by Anu Bajaj, MD
Many of my family and friends have asked me what I think about when I run – I don’t run with music, and as I have written many times before, I rarely run with people – unless I’m running a race or with my husband. Others have also asked why I run – my parents, especially, don’t understand why I pay money, travel, run a marathon, and return home sore and tired. It’s not that different from other surgeons who may ask why and how I do free flaps in private practice. Running, unlike surgery or drawing, allows one the opportunity to think, and thinking can be good or it can be bad – one has the time to explore one’s own emotions and thoughts.
Almost every time I finish a marathon, I cry. Sometimes I cry at the beginning too. Most people would be surprised to know that about me. My patients and family sometimes perceive me as being blunt, matter-of-fact, and decisive – not emotional. So, as some of you may already know, I ran the Boston marathon last week, and I cried at the end. I was happy to be done. It wasn’t my fastest race – that honor goes to my qualifying race in Houston – nor was it my slowest – that honor goes to the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.
I have to admit that the Boston Marathon has motivated me to keep running. Like all things in life, sometimes the things that we enjoy can become tedious. After an injury-plagued year, running had become that way for me. There were more mornings than I care to admit where I just wanted to stay in bed when my alarm went off. But upon my return home, I was ready to sign up for another marathon! As I consider the next race, I have to ask myself what has changed?
Before the marathon, I perseverated about the weather, what to wear, and whether I would be too wet or too cold. I obsessed about the hills on the course (they would be tough since OKC is very flat). And I berated myself about my less than optimal training. This approach contrasts with the approach to running in my childhood – I would just put on clothes and run – no worries about the clouds in the sky or the humidity – just pure running to experience the “runner’s high.” I knew the first mile would be tough, but after that it would be pure heaven. As an adult, I think that sometimes we overthink things – how will this run fit into my schedule today, what will I wear, will I be on time for the my first case?
At the start of every race, I question whether I will be able to finish. And it doesn’t matter what the length of the race is. A few weeks ago, I ran a 5km with my 11-year-old stepson, and had the exact same concern – will I finish? For the marathon, I’m unsure about whether I will finish until about mile twenty. Mile 20 for the OKC Memorial Marathon is a block away from our house; and every year that I’ve run that race, my dad has been at mile 20 – sometimes in the rain and sometimes with a t-shirt that he had made saying words of encouragement.
In Boston, every time negative thoughts of the rain, cold, and not finishing entered my head, I had to redirect and refocus. I tried to enjoy just the act of running again – I smiled for all of the cameras along the way, I talked to people, and I high-fived all the kids along the way. At mile 20, also Heartbreak Hill for those familiar with the Boston Marathon course, the thought that went through my mind was “oh sh___, another hill!” Fortunately, I met a runner, Cindy from Michigan, who helped me up that hill with her words of encouragement. Then I knew that I would finish.
While we were running those last few miles together, I learned a lot about Cindy from Michigan. Cindy from Michigan told me that she was running in honor of grandson – who had scored several goals in his soccer game the day before, and finishing today would make him proud. She said that she had run her previous Boston Marathons in honor of each of her sons. After she told me that, I wondered why I run and started to think about some of my patients. One in particular stood out for me – a young women who had had breast reconstruction by me a few years ago but recently passed away from pancreatic cancer. So I finished Boston in honor of her.
We flew to Boston on Sunday, which was also the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. While I was fortunate not to know any one in that bombing, that bombing has really shaped our city in the past few years – some would stay that the start of the revitalization of the Downtown and Midtown areas began during the rebuilding efforts after that bombing. The Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon is this weekend – it is a race to honor those who are lost – the Run to Remember. This is a marathon where I usually cry at the beginning – at the 168 seconds of silence for all who were lost. During the past few weeks, signs with names of each of those who lost their life during the bombing have gone up along the marathon route.
Whether life or surgery is like a marathon, you, the reader will have to decide. But for every free flap, my mile 20 is the microvascular anastomosis. Once I’ve completed the micro, and start to de-epithelialize my flap and see the healthy punctate bleeding through the dermis, I know that the case is almost over. And the recovery will begin. Both of these cities, Oklahoma City and Boston, have been affected by a bombing. And both have had to recover and turn that negative experience into something positive. While in Boston, a spectator held a sign that read, “The rain makes the unicorns sparkle.” That sign brought a smile to my face because every morning, I believe that that day will be a day in which I will see rainbows and unicorns. It’s about making a negative experience into something positive so that we can grow and learn. That is why I run.