It’s a tired, old metaphor for the Christian faith: running. But I’m a tired, old runner, and as I was pounding the pavement in a five-mile race on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think of my life of faith and running.
I haven’t always been a runner. When I was in seventh grade, I joined the track team because my friends were doing it and because the art teacher was the coach. I liked art much more than sports.
But as I began to live the life of an athlete (which should make you chuckle if you know me!), running became an activity of choice on its own merit. Not only did I run track in high school, I also ran cross country. Until my sophomore year when I slid and fell down a muddy hill, got up, ran another half mile and collapsed in pain. I learned in the ER a few hours later that I had fractured my pelvis. It was the day after my 16th birthday.
I spent the next week in the hospital then hobbled around on a walker for another month. Gradually, I rehabbed and eventually picked up running again. But once high school ended, so did my competitive running. It continued to be a hobby for me for years, though. I even ran two half marathons (13.1 miles each) in my late twenties. Running helped me stay in shape, gave me a place to be quiet with my thoughts, provided me with a metaphor of perseverance. I thought running would always be a part of my life.
Until I developed a rare illness and found myself paralyzed just over eight years ago. At the time, it was considered a freak auto-immune response, a one-in-a-million type of illness in which my immune system attacked my spinal cord. I was transferred in an ambulance to an intensive care unit. The paralysis which had begun as tingling in my toes was advancing, and before the doctors stopped it with high doses of steroids, I couldn’t even move my arms.
As the swelling in my spinal cord diminished, I regained the use of my arms within a couple of days. My legs took longer. I was told to expect a life in a wheelchair. But after eight days, I could “suddenly” move my feet. The paralysis was reversing.
Needless to say, I fully recovered, though only a third of the people do. Another third are paralyzed for life. Another third die. That’s the odds if you have this disease, transverse myelitis, once. I ended up having three more episodes. Each one coming on faster, but each once being treated more successfully. By the fourth time, I was paralyzed for only 24 hours.
Running became an elusive dream for me during the five years of dealing with transverse myelitis. Even when I was basically restored between episodes and after the fourth, I wasn’t able to run much. My energy level was low; I couldn’t build up speed or endurance. I might work up to a mile, and then spend a week laying on the couch trying to recover.
And then, after two and a half years on medication to prevent more transverse myelitis, I was diagnosed with cancer. My body, already worn down from years of chronic illness, hit bottom. After surgery, chemo, and radiation, I was completely sapped. Many days, it was all I could do to get out of bed and walk to the couch. Even as I recovered, walking to the mailbox and back was a big deal.
Running was no longer even a dream for me. I wasn’t even sure I would survive.
At some point in my recovery, which took longer mentally and spiritually than physically, I sped up the treadmill just a little faster than walking pace and began to run a little. It lasted only a minute or two. I wasn’t sure I would be able to run. And in my frame of mind then, I even considered the possibility that running might cause the cancer to come back.
Yes, I realize that is totally irrational. But there were a lot of things that cancer took from me, and though I didn’t exactly blame God, I knew he could have stopped cancer in its tracks if he had wanted to. Apparently he didn’t. Any glimmer of hope, including five minutes of running on the treadmill, made me a little wary that it would all be stripped away again.
Day after day, the walking was interrupted by longer and longer stretches of running, and soon, I was running more than walking. At some point during this time, one of my doctors connected the dots between transverse myelitis and cancer with the words “paraneoplastic syndome,” and is convinced that not only have I been NED (no evidence of disease) from the cancer for two years, but I am most likely free of the transverse myelitis, as well. And I can run again.
A little over a year ago, I “ran” a five-mile race which was nearly a disaster. I wasn’t ready. It was too much, and I felt horrible for several days after. It set me back, but it didn’t stop me.
In the past year and a half, my running has come in fits and starts, but if you could graph it, you would see it trending upwards. Up to and including the five-mile race on Saturday. I started out too fast. I had to walk a little in miles 3-5. I was exhausted afterwards and felt a little woozy. I was sore the next day.
But I did it. I kept going. I made myself run up most of the inclines, and promised myself I would ride the momentum down the declines, even if I really wanted to stop. When I did walk, I set little goals and insisted that I keep them. Even if my lungs were still screaming.
The real reward came today, though. While I was on the treadmill running, I was also praying, thinking, listening to music. And I felt strong. Really strong. The memories of being unable to move my legs felt faint. The dread of cancer, which I still live with most days, felt small. And though the future still feels a little uncertain, I was overwhelmed with gratitude and hope in Jesus.
I am still running!
A few other posts about faith and running: