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Why I'm really running this marathon

It’s time for me to write this post. Please bear with me. It’s a long one.

I think I’m running this marathon for Sarah; Oct 1, 1992 – Oct 5, 1992.

Desolation Sound at dusk, with deep gratitude to BW

Desolation Sound at dusk, with deep gratitude to BW

Sarah Estelle Jean Klassen Wotherspoon was born 5 weeks early, but she weighed 5 lbs, 10 oz – a healthy weight for a preemie. It was a Thursday. The pediatrician expected a good outcome, despite her difficulties with breathing.

The night before Sarah was born – I was sleepless. I couldn’t get comfortable. That’s not unusual for someone as big as a house and nearly 8 months along. Eventually I woke Blair (my then-husband), and asked him to help me set myself up on the living room couch, more upright, watching movies to distract me. It was Return of the Jedi. He went back to bed, and I noticed contractions, but I also noticed a pain that wasn’t there with my other two pregnancies. However, nothing was really important enough to call the doctor right away, so I thought.

Blair got the kids to school because I was extremely tired, still having contractions and in more pain. When we phoned the doc she said she’d meet us at the hospital. While there, she called in an OB-GYN and they palpitated my belly. I nearly hit the roof in pain, and my blood pressure started plummeting. Suddenly there were a lot of people in the room and Blair’s worried face was in front of mine, fading in and out of focus.

My doc’s face was worried too. “We think you have an abrupted placenta. The placenta that feeds your blood to the baby has partially come away from the uterine wall. You are bleeding internally, and your baby is being deprived of oxygen. You must deliver this baby now. We will try to deliver vaginally, but we are prepping for an emergency C-section and are moving you to an OB-surgery room.”

“Ok.” I said through clenched teeth. “I think I will take painkillers this time. Please.” Meantime they were opening up an IV line and starting me on the drugs to induce labour.

“Of course, we’ll give you a saddle block [where you can’t feel anything below the waist] but we need to do bloodwork first. As soon as it comes back we’ll start you on the anaesthetic.” And at this point my memories come alive, as if it happened yesterday.

Drip starts. Contractions grow much stronger. Pain worsens and spikes with each contraction. I felt incredibly lucky to hold onto consciousness, and in retrospect I thank the stars I did not need a blood transfusion. It could have been much, much worse. I could have died.

Each time a nurse, aide, doctor, anyone comes in the room I hiss “Can I please have drugs now?”

“Not yet. Soon. Hold on. Breathe.”

Blair sits with me through the whole thing, holding my hand. I look at his face to try and breathe through the pain. An hour passes. Two. Breathe. Breathe. I am picturing myself running a race – a marathon – visualizing a finish line – I can do this, I can keep breathing evenly until he finish line. I’ve done this before; I’m going to hold on until those damn drugs come.

The nurse comes into the room: “We’ve got your lab results – we can give you the saddle block now.”

Just then another contraction washes over me. “I have to push!” I say, and suddenly the room is a flurry of activity again.

“Don’t push – hold on, don’t push yet – we have to get you to the OR,” and they’re unhooking, rehooking, opening doors, trying not to trip over Blair, wheeling me down the room, sweat beading on my temples, Blair following nearly faint with worry and hunger and thirst because he’s been by my side for hours.

In the delivery room, I’m monitored so closely I feel like the woman in the Monty Python sketch in the Meaning of Life – “and this is the machine that goes ‘PING!” I’m sure I would have laughed at myself had it not been a matter of life or death. There are no painkilling drugs for me at this late stage, only some laughing gas. Someone warns me not to take too much, so I abandon the mask altogether. Damn her, I should have just sucked it down

Then I could push, and then the real pain started. But then, suddenly, there she was, dark hair, scrunched up face, and eventually, a weak cry. No C-section needed. Blair’s expression was rapturous. I was so relieved it was over and she was alive.

They did a quick Apgar assessment [a visual measure of a newborn’s health] and it was an 8 or 9 out of 10. They wrapped her in a blanket and put her in my arms. I tried to nurse her right away, but my mother-senses knew something was amiss. Sure enough, her 5-minute Apgar was down to 3 or so. She was having trouble breathing. They took her away and put her in an incubator, and wheeled her off to Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to intubate her.

The pediatrician was optimistic that Thursday afternoon of her birth. Many preemies lack the surfactant that lubricates the sacs that fill our lungs, enabling the transfer of oxygen from the air we breathe to our bloodstreams. There are drugs that hasten production of this surfactant in premature babies. They are quite successful, especially with babies of a healthy birth weight and no other complications, like my Sarah.

On Friday afternoon, he was confident she would be much better over the weekend, and told us we could expect her to be in NICU for four or five weeks until she was well enough to come home. In the meantime, I was encouraged to use an electric breast pump to express the first milk – colostrum – that is incredibly rich in nutrients. Sarah would need it once she started nursing.

Like the milk cows on the neighbour’s farm just outside Waldeck where I grew up, I plugged myself into a milking machine several times a day while I was in the maternity ward. With my other babies I wanted to leave the hospital within hours of giving birth. Now I wanted to stay with Sarah. I was swollen and bloated, and I had a slight fever. So did Sarah. They let me stay.

I hobbled on my elephant ankles back and forth from NICU to my room. One night I thought I dreamed the PA system blaring “Re SPIRE a tory. NICU. Stat. Re SPIRE a tory. NICU. Stat.” Later on that morning I sleepily joined Blair, who had spoken with the nurses already. It was not a dream. Our baby had a respiratory emergency and had to be revived in the middle of the night.

We still pretended everything was all right. I tried not to think of how I would cope with two kids who needed to be fed and entertained and fetched to and from school, and a baby who needed me by her side, and swollen breasts that needed to be milked several times a day and the milk stored for future use, and a baby who may or may not have further health problems.

On Monday, I trudged down to the NICU. “Do you want your baby baptised?” said the staff with strained poker faces. Not for my sake or Blair’s, but I thought of his mother, Sarah’s grandmother, a devout Lutheran. “Yes, I guess Lutheran,” I said. They called in a chaplain and she was baptised. I only learned later how much that relieved my mother in law.

Later that morning, we were sitting in the “milking room” when the pediatrician came in. It was the first time we’d seen him since Friday. His face was ashen. “Um. Uh.” he stammered. “We want to do an echocardiogram. We don’t know why your baby is not doing better.”

“Is she going to be all right?” I asked, truly alarmed at this point.

He couldn’t say anything other than “I don’t know,” and left the room. Puzzled, I cleaned up and took my milk dutifully to the fridge next to NICU. We approached our daughter’s isolette and there was a big machine over it. Everyone’s face was grim. They turned to us, with downcast eyes. A nurse said gently “Would you like to hold your baby now?”

That’s when I knew for sure.

They gave her to me. Blair and I took turns holding her. She died in my arms. I have never experienced that much sorrow. I have never cried so long and so hard. I have never forgotten one moment I spent with my little baby. I cannot explain in words the depth of experience contained in the terms:

Bereft.

Loss.

Grief.

Emptiness.

Have you ever watched nature programs – where the mother gorilla or chimp carries around the dead baby ape for days? I can understand that instinct.

When we buried her On Oct 10, 1992 in the plot next to her grandfather (Blair’s dad) I was panicking. I thought “I can’t leave my baby here! Who’s going to take care of her? I’m her mother – she belongs with me.” I could hardly tear myself away from her gravesite.

I’ve been crying the entire time I’ve been writing this. It’s ok. I cry whenever I tell this story. I try not to do it in pubs or at parties. Real downer.

Soon after she died, I had a dream. I was running through the park, back in shape, feeling good. Suddenly a young woman was running strong beside me. She must have been about 17 or 18 years old. Her presence was comforting. I woke up feeling calm. I told Blair our daughter was OK.

Only recently (while I was on Cortes Island in fact) did I realize I signed up for an October 11 marathon this year. The same month she would have turned 17 years old.

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Race report: the 5% solution

First off: I ran a personal best 2:12:24 in the BMO Vancouver Half Marathon yesterday. I am proud of my accomplishment and I can safely say I left it all on the race course – I had nothing left at the finish line. That is as it should be. Running just over 6 minutes per kilometre for 21.1 kilometres isn’t supposed to be easy (unless you normally run twice that fast, but then you’d be way out of my league).

Though I started out strong (and truth be told I ran the entire race strong) I felt a little – off. I can’t really describe the feeling, but it took me just that extra bit of effort to pull off that 2:12 time. I certainly felt better this race than the other 2 half-marathons I’ve completed, but I somehow felt only 95% there the entire time. It think I’ve figured out what I needed 5% more of: rest and electrolytes.

Rest:

Finish line

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Traveling to run a race poses its own challenges, chief of which for me is the fact that I wasn’t snug in my own bed the night before. However, the fact that I was snug in D-man’s bed (a bed I am by now very familiar with) helped. Nevertheless, I started getting nervous a few days before the race, was busy with various engagements (including teaching a 1-hour spin class Thursday morning) and had a couple of relatively sleepless nights going into it.

Electrolytes:

Electrolytes are the chemicals in one’s blood that keep your heart pumping in a regular rhythm and your cells firing to fuel your body and your kidneys functioning normally. They’re what keep your spark plugs firing and your motor running. There are a number of them: potassium, sodium, magnesium being the main ones – that are normally present in a certain ratio to each other in the blood stream. If they get out of whack, you get into trouble. Sweating sheds electrolytes (chiefly sodium) that can cause an imbalance. If you don’t replace the electrolytes during endurance activities you are more prone to heat exhaustion, dizziness, or worse.

For that reason I was stocking my body with electrolytes added to my water a couple of days beforehand. The night before the race – just as with every long training run I’ve done for the past four months – I prepared (or so I thought) 20 oz of water and 20 oz of water+electrolytes in the bottles I carry on my belt. While I run, I alternate between drinking plain water and drinking electrolytes. (During a race, I like to blow by the water stations rather than slowing down to take water or – gag me – sports drinks that could upset my stomach).

During the race, I couldn’t find my electrolytes. Only after I ran the Prospect Point hill (200 m elevation gain over 2 kms or so) did I realize I had only plain water and my energy gels, which gave me fluid, calories and caffeine (my performance-enhancing drug of choice) but not sodium or potassium. I must have become a little distracted at D-man’s handsome physique while I was getting ready the day before! No big deal – I was nowhere near the nasty signs of severe imbalance: fatigue, nausea, dizziness, lack of co-ordination. It just meant that I had to focus that much more and reach into my mental and physical reserves just a touch further than I had planned.

I say no big deal now, but look at that expression on my face as I approached the finish line. Normally, knowing my picture is about to be taken, I look up and smile. Not yesterday!

The  last 5 k, my only aim in life was to Keep. Up. This. Pace. It became the only thing that mattered. I chased my friend and run clinic leader, Rita. After training with her for four months, I knew I had it in me to keep up, so I focused on the back of her head about 25 metres ahead of me and soon everything else faded away: other runners, the crowds lining the streets in downtown Vancouver, the noise they made, the beautiful skyscrapers, the clear gorgeous day. They were all gone, it was like I had tunnel vision. There was only Straight Ahead.

I timed it almost perfectly – about 1 minute before the finish line I started to feel like real hell. Rita slowed down and ran beside me. I managed a smile “Are we doing this together girlfriend?”

“Yep, pour it on and we can beat 2:12,” she said.

“I feel like hell,” I said.

“What is it, your foot?”

“Nope – just all over,” I said, and tried to pick up the pace to cross strong. Man it was tough. I saw some chip-sensing pads before the FINISH banner. “Is this the finish?” I gasped.

vancouver marathon

Race photo by melaniejo

“Nope, just so they can see your name on their screens to announce you’re coming. Let’s go!” said Rita.

That’s when I think I gave a gutteral “grrrraaahawaaaa” which I’ve heard come out of my mouth only four previous times, when I gave birth.

When I crossed the real finish line I really just wanted to stop and throw up (a sensation I recognized from previous speed and hill workouts). Within seconds, I felt Rita’s hand on one elbow and a medic’s hand on the other one. “How do you feel? Are you OK?” someone said.

“I’m feeling pukey.” I said

“Do you want to sit down?” the medic asked.

“No – no, I’d better keep walking. I’ll be all right.” By then – in seconds – pukiness had largely passed.

He was doubtful: “I’ll be fine” are the famous last words of 99% of people before they pass out or toss their cookies. When he saw that I really was probably fine, he handed me over to a junior volunteer medic named Matthew who talked to me for a couple of minutes before ascertaining that I didn’t need babysitting any more. He said he was fighting an injury, that’s why he wasn’t racing, and he congratulated me on my run. I laughed and told him I volunteer at races too when I can’t run them, and I appreciated his committment to the sport.

Then Rita and I lingered at the finish line to greet the other runners in our pack with whom we had started out.

Laughing

D and me on the breakwater, Victoria BC


Later, after a big brunch, two epsom salt baths, and a four-hour nap, D-man made me a huge steak for dinner. I ate the whole thing and told him I’m just crazy about him, and I hope he’ll be my support crew when I run the full marathon in October. He gave me one of his completely disarming big goofy grins and said he’d be delighted.

Life is 100 % wonderful.

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