As a young runner living in the City of Chicago during the early 1980s, I met a woman through track workouts at the downtown Northwestern University cinder track next to Lake Shore Drive. After scoping her out the entire workout, I admittedly fibbed that I had no car parked nearby in order to beg a ride home with her to my apartment on Clark Street next to Lincoln Park. We started dating and training together, a relationship that lasted nearly a year.
She ran 10K in about 36:00, a time that to this day would win many women’s road races. When our track workouts moved to the University of Illinois campus in the southwest Loop, we joined a couple dozen other runners every Tuesday with coach Tom Brunick from the Athlete’s Foot running the group.
She was running 50-60 miles a week. During our wild little romance she confessed to me that her period had ceased. “I have amenorrhoea,” she mentioned one day. “It’s been going on for a few months.”
A few weeks after that admission, she told me that the front of her leg just below her knee was hurting. I guided her to a podiatrist that I knew. He diagnosed a likely stress fracture. At that point, my girlfriend and I had a talk. I suggested it might be a good time for her to take a break. She had one brown eye and one blue eye, and I sometimes wondered whether there were two of her inside that head of hers. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “No, not yet.”
She was an intense young woman who worked as programmer for a big publishing company. Her salary was $90,000 a year. In early 1980s money, that was big bucks. So she was smart and driven and all the things that a young man like me found intimidating at times. But I still tried to counsel her that continuing to run when her period had stopped and her knee was showing signs of bone stress was a bad idea.
And then it happened. I was jogging back to start another interval at the weekly track workout when her group came charging through the finish line and I heard the bone in her leg snap. I’d heard that sound before when a college teammate broke his leg in several places toward the end of a 400 IM hurdles race. He’d trained all spring in the pool because his shin had so many sore spots that the coaches did not dare put impact on his legs. But when the conference meet came along and he needed to earn a qualifying time for nationals, he entered the race and was leading his heat when his leg collapsed underneath him with an loud crack. He went sprawling on the track.
It was a horrific thing to witness, but the worst part of that moment were the cheers that our conference rivals made upon seeing him skid along the track. Never had I witnessed such lack of sportsmanship and such cruel desire. Fights almost broke out around the track.
I thought about that tragedy as I watched her limp off the track. She looked lean and fit and frankly had a terrific body. But at that moment, all I could think about was her health. I’d tried my best to get her to downshift a little, but she was having none of that.
Not long after that, an incident occurred that forced me to break up with her. My downtown romance was in fact a deception. For two years prior to our meeting, I’d been dating the woman that would later become my wife. She lived out in the suburbs, and I was enjoying city life and wasn’t yet convinced it was time to settle down. But after a night in which my downtown girlfriend and I went out dancing, my actual girlfriend rode the train to the city on a Saturday morning. I’d told her that I was spending the night out with a mutual friend named Larry. When I met her at the train station to pick her up she asked, “How was your night out with Larry?”
I launched into some story about what we’d done and she interrupted by saying, “That’s funny. I rode the train in with Larry this morning.”
Busted. A week later I broke off the relationship with my downtown girlfriend and never cheated again. She punched me in the arm and said, “I knew it.” Two weeks later she slept with a friend of mine in act of revenge. Okay, I deserved that.
I share that story because so many moments in life serve as forks in the road. But when I read these stories about young girls in today’s world of running missing their periods due to intense training and getting injured time and again, I think back to the young woman I dated for a while and realize how strength and determination sometimes overcomes common sense. It’s a far more difficult path to sustain high levels of training for women than men. While I got down to 3% body fat at one point in my running career and suffered colds, illness and even migraines from overtraining and burning the candle of life at both ends, I still didn’t have a menstrual cycle to worry about.
Much later in life, about twenty years into the marriage with my wife, she began to experience heavy menstrual flows that were nearly debilitating. Sometimes she dealt with symptoms about three weeks out of four. So I suggested she get a checkup, but she worried that the diagnosis would be an automatic hysterectomy and in her words, “I don’t want to go to some butcher.”
We were in an HMO at the time and finding good health care took diligence. So I empathized, but ultimately took the initiative to find a female gynecologist and urged my wife to set up an appointment. During the examinations a smallish cyst was discovered on one of her ovaries. That led to exploratory arthroscopic surgery, a process that actually never should have happened. The gynecologist broke apart the cyst, an act that allowed the cancer cells to burst forth and spread throughout her abdomen. So in that respect, my wife’s suspicions were well-justified.
Months later after we’d worked through the HMO to find a reputable gynecological oncologist, he performed hysterectomy on my wife and told me he could feel the cancer nodules on the inside of her abdomen “like heavy grit sandpaper.” That doctor was a master in his trade and kept her alive for another eight years. It took a tremendous amount of effort on his part, and on hers. She was one tough lady.
I kind of knew that going in. Within weeks of having first met her, when she was just 22 years old, she had two large cysts removed from her ovaries. I visited her in the hospital following her surgery and she dropped her panties down to show me the surgery scar. “It’s a bikini cut!” she grinned. “Well, I guess this relationship is serious,” I muttered to myself on the way out of the hospital.
The Right Kind of Pride
As it was, we made it through those eight years of treatment for ovarian cancer by working together through cycles of chemotherapy and surgeries and periods of remission. I wrote a book about that survivorship journey titled The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community. It talks about the power of vulnerability in making life decisions and getting practical and spiritual help through openness and honesty.
But all those experiences come back to some of the basics of what women go through just to function in life. Menstruation is something men never have to go through with their own bodies. But men who ignore the impact of that blood cycle in the lives of the women they know are fools. It may not be a topic men like to think about, yet menstruation is the literal heartbeat of this world, if you think about it.
And you should. Think about it. And give thanks that women have the strength to deal with it, and many other things as well. Bless you all.