Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

Screenshot 2016-09-11 09.23.48.png

And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

13938006_849546172139_7948956759550670433_o.jpg

How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part Two)

(Continued from Part One)

I started researching why people get sick particularly after marathons and discovered that all of my symptoms pointed to a condition called “hyponatremia,” which is caused by low sodium in the blood. Hours of sweating and the intake of a lot of water and sugar (to “fuel” the marathon) both contribute to the loss of sodium, and without being properly replaced, it can cause severe physical reactions like those I experienced, and can even result in death. I was especially at risk for this as I tend to lose a lot of salt in my sweat (I can see it on my skin!) and had always maintained a low-sodium diet. Now I know that I really should have sought medical help after Florence and Frankfurt. I had assumed that I was experiencing a “normal” migraine and that medical personnel would likely misjudge the symptoms as in the past. And then a light bulb went on in my head: What if all of my migraines are somehow related to a lack of sodium?

So I did a Google search on something like “migraines and low sodium” and came across Dr. Angela Stanton and her book, Fighting the Migraine Epidemic: How to Treat and Prevent Migraines without Medicine – An Insider’s View (Bloomington, 2014). As it turns out, Dr. Stanton is a scientist who has been studying the migraine brain and shows that an imbalance of potassium and sodium causes migraines. She proposes a detailed protocol and nutritional guide to achieve a proper balance, which helps to control the onset of migraines in those who are susceptible to them. She was kind enough to communicate with me directly and helped me to understand that in addition to not properly replacing the salt I was losing, other habits that I thought were healthy were actually detrimental. All forms of sugar must be avoided, and this applied to the “nutrition-packed” smoothies I was consuming almost daily and carbs in the form of pasta and other grains that many marathoners have been taught are essential to fuel the marathon distance. The reality is that these foods quickly transform into sugar in the body, which in turn prohibits the proper absorption of salt (Longo DL, et al. Harrison’s Manual of Medicine 18th Edition, McGraw Hill Medical, New York, 2013). Understanding how to change my diet to find the proper balances took months and some trial and error, but the results were immediate. I haven’t taken Imitrex since the day of the Frankfurt marathon last October. That is indeed a major breakthrough for me!

Of course, this had a big impact on my running, as well. While it took some time to train my body to perform on a lower-carb diet, it was amazing to finish a long run or a race and to have a clear head for the rest of the day and then to wake up the next morning feeling fresh. After a few months, I built up enough confidence to run a race one morning and play a concert the same evening, something I would never have risked before. I felt like a different person! Already in 2016, I have run personal best times in 10k, 20k and half-marathon races, and these experiences increased my confidence that I could push myself harder without fear of triggering a debilitating episode. For my long runs and races, I have replaced energy drinks and sugar-packed fuel with salt pills and natural fruits and nuts. I was always told that I couldn’t survive long distance running without “carb-loading,” but now I see that I function even better by consuming no sugar and fewer carbohydrates.

And so I signed up for another marathon – the Helsinki City Marathon on August 13. I’m excited but also nervous. All of this will be put to the test; will I really come through okay this time? The nightmare of Frankfurt still haunts me, but I am hopeful that the experience will remain only a memory that will fade with time. Helsinki will be a difficult route and I’m not sure of what I am capable at this point, but I intend to push myself harder than before, confident that I am now more in tune with what my body needs in order to successfully take on 42.2 km/26.2 mi and stay healthy. Of course, I won’t be setting any world records, but I’m so thankful that I can now pursue this passion without the physical barrier that tormented me for most of my life. I feel more alive than ever!

How running marathons led me to the cure for migraines (Part One)

Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that an activity like running, which for me often triggered migraines, actually led me to the cure for them. But indeed, it is true.

I first experienced migraines as a young child, from the age of 7 or 8. Too often during my childhood, I would spend hours or the whole day confined to a dark and quiet room, usually vomiting and in agony until the pain passed. On several occasions, they landed me in the emergency room and then when I was 17, a migraine halted my life for two months.

At the age of 22, they got even worse and would start with stroke-like symptoms (loss of vision, numbness in the hands and face, seeing lights, confusion, inability to speak or understand) and would proceed to a violent migraine that would last for hours or days. On several occasions, a friend or family member took me to the emergency room when I was in such a state and the medical team tested me for stroke, spinal meningitis or a brain aneurysm by performing a spinal tap, cat scan and MRI before treating the pain. I learned to beg my friends to NOT take me to the hospital when such symptoms hit and would instead take a powerful drug called Imitrex, which sometimes worked and sometimes did not. During certain seasons, I would have fewer migraines and during others, they would more frequently interrupt my life.

At some point, I developed a passion for running long distances. It was often a direct trigger for migraines, but I wanted to keep going so badly that I put up with the consequences. Yet I could never plan anything important on the same day or the day after a long run because I knew a migraine could follow. Even if I didn’t develop a migraine, my head often felt cloudy and dizzy after running long distances, putting me in what felt like a “pre-migraine” state.

Several friends and family members encouraged me to stop running, arguing that perhaps my head just couldn’t handle it. While I knew that there was an obvious connection, I couldn’t stop. Pushing harder felt to me like a way to fight my physical limitations, to move forward in spite of them. So I kept running long distance races and kept training for marathons to the extent that my body would allow.

There were some scary moments, though, like once when I was out on a long run, miles from home, and started losing my peripheral vision. I knew I only had minutes to get home before I would be incapable of finding my way. I flagged down a taxi and begged him to take me home even though I had no money on me. Not knowing when these episodes might start was destabilizing. After the Florence marathon, I was hit with a migraine that wiped me out for days. And after a great experience of running the Frankfurt marathon last October, I was a complete mess. I spent the rest of the day in bed and was vomiting all night. During those awful hours, I didn’t ever want to confront a marathon again, but I also didn’t want to give in to such defeat. It took weeks to recover from that episode. The Frankfurt marathon had truly broken me.

And then, everything changed.

(Continue to Part Two)

Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

2016-01-24 12.52.43.jpg

2016-01-24 12.48.22.jpg

Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

2016-01-24 12.45.07.jpg

2016-01-22 22.17.42.jpg

We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!

 

We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Frankfurt: The Marathon that Broke me

2015-10-24 18.02.56After a two-month running break for medical reasons following the Paris Marathon, I resumed training in early July. Even with a lot of traveling in the summer, my training went fairly well. My goal was to simply break 5 hours in Frankfurt, something I had not yet managed to do during my first four marathons.

My marathon strategy was to start out a bit faster, leaving some margin for the inevitable slower second half. Still, I treated the first 5k as a long warm-up, trying to go very easy and take it more by feel than anything else. However, when I checked my 5k split, I realized that I was a bit too slow, and if I kept that pace for the entire time, I would take the full five hours to complete the course. So I picked up my pace and clocked in at the half in 2:23. After that point, I aimed to lose as little time as possible.

Between km 25 and 35, I struggled to keep up with myself. My body was holding up, but I felt that mentally I wasn’t strong enough. I struggled to not give up on my goal but I also didn’t want to push myself to the point of misery. I focused on one kilometer at a time and tried to keep them under 7 minutes each. After km 35, I was quite confident that I would break 5 hours whether I pushed hard or not.

At 40km, I mustered whatever strength was left in me and pushed forward. It felt like a tremendous effort and although the last kilometers turned out to be my fastest, the difference wasn’t remarkable. Of course, the last kilometer was insanely long but the crowd support was fantastic and really helped me to keep pushing forward. My legs were hurting so much I didn’t know how they would hold up once I stopped, but as long as they were working for me, I didn’t cave. Finally the turn, entrance, red carpet, final push, and DONE in 4:52! I stopped my watch and started walking. To my surprise, I felt really good at this point. I didn’t feel like collapsing like I did last time. I made my way through to the refreshment area, then collected my bag, took a shower, and got in line for a massage.

Then it started. The other people in the line became blurry. My friend Johanna appeared and I saw her, but told her I was getting dizzy. Thankfully, there was water available and I quickly drank two glasses. Within minutes it was my turn for a massage. All signs pointing to a migraine, I took the migraine medication that I always keep with me. Then I laid down on the table.

At that point, my vision became blurred with zigzagged lights. I tried to relax, but I really just wanted to sink into a different space, an unconsciousness that would rescue from my current reality. The massage was soon over and we managed to leave. I was so completely fatigued and was starting to get confused, so without Johanna I would have been lost trying to get home.

I spent the rest of the day in bed, in a dark room, head spinning, hurting, throbbing, nauseated, deeply discouraged. This hadn’t happened for so long, I really didn’t expect it. And it put a huge damper on the victory of the day. In those moments, I again asked myself if it is really worth it, if I should ever lace up my running shoes again, if presently there was a way to sink into the darkness.

Finally, at around 8pm, I was stable enough to eat the food that another friend had lovingly prepared and delivered. I was even able to talk for a bit before I gave into the fatigue and returned to bed. Shortly afterward, the head pain and accompanying nausea intensified again, stronger than before, and I spent the night vomiting. At around 5am, the worst was finally over and I was able to rest peacefully for a couple of hours before I had to get up.

The next two days were fuzzy. I was more functional, but my head was foggy, my vision was glazed over and I was so tired that everything took a lot of effort. Yet I had to travel back to Paris and resume teaching during these days. The ache in my legs from covering 42.195 km was manageable (except for stairs), but it was hard to rebound from the aftermath of the migraine, which was the most violent part of the whole experience.

All I need is a week or so to forget about this experience and then I’m sure I’ll be back. To anyone who suffers from migraines, I feel your pain. I have suffered from this for most of my life, with varied intensity and frequency. I hope that one day these experiences will be memories and no longer a reality. But for now, my doctor has ordered some time off for rest and recovery.

 

Paris 2015: The Marathon I finally ran!

The Paris Marathon has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to the city nearly five years ago. I first registered for the 2011 edition of the race just after moving here. That spring, I got a bad sinus infection that lasted over a month and basically put a stop to my training.

I tried again for the 2013 edition. I trained hard through a cold and snowy winter and was in the best running shape of my life. I went all out for this one: raised money for an association in India, told everyone I knew that I was doing it, and even hosted a “Marathon party” (which was a lot of fun). Two weeks before the race, I got a stress fracture and had to stop running for six months. So it was the marathon I didn’t run. That was really tough.

Psychologically, I wasn’t prepared to try again in 2014 (I ran two other marathons that year instead). And even when I signed up for 2015, I still felt uncertain about it. But I knew that it was something that I wanted to, needed to finally overcome. I had to at least make it to the start line this year!

Sunday was a beautiful day in Paris and finally I was in the starting corral. I was thankful that the departure area was well organized so that we weren’t overly congested in the first kilometers. This was a pleasant surprise, as the Paris Half-Marathon has been quite a different experience in recent years! Yet I was still a bit overwhelmed by the massive size of this race, especially since my last two marathons have been quite small in comparison.

And so I started out easy and a lot of people around me made me smile. There were people in costumes, and a pair of surfers passed me up after a few kilometers. We ran straight from the Champs-Elysees to the Bastille, a very familiar stroll for me. Just before km 5, we passed by my French church. I was happy to see a few familiar faces outside, notably Anne and Nathan. I gave them the sweater I had been carrying, as the sun was already warm.

I continued on easy and was encouraged to see my Let’s Run Paris friends cheering at km 8. Shortly later we entered the Bois de Vincennes, where I train regularly. Lots of people were running around trying to find a tree behind which to pee. Around km 10 my ankle started hurting (a pain that has been recurring over the past few weeks). I tried to relax it a bit and hoped it would loosen up. I also noticed that a tiny pebble had entered my shoe. It moved with each step, which quickly became incredibly annoying, but I didn’t want to stop to remove it.

The sun was bright and the temperature was rising. I don’t do well in heat, so I knew I needed to be careful to not overdo it. Every once in a while volunteers were spraying cold water which was so refreshing to run through. The run was feeling good and as we left the Bois de Vincennes, I anticipated the slight decline ahead on Rue de Gravelle. The musical groups were great, but at around km 16 I think I almost lost my hearing, it was so loud!

11138501_10153058779446655_6038725072341612948_nWe were returning to the halfway point at Bastille and the sun was starting to get to me. My head was hurting and I realized I was slowing a bit. I thought of this chart that someone posted on Facebook a few days before the race. I’d say it’s fairly accurate. The halfway point can be a bit of a downer, especially if you think about the fact that you’re only half way there. I figured I just needed to push through until km 34 when I would see the LRP cheerleaders again, but some more familiar faces around this point would have been encouraging. Later I found out that Anne and Nathan were looking for me at the Bastille but missed me. If only I had known I would have looked too!

We turned the corner and started running along the river and at this point I remembered standing in that exact spot two years ago, sadly injured but still cheering like a crazy American, “YES YOU CAN! YES YOU CAN!” I was again filled with gratitude that this year I was pounding the pavement rather than standing on the sideline.

People have told me about the dreariness of the tunnels along the next stretch, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. There was, indeed, a long tunnel followed by two shorter ones. The great thing was that they provided shade from the sun. There were also videos, disco lights and what!? Even a D.J.!? And this marked the transition from the “familiar East” side of Paris to the “less familiar West” side. I settled in and waited for how the course would surprise me.

Finally we were approaching the Eiffel Tower. I was in pain by this time, but my drive was still strong. Now around km 30, I wondered if it would be better to incorporate some walking intervals through the refreshment area or to just keep running. But when I tried to walk, it seemed to hurt even more, so I just kept running instead. I tried to make myself accelerate, but it was tough. The uphill segments were not at all appreciated at this point!

From km 32, I started to calculate my anticipated finish time. I was having bouts of nausea but determined to push forward. The kilometers were still passing relatively quickly. I knew I would see the LRP cheering squad at km 34 and sure enough there they were, along with Ivy who jumped on course with me for the last 8km. I was just trying to focus on closing in on one kilometer at a time, still dealing with some nausea, and she brought enough fun and energy for both of us. She was taking pictures, videos, carried my water and grabbed more water for me when we passed the refreshment points. I was starting to feel dehydrated by this point and couldn’t seem to get in enough water. So it was brilliant to have a water angel by my side!

11093191_857429574318318_347116911_n

But there was this thing that was annoying me to no end, that tiny pebble in my shoe! I tried to trap it between my toes, but it continued to bounce at every step. Whatever! And then, much to Ivy’s amusement, we caught up to the surfer men! And of course Ivy took their picture.

 

 

11154765_763539036129_3289397791418764948_oDon’t break under pressure. At km 41 a picture would be taken and automatically posted to my Facebook profile. That kilometer was long as it always is in a marathon. Then came mile 26, then km 42… and at that point Ivy was directed off course because she wasn’t wearing a bib. In my calculations from km 32, I had forgotten to factor in the extra .195, but it was ok because in any case I still finished 4 minutes faster than in Florence. Progressing little by little on this challenging distance, that’s all I require!

However, I was really dehydrated by the end. Proof? I went for over 8 hours without peeing! After my arrival, I felt pretty bad and I knew I just needed some water. But the water station was still too far away. Just before I was about to collect my finisher T-shirt, a volunteer stopped me and called for Red Cross personnel, who then promptly took me to the first-aid tent. There they gave me water and checked my vitals. Before long I was feeling better and was ready to leave, but they wouldn’t let me go because my heart rate remained elevated… for over an hour. Finally I got in touch with Franck and Luvyl who finished after me and came to rescue me after I waited there for an hour and a half. After some serious rehydration, everything eventually returned to normal.

All in all it was a great experience, the Paris Marathon finally conquered. And now I wonder… shall I give it another shot in 2016 or just be content and move on?

11129696_763577563919_543397285074960198_o10505040_761781877489_216000914257180996_o

 

Why I Run

Following my last marathon and its aftermath, some of my close friends and family members showed concern about my unwavering resolve to continue to run. “Is it worth it?” “Maybe a marathon is too much?” “When are you going to stop?” I’ve asked myself the same questions. So I guess it’s only fair that I at least try to explain, as much for them as for me.

So why do I run? I suppose there are many reasons, really. Running is healthy and fun, personal and social. I love to set goals and work toward them. There are great health benefits like having low cholesterol and an “athletic” heart. It allows me to clear my head, enjoy the great outdoors, and explore new places when traveling.

And why marathons? I think it’s just my personality. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to go the distance. For years I watched the Chicago marathon pass by my apartment on a Sunday morning in October. It was those runners who first inspired me. I set my sight on it and didn’t turn back until I, too, claimed the prized finishers’ medal in Chicago.

Yet it’s true that it hasn’t always been easy. Perhaps in some ways, I’m not really physically cut out to run. I’ve had so many setbacks, big and small. But then that is part of the challenge.

My life has been sprinkled with physical struggles from infancy. Hospitals are familiar to me. I’ve been to the emergency room in four countries. I’ve had more MRIs than I can count. I’ve spent at least 30 hours under general anesthesia. Since 2007, I feel like I’ve been living on borrowed time. While a lot of this is in the past, there are still ongoing health challenges that I don’t talk about much, but that continue to affect me every day. There were seasons in which I was physically unable to run. It is a gift that today I can.

So for me, running is choosing life. I don’t care how many times I’ve been knocked down along the way or ended up really sick after a run or a race. I have to get out there again. I have to fight back. Even when I was depressed to the point of shutting out the world, I still laced up my shoes and ran for hours in solitude. For me it’s a tangible way of declaring that I’m not giving up on life, no matter what happens. There is so much that I cannot control, but when I run, I feel alive. And so I choose to choose life. Day after day. And in choosing life, I am living.

We cannot control the day we are born or the day we die. Yet in-between, we have dozens of opportunities every day to choose life. Our choices in the small things—our actions, our words, the thoughts we entertain, what we worship, our priorities, how we treat our neighbor—can bring a breath of life (or the contrary) to us and to others. Running is not my ultimate hope, but it is a reminder to keep my eyes fixed on the goal, and to press forward even when life throws me some curveballs.

Friends, at least for now, running is not hurting me. It’s keeping me alive. You may see the times I fall, but I see the miles I’ve logged. You may think that marathons are extreme, but I rejoice whenever I have the physical strength to both start and finish in spite of it all. You may think that the challenges should be enough to make me stop, but I know that the only way to overcome them is to keep going. And I am overcoming, because by God’s grace today my health is so much better than it was 5 or 10 years ago.

So please don’t be concerned that I continue to run. Be concerned if one day I choose to stop.

And now, bring on the Paris Marathon!

A Privilege I cannot escape

When I arrived in Madagascar this summer, I knew I had much to learn. Months earlier, some of my African-French church friends asked if I had ever been to black Africa before and I realized I had not. Although I have been in countries where my whiteness stands out, this would be a first for me. They smiled as if to say, “We know what’s coming your way.”

On the long road trip from Madagascar’s capital to Anstirabe, our taxi-bus was frequently stopped by the police. At first we didn’t pay too much attention to this, but after awhile our Madagascan friends explained to us what was happening. Apparently dozens of policemen line this route every day and illegally tax the drivers of the taxi-buses. “The money goes in their pockets,” our friends explained. If the drivers refuse to pay, the police will take away their driver’s license and thus leave them without a job. In order to bring home any money at all, the drivers are forced to pack passengers into their vehicles like sardines. It’s a terrible corruption, they explained.

However, they aren’t taxing us today. They wouldn’t dare.

“Really? Why not?” I ask.

“It’s thanks to you!” they exclaim. “They see that you’re white, think you might know important people in the government, and wouldn’t take the risk that you might tell on them!”

Wow.

At first I was thankful that we were spared this injustice. We were there to serve alongside our Madagascan friends, and it had already cost a lot of money just to get there. And, so many times I’ve been treated as a “rich Westerner” abroad simply because I’m white. People have tried all sorts of tactics to overcharge my traveling companions and me. So for once the tables were turned. Not bad, right?

At the end of our stay, we returned via the same route. This time we were aware of what was going on with the police and since I was sitting directly behind the driver, the police would often ask me a few questions once they noticed me, “How are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? How do you find Madagascar?” Sometimes I would even poke my head out to make sure they saw me and didn’t demand any money. And then they would send us on our way. The van, this time filled with an equal number of Madagascans and Europeans, always erupted in laughter each time we “escaped.”

Our Madagascan friends kept saying, “Lucky for us that you’re here!” Yet I left this experience feeling uneasy. The message I walked away with was, yay, I’m white so I don’t have to pay. In this case my white privilege was crystal clear. So clear that our friends of color were also more or less saying, yay, you’re white so we don’t have to pay!

It’s really not funny, even though we laughed that day. All throughout our time in Madagascar, there were feelings of privilege that I couldn’t shake, related both to my color and to my citizenship. I arrived in Madagascar and suddenly I was rich. “Wow, that only costs one euro!” And yet for many locals one euro is a full day’s wage. I go there and spend my pennies and feel like I’m saving a lot because it’s so much cheaper than in my country, while the people around me are struggling to find enough to eat.

There was a feeling of compassion, wishing their lives were better but not really knowing how much I could do. And also a feeling of difference, knowing that even though I have lived through unstable or “poor” times by the standards of my own country, I have always been rich by their standards. And because of my privilege, I feel like I can never understand, truly, these people whom I go to serve and love. It is a privilege that I cannot escape.

And so this experience shined brightly upon my white privilege. Yet for most white people, especially when we are the majority race, it must be rare for it to be so obvious. How many times could my white friends, family members and I have unknowingly walked away from a situation and said:

Yay I’m white so I got taken seriously.
Yay I’m white so I only got a warning.
Yay I’m white so I got the job.
Yay I’m white so I was trusted.
Yay I’m white so in this way I meet media’s definition of what is beautiful.
Yay I’m white so when I succeeded it wasn’t credited to my race.
Yay I’m white so they believed me.
Yay I’m white so I was able to rent the place I wanted.
Yay I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be mistreated because of my skin color.
Yay I’m white so the authorities weren’t suspicious of me.
Yay I’m white so I wasn’t harassed.
Yay I’m white so I don’t have to constantly think about how my actions affect the reputation of my entire race.
Yay I’m white so I was recognized as a human being.
Yay I’m white so the police didn’t even look twice.
Yay I’m white so I am still alive.

I know that the recent events in the States have stirred up a lot of emotions among my black and white friends alike. I have seen the posts and comments on facebook and I don’t ignore them. I have seen some very strong and even judgmental opinions from white people about the black community in the wake of recent events. Sure, we can come up with all kinds of arguments to prove whatever point we wish to make.

Yet until we recognize our white privilege, whether we can measure it or not, we cannot begin to understand what it means not to have it.

It’s easy to miss the injustices, especially when we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to not think about racism when we’re not personally confronting it every day. It’s easy to even think that minorities are becoming more privileged in America when diversity is celebrated. But as my friends of color share their experiences, I recognize that things are still not right in my country.

If we white Americans were to lose our privilege and experience what that would mean for us, our families, our ancestors and our offspring, I think we would become angry about the injustices, too. I am not a proponent of violence nor do I think it should be justified. But neither should we mistreat our fellow human beings through our actions, our words, our attitudes, our lack of understanding, our ignorance or our pride. Especially if we claim to be living the Gospel, we will desire to move towards freedom and justice, for all people. The stain of slavery upon our recent American history should grieve us and racial reconciliation should be close to our hearts.

I confess that I have harbored subtle racist attitudes and opinions in the past that I now regret. I know that my upbringing in mostly white communities has left me with baggage that includes false stereotypes, fear, assumptions, misunderstandings and ignorance concerning racial issues and those who are different from me. Yet now I recognize my white privilege and the injustices placed upon those who don’t have it. I don’t know how much I can understand what this really means for people of color, especially in America, but I do know that I still have a lot to learn. And I want to learn. As I listen to the stories of my brothers and sisters, I pray that God will continue to change my heart so that I will learn to love others more humbly, authentically and empathetically.

If I cannot escape the privilege, then at least I will own it.

Born to privilege

I have been born to privilege. In my many adventures around the world, I recognize that being a white American has its value.

I have also been born to a place of secondary value. In the subculture that I grew up in, women were considered to be second-class citizens. They existed to serve men and to remain under male dominion.

In a recent post I wrote about the women I encountered in India. I wanted so badly to communicate to them their beauty and value. I don’t know if I succeeded at all, but this experience also reflected upon my own personal journey.

Unlike me, they were born with what they understand to be a less desirable skin color. Like me, they were born as what many consider to be the less desirable sex.

Who told me that women are lesser in value than men? I can recall a few of the male voices that spoke this message in clear words, although it was more often communicated in subtle ways. The message was powerful… and hurtful.

Those voices told me that my relationship with God must be channeled through the authority of a man. That I belong to one man until he gives me to another. That if men use and abuse me, it is my fault. That women are less qualified to serve God simply because of their sex. That women cannot be trusted. That women are easily deceived and that chaos erupts when women are in leadership.

These voices were powerful, and they defined me from a very young age.

Thankfully, they were not the only voices I heard. I have a clearer recollection of the men who spoke differently into my life, and those voices were also powerful.

The voices that told me that I am a daughter of the King and that no man has the right to mistreat me. That the Lord alone is my Master and that I bow only to him. That God has created woman in his image. That women can also make an intelligent contribution to the world. That women can also be trusted and respected.

While I was in India, I distinctly recalled those first voices, coming from men born into privilege, who were all too ready to highlight their privilege while emphasizing my lack of privilege. I don’t understand. It would be like me going to these girls and saying or behaving as to say, “Well, we can’t change how we are made. I am superior, yes, but that’s just the way it is, and the best thing you can do is to serve me well so that I can thrive.” Was this not the attitude that reigned throughout the horrific history of slavery in my own country?

And yet I know that I, too, have acted and spoken in ways that have hurt others, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I see it now. And for this I am so deeply sorry.

So I understand and yet I don’t. I get what it’s like to be devalued in some ways due to the body I was born into. And yet there are others who deal with this on a daily basis in a way that I can never fully understand, simply because I have never lived even a day in their shoes. I just hope and pray that I will always be willing to listen and to grow, and that I will be an agent of change as I am also changed.