Runners are a strange group. We love lacing up our shoes and hitting the trail, road, or treadmill for extended periods of time. Against all logic, being alone with our thoughts is what keeps us sane. Those precious moments of absolute solitude, partnered with the pounding of our feet against the surface, do something to our bodies and minds that can’t be explained. For myself, running was a mechanism that kept my seizures at bay.
I’d been running for seven years when I decided I wanted to run my first marathon. One night in February of 2006, I signed up to the Portland Marathon on impulse. The race wasn’t until October, but I knew that if I waited any longer I would find an excuse not to do it. Portland is supposed to be one of the best-supported marathons in the world, and I was excited by its reputation for being really fun, really hard, and extremely well attended. Besides, Portland was home – and that cut costs significantly.
"The day after signing up, I went to my mom’s house... I remember her asking me if I could just run twenty-six miles over a month – I laughed"
The day after signing up, I went to my mom’s house for a coffee, and to tell her I had made the commitment. My mom is a saint and an angel all in one, but I am her youngest, and I am adopted, so I have a bit more padding around me than my brother and sister. She worried about how much the marathon would take out of me, knowing that exhaustion could cause me to have a tonic clonic seizure. While we talked, she asked questions: would it be safe for me to run so far? Would I be able to have food and water along the way? I remember her asking me if I could just run twenty-six miles over a month – to which I laughed. After I assured her that I’d be fine, she told me she was proud of me, and let it go. I know that she must have worried about me tremendously during this time (she probably turned to my sister for sanity checks fairly often). But she also knew there was no talking me out of it.
Once I set my sights on the Portland Marathon and started the training process, I told everyone my plan. My older sister, Brandy, has five children (two sons and three daughters) and I have always been close to the older three. They knew I was spending a ton of time running to prepare and they joined in on a few of my runs. Cheyanne, the middle child, and I would go out to the track and time each other’s miles. All of them were in town when I finished my first half marathon, encouraging me.
Each weekend I trained on long runs. Two of my good friends, Ryan and Kyle, started to support me by planning Sunday run-day faux races. We called these faux races ‘Brew to BBQ’ – a take on Portland’s Pints to Pasta race that ends with a free beer and pasta dish. Every Sunday, Kyle would set the course, and we would race each other back to their apartment for a post workout meal. The loser had to buy the beer, and I was usually the last one in, but I loved Sunday run-day. It gave me a chance to work on speed, and enjoy the company of other runners during my training.
As my weekly mileage increased, I needed to find longer stretches of safe running ground. This need for longer routes led me to the Wildwood Trail in Portland, a path that runs thirty miles one way. I savoured my long runs on Wildwood. My family was not in the least bit happy about me taking off down a long trail with no-one with me. They worried that I would have a seizure on one of my long runs and end up injured, or worse. But those long runs were my favourite day of training. It was my time to get lost in a sea of thoughts – I would listen to the sound of my feet hitting the ground and begin the process of knowing myself. Occasionally, I would meet a stranger, or pass someone walking their dog. But for the most part, I was alone in the quiet of the wood with my thoughts. I could have solved all the world problems had I put my mind to it but, being selfish, I thought about my own life.
"This need for longer routes led me to the Wildwood Trail in Portland, a path that runs thirty miles one way... I savoured my long runs"
Portland Marathon was creeping up on me. Soon the summer had passed, and September was upon us. I bought a pair of new running shoes and broke them in. Following a marathon training program, having worked my distances up to the twenty-two mile aim, my training began to taper back down to eight miles as my long run. I felt strong, confident, and capable. And better than feeling good, I was having very little seizure activity. Throughout my training, I never had tonic clonic seizures, and my focal impaired awareness seizures were minimal. I felt like I had started to conquer epilepsy.
The night before the race arrived before I knew it. My boyfriend at the time took me out for a carb-loading dinner, and we headed home so I could get to bed early. Everyone who had been part of my training journey called me to wish me luck: Ryan and Kyle called to tell me they would be at the finish line with an obnoxious pink glittery sign, cheering me on; my mom and dad called to wish me a good night’s sleep, and to make sure I still needed a lift to the race in the morning.
I felt ready. But my boyfriend had a knack for causing problems at the worst time. The race started at six o’clock the next morning and we got in a fight that kept me up until midnight. Knowing that I struggle with my seizure activity when I haven’t had enough sleep, I decided I would just not run the marathon. I could try again next year. Fortunately, I hadn’t communicated my decision with my mom.
At half-past five the next morning, my doorbell was ringing non-stop. I dragged myself to the door, where my mom stood, anxiously waiting to take me to my race.
"My boyfriend took me out for a carb-loading dinner, and we headed home so I could get to bed early. Everyone who had been part of my journey called me to wish me luck"
“Mom, I ‘m not going, I didn’t sleep well,” I told her.
“What are you talking about?” She asked. “You’ve been training for months, it’s all you can talk about.”
My mom started urging me to reconsider, but when I told her about the argument, she seemed to understand. Before she left she asked, “What are you going to tell Heather and Cheyanne?”
I thought about it. I couldn’t let my teenage nieces think it was okay to give up. I didn’t want to fail them. As I was about to shut the door, my determination overcame my exhaustion and fear, (which was more likely stupidity anyway).
“Okay, mom,” I said, “Give me five minutes.”
I jumped in the shower, put my hair in pigtails, got dressed and met my mom in her car, where she had a piping hot latte waiting for me. I smiled, thanked her, and began drinking it as fast as I could.
We arrived just in time for me to line up at the start of the race. Unfortunately, I had only consumed half of my latte when the gun when off, so was carrying it with me for the first two miles. (This decision to drink coffee and run landed me in every porta potty on the route until I passed mile twenty-one. My stomach was a wreck and it wasn’t funny.)
The race moved along rather quickly: three miles turned into ten miles, and before I knew it I was at mile eighteen and crossing the St. John’s Bridge. This is known for being the location on the Portland Marathon where runners ‘hit the wall’. Knowing this, I had visualised myself speeding through mile eighteen and nineteen with ease – and I did! – but once I hit mile twenty-two I was toast. I had hit the brickwork. I could have sworn that the race officials were playing a cruel joke and spacing the mile markers further apart.
Mile twenty-three eventually came, and it was then that I met two fantastic women who kept me company and spurred me on for three miles. We chatted about life, why we were running, and the races we had finished previously. Before I knew it I saw the twenty-six-mile marker, and I realised I was close. I knew that I had enough in me to finish hard, so I bid my new friends goodbye and started sprinting like my life depended on it.
"Before I knew it I was at mile eighteen and crossing the St. John’s Bridge. The bridge is known for being the location on the Portland Marathon where runners 'hit the wall'"
The home stretch of my marathon was exhilarating. In the crowd, I saw my mom and dad, my boyfriend, Ryan, and Kyle (the sign was very obnoxious, pink and glittery!) and I lit up. I passed the ‘Fat Woman Singing’, a humorous end to the Portland Marathon, and crossed the finish line. As I walked over to the area where the GPS device is removed from the runner’s shoe, I began to cry and hyperventilate. I had done it. I had finished the race. I couldn’t believe it, but all of my work paid off. Within seconds of me becoming an emotional basket case, I also realised that there was a rather large First Aid tent, which I didn’t want to experience, so I calmed myself down. I received my shiny post-race thermal blanket, as well as an evergreen seedling, my medal, and a red rose (Portland is known as the City of Roses).
Leaving the post-race recovery area, I met my parents, my friends, and my boyfriend. I knew I had to smell horrible. My skin was rough with sweat that had dried and turned to salt. But as my mom embraced me, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I knew that I hadn’t done this for me, or my nieces, or friends. I did this for my mom. I handed her my rose and thanked her for supporting me always. With my medal around my neck, I walked to the car.
That day, I didn’t just face my fear of having a seizure in the middle of the race: I faced my fear of being weak, of being incapable of completing difficult goals. During my race, I realised I was in charge of my limits, and that day I chose to live a life without any.
About the writer:
Brodi Ayers started having seizures at the age of three. Her mother was told by a neurologist that she would grow out of them, and for about six years that proved the case. But they came back with a vengeance. The second neurologist diagnosed Brodi with complex partial seizures (these have recently been reclassified as the more specific ‘focal onset impaired awareness’ seizures), which he called ‘petite mal’. She was put on Depakote, but after she started developing generalised tonic-clonics, she was taken off Depakote and put on Zarontin. Brodi continued to take Depakote until she was twenty-six years old. She now practices the ketogenic diet. You can follow Brodi on Instagram @extrashotofadventure