A feature from Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times last Sunday. Carried now in asiaone.
The runner lies in bed as the darkness quietly gives way to light. Soon, just like you, she’ll slip on her Asics, tug on an old T-shirt and drip sweat onto the uneven road before her. But first, unlike you, she has this conversation with herself:
“Eyes clear. No double vision.”
“Ear fine. No deafness.”
“No disorientation as I rise.”
I’m OK. I can run. I better run. It’s what helps me feel OK.
Today, the runner is fine. Today, disease hasn’t come calling.
The runner, 46, is my friend, who has spent 20 years huffing down paths, 20 years hectoring herself (“You’re too slow. Go home.”), 20 years examining herself with infinite optimism on weighing scales, 20 years chasing the minute hand of a watch.
She presumed, just as we do, that she understood Personal Best, this notion of meeting challenge by rummaging through your brain for unknown and extraordinary parts of yourself. Like a climber perched on a rock face, running allows for an insight into faith, an observation into courage, an appreciation of our limits.
We’re never quite sure who we are, or what we have, and the road is our stern instructor. Yet there is no teacher nor any journey as awfully demanding as disease, for it brutally asks: What fight have you got left? How much faith do you own?
My friend the runner knows this for she has multiple sclerosis.
MS, which afflicts more than 2.3 million people worldwide, is an untrustworthy mongrel of a disease, which attacks the central nervous system. It is a stripping away of myelin, the substance which protects nerve fibres and helps messages travel smoothly between the brain and the body. The result is messages that come slower, are distorted or never reach.
It is not fatal yet is absent of cure. Its severity is varied yet it can leave you later in a wheelchair as it did with Betty Cuthbert, the four-time Olympic gold medallist in sprinting from the 1950s-60s.
MS – more prevalent among women – came to my friend in 2005 with the stealth of a sudden invader, stripping her of her Asics, wrapping her in a hospital gown, and sliding her 10 times into MRI machines which snarl and scan her brain. Regular runner has turned wounded walker.
The disease manifests itself in no single ugly way. One attack leaves her head feeling like a plank of wood – as if in an act of cruel magic, it has separated from the rest of her body – and her feet feel as if she is walking on a floor of cotton wool. Another time, her skin pulls painfully tight, as if it is shrinking and, she says: “It’s like my fingers are trying to burst.” She knows how to pick up a glass yet now she has to consciously tell herself how to grip it.
She’s a writer, typing furiously in intelligent, delightful sweeps, but one attack – she has had six – causes her to lose minor motor control and her fingers turn disobedient and clumsy. She is enchanted by music, yet she once couldn’t hear clearly for the disease draped one ear with an invisible purdah. She’s an ardent speaker, yet a combination of MS and steroids – used to combat it – once left her speaking with the slow slur of a drunk.
Some days, this is not a body but a machine of faulty wiring and misfiring connections. It is a terrifying loss of the self as she knows it, a breaking up of her being into uncertain, unworking parts.
It brings fury yet also fear: “That I won’t be able to live this life I have lived before. Not this fully functional life.” That the next attack will be too much.
It is why she has to run again.
To run is to feel whole, to find evidence of normality. To put foot after foot on a trail is “a reminder I can still do it”. To run again for 30 straight minutes is proof of life as she remembers it.
And this is where her Personal Best differs from ours. Because before she can think about going further or faster than she did before, she has to first get back to where she was before. Because once she’s finished with MRIs and medications and hospitals, she – who has been running 6km – is empty. Her tank bare. Forced to relearn how to run those miles again. So she starts from nothing. From zero.
It takes two months or more after an attack before she can lace up her Asics again, and she’s like a child finding her first steps as she begins: 90 seconds walking, 60 seconds running. It is a life lived in perfect obedience to the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa’s haiku:
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
My friend adores sports and so she’s familiar with runner Wilma Rudolph’s tussle with polio and swimmer Eric Shanteau’s battle with cancer. She knows these stories, but it’s different when it’s your own story. Adversity can be imagined, yet you can’t know your response to it until it is there, before you, asking, questioning.
Irritation comes, anger arrives, but she knows that running, and sweating, and challenging, promises more than sitting at home wrapped in depression. “I get up every day. I tell myself I am going to be better. Even if they’re fractional improvements.”
“You have to give yourself the best chance to fight this disease.”
Bravery is mostly an anonymous tale, played out privately every day across the planet by extraordinary people whose names we just don’t know. My friend is just one of this vast tribe, whose heroism lies in a stubborn reclaiming of their bodies. After an illness, they get up and walk again. One step, then a mile. After an accident, they rise and cycle again. They take back life, they seize it. And only they can understand how exquisite the reward is.
Because one day, after two months of early morning runs, after two months of rising, checking her hearing, checking her vision, my friend gets there again. To her 20 minutes of running. Then 30 minutes. “Yahoo!” she shouts triumphantly into the morning. Madly, she texts her friends. They understand, for this is victory of its own curious, courageous sort in a race with no end.
She loves running, my bespectacled friend. Loves the humming feet of the long-distance runners and how their impassive faces suddenly crumple and twist in effort as a race ends. Loves running in Ethiopia and listening to locals grin and chant “run, run” as she jogs downhill. Loves silencing smart alecs who mutter “old woman is running” and then go quiet after they watch her do another round of the park and then another. Loves how she can sense the returning strength of her body and its capacity to rebuild itself.
Running isn’t really restoring my friend, her spirit does that, but running is her route to revival. Disease will always lurk on the periphery, but she’s not looking back, only ahead. Looking down the road. Looking at a number.
She runs 6km these days, but wants to reach 10km by next year. I hope she gets there, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. Her eyes are clear. Her ear is OK. Her balance is fine. My friend is running and it is wonderful for it only means she is repaired.