There is a story I haven’t been telling. Not because I didn’t want to but because I didn’t know how. It is a story of struggle and of loss but also of unexpected joy and newfound strength. It is a common story–though one I wish to hear spoken of more often. For this reason, it is a story I must now tell. It is my story of 2018.
I couldn’t believe the comedy of the call I was receiving. It was mid-day on my fourteenth wedding anniversary and I was already having one of the worst weeks of my life.
In typical Chris-fashion, the phone rang, “Susie, I need you to meet me at the ER,” he said in a serious but calm voice. “The doctor at The Little Clinic is forcing me to stay in their exam room until I can find a ride to the emergency room. They don’t want me driving until doctors thoroughly check my heart.”
Two days earlier, Chris had completed his umpteenth marathon. His training had been minimal. But the spirit he brought to it was always maximum. He had run the whole 26.2 miles dressed as a Mexican luchador–mask and silver stretchy pants included—but had been complaining of tightness in his chest ever since. He was no stranger to finish-line medical tents. In fact, it had become a twisted tradition of sorts thanks to his strong physical drive and very high pain threshold. But this, this was different.
I was in the middle of a trail run at the Cincinnati Nature Center. I paused in my steps, tried to catch my breath, and wiped tears from my saturated cheeks as we worked out the logistics.
I did the math: thirty minutes of running back to my car plus another thirty-five to get to the ER.“Babe … it’s gonna take me at least an hour to get to you. Please be safe and smart,” I begged.
I slid the phone back in my running vest pocket and began sprinting down the trail. The adrenaline was helping with my pace as I whispered to myself in a fake soothing voice, It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay. You can’t lose him. You’ve lost too much already this week. Chris had spent marathon day giving himself a literal heartache. Mine had already been aching for three days.
In the midst of crisis, time always seems to behave differently. Over the hour it took me to get to the ER that day, the joyous and difficult memories of the previous two years rolled through my brain in slow motion.
The year prior (2017) had brought us to our knees in every imaginable fashion. We had wholly exhausted our physical, financial, social and emotional resources to embark on and complete six ultra-marathons on five continents over the course of just eight weeks. The depth of our community’s embrace and the beauty of the world wowed us beyond belief. Upon arriving home, even with the inspiration still coursing through our veins, we were utterly metaphorically bankrupt.
Our ultra-trip came to a close at the end of March (2017). We tried to regain the rhythm of normal life—having coffee with friends, training clients at studio s, and sharing stories over dinner in the communal-living atmosphere again (before we could move back into our house, we were waylaid in my mom’s basement until our renter moved out). We knew we needed to slow down. But by June (2017), despite the extra rest, my body began giving me signals that it was fried.
The first signs started with my abdomen, which almost overnight became six month pregnant-looking–bloated and painful. My regular period turned into two, three, four and eventually ten months straight (yes, 10 months straight!)—along with all the typical accompanying symptoms. If constant PMS wasn’t enough, my energetic engine just felt crapped out. Every time I’d try to run or workout my mind had the foot on the gas but my body had me driving in reverse. I had absolutely no drive or endurance for anything–fast or slow. For the first time in my life, I felt insomnia and anxiety creep in. I began to fear that I wouldn’t be able to do my job (which involves daily movement of all types). I felt like a total stranger in my own body.
I took all of the necessary steps. I slept more. I ate better. I tried to reduce stress. And the plethora of doctor visits — wow! But nothing was getting better and the best answer they could give me was, “This just happens sometimes.” No. No, it doesn’t. Not to me. Steady is my middle name. Healthy and injury-free is what I’m best at.
My best theory was that my body’s rebellion was most likely a natural re-balancing of all the pushing I had done, traveling across the globe, to make my ultra-marathon dream come true. My sudden feelings of powerlessness and bodily chaos felt incommensurate with the normal vitality I’m lucky to call my daily baseline. Only weeks earlier, I had felt my most powerful ever, running those six ultra-marathons. I was doing what I was made to do on those mountaintops. I was in the flow and full of energy for running and for life.
Without my ability to fly down a trail or lift a heavy weight, I was having a hard time understanding who I was or what my purpose was. The doctors had warned me–this could go on for a few more days or a few more years. My brain couldn’t stay present. Years?! Would I ever be able to run an ultra again or feel good hiking a trail? Would I be able to keep up with my job? I began to realize even more the depth of meaning these practices brought to my life.
Almost as quickly as things began to deteriorate, they began to improve in early 2018 when I saw a doctor of naturopathic medicine. After months of negative test results and zero answers from my regular doctors, I had had enough. The direct cause of my issues remains unclear to this day but the shift in my health after taking this new approach is undisputable.
I knew we were on a totally different health trajectory when I saw the positive pregnancy test. I had spent most of my life unsure of how I felt about having children. It was a choice that confounded and pulled at me on a daily basis and with every single big decision I ever made. But the second I gift-wrapped the positive test in orange tissue paper and sat it on Chris’s dinner plate, there was nothing but pure joy. His surprise turned into our shared elation and we got busy rearranging life for our new adventure.
For a few months, things finally seemed like they all made sense. All of my suffering and “injury” had been leading us to an unborn baby OJ. We ended up calling him OJ based on my extreme orange juice cravings. In a few short weeks he moved mountains within us by completely changing our perspective on what we thought our future lives would look like. We were on the cusp of sharing our joy with the world when things took a bad turn.
As Chris sped by sweating through his metallic silver luchador tights on marathon day, I already knew I was losing OJ. Nothing had been medically confirmed yet but I felt an empty space where life had existed within me. I held back the tears as Chris galloped by in his normal-but-crazy-spectacle-manner—screaming enthusiastically and dishing out kisses. I smiled for the family of three that we had become. An hour later, I wept uncontrollably as I curled up in bed with the evidence that we were three no longer.
In the days that followed, nothing felt like a comfort—only an abyss of loss. I heard the nurse’s words in my head on repeat, “It’s okay to grieve. Let yourself be upset. It was real.” The only thing that made sense to me was to run alone on the trails.
When Chris called to tell me he was enduring a medical heartache, there was a part of me—though in the midst of deep grief—that laughed at the irony. After thorough investigation at the ER, his heart ended up being just fine. Mine has yet to recover.
In the months that have followed the loss of our OJ, I’ve resisted telling the story. I didn’t know how to do it in a way that would do it justice. I also realize that I’ve always had an idyllic picture of how I wanted to announce that I was pregnant. This was not the story I envisioned.
The more I talk to the women in my life, the more I understand how many are the invisible, walking-wounded, carrying the scars that no one can see. So, this may not be the story I wanted to tell but it is one that I would’ve liked to have read in some of my darkest hours.
As was true in the days directly following the loss, running has been the one consistent thing that has helped me deal with the pain. In exactly seven days, I will be running my tenth ultra-marathon. It is the first race I’ve been able to train for since returning home from our ultra-trip in the spring of 2017. And it is my first US race since 2015. To even get to the starting line this year has been a battle of epic proportions. The hormonal difficulty, the deep grief and the self-doubt aren’t gone just because I’ve decided to continue to move forward. But I’m learning that life isn’t about having these types of things wrapped in a nice bow or an easily-sharable tidbit. It’s about existing in the paradox that things are difficult and we keep running anyway. If I succeed at 50 miles on January 26th, I know it will be because OJ gave my heart a new chamber.