by Rusty Shelton
article submitted to “Runner Triathlete News”
Running offers tremendous healing powers. My daily runs provide me my private time and my prayer time. Speaking with God just comes naturally when I embark on early morning jaunts around the neighborhood and on weekend trail treks. Most runners I know look to running as a mental “quiet time” to reflect, plan or escape from life’s and work’s pressures, problems and deadlines. Recent events in my life have served to emphasize running’s tremendous powers of healing.
In the spring of 2001, I decided to ramp up my trail distances to go beyond the beginner stage. At that time, I had done 12 trail runs of 50K to 60K but many times had to endure the stinging barbs of the (usually) good natured taunts from my North Texas Trail Runner Club mates who were doing the 50-mile or longer distances, while I just did the 31-mile “fun run.” A couple of weeks before my first attempt at 50 miles at the LBJ National Grasslands area north of Decatur, Texas, I visited my orthopedic specialist due to shoulder pain. Masters Swimming affords me my cross-training, and I assumed that a few too many 3,000-yard workouts had created a little tendinitis. My Doctor agreed with my diagnosis, but in looking at my x-rays noticed what he termed a “spot” on one of my lungs. Wanna’ get my attention? Just hint at cancer, particularly lung cancer which ended my mother’s life prematurely a few years ago. My taper for my first 50-miler consisted of cutting back on swimming, some anti-inflammatory drugs and a battery of chest x-rays along with several prayers before, during and after my morning runs. The 50-miler went beautifully. The sheer magnitude of that distance and the absolute enjoyment of the accomplishment took my mind of off whatever might be growing inside me. The camaraderie of several runners, none of whom I was the least embarrassed or reluctant to share my concerns with, made the day a joy. Best of all, the following week’s news of clean and clear x-rays only served to make that run and the silver belt buckle commemorating it even more special.
Later in 2001, in keeping with my spring sentiments, I decided the time had come to seriously ramp up my trail distance. If I was calling myself an ultra runner, then I should tackle a “real” ultra. On September 11th, as I was winding down my preparations for the Arkansas Traveler 100 miler in early October, the terrorist attacks on America threw all of our lives into disarray. For several days immediately after 9/11, I rarely gave a second’s thought to the AT100. I was much more concerned with my family’s and our country’s immediate and ongoing safety. As has been told in countless personal stories, running in the days after 9/11 was a welcomed escape from fear and constant uncertainty about what was next. I assumed that the AT100 would be cancelled, but like so many other event organizers all over America, the Race Directors elected to go forward with the event in the spirit of showing other Americans and the world that our spirit could not be broken. Although a swollen left knee forced my withdrawal at mile 58.5, I took away glorious memories of the event and reconfirmation of the freedom and healing that running offers me (and no doubt many others).
More recently, I have really needed and missed the healing and spirit-restoring powers of running. Unbeaten in spirit after my DNF at Arkansas, I entered the Vermont 100 Trail Run scheduled for late July of 2002. Like Arkansas, the VT100 is known as a “beginner-friendly” course and event with lots of aid stations, a not-fiendishly difficult venue and usually decent weather. Near the completion of the 2002 Grasslands 50 miler, conducted during a continuous downpour in the worst shoe-sucking slop one could envision, I felt a sharp pain at the top of my right shin. Suffice to say that almost 1 year later, having hobbled to the end of my second Grasslands 50-miler (with another buckle), having withdrawn from the Vermont run and DNF’d at a 50K in the fall of 2002, I continue rehabbing my right IT band via lots of stretching, yoga, swimming, biking, easy running, and my first experiences with chiropractic medicine. As a runner who started racing and training with some level of seriousness 22 years ago, I admittedly expect and can accept and deal with the inevitable injuries. But this one has been particularly debilitating and hard to heal. Moreover, it has persisted through the most trying experience of my professional life. Caught in the ongoing telecommunications downturn in the US, having the normally very good fortune of a senior-level management position with an equipment vendor whose order flow all but stopped, I diligently went about my IT band rehab as I counted down the final days of my 13-year career with that company.
Though very thankful today to have successfully found employment in the ever-imploding telecom sector, it is difficult to find the words to convey how much I missed my long trail runs through this personal ordeal. Blessed with a strong Christian faith, a wonderfully supportive family, a network of encouraging friends, and good health (except for that soft tissue on the outside of my right leg!), I am not one to complain. Life will go on with our without running. I am up to an hour of pain-free running and probably am healthier and more flexible given my altered training regimen of the past several months. My wife, our daughters and I have enjoyed some new-found hours together; I’m celebrating middle age by taking up golf; and my once abject fear of chiropractors continues to subside as my yoga practice continues to challenge the inflexibility of a soon-to-be 50 year-old body.
Nonetheless, I still go to sleep some nights fantasizing about what the spirit was willing to do while the body balked in the hills of Arkansas and imagining the last few steps toward the finish line at a barn in Vermont. Maybe someday, but for now I’m thankful for the healing that running continues to offer.