ebaying the Nikes and buying Brooks. Regardless of all that, I now had running shoes.

I now needed to work on a pace. I thought about it and thought about who runs for long periods of time. Soldiers! I thought. They keep time with their cadences. Maybe that would work. And so I downloaded 50 Cadences of the US Military on my iPod and tried again. I ran for 11K without stopping at a slow, but constant, 8.5 kph pace. I had cracked it. Now to put the plan into action.

I knew I couldn’t just run the half without racing before. All the others were runners anyway, they just hadn’t run in organised races too much, if at all. Every morning they would bash out miles outside or in the gym. I had a distinct disadvantage. So I signed up for the BUPA London 10K May 25th 2012 – the same race I am running in 2 days. This is the anniversary of it all.

I ran that race and did really well. I felt like I had achieved something almost miraculous. 21 years and no running, injuries, and now a medal? I was addicted from then and, as you can see, I have done well.

8 10ks and 7 half marathons in a year isn’t bad. I did  pull out of the Shakespeare Half Marathon with injury. I could have run there but it would have aggravated my thigh and I hadn’t run really since then, until this morning, hence the whole ear-brain tumour-eyesight-hypochondria episodes I am living with at the moment.The beast has crept back into my skull.

During the time between the BUPA London 10K last May and the #VirtualHalfMary at Christmas I did not suffer from hypochondria at all, from what I recall. I stopped seeing my CBT therapist and just got on with life. I was proud of my racing. I was proud of my bling and I still am.

But injury leaves me without the psychological crutch that running is. It is difficult to express just how debilitating hypochondria is, and just how much of a release running is. This morning, worried about dizzy spells and ear problems, long and short distances and tumours, I pulled on my running kit, plugged in my ipod and ran across the river and it felt amazing. I sped up around the Borussia Dortmond fans in their yellow and black and the Bayern Munich fans in their red and blue. I cross Tower Bridge and came back over London bridge, not a huge run but one that was needed to get be back on track.

Why do I run? I need to. When I ran today and was awarded this by Nike+, after I had logged the 6K from this morning.

I feel good. I feel better about myself when I run. I feel like I have achieved something unfathomable to myself a year ago. I love the camaraderie and the post-race. I love the anticipation at the start, questioning if you need or want to join the line at the portaloo. I love my running playlist and, even though there will be races where I don’t listen to music, those playlists remind me of my achievements.I love the running community on Twitter. Odd though, as have only met 3 of them, once, briefly.

So a lot of people run because they like it. Others were brought to it by friends, or family, or famous people being an inspiration (thanks Mo). For some running is the only way that they can lose the weight and keep it off. For others, who don’t like the gym, this is the only exercise they do like. It’s meditation for some. And it is therapy for others, like me.

Running has given me more than my career, my academic achievements and literary pursuits combined. Weird, huh?

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