I have been thinking about, mulling over this idea of resilience, and have seen many articles and discussions around the theme lately as Covid-19 has forced us all into uncharted territory. I have pondered resilience many times as I have reflected upon my past, as I watched my boys learn to crawl and walk and stumble and try again. Perhaps my biggest “aha moment” around resilience however came two years ago. I was training for the Boston Marathon for which I had finally earned a qualifying time. I hadn’t set out when I began running marathons, to run Boston, but rather had set the intention on simple self-improvement with each race, as after the first marathon I felt compelled to run another and another. As my times crept closer to Boston requirements and qualifying actually became achievable, however, I reconsidered and decided to go for it. I qualified during my 10th marathon and my 5-year-old son, Ben, ran across the finish line with me – it was a great day!
Eight months later, I found myself in the ER at UCLA Westwood, receiving the diagnosis that what I had chalked up to be a complicated migraine had actually been a stroke that morning, causing my left arm, hand, and parts of my face to go, and remain, numb. The first question out of my mouth was, “Can I still run the Boston Marathon?” which was just six weeks away and for which I’d been training faithfully. The doctor told me, “There will be other marathons.” I replied, “You don’t understand! I’ve run 10 marathons to qualify for this race and have trained for several more. There may not be more Boston Marathons in my future.”
A week later, I followed up with a cardiologist and posed the same question. As the dust had settled a bit and I had recovered most of the sensations in, and use of, my left hand, arm and face, the response was, “Well, I can’t tell you not to” which I quickly translated to “yes”. On April 16, 2018, I ran the Boston Marathon. Despite what Time Magazine noted as “..grueling conditions on Monday as heavy rain poured and wind gusts hit more than 25 miles per hour — all among the coldest temperatures for the 122nd annual Boston Marathon race in three decades” (Calfas, 2018). My watch died halfway through and I felt utter despair in not being able to know my pace and how many minutes until the finish line. If you read my previous Lessons from the Run: Endurance post, you’ll understand when I note that during the Boston Marathon, the “bonk” came at just mile 13, the halfway point. I thought about quitting – no one would have blamed me given the abysmal weather conditions.
And then the voice that had responded in defiance to the doctors after my stroke reminded me, “You have run 10 marathons to be here today. You are crossing that finish line! This will not be a personal record, but you will not quit! You do not quit!” This sentiment perhaps summarizes my life so far – I may reroute, but I do not quit!
When people later asked me about my stroke and the Boston Marathon and looked at me as if I was completely insane, I realized perhaps I had taken resilience to an uncommon level, and I began to ponder their questions of “How???” and “Why???” How and why did I bounce back so quickly from the stroke to run Boston?
Resilience for babies and children seems to be automatic. As I thought back to my childhood, one in which I had two brain surgeries, an emergency appendectomy, a broken collar bone, and in which I moved around a lot, living in 14 different houses and going to 8 different schools, I realized these experiences had shaped who I’d become. In those early months and years, as I learned to crawl and walk and overcame my first brain surgery, a battle with a staph infection, and later at 2-years-old, a broken collar bone, I realized I only knew to fight for my life, to fight to heal – it was inherent to overcome and survive in those early months and years. However, these early experienced shaped me and taught me to fight, and to overcome became a reflex. So then later, as I faced other obstacles, new challenges, I had the experiences of triumph to reflect upon, and this reflex to find a way forward.
Resilience, as we grow and develop, seems to be a culmination of experience, learning to endure, reroute, move forward, and overcome. I had been shaped by my experiences, not only by these profound personal experiences but by running, as well. As a sophomore in high school, new to another school, I went out for the cross country running team. I trained all summer, to prepare for the infamous 2-a-day practices. Just weeks into the season and before the first competition, the coach noticed me limping through my run and called me back. Soon, I could barely walk, I was in so much pain. I was diagnosed with a stress fracture and relegated to the sidelines with a purple cast for the next six weeks, the remainder of the season. What I learned from the experience – maybe I am not someone who should run every day. I chose to look for a lesson rather than letting the experience define me as someone who will not be a runner. I still ran throughout high school and college. Running became my stress relief, I just didn’t run every day.
Fast forward to a couple of years after college, all of my friends were heading to grad school, law school, med school, or taking fancy jobs in banking in New York City, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I returned to the run and signed up for a marathon. I found a training plan and focused on this next personal achievement. Weeks into the training plan and the ache in my shin reminded me running every day was a mistake. Rather than quitting, I revised the training plan to run 3-4 days a week, using swimming, spinning, yoga, and weights to maintain my muscle mass, maximize my lung capacity, and improve my stretching habits. I ran my first marathon successfully crossing the finish line, injury-free, and looking for the next challenge.
Years later, as I fell into the pattern of running a few marathons a year, I again fell into the trap of trying to run every day. I felt good, I was getting faster, surely I’d passed that previous threshold of not being able to run every day. Nope, just two weeks before the Napa Valley Marathon 2010, I was once again barely able to walk and this time, diagnosed with a stress fracture and two partial muscle tares. I turned to the pool to scratch the itch running had scratched and to get that high running had given me. I learned another lesson – cross-train!
The pool became my refuge and as I returned to the run and training for marathons, I continued to rotate swimming into my training to keep me from getting hurt. I have run several marathons since then and have continued to learn the important lessons of adaptation and flexibility, both essential to resilience. I don’t quit, I adapt, and this is what has allowed me to overcome, and what allowed me to run the Boston Marathon six weeks after a stroke. As I sat in the aftermath of the stroke and the achievement of crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon in the worst weather in history, I finally came to realize how important the theme of resilience is to my life and my character. Resilience, the ability to overcome, to adapt, to reroute, has made me strong and determined and courageous in the face of adversity, and what has made me resilient are the many opportunities I have been given to overcome. Resilience is hard-earned, but the lessons and outcomes are worth the battle. I only fail if I fail to learn the lesson.
In this time of great personal and national challenge, I encourage you to look for opportunities to learn, adapt, and face the fear that threatens to overcome with boldness, flexibility, determination, and endurance. Visualize you on the other side…what have you learned? How have you changed? Who have you become? Who do you want to become? What are you learning now? What are your choices? What do you not have the power to control? How can you let that go? What do you control? Own what you can change. Chase after that vision of the future you, the you who you would like to become, and don’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of becoming the best version of you, the version of you you deserve to become! Be resilient!
If you missed Lessons from the Run, Part I: Mile 18 – Endurance, you can find it here. Please stay tuned for Lessons from the Run, Part III: Rest and Lessons from the Run, Part IV: Grit and Determination
Calfas, J. (2018, April 16). “This Year’s Boston Marathon Weather is Rainy and Windy. Runners Say It’s ‘Awesome/Terrible'”. Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/5241504/boston-marathon-2018-wind-rain/