Why we Run…Maybe For the Love of Flying
What is special about running? Why not just walk, cycle, swim, do some elliptical or maybe the “Gazelle”, or just squat repeated times through the day? I think my cousin Meaghan Cusack explained it all when she spoke to a group of physicians at a recent Healthy Running conference in Chicago. Meaghan is an “addicted” 5k runner from her own admission and describes her early youth of not being athletic or “sporty” in her words. “As a kid, I hated running. I remember the dreaded day in gym where we would file outside and line up for the mile run. It was only four laps around the school, but it felt as though we were running a marathon.”
But then at age 10 she discovered she had an aggressive form of bone cancer. Several years of chemo, relapses, failed attempts at joint salvage ended in an above the knee amputation. “I had hurt my ankle in gymnastics a few weeks earlier, and I had been limping for weeks. My ankle was x-rayed over and over again, and nothing seemed to be wrong. It was a few months later when we noticed a lump near my knee and I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer in my right tibia. I underwent a year of chemotherapy and several major surgeries which attempted to salvage my leg, before I relapsed. The cancer had spread to my lungs and I had another year of chemotherapy in front of me. The second year of chemo was the last straw for the leg which already had been trying to heal in the midst of the harsh chemotherapy. My father was in tears when my doctor pulled out the final x-ray of my lower leg. My bone was nearly gone and would never heal. My only choice was amputation. Two days later my hospital room was filled with nearly twenty close family members and friends praying over me before I went in.”
Meaghan remained an inspiration to our family and she never used the disability to limit her goals. She completed multiple cycling events with her bicycle enthusiast family in Denver. She and I completed the 160 mile Courage Classic bike ride on a tandem (see picture). Meaghan graduated college and she set off to grad school at the University of Chicago to pursue psychology.
Over 10 years went by where Meaghan grew and learned to walk on various prosthesis, but never “run”. After her move to Chicago she met a prosthetist who in Meaghan’s words ” almost immediately started asking me if I would ever want to try running. I was hesitant at first, but I took a running foot home to try. I started in the hallway of my building, cautiously placing one foot in front of the other first, and gradually lengthening my strides and increasing speed. … and now I’m completely addicted…”
So what was it that Meaghan experienced that she had not in over 11 years which makes her and others want to continue running day after day. Meaghan put it simply”I was flying”. The feeling of both feet in the air is special at many levels, whether in long slow efforts or short high intensity efforts because I believe we are “Born to Fly”. A recent hospital patient and former gymnast rehabbing from almost a year in bed described a similar feeling of exercising and jumping in the water (she cannot jump on solid ground yet). She said “I’m not sure what it is but the feeling of freedom is indescribable”.
Meaghan has made the inevitable new runner mistakes because the feeling of flying is so fun. “The first thing the trainer told me, was to slow down. That’s new. I realized a major reason why I get burned out and have to walk it out so much, is because I need to slow down my pace a little. It’s hard being new at this, because I want to FLY. But, I was running a lot longer and had better form when I slowed it down a little.”
Amputee runners do get hurt too, but like all of us Meaghan is learning the lessons. She wrote this 2 years ago in her blog: “Injuries forced me to stay inside quite a bit, which is exhausting for me. I look out my window at the beautiful weather and wish I was running the sidewalk. I feel like I had been going 100 miles per hour and come to a screeching stop. However, after much thought and processing (still a future psychologist after all) I have realized that I’m still a young, fit, 23 year old who has a lot of years to run my little heart out. That is, if I listen to my body when I’m hurt, and take care of myself until I have healed.”
So what helped Meghan through injury? Volunteering. “I decided to volunteer for the Terrapin, so I can be a part of it, and meet the “Scheck and Siress” amputee running group without stressing my knee out too much.”
Meghan has since completed dozens of 5ks and even some obstacle races and mud runs. Running with an above the knee amputation requires about three times the energy of running with an able body. So there you have in the words of an intrepid young lady. Learn and love to fly, learn from your errors, and when down give back by volunteering.