Thursday, August 28, 2014

How Big is Your Brave?

Ernest Hemingway once said, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

I'm often told that I am strong. I've been told by friends or family that I'm the strongest or bravest person they know. I find it embarrassing and always a little surprising. Bravery and strength come in many forms, and I don't think of myself as being particularly strong or brave. I'm driven, and I'm stubborn enough to push through Crohn's problems because I refuse to lose to it. But brave? Strong? I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm often terrified. I'm terrified that I won't recover to my pre-surgery self. I'm terrified that I won't be able to run anymore. I'm terrified that this surgery/infection/flare will be the one from which I won't be able to recover.

Everyone in this world has legitimate struggles, and it's how we take the punches that reveal our character. I try to be grateful for my struggle - grateful that I can handle it; grateful that it isn't worse. But sometimes I feel down and weak. It would be so easy to live in that place and let the negative keep me there.

This summer has been brutal. A routine surgery turning into a second not routine surgery and then getting a blood clot. My recovery has been much slower than I expected, and I'm frustrated. My body is finally starting to feel somewhat normal, but the hits keep coming. Three weeks ago a part of my incision split open, and it has yet to heal.

I'm in the middle of a Crohn's flare that last week's IV infusion (that I've received every six weeks for 12 years) hasn't contained. Today I started a course of antibiotics to try to get my Crohn's under control. I'm on blood thinners for the next six months, and I've had a hard time getting to a "therapeutic" level. Earlier this week I had to give myself injections in the stomach again to get to therapeutic. This is all happening while I'm trying to be back 100%: at work, beginning running again, and starting our busy travel season. I think the pushing is what makes me seem strong. Pushing, for me, is just survival. 

I've had six abdominal surgeries in the last 14 years. They've used the same scar - right down the middle of my stomach - for four of those surgeries. When I feel like I'm not being strong or brave, I take a look at my scars and marvel at what my body has been through. In those moments of self doubt I know that I can push through this rough time, and I'll be fully recovered soon even if it may not be on my own timeline. But sometimes I have to remind myself that I am stronger than I think I am. I am braver than I ever thought I could be. When I think it's too much and I'm at the point where I want to give up, I am stronger than that.

A photo of this mess of scars? That just happened.
I read stories about incredibly people whose strength continues to inspire me. People like Alex Scott, the girl who suffered all of her young life with cancer but wanted only to help others. Alex's Lemonade Stand, a charity that raises money to fight childhood cancer, is her legacy. 

I think of Louis Zamperini, a runner, war hero, and survivor of unthinkable conditions at a POW camp. His story is told in the book Unbroken, and his bravery is remarkable. Louis recently passed away at the age of 97, and his legend will continue to inspire me.

When I think of the tremendous struggles of others, I am inspired to be braver and stronger. I don't think my brave is really that big, but my grit and moxie...those are what keep me going. We all struggle, but those struggles always make us stronger. How big is your brave?

*This song is about bravery in standing up for yourself, but the message resonates. Plus it's been stuck in my head all day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Do Cities + Running = Being Happier?

Do running and cities make you happier? The short answer is yes, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this blog. As someone who hasn't been able to run or utilize and experience cities in a way I'm used to, I can attest to the increased level of irritable and grouchy. I'm definitely happier when running and cities are an integral part of my daily life.

I'm currently reading Happy City by Charles Montgomery, a book that examines happiness based on where one lives. It doesn't take long to realize that living in suburban (or exurban - beyond the suburbs) neighborhoods without places to which one can walk makes people less happy. They spend more time in their cars and have less human interaction. Even reading the anecdotes in the book of people driving 50-60 miles one way to work every day make my skin crawl.

Charles Montgomery looks a little like one of my fav country singers, Dierks Bentley. That is a huge compliment, by the way.
I started thinking about the times in my adult life when I've been quite unhappy, and long commutes always played a part. In 2002 I was driving 60 miles one day from Killeen, Texas to Baylor University for my third year of law school. I HATED it. It's a straight shot up I-35 to Waco, and I rarely encountered traffic. But getting up and knowing I had to make that drive always put me in a bad mood. Getting home later in the evening and knowing I still had other things to do (chores, social events) made me annoyed. Granted I was also living in Killeen, Texas, a sh*thole Army town, so coming back to that wasn't much to write home about. Waco is a great city, but I didn't spend a lot of time there outside of school because I had the drive. It was a miserable existence.

In 2004 I lived with my sister and brother-in-law in a condo right near Chick's Beach on the Chespeake Bay in Virginia Beach. We lived across the street from Chick's Oyster Bar, to this day one of my all-time favorite restaurants. We were a jaunt across Shore Drive from the infamous (and unfortunately now gone) Duck-In. We went there all the time for cocktails and their Friday night beach parties. I loved living there, and it was among the most fun times in my life. 

My love of that location changed, however, when later that summer I got a job working for the Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, a job that changed my life and cemented my love for cities and placemaking. City Hall was less than 20 miles from our condo, but in Hampton Roads traffic it took forever. It was easily a 45 minute drive on most days. Again - hated it. I would get home in a horrible mood, and it would take hours to calm down again. My quality of life and happiness skyrocketed shortly thereafter when I moved to Norfolk's awesome Ghent neighborhood, a mere two miles from my office.

You'd think I'd learned my commuting lesson, but there's one more tale. A year and a half or so after moving to Michigan I took a job working mostly in Detroit. We had just purchased our house, so moving was out of the question. The job was 90 miles one way, a minimum of an hour and a half in the car if everything went smoothly. You know how often that happens during rush hour? Rarely. I hated it. I hated it so much that I would regularly cry while driving home. It lasted six months, and that drive made me miserable every single time. 

For the last six and half years I've lived three miles from my office, and I decided that commute was too long. Now I live a half a mile from work. I LOVE walking to work. Something about that ten minute walk lightens my mood and has me happier by the time I walk in the door. The salubrious effects of walking to and from work definitely impact my happiness. 

We can walk downtown Lansing for dinner. We can walk or bike to Old Town and the Lansing City Market. I hate taking the car out even though in our car-centric culture it's still necessary for a lot of things. Living in a place where I can easily get to destinations without my car has made me a happier human. It's a real thing.

In Happy City Montgomery examines how the "commuting paradox" affects our well-being. A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be satisfied with life than I do (I being someone who walks to work). My favorite statistic of all is that for a single person, "exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love."  I hate to say I told you so, but I keep telling you people that I've fallen in love with living downtown and walking to work. It turns out that may literally be true.

My recent health drama has put a halt to my running the last few months. If I didn't already know it, I definitely know now that running makes you happier. Running releases endorphins that can give you that runner's "high" and boost your self esteem. Running gets you in better physical shape, and that helps improve your happiness as well. According to Runner's World the effects of running can be similar to the high one gets from drugs. Maybe that's why I'm addicted to running. There are worse addictions, right? 

For me running relieves stress. It I'm having a stressful time with something at work or in my personal life, a good run helps me relieve that stress. I have worked through some of my toughest problems during a run. It's a quiet time of reflection that I am rarely afforded at any other time. I also sleep better and am less anxious when running regularly.

Combining my love of these two of my favorite things - running and cities - has helped make me a happier and more balanced human being. I love running in my neighborhood and exploring new cities through running. Cities give me the same sort of high that running does. I love knowing that around every corner there's something new to explore.  Who needs to actually do drugs? I'll take my daily hits of running and downtown please.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Busy Season

Every year in autumn it happens: the madness. Every year I think next year won't be like this. We'll say no. We'll manage the schedule. Yet every year as summer comes to an end I find myself looking at the calendar and wondering what the f*ck we've gotten ourselves into.   



Having two sets of season football tickets, including one set at my alma mater six hours away, is a blessing and a curse. We love college football, and we love seeing everyone. It's just that when the schedule comes crashing down on us that we realize how little time we have to do normal things like yard work and laundry.

Looking ahead at the next few months is daunting. We have one, ONE WEEKEND, in three months in which there is nothing planned. The other weekends include trips to Atlanta, Washington, DC, three trips to West Virginia, a bachelorette weekend, two weddings, a 5k, and a 10k. Then we have Michigan State football games (which take up entire Saturdays) on our "off" weekends. I'm also trying to fit in a weekend trip to Norfolk, VA to see my siblings.

That doesn't even get into my work schedule. Days here and there in Detroit or Ann Arbor. Presentations in Frankenmuth and Traverse City (neither of which are close). Our convention in Marquette, one of my favorite places in the world.

The end of November slows down for two seconds until our lame duck legislative session begins in earnest in December. Lame duck is held at the end of every two year session, and it's a crazy time of year where anything can and does happen. We will be at the Capitol until the wee hours of morning. My feet will hurt for weeks (because only quitters change into flats). After lame duck we'll head to West Virginia for Christmas, and then we'll start a new legislative session in January. The cycle of crazy begins all over again.

I've been trying really hard to slowly ease back into my busy life. I eased back into work. I haven't been exercising. I've been slow for the entire month of August. My body can only handle so much slow. I'm ready to be back to a blistering pace because that's normal. That's what makes sense to me.

Next week I'm hoping to start running again (slowly - I swear). We have two 5ks in September and a 10k (my husband's first!) in October. I think he's holding out hope that he can beat me in a race. My main goal is to not let him. There are so many great cities to visit in the next few months, and I'm looking forward to lacing up my running shoes again and getting back to what I love best: running these towns. All of these trips and events are ultimately going to be amazing, and I can't wait for all of these personal and professional adventures. I guess I just need to figure out how our laundry is going to get done.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Miner's Lady, Stranger to Blue Water

If we ever got a boat, I would name it "Miner's Lady". It's from the West Virginia anthem "Country Roads", and it's rather ironic given the lyric that follows: "stranger to blue water". The chances of us getting a boat are either slim or none because a) we don't know anything about boating and b) if we ever had a vacation retreat it would definitely be in the mountains not on a lake.

A few years ago I wrote a blog about Michiganders and their penchant for going "up north". I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now. I start to feel itchy if I spent too much time in Michigan, and nine times out of ten I'm ready to head south. Anywhere south, but preferably West Virginia. 

I travel all over Michigan for work, and I love discovering and rediscovering towns I love. Last week I headed to Midland, Michigan for a conference. Midland is home to Dow Chemical, and Dow has invested significantly in the community to attract and retain talented employees from all over the world. It was my first time in Midland, and it was lovely. The downtown is filled with cute stores, restaurants, coffee shops. We attended a minor league baseball game just east of downtown. New development is connecting the various neighborhoods near downtown, and it was inspiring.

But I knew I was heading to West Virginia for the weekend, and by Friday morning I was antsy about leaving Midland and traveling on those country roads that take me to the place I belong.  Morgantown, West Virginia is my happy place. It's my most relaxed place. It's where I feel the most at home. It was a short trip (getting there late on Friday and leaving mid-day Sunday), but spending time with family in one of my favorite cities was exactly what my spirit needed to heal.

My recovery from my surgeries is still much slower than I would like. To be honest my body probably could've used a weekend relaxing without traveling. But my mind would've been restless, and I was feeling that pull to go south. I can't ignore it. Maybe this is how a lot of Michiganders feel about going up north - they feel that pull of home and childhood and comfort. I respect it. 

We'll be heading to Morgantown several times this fall for football games and to spend Christmas with my family. As I continue to heal both physically and mentally, I'll need that connection to my happy place. Maybe I'll never have a boat with the world's most awesome name, but I do have a connection to one of the best small towns I could imagine visiting.

Tailgating with the hubs in 2013.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Crushing Disappointment

In the last week I've been trying to come to terms with the simple fact that the New York City Marathon won't be happening in November. In order for me to make it work I need to start an aggressive training program this week. Unlike a normal marathon training program where I've run a few half marathons in a year, my fitness level has taken a beating. I have run two half marathons this year, but in the interim I've had two abdominal surgeries and a blood clot. Yesterday I tried to go for a run, and it was an abysmal failure. I "ran" a mile, and it was painful. I still have abdominal pain when I'm not even moving, so trying to run was not cool. I have to accept that I'm just not ready, and pushing myself will not bode well for my health.

The good news is that I can defer my entry to the NYC Marathon and run it in 2015. I will run New York even if it's delayed by a year. It's just that I'm not good at accepting my limits. Call it a character flaw (I call it part of what makes me awesome), but I'm so wildly disappointed to not be running New York this year. I was looking forward to the expo and seeing all of the elite runners. I had mapped out a restaurant tour featuring all of our favorite judges on the Food Network's Chopped: Butter (featuring amazing Executive Chef Alex Guarnaschelli), Landmarc (owned by Marc Murphy) and The Stanton Social (owned by Chris Santos). I get it - I can do all of these things next year. And I'll be healthier, and all around it's a better plan.That doesn't stop me from feeling defeated.

I've been taking it slowly and letting my body heal. "Slow" is not my preferred speed. I actually didn't even know until this situation that slow was a speed at which I could operate. It's been a serious challenge. Mentally I'm feeling stronger and ready to run hard again. My body is not yet cooperating. I'm still about 15 pounds lighter than I was at the beginning of July, and my body hasn't entirely decided it likes eating again. Trying to train and gain weight back would be a huge challenge, and I think I need to get back to a stronger weight before tackling training for a 26.2 mile jaunt through the streets of New York.

Taking it slow means I'm registered for a few 10k races this fall, and I'm hoping to do a half marathon after the first of the year. I'm going to be back in the pool in hopes of another triathlon next spring/summer, and slow will have to be a speed that works for me for now. If I want to fully and appropriately recover, it's the only option.

The general rule is that it takes 4-8 weeks to recover from abdominal surgery, and this week marks 4 weeks since my second surgery (you know...of the two surgeries I had in one week). I know that "recover" probably means get back to some semblance of normal life - not marathon training. My surgeon said I could "jog" this week, but I conveniently left out that I needed to run at least five miles this weekend if I am planning to start training. I'm quite sure he wouldn't approve.

Thus far 2014 has been an amazing running year with some of my fastest times and accomplishing some of my greatest challenges.  In 2015 I will run the NYC Marathon strong, healthy and fast.  For now I'll struggle my version of slow and work to get back to my best running shape. Operation Weight Gain tops the list. Anyone want to join me for a milkshake?     

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dear Lansing: A Letter with Some Suggestions to my Adopted Hometown

Dear Lansing,

A few months ago my husband and I decided to take the plunge and buy a house in Downtown Lansing. I know some people think we're crazy. We've gotten everything from "Downtown Lansing is terrible" to "Where will you send your (nonexistent) children to school?" I get it - it is a risky move. But there's nowhere else in mid-Michigan we'd rather live. A sprawling township? Never in a million years. East Lansing? Come on, give me a break. We want to walk to work, live in a downtown, and live in a historic (and affordable - one reason why East Lansing is out) home.

With all of that being said, I would like to share some constructive criticism with my new neighborhood. There's so much to love about it, but there are some serious things that need to be addressed. We plan on living here for a long time. So here's the thing Downtown Lansing: you should probably really consider taking me up on the following suggestions. I'm tenacious, and I don't plan on dropping it.

First off - we've got to work on the street design. You're killing me. KILLING ME. There are WAY too many lanes downtown. So, so unnecessary. Let's take Capitol Avenue for instance. There are three lanes and two parking lanes in front of my office. Last year construction closed all but one of these lanes, and there was never a traffic back up. Not even once. There are way too many lanes, and Capitol Avenue is just the tip of the iceberg.
 
Stroading with a pal at the corner of Capitol and Michigan Avenues
Who doesn't do this on the walk home from the bar?

There are so many one way streets with WAY too many lanes. Take Pine Street a block from my house. Pine Street has a tiny bit of traffic at 8 am before work. I mean enough for one lane, not three and a parking lane. 

Here is Pine Street during "rush hour" at 7:45 this morning on my walk to work: 


Here is Pine Street at 10 am on a weekday: 


Here is Pine Street at 2 pm on a weekday:


Pine Street obviously needs significant work to be in good driving shape, but before that happens the City should think about how Pine Street should look. Do we need all of those lanes? Of course not. Should it be a two way street? Obviously. And these questions should not be asked of traffic engineers because they will surely screw up the design. There are probably a dozen streets just like Pine in downtown. Let's take a look at them, and let's make them better.

Back to Capitol Avenue for a minute. The Michigan Capitol Building is stunning. From a design perspective it's in a perfect spot at the end of a street. Driving up Michigan Avenue toward the Capitol is one of my favorite views in the entire area. I've visited a number of state capitols (with a mission to see all 50), and in other states the area around the building is vibrant. I would propose closing Capitol Avenue to cars entirely from Ionia to Allegan Street and having food trucks, a farmer's market, really anything other than 4 lanes to speed by one of the most beautiful buildings in the state. We should revere our Capitol not hustle to get past it.

In addition to street design we have to discuss downtown retail. Washington Square has grown tremendously since I moved here eight and a half years ago. There are more restaurants and fewer vacant storefronts. What Downtown Lansing is sorely lacking, however, is retail. I have visited other cities in Michigan - Kalamazoo, Holland, Ann Arbor, Marquette, Traverse City - and they all have retail establishments in their downtown. Washington used to have a Hallmark store, Michigania's gift store, a book store (albeit briefly). Now they're all gone, and there are just no real retail options. Kositchek's men's store is fantastic, but not everyone is down with spending $150 on a tie (although their ties are fabulous). Downtown Lansing desperately needs more retail. I'm not sure why we have a dozen sub shops and no card store, but I can't think of a valid reason. At this point I'd rather have an empty storefront than the new Jersey Giant that's going in on Washington. Enough with the freaking sub shops! (Note: Jersey Giant is a local business at least so at the very least we could swap it for the disgustingness that is Jimmy John's?) Lansing's Downtown Development Authority should be working their tails off to get retail downtown. The alternative is unacceptable.

I was in Holland, Michigan last week marveling at the retail downtown. Multiple toy stores, gift stores, an outdoors store, a White House Black Market (yes - RIGHT DOWNTOWN), and many others. Maybe we should stop building more stores at Lansing Township's Eastwood Towne (the extra 'e' makes it fancy!) Center and look at our downtowns. Other cities have figured it out. We should too.

Finally it is proposed (and City Council has approved) building a casino in Downtown Lansing. I implore everyone - STOP THE MADNESS. A casino in downtown would be a disaster. It's a horrible idea, and research shows that casinos kill downtowns. If we must have a casino in Lansing build it out by Eastwood Towne (fancy!) Center in a greenfield. Do NOT put it in a downtown - ANY downtown. An article in The Atlantic last week discusses the building of a casino in Downtown Baltimore. The article quotes the project manager for a new casino going in near Philadelphia as saying, "No one should look to casinos to revive cities, because that’s not what casinos do.” The article also cites economists at the National Association of Realtors as saying, "The impact of casinos on neighboring property values is “unambiguously negative." Great...great news for downtown. I'm being sarcastic - this is terrible news. Let's scrap the casino and work on things that DO revive downtowns - better street design, downtown retail, public transit. 

In the time that I've lived in Michigan, I've been thrilled to see the start of a revival of Downtown Lansing. But there's a long way to go. We wanted to live downtown because we want to be part of it. Lansing I'm psyched that we're going to get the opportunity to grow together. But please heed my suggestions. I'm kind of a pain in the a$$, and I'm not going anywhere.       

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Starting from Scratch

I discovered an abdominal mass this spring, and I knew it was something that would need to be removed. This isn't my first rodeo. I went to my surgeon in April and told him I promised to schedule surgery after my triathlon in June. My surgeon didn't think it was a great idea to wait, but I'm not known for my listening. True to my word, my triathlon was on June 21, and my pre-op visit was June 22. Surgery was scheduled for July 9, and I assumed I'd be running again by the end of the month. I'd lose very little of my fitness level, and I'd jump right back into running like a champ.

Of course we all know that isn't how it happened, and now I'm looking at starting running again soon from a very different place. I'm much skinnier, I'm weaker, I'm not able to eat much. Yet somehow next week I will begin training for a marathon. The smartest idea I've ever had? Obviously not. But life is meant for living, not standing on the sidelines.

I have the go ahead from my doctor to resume running on August 14. Technically he said "jogging", but I'm pretty sure we're on the same page. Let's be honest - my first few runs are going to be jogging at best, so I think we're safe. I'm nearly three weeks post op from surgery number two, and I'm starting to feel the itch. Don't get me wrong - I'm still walking very slowly, and I've got a lot of healing left to do. But I'm getting stronger every day. Next week I will lace up my running shoes and make it happen.

My husband gets annoyed with me because I often (and by often I mean always) downplay how sick I am. I deal with a lot of stuff, but what's the point in dwelling on it or telling people I'm sick? What does that accomplish? So I suck it up and push forward because honestly that's the only way I know how to function. 

I'll be honest though - this hospital stay threw even me for a loop. I was (and still am frankly) in a good bit of pain, and I was scared. They couldn't figure out what was wrong, I wasn't able to keep anything down for weeks, and then I ended up with a blood clot on top of it. I was very scared during most of the hospital stay, but now I'm ready to move on. Mentally I ran 10 miles this morning. Physically I got ready for work and then I was exhausted. I'm psyched for the day, hopefully soon, where my body catches up with my mind.

I've been really lucky, to be honest. As a Crohn's patient I had a run of luck that lasted more than a decade. I've gotten IV infusions every six weeks, and that has kept me healthy. I was due for an issue, and I got one (or several). I started running eight years ago, and Crohn's has rarely sidelined me. This setback has been huge, but life is filled with obstacles. It's how you let them affect you that says something about who you are.

Yesterday I came back to work, and I worked a little more than half of the day. I went home and napped for several hours, and then took ANOTHER nap before bed. True story. I've got a lot of recovering left to do, but it's all part of the healing process. I'm looking forward to the "hey I'm running again!" posts. But for today I'll take another nap and get another day closer to it.