Why I Run

Any time a conversation at a party or business meeting comes around to running, as it somehow always does, it’s inevitable that one of the non-runners in the discussion will ask: Why do you run? I, like most runners, have any number of stock answers to this question: Because I love it; it’s great exercise; because I like to eat M&Ms; to get away from daily life. But for me, the real answer is much simpler, though I never use it: I run because I know that in a few years I won’t be able to.

About six years ago, just as I was really starting to get serious about my running, I was diagnosed with a somewhat rare form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis. AS, like all kinds of rheumatoid arthritis, causes inflammation of the joints, but it specifically affects the lower back and spine. It causes pretty severe stiffness and in some cases can cause the bones of the joints to fuse together permanently. Think of the elderly folks you see who are stooped over at the waist and you get the idea. Once the spine fuses, you can’t straighten it out.

AS is hereditary, but not everyone who has the gene for it develops the condition. And, in fact, not everyone who has AS has the gene either. It often takes some traumatic event, such as a fall or an accident, to cause the AS to actually develop in someone who carries the gene. My doctor isn’t sure exactly what brought mine on, and we don’t know who else in my family has it, but they do know this much: It’s only going to get worse.

I’ve been very lucky so far; my AS does not flare up often and so far my spine and other joints are in pretty good shape. But the condition can make itself known in ways you’re not expecting and at the least convenient times. A few years ago I was on a business trip in Washington, D.C., and one of my eyes became very red and started watering. I figured it was allergies, but then a couple of hours later it became very painful and sensitive to light and I knew I had a problem. I cut the trip short and by the time I got home, I could hardly see. My doctor diagnosed it as iritis, essentially an inflammation of the iris, which was caused by my arthritis. It hurt like hell and I ended up taking steroid eyedrops for several weeks to clear it up. (Thankfully, I was never randomly tested at any of my races.)

There’s no way to know how exactly the condition will progress in any one person, so I don’t really know how much my daily life will be affected next week, next year or 10 years from now. The worst case is that I’ll eventually be mostly disabled. The best case is that I’ll have occasional flareups, have some pain most days, but be able to live my life. Realistically, however, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to keep running into my golden years. Exercise is prescribed for most AS patients, and my doctor is an avid runner himself, so he is very good about telling me when exercise will help and when it’s time to back off a bit.

But, for all the pain and problems that arthritis has caused me, it also has given me a very valuable gift. It has shown me the importance of enjoying every run, every mile, every step, and not taking any of it for granted. Any time I wake up and don’t feel like running that day, or am tempted to leave my running shoes at home when I’m leaving for a trip, I think about this and usually end up lacing up and heading out the door.

And that’s why I run—because I can. Now.

11 thoughts on “Why I Run”

  1. Wow, that’s heavy stuff. I very much admire your mindset. Many other people with that diagnosis would have curled up and basically given up on life. You did the opposite, and became more active instead.

    That’s the best answer the the “why am I running” question I have ever come across.

  2. That was truly inspirational, dennis. I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas. You’re one tough dude! Keep it up. Who knows, maybe you’ll beat this thing yet.

  3. Hearing stories like that keeps me going, and counting my blessings. A someone in the health care profession, I realize AS is a chronic condition. It is obvious to me that you have already beat it. Keep on running.

  4. You have no idea how much I identify with this. No, I don’t have what you have but I have suffered from debilitating back pain.

    More people need to put themselves in a place where they can’t do the things they can today to appreciate what they have.

    Total respect, Dennis.

  5. Hey, you ever tried yoga to help with the AS? It’s supposed to help keep your spine flexible. It’s good for balancing out what running does to your body too.
    I really like your articles by the way.

  6. @ Kelsey
    I haven’t tried yoga, but several people have recommended it. Like most distance runners, I’m really inflexible anyway, so it probably would do me a lot of good. Thanks.

  7. I wish that I had discovered Yoga in college, because I think that it would have gone a long way to preventing my injuries my junior and senior years.

    The first time that I did yoga was a few days after a weight lifting session after taking some time off and I did too much too soon. One session of yoga, though, and the soreness was gone.

  8. Dennis,
    I was very excited to read your story, you see, 2 years ago I came down with rheumatoid arthritis. I had been a long time distance runner but had pretty much taken a couple of years off due to having kids and was just starting back in when it happened. My knees swelled up, it felt like I was walking on rocks every morning when I got out of bed. I had to buy a cane to get around, when this first happens to you, you think running is the last thing you’ll be able to do. Plus, all the RA forums and the doctors seem to bring you down even more. After two years of this I just recently decided to turn my back on all these negative people and run again, it really feels good! I have been able to run 2 miles 2-3 times a week so far, I could go farther but I’m taking it slow as not to ruin it.
    It’s really good to know that I’m not alone in thinking that this will help me more than it will hurt me and could actually prolong the disease’s effect of disabling me.
    You have no idea what an emotional release this had on me, I’m not a guy that has tears come to his eyes very often but just the stress of dealing with this and being strong enough to say “no, I’m not going out that way”. Then hearing that it is possible for someone else and I’m not alone in thinking this is the way to overcome at least in some part is truly a relief. Thank you very much for posting your story. Run On!

Comments are closed.