I have to stop beating myself up for being unable to accomplish things my healthy body could.
The day I achieved a personal record running a 10K, I couldn’t celebrate because my head was in the hole of a port-a-potty. When I coasted across the finish line on a downhill, my hands were in the air and I was smiling through the pain. What spectators didn’t see were the miles of struggle and the ways in which my body was crumbling. I pushed my body well past its limits just to accomplish an arbitrary goal.
I had undiagnosed acute hepatic porphyria (AHP) but loved to run long distances. As many runners do, I learned to tolerate and push through large amounts of bodily discomfort. Little did I know that my competitive behavior was ultimately damaging my body, because physical stress can precipitate an AHP attack.
On this particular race day, I managed to cross the finish line. But it cost me a lot.
One autumn morning in Iowa City, I was dead set on accomplishing a 10K personal record. Warmed up and loose, I was on the edge of the downtown pedestrian mall, where runners were lining up. The gun went off. As was my race custom, I let the speed demons pass me by. I found the steady pace I would need to achieve my goal; the last thing I wanted to do was burn out early in the race by starting too fast.
The crowd thinned by mile two, as the course left downtown and passed the multifamily dwellings separating the city’s urban core from its residential neighborhoods. My body felt strong and steady, but pressure in my stomach was building. In recent months when I worked out, I noticed the feeling of a balloon filling up with air beneath my naval. Back in the locker room, my abdomen would appear distended, swollen, and hard.
By mile three, my gut was on fire. I focused on my cadence and breath, hoping to alleviate the discomfort. By mile four, the streets narrowed and trees heavy with orange and yellow leaves lined the course, but I barely noticed. It had become harder and harder to put one foot in front of the other, and I was growing increasingly self-conscious. We were deep within historic neighborhoods, where people cheered on their lawns. I was convinced everyone could tell my struggle by looking at me.
I slowed to a walk by mile five. My feet were numb and tingling, and my toes felt like marbles at the tips of my shoes. Massaging my abdomen to try and release pressure, I sucked in air. I avoided eye contact with neighbors standing in pajamas, their robes loosely tied, coffee in hand.
“You can do this,” I thought, reminding myself that I had trained for months to run this race. I chose to ignore my body’s cues and pick it back up.
The remaining miles leading to the finish line were a blur of shame, comparison, and battling with my body. And just when I couldn’t remember why I voluntarily chose to put myself through this race, the crest of the final hill came into view.
The moment an end was in sight, I navigated Spotify to my finish line jam, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.” I coasted downhill, flanked by a cheering crowd, and waved at strangers, as if running a fast 6.2 miles was the most fun. When I slowed down to walk it off, I was slammed by an onslaught of nausea.
Panicked, my head snapped right and left, searching for a trash can, a patch of grass, anywhere I could vomit in a somewhat socially acceptable manner. Then, as if a beam of light shone from the clouds, a row of tall, plastic port-a-potties caught my eye. I beelined past helpful race volunteers with bright yellow bananas and bottles of water. When I made it to the portable toilet, as if by divine intervention, the door latch read “vacant.”
Zero out of 10 — I don’t recommend getting sick in a port-a-potty.
When I think back to that day, the funny thing is that I no longer remember the finish time that was so very important to me. Instead, what comes to mind is how sure I’d been that others were judging me, when in fact, I was the one judging me. I was in a battle with an able-bodied person who didn’t exist, a runner who could train when she felt like it and who would improve rather than get sick.
On that day, I chose not to connect with my body, and instead found myself connecting to a port-a-potty.
Note: Porphyria News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Porphyria News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to porphyria.
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