Smile and be glad
Have you noticed how much it helps to smile when you’re trying to do something really tough? It’s not something I ever really tried to harvest before MS became part of my life. Let’s be honest – I was almost a decade into living with MS before I finally learned to take advantage of this one. So I thought I’d share the concept, in the hope some of you can benefit sooner than I learned to!
Some months ago I told the story of why I decided to learn to run. It wasn’t an easy decision. I have no natural talent for this sort of activity, and I’ve always been self-conscious about how ungainly I suspect I look if I make the attempt. But when I realised I was likely to make it to the ten year anniversary of my diagnosis with essentially normal mobility, I had a sudden, overwhelming desire to take up the challenge. When I saw that the next MS Fun Run would take place almost exactly on my anniversary, my goal was obvious. Five kilometres around Albert Park Lake – running all the way!
Once my finish line was sorted, I had about nine months to prepare for the event. I have been exercising most days since before I was diagnosed, so my fitness level was reasonable, but running was such a foreign concept to me! After much deliberation, I downloaded an app that promised “couch 2 5k” in just eight weeks. My first three training sessions would consist of running for one minute then walking for one and a half – repeated eight times over and with short warm up and cool down walks to complete the half hour. All I needed was the will power to give it a go – and the strength of mind not to care if someone saw me at it. The AFL Grand Final gave me the perfect opportunity: three in the afternoon on the last Saturday in September is a great time to do anything you like outside in Melbourne with no fear of witnesses! So I snuck down to the local park, found a path with no steep hills, and off I went. I was running!
The first week or two of “couch 2 5k” were not terribly challenging for someone used to exercise. I don’t think I could sprint for a minute, but a gentle jog for that long was more or less manageable from the start. In week two, the running segments go up to ninety seconds and there are not quite so many of them. Not a great deal harder than the first week. Week three was the killer for me - only four running segments to the workout, but you alternate ninety seconds one run and three minutes the next. Oh my goodness! Three minutes at a run without stopping was a monstrous task! I shortened my stride and took teeny tiny steps that required less energy. I sipped from a bottle of iced water to stay cool. But I still didn’t last through the second three minute run the first time I tried that work out. I took a short walking break and made up the time after that – but actually completing three minutes of running in one go when tired was going to require a different strategy.
When I got home, a shelf of old books caught my eye. Most of them came from my grandparents’ home and many are dog-eared favourites from my childhood. Among them is “Pollyanna” – an old-fashioned story about an orphan girl who tried to see something to be glad of in every situation, and in doing so, brightened the lives of all those around her. Could such an approach make running more bearable to a non-runner like me? I decided to test the theory.
The next time I ventured out to make an attempt on a “week three” work out, I was more prepared. The first three minute run was hard – but I mentally listed why I was genuinely glad to be doing it, and it did not seem quite as hard as the first time around. The dreaded second three minute run approached. I am glad I have this park to go running in. I am SO glad I have legs that allow me to give this a go! I am glad there are now only two minutes until I can slow down to a walk. I am glad my vision is good enough, even when I’m working as hard as I possibly can, that I can see that little dog and not fall over it. That was the “light bulb” moment. I couldn’t help but smile at the little dog with his elderly owner. And the instant I smiled, I felt a subtle-but-real injection of energy into my exhausted legs. The three minutes were over and I had not stopped!
I will not pretend that running has become easy for me. I am a truly terrible runner. I’m slow. I’m not very co-ordinated. I tend to forget to lift up my left foot when I get tired, which has resulted in a couple of spectacular falls. And even today, almost four years after I first started running to prove I could, it requires a mammoth mental effort to keep going that is quite separate from the physical exertion involved. But nothing – not even when I manage a full five kilometres in one go – has ever been quite as impossible as my first (failed) attempt at the second lot of three minutes in a “week three” work out. Now I have a secret weapon to pull out when things get tough. I smile! And it really helps.
Smiling is not a magic wand. There are some things I simply cannot do, and smiling doesn’t change this. I cannot run down stairs. I cannot do the balance poses in yoga without modifications - although I’m hoping to improve in time. But for the things I just about can do, only they are really hard, smiling helps!
Each of us with MS has different challenges – and I know many of you are confronted by far more difficult ones than I have had to deal with so far. What’s your Mount Everest? That task that you only dare even attempt on a really good day? Give it a go some time, and see if a grin gets you closer to your target than you thought you might manage. Regardless of what happens, you can rest assured you’ve brightened up the day of anyone around you. And you know what they say: smile - people will wonder what you’ve been up to!
The Unaffected One