Stronger or Bitter?

Stronger or Bitter

I drove home from the appointment shell-shocked. At 46, I had just been told that I should never run again! It turned out that the back pain that had grown from a niggle to a whining complaint over the past twelve months was my spine letting me know that it had been invaded. Arthritis – advanced enough to be visible on a normal x-ray, – had taken up residence in my lower lumbar vertebrae (along with its companion – Spondylosis).

When I had first heard the diagnosis from my general practitioner, I was dismayed. (I’ll admit I even shed a tear or two). But I quickly pulled myself together, consoled by the fact that the pain was not the result of something more sinister.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for this. No more running? EVER?┬áThe surgeon had been emphatic, going so far as to pull out the MRI of an older patient (a runner who couldn’t / wouldn’t quit) so show me the future of my spine, were I to disregard his warning.

I had come to running at the relatively late age of 35. What started out as an attempt to regain fitness after the long period of ill-health that followed the birth of my first (and only) biological child, had rapidly progressed from a panting struggle to a passion. Five kilometres led to 10 kilometres. Then my first race – 16 kilometres. And it didn’t stop there.

Soon I was cajoling my running-partner / husband to attempt a half-marathon. “We have to run one before we die,” became my mantra until the long-suffering love of my life, finally acquiesced and we ran our first 21.1 km race, the iconic Two Oceans half-marathon.

What started out as “just one” very quickly became habitual and in the ensuing years we entered and ran countless half-marathons throughout the Cape Peninsula and further afield.

And it didn’t stop there. I soon set my sights on running a full marathon. At this my beloved drew the line but I, doggedly (read “stupidly”) determined woman that I am persevered despite the preponderance of evidence that I was not designed for marathon running. (I am short, stocky, slow and during those years was struggling with severe asthma).

Undaunted, (read “stupid”) I persisted in pursuing my goal and in the ensuing ten years ran 25 half-marathons, 5 marathons and a solitary ultra (the 56 kilometre Two Oceans).

But the distance is just an aside. Running brought me so much more than mileage and medals. It gave me me-time, away from the demands of my four young children, work-from-home job, and all the other demands faced by young mothers and wives the world over.

Over the years, there had been countless early morning drives with friends made through running, to outlying towns to participate in a race, coffee-and rusks in the Knysna forest, the indescribable beauty of sunrise over the ocean as we pounded our way along Misty Cliffs… so many memories, friendships, struggles, sweat, exhaustion and exhilaration. And then, in the instant it took to speak a diagnosis, my running days came to a sudden, abrupt, end.

The day the running ended for me, I drove home stunned. I was still reeling as I pulled into the garage. In the kitchen I paused to open the post. There it was – the postcard announcing my entry into the Knysna half-marathon.

A year ago we had driven up the Garden Route with a very dear friend and her two daughters to spend the Oyster Festival week in the Pine forest and participate in the run.

Now, something I had eagerly been looking forward to repeating brought a deep sense of regret. I called my friend to tell her that the trip this year was off. The die had been cast, the figurative mat had been pulled out from beneath my very literal feet. The relationship with running was over. The sooner I cut the ties, the sooner I could move on.

Stronger or Bitter?

But move on to what? I had two very clear choices. Do nothing, become depressed and fatter (I have waged a life-long battle with adipose) OR find something else to do. The next day, I drove to the sports shop and came home equipped with swimming costume, fins, cap and goggles.

Then I walked into the gym, stifled my mortification that I had to strip down to a costume beside a pool placed very strategically, right in the centre of the gym, in full view of the runners on the treadmills upstairs overlooking the pool, took the plunge and swam my first 20 lengths (half a kilometre).

Ten years on; I am still swimming. Nowadays, I swim an average of 11 to 13 kilometres per week. Sure, I missed running, (sometimes still do) but in its aftermath I have gained lung capacity, lost excess baggage (of the fleshly kind), made many wonderful, new acquaintances (among them my incredible, challenging, tough but loving, swimming coach), developed a new skill and discovered a new joy.

It has been said that adversity either makes you stronger or bitter.

Adversity in this life is a given. It’s consequence? Well, that’s up to you. Stronger or bitter?

5 thoughts on “Stronger or Bitter?”

    1. When ever I am having a bad moment or feel pain in any part of my body from a hectic session.
      I think about you Charlene and your many challenges you face on a daily basis.
      You give me strength and inspiration to push through and dig down a little deeper.
      Thank you!

  1. What an incredible testimony of strength. Looking at you now, youd never say you struggled that way. You are inspiring.

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