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  • Laura Robb

Finding Strength in Weaknesses

During my last marathon two weeks ago, I had some time to reflect on strengths and weaknesses. As some of you may have read on my Facebook, I was attempting to get a Boston Qualifying time at the Jacksonville Marathon. All was on track until around mile 15 and my feet went numb. Everything else felt great. My legs, my breathing, all good. My hydration and nutrition were on point, nothing hurt and nothing felt off. Nothing, except I couldn’t feel my feet, and it was worsening with every step. When I took a misstep around mile 16 and almost fell, I knew I had to slow down and control each landing. As the miles clicked by and my watch updated me on my pace, I knew it was over. I wasn’t going to make the time. My brain struggled with feelings of both sadness and then anger. At the end, it was anger at myself for not being happy that just trying for a Boston Qualifying time was epic in itself. It didn’t actually matter the outcome, did it?

Around mile 24, I debated whether to call my husband to make sure he was at the finish line so he could assist me right away but worried that if I took my attention off my landings to dial my phone, it would result in a fall. I was forced to trust that someone would be there to help. After crossing the finish line, I blurted to the first person in my path that I needed their arm, not realizing that the arm belonged to an elderly lady…… thankfully knocking down an elderly lady isn’t part of my story! Phew! Another lady appeared from the side and grabbed me. What I had thought and hoped for was that my feet were just frozen due to the cold weather. The temps had been hovering in the low 40’s. Ideal running conditions but my feet didn’t like the cold. The doctor who came to my aid and took my shoes off said my feet were warm to the touch so the numbness was likely nerve related and not due to the cold. I still wonder if it wasn’t a combination of cold and nerve issues.

During my run, the phrase, “you are only as strong as your weakest link”, repeated over and over in my head. I never let my brain acknowledge that the chain could break, only thought about what my weakness was at that moment. Obviously we all have weaknesses, while some are more pronounced than others, we all have them. My biggest running weakness is drop foot. Years ago in the trenches of my MS relapses, I could no longer lift or feel much in my feet. My left foot was worse than my right. If you aren’t familiar with drop foot, this is the inability to lift your foot. Your foot typically slaps when you walk because you are hiking your leg up to walk. Many times though, I would end up just dragging my left foot. Drop foot is caused by nerve damage and is common in MS patients. This numbness and drop foot prevented me from wearing cute shoes and walking without a cane most days. My doctors wanted me to use a walker and get fitted for devices to help with my drop foot. I adamantly refused this solution and shuffled around with a cane or canes doing the best I could. My reasoning was, if I gave into the weakness, I would grow weaker. Though keenly aware of how silly I looked trying to navigate on weak and numb feet and legs, my stubbornness won.

In the years post HSCT, my right foot went basically back into the normal range and I have very little trouble with it. My left foot will still flare up on occasion but has lessened over the last two years.

This is why I was so perplexed as to why I couldn’t feel my feet during the run. I am well versed on how to overcome my left drop foot while running. I have practiced this situation over and over but I hadn’t practiced landing on two numb feet. This was new territory so I was just trying to trust the process and lift my knees a bit higher so I wouldn’t catch my toe and face plant.

Allowing yourself to control what you can control and allowing yourself to ignore the things you can’t control is truly liberating. Instead of a weakness, you have a challenge to overcome. So often when you become stronger in other areas, those challenges then take care of themselves. Two strong chains instead of one weak chain.

Since my feet were now my weakest link, I used my arms to push myself forward. I used my quads, my glutes, and my mind to continue. The decision to control what I could control was made and somehow, I made it to that finish line, a little over 6 minutes later than I hoped.

With my son at the finish line.

Even after the best of runs, my legs don’t like to cooperate when I stop running which is one of the reasons that I carry my own hydration and only stop at water stops if absolutely necessary. It is very hard for me to stop and start. This annoyance is magnified after longer distances. Typically though after a few minutes, things return back to normal and I can walk again without issue. This past marathon it took about an hour for feeling to return to my feet but all went back to normal and I’ve had no further issue.

Today, I’m a stronger and smarter runner. I trust that someday, I will make that time goal. It may take me a few more times. Heck, it might take me a dozen more times! My chain may also break a few more times but I will take those stronger parts and keep going. My weakness will become my strength.

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