It’s easy to have a Happy Birthday

The Coquitlam Crunch stairs; view from the bottom of the east stairs.
The Coquitlam Crunch: June 13, 2022

Some of my regular blog fans (few in number, but treasured by me) may have noticed that I haven’t written a post for months. I feel choked by not being able to write. For me, writing is an essential way I express myself, and I’ve continued writing in my two journals and my training log. Why not my blog?

It’s been a landmark year. In the spring, I urgently wanted to write about two ten-year anniversaries that marked huge changes in my life. On March 1, 2022, I celebrated ten years of living alone in my beloved Port Moody apartment, with its spectacular sunset views and its proximity to so many places I’m attached to—Mundy Park, Burrard Inlet, Sasamat Lake, and others. I also remembered George Gluppe, my running coach of 36 years, who passed away ten years ago on April 21, 2022.

I couldn’t write about these anniversaries, significant as they were to me, for two reasons:

  • I’ve been working very hard on a nursing ethics textbook for over a year now—in multiple roles, including that of copy editor. There is always more work for me to complete.
  • So much of what I want/need to write about is painful, including health crises of friends and family, and my encounters with my own physical and mental vulnerabilities. How do I frame these subjects in a positive way? How do I maintain the persona of a successful, inspiring athlete as I grow older and my body starts falling apart? Can I write about the struggles of people I am close to without betraying their privacy?

For all these reasons, I’ve appeared to have writer’s block. I’m not going to write about those ten-year anniversaries today, either. I’m just going to write a small vignette about why I’m grateful on my birthday; why it’s easy to have a happy birthday.

***

About three months ago, I started jogging slowly in Mundy Park in preparation for a workout with my sprinter friend Laurie. After about three minutes of this slow jogging, I noticed one leg felt unusually weak, in a way that couldn’t be explained by fatigue. To my dismay, the weakness rapidly turned to muscle cramping, especially in my calf muscle, and after futile limping for a couple more minutes, I was forced to stop jogging. The calf cramping was excruciating, but as I walked slowly back to the park entrance, the cramp went away. I recognized these symptoms only too well. These were the symptoms of a blocked artery in my leg. Having gone through partial and then complete blockage of both my femoral arteries when I was in my thirties, I knew what muscle claudication (lack of oxygen) felt like. I had had bypass surgery done on my left leg in 1992 and my right leg in 1998; without those surgeries, I wouldn’t have been able to continue running.

In the past five to ten years, I’ve experienced symptoms of a partial blockage in my left leg. When I’m cycling uphill, or running fast for more than a few minutes, I get some muscle cramping in my left leg. But so many other things hold me back now, including my right knee arthritis, so I can live with not being able to run at race-pace intensity.

What I was feeling now, though, seemed like a total blockage. With shock, I realized it was my right leg that had cramped up, not my left!

Once my muscles felt normal again, I tried to jog—but again, I was forced to stop after a few minutes because of intense cramping.

At home, I made some frantic phone calls. My vascular surgeon’s office told me to get a referral from my GP. My GP couldn’t see me for a few days, but was able to talk to me on the phone. He reassured me that if I had a clot in a leg artery, it could only travel down, and wouldn’t lead to a stroke or heart attack.

Over the next few days, I did some easy cycling (no hills). I tried to do the Coquitlam Crunch, and was quite amazed that I could do the stair section only 30 seconds slower than my usual time. The difference was that by the time I reached the top, my leg had cramped so badly that I had to rest for two minutes before I could even continue walking. I repeated this workout a couple of times in the next week, with the same result. I even did a running workout on the soccer field. I could sprint for 30 seconds; I then let my leg recover for two minutes while I did pushups and situps. People who are addicted to exercise are very creative in finding ways to get a good workout!

At my GP’s office, the doctor listened to my pulses at various points on my legs and feet. He agreed that it sounded as though I had a blockage somewhere in my lower right leg. He sent in a referral to my vascular surgeon and I was given an appointment to have a treadmill test that would assess my circulation a few weeks later.

Eleven days after this happened, I was at the Crunch for my fourth attempt up since the blockage. Imagine my surprise! my relief! my thanks! as I bounded up the full set of almost 500 stairs and felt no symptoms! And they didn’t come back. I went right back to my normal training routine, with a couple of runs a week, hilly bike rides, and Crunches.

I went for my treadmill test. I only saw a technician; I had no chance to talk to the vascular surgeon. He gave me a call a couple of weeks later, and said, “I’ve got good news. Your circulation is completely normal.”

I wasn’t surprised. I insisted upon having a conversation about what had happened. He said, “These arterial blockages are never temporary. Something else must have caused your symptoms.” I could tell he thought I was crazy, and that he probably attributed my problem to a calf injury. But my calf had been fine. When I stretched it or touched it there was no pain. I could tell this surgeon had no idea of the expert knowledge an athlete has of their own body and how it responds to various levels of physical exertion.

***

This morning, I was back at the Crunch. I was thankful for so many things! The morning was sunny, contrary to the weather forecast. I usually do the Crunch once or twice a week. It’s not one of my hard workouts, because I don’t run it. It’s a way to get outside and get some breathtaking views when I have only an hour to spare (driving there included). I push just two small portions of it: the stairs and the final 250m uphill from the 2K post to the top. On the way down, I jog only the flatter sections because it’s not worth it to hurt my bad knee.

Today, my “performance” on the stairs, pushing hard, was average for me at 3min30sec.

It was an everyday victory for me. After what happened to my leg in March, I know I can never take my workouts for granted. It’s not just that one “blockage” incident, either. Last fall I had a number of medical tests, and I found out that I have calcium deposits in the arteries of both legs as well as in my aorta. I have a faulty heart valve that isn’t bad enough to require surgery yet. I’ve been put on cholesterol-lowering medication. The stress of my work and other worries has made my sleep worse than ever, so I’m constantly battling my need to take sleeping pills occasionally with the risk of addiction.

Is the machine that has served me so well for 63 years falling apart?

No. It’s just giving me little reminders of that number above. I still have days when I feel 100%, even though I will never again be fast compared to my youthful self.

Today, I’m saying thank you to my body for allowing me to complete another fun Crunch. And I’m saying thank you to all my friends and family who have phoned, sent text messages, emails, or Facebook messages, or sent flowers. And thank you to Keith for coming back from the cabin to share my birthday with me.

I even broke my writer’s block!

Sunset from my balcony
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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
This entry was posted in Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s easy to have a Happy Birthday

  1. Debra Simms says:

    Hi, Nancy
    I can’t tell you how glad I am that you take immediate action in addressing any potential injury! Coming from a background of stage performance, including fairly strenuous dance (many, many years ago), I always worry when an athlete decides to ignore, dismiss, or “walk off” their pain.
    Professional-level performers in any field can be subject to the fear of losing what they love and the only lifestyle they’ve ever known. All too often they choose to brush off warning signs that, had they been addressed immediately, could have saved a career.
    While it’s never easy to have one’s body say, It’s time to relinquish the spotlight”, it’s always better in the long run (pun intended) to redirect a career towards what ‘can be’, rather than cling to ‘what once was’.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Debra! I’ve had to make many modifications to my goals. I was always injury prone even when I was young. I’m better at stopping than most other runners I know!

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