Last November, my husband and I completed the New York City marathon. It was the first marathon for both of us. Training for the marathon was a long, challenging period. In the process, I learned a lot about myself, my relationship with my husband, and the management of my symptoms.
Up until two years ago, my husband had not run a mile since high school. When he started training for his first race (the 2016 Disney 10K), I’m not even sure he enjoyed running. His motivation to run, at least initially, was purely to fundraise for The Michael J. Fox Foundation as a Team Fox runner.
Unlike my husband, I was an active runner in my twenties. The frequency of my running declined after I started my legal career, and came to a complete halt after my Parkinson’s diagnosis. My passion for running was reignited after watching my husband take on the challenge of a 10k in January of 2016, followed by a half marathon a few months later.
Go big or go home
My first run with Team Fox was the Disney 10K in January 2017, one year after my husband ran his first race. My husband ran the 2017 10K with me, which was fitting since he has been by my side through all of the milestones on my journey with Parkinson’s. After the 10K, we stuck around for the rest of the Disney Marathon Weekend to cheer on the Team Fox runners in the half marathon and marathon. Watching runners living with Parkinson’s tackle a marathon was truly a moving experience. Somewhere along the way, my husband and I got the crazy idea to run a marathon ourselves. And not just any marathon, the New York City Marathon – one of the largest and toughest marathons in the U.S.
Timing is everything
Managing Parkinson’s is like simultaneously spinning a bunch of plates on your fingers. If the timing is slightly off on one, all will likely come crashing down. During my training, the timing of my meds, meals, and sleep were crucial, much like every other day, but even more complicated with the addition of my training runs.
In Central Florida, it’s hot most of the year, but it’s blazing hot during the summer. Any training runs had to be done before sunrise. The alarm clock would go off somewhere around 4:00 a.m. I would double my dose of Sinemet and also take a supplement that seems to boost dopamine levels. Thirty minutes later I would eat breakfast – usually a smoothie, and we were out the door.
My legs often felt heavy and I struggled to lift my feet off the ground. Usually after the second mile my body would settle in. After an hour of running mixed with walking breaks, I would take another Sinemet. This worked out okay until we started doing longer runs – over 10 miles. Dopamine can only take you so far.
By sunrise it was usually 90+ degrees with 80% humidity. If we didn’t finish before sunrise, my body would give out from the heat. On a few occasions I became dizzy. I’ve since learned that many runners with Parkinson’s struggle with overheating.
Diet does matter
On my longest training run, I was able to make it almost 15 miles before I was on the verge of passing out. Unfortunately, we were still two miles from home when I was overcome by the heat.
We walked those last 2 miles with my husband supporting me by tightly clinging to the back of my shirt. I felt defeated. I thought of my friends who have Parkinson’s and have completed multiple marathons, obstacle races, etc. Why was I struggling? I did some research and learned that I was not consuming anywhere near the number of calories that my body needed to properly train.
Since my diagnosis, my weight steadily decreased over the years. At one point, I had lost 23 pounds. I was not trying to lose weight. I just wasn’t hungry. Lack of appetite is not good when you’re training for a marathon.
I began forcing myself to eat more, and I experienced some improvement on subsequent long runs. Soon I realized I was not eating the right kind of calories. I found an eating plan online that I loosely followed for my remaining training runs. The remainder of my training went smoother, but I never finished a run longer than 15 miles prior to the race.
Finishing the race
On the day of the race, we took a run/walk approach to tackling the 26.2 miles. It must have been the adrenaline of being surrounded by 50,000 plus runners and over a million spectators, but I felt absolutely fantastic during most of the race. Though I must admit, the last three miles were extremely tough. I was so ready to be done – we had been moving for 6 hours. When we crossed the finish line, I wanted to cry, but did not have the energy to. I immediately said ‘I’m okay if we never do that again.’
I woke up a little sore, but that is to be expected. The interesting thing is that in the days that followed I hardly noticed my Parkinson’s symptoms. I felt energized and better than I’ve felt in years. Although my symptoms gradually returned to “normal”, the feeling of being re-energized lasted for almost two weeks. I couldn’t believe it. I always knew that I felt better after exercise, but there was a definite correlation between the increased intensity of a marathon and the temporary decrease in the severity of my symptoms.
After a break over the holidays, I’ve returned to a healthy diet and running more in the new year. I started off the year by running the Disney Half Marathon, and I experienced the same boost in energy as I did after the NYC Marathon.
As with all things, Parkinson’s will bring good and bad days of running. But even on the bad days, I sure do love the overall benefits. In addition to mitigating my symptoms, running with my husband in support of Team Fox gives us both a sense of purpose. Together, we are running down the dream of a cure.