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.