In October ’16, I ran my first marathon. It was the culmination of months of dedication and sacrifice: waking up before the sun to do training runs, watching what I eat and drink, adjusting habits and behaviors to align with better endurance performance. And, although I didn’t finish as fast as I would have liked, I finished. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, but I pushed through to see the finish line.
A mere two months later, I was lying prone on a hospital bed staring up at the florescent lights, waiting to be rolled into heart surgery. And that, along with subsequent complications and the extended recovery process, became the hardest thing that I had ever done.
In one moment, I was running like the wind through the streets of Amsterdam. The next moment, clad in a meager hospital gown, I was learning how to breathe again, pushing my lungs to remember how to expand and compress; I was learning how to move my legs again, dragging fluid bags and an onerous oxygen tank, to take one step after another.
As I look back on these two experiences, I can draw many similarities, the experience in one that helped me pull through the other. Both are unnatural, violent assaults on the typical human body and thus require abnormal, trying processes to overcome.
Both are not what I thought they were going to be.
Everything Begins with Patience
When training for your first marathon, the key is to start early, stay consistent and be patient. Injuries occur when you increase total distance and/or speed too quickly, thus putting undue stress on the body before it has had time to adapt to the changing circumstances. Even though you may feel good enough to continue, you have to follow the program… not too much, not too little, but just right.
I remember the little twinges in my knees and ankles, the slight stabbing pain in my lower back, all little signals from the body telling me I was at my limit, to slow down just a tad. It was exhilarating to come back to that point repeatedly, and see the needle move a little more across many weeks, just a little further, just a little faster.
Recovering from surgery is walking a very similar path. Your body has been put through trauma. It has forgotten how to do many of the routine things you take for granted. You need to push it to remember, but not too much, not too little, but just right.
The pain was now in my lungs, my side, my legs. It plagued me with every breath; it haunted my dreams, twisting and stretching, shaking me awake when I felt I finally grasped a moment of reprieve. At times, I thought I reached my limit, that I could bear no further. But at the same time, I knew: tomorrow would be better. I needed to do the exercises, I needed to eat, and I needed to be patient. The needle would move.
Tomorrow would be better.
Endurance Has Many Forms
I believe that the marathon is one of the true tests of human endurance for the common man. I know there are longer races and even crazier tests, but for the average person who enjoys a brisk walk but also a solid hamburger and fries, the push to 42 km is quite far enough. It’s achievable, but not without a fair share of sweat and tears.
The endurance of a marathon is not just the race itself, it is the discipline to get in shape to be able to run it. It is the months of short runs, medium runs and long runs, along with scattered cross-training workouts, stretching, and other exercises. It is rearranging your whole schedule, from sleeping to eating to hanging out with friends, to be able to do those runs and workouts and exercises. It is setting aside a large part of your life to focus on one thing, running a marathon.
And then, when the day arrives, it is to get out and do it. It is to keep going when all you want to do is stop, drop and lie down in that inviting ditch on the side of the road. All you can think about is, “I was not designed to run a marathon,” yet you keep going, one plodding step after another. Endurance.
Recovering from major surgery also requires serious endurance. Instead of 42 km, it was 42 steps, but each step was as painful as a kilometer. Your body tells you, “you can’t do it, you are finished, you are not going to get better,” but you must persist, you must push one step at a time.
I remember finally getting out of the ICU to the ward after a second surgery to repair damage to my lungs caused by surgical complications. I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept in days. My will was at the edge of breaking yet I still held on to life. All I wanted was some strong painkillers and one night to fade into oblivion. The nurse came in, smiled at me and handed me a couple balloons, challenging me to blow them up, two per hour for the next 4–5 hours. It was supposed to help jump-start the recovery of my lungs. I looked at her, bewildered. “Impossible. Just leave me alone. I’m done,” I said. But she wouldn’t relent. I took a balloon and I blew and blew, but nothing happened. “Keep going,” she said. I blew until I was red in the face, sweat dripping onto the white sheets, but it just lay in my hand, mocking me. It wasn’t happening. “Keep going,” she said. And so I kept going.
To endure is to hope, to hope that somehow, someday you will see the finish line, or that you will simply be whole again.
The Challenges Change, but the Approach is the Same
When I first started running, running non-stop for even one kilometer was a challenge. Then when I started training for the marathon, the long runs every weekend — 20, 25, 30, 32 km — were like looming mountains in the distance that advanced toward me with each weekday until they stood at my doorstep, Saturday morning, mocking me before the twilight hour had even been reached. Each week was a new challenge to overcome as the distances piled on.
But the approach was the same each day. Roll out of bed. Get dressed. Take that first step out the door, into the darkness, into the cold. I knew if I could get that far, I could complete the run. It was getting out the door that was the hard part. Just make it out the door and the challenge was practically complete.
After my heart surgery, instead of kilometers of asphalt and darkness before me, my adversaries were the white tile of my hospital ward, and these small colored plastic balls stuck in these connected plastic tubes. Anyone who has ever had major surgery knows exactly what I’m referring to — those impossible plastic balls you are supposed to raise up via the sheer power of your lungs.
How many hours did I sit and stare at those balls as I blew into the tube, just willing them to lift, even an inch. But they just sat there, rattling and laughing at me. One ball would rise. The other two were probably made of solid rock, how much they refused to budge. Yet I continued to inhale and exhale through that tiny tube as hard as I could, giving my all to get those plastic balls to move.
It was all about showing up. “Keep doing these breathing exercises on the apparatus,” the doctor said, “once an hour… no, basically as much as you can, as often as you remember.” So I did. I wondered if I was making any progress. I wondered if these three balls would ever rise in unison. I doubted it would ever happen. But the only way to find out was to keep doing it, hour after hour. I had to show up.
And eventually they did.
So now I’m here on the other side, of both mountains. The doctors said that the marathon and the intense training may have played a role in my eventually needing the heart surgery. We can’t know for sure. All I know is that without having gone through the first ordeal, I doubt I would have had the strength to go through the second.