“Do you want to do a sprint triathlon with us?”, my mother asked, referring to herself and my step dad. How many times has your mom asked you this question? I’ve heard it several times over the past 20 years, and Cris is turning 70 in January. If you’re wondering, yes, I have competed in two sprint triathlons with my mom and step dad. And no, I did not blow them out of the water, but let’s keep that between you and me.
My mother is a former college athlete, state champ swimmer, homecoming queen, and retired physical education and health teacher. I certainly don’t have those on my list of life accomplishments but what I do have is a damn cool mother who has always been an inspiring, active, and healthy role model for me and anyone she’s met. I’ll never forget when she was teaching middle school in Columbus, Ohio, she organized a triathlon event for her students. She brought in the Ohio State Triathletes to speak to the kids about their experiences, what to expect, and of course, to pump them up. The event was a phenomenal success. To think of all the kids’ lives she positively affected over all of those years she taught at that school. Introducing them to active and outdoor experiences, helping them build their confidence, and encouraging every single one of them along the way.
What’s neat about the whole thing is that I have become a bit of a role model for her as well. I’ll touch on that in a bit. As a lifelong runner, former lifeguard, certified yoga teacher, and all-things-outdoors enthusiast, I’ve done my fair share of sprint triathlons, half marathons, sun salutations, and adventure races. Like mother, like daughter; I love working out, playing sports, and the great outdoors. This also means I have a hard time sitting still, genetics…am I right? Running was my first love at the age of 12 and first form of moving meditation. Movement is my self care, my form of therapy, how I work through issues; how I take care of my mental health. There is nothing else like that runner’s high, trust me I’ve tried. I even get FOMO if I drive past someone running on a nice day. What would happen if my go-to form of self care was no longer an option? I would soon find out.
Speaking of runners’ highs, I ran the Trail Sisters Lake Sonoma Trail Marathon in ‘22. They call that race ‘Relentless’ for a reason; 5,700 feet of elevation gain over single-track in the Sonoma mountains. To think, ‘22 was the year that changed it all; when I ran my first trail marathon and when I got sober from alcohol. That year my on-and-off neck pain hit an all time high, where I quite literally had to get drunk, take edibles, and pop a hydrocodone to feel a slight bit of relief. That spring, my neck started spasming during an 8 mile trail run, where the pain literally stopped me dead in my tracks. I realized at that point I could not go on like this. My then goal of running my first ulta quickly went out the window. My new goal was to get to the root of my chronic pain. I decided to (sadly) cut way back miles and to (thankfully) quit drinking. I knew that being sober wouldn’t solve all my problems, but having a sober mind set would help me at least start. That was the first time running saved my life.
That fall, I somehow managed to squeeze out one more half-marathon before it all fell apart. An easy 5-miler on Thanksgiving morning set off a series of three intense neck spasms over the next 5 weeks; with the worst putting me in urgent care. Cortisone and lidocaine shots, muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, and a physical therapy prescription is where I landed. After a few depressing months of zero miles and numerous sessions of dry needling, things were looking slightly up. My angel of a PT listened to me gripe, dealt with my grouchy moods, empathize with my pain, and understood me more than any other medical professional has in all my years of injuries. Can you guess why? She was a retired endurance athlete.
During one of those appointments I confessed a thought to her I’d never spoken aloud before. Could this relentless “pain in the neck” be stress and trauma stuck in my body? Apparently “issues in the tissues” is a real thing. She validated me and I knew what I had to do next. Do you ever meet one of those people in life and think, this is the absolute best person for me to have met in this situation? That was Debbie. Before my last appointment I said, “Is this it? Do I have to retire from running at 38?” Debbie chuckled and said, “I didn’t start racing triathlons until I was 40!”. Well, that was right around the corner.
Fast forward to summer ‘23 when I was finally cleared to run. The pain still lingered, and I became increasingly frustrated, and to be frank, scared. A cervical spine MRI ruled out surgery and I was referred to a pain management specialist. Sadly, even spinal injections still left me cringing. I decided to explore that once secret conversation I had with my PT, and found a psychologist who specialized in trauma and chronic pain. With her help, I connected with a primary care physician who would be the gatekeeper of my care, and in turn, help me navigate my next steps to tackle this chronic issue.
The morning of that first PC appointment I was an anxious mess; crying tears of despair while I sat slumped over on that paper-covered table in the exam room. The outcome? I left with a prescription for a SNRI. According to the Mayo Clinic, SNRIs are a class of medications that are effective in treating depression and are also sometimes used to treat other conditions, such as anxiety disorders and long-term (chronic) pain, especially nerve pain. The puzzle pieces of life were finally coming together. I realized my younger self created numerous coping mechanisms to help me deal with life’s issues; running and drinking just happened to be a few. Now, I interpret this chronic pain as my body’s way of telling me do not pass go, do not collect $200, and certainly do not sign up for any more races. No drinking and no running?! I certainly didn’t have that on my 2023 Bingo card!
I didn’t know this at the time, but quitting alcohol really did help me get the clarity I needed to begin this healing journey. My body screamed “NO” over and over again, and I was finally forced to listen. Heal the mind first, the body second, and then get back to my first love. Miles and miles, it’s you and you, one foot in front of the other. So to recap, I celebrated my one-year soberversary from alcohol, started taking an antidepressant, and began healing my chronic (stress) pain. And do you know who has been my biggest supporter through it all? You guessed it, my triathlete mother! The active, healthy role model I once grew up with now tells me I am inspiring because I quit alcohol, took a break from running, went to therapy, asked for help, and never gave up. Most of all, I have become my own biggest advocate. If I could achieve a sliver of what she has achieved in her role as a positive, encouraging, and physically active member of her community, that would be a win for me. Although I am not completely free of the pain that once crumbled me to tears and drove me to drink, I do feel in my body that it’s time to lace up the Hokas and slowly start training again.
What do I have my sights set on now, you ask? Perhaps I’ll finally run that ultra? Or take my shot at the Lake Sonoma 50 miler? How about something like a 70.3 Ironman in San Diego? Like life, the path to healing is never linear. There are twists, turns, set backs, heartbreak, and disappointment; but also moments of such immense joy that all you can do is smile while tears of gratitude stream down your face. Waking up with no hang-xiety or debilitating neck pain, and feeling strong enough to join my fellow Trail Sisters for a run in the woods are a few of those joys for me. I’m not sure where my running journey will take me next, but I’m damn sure that running has saved my life, twice.
Thank you to Trail Sisters for creating a safe space to share my voice. Mental health disorders and substance abuse are not a choice and my hope is that this story will help to break that stigma. While I am not a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional, my intention in sharing my experience is to shed some light on these tough topics. If you are struggling with your mental health please know that you are not alone and you are worthy. Call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7 at 988 if you need emotional support.