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The Hardest Thing I have Ever Done

It is quiet.  The air is still. I hear a soft pounding in my chest and my feet on the asphalt.  My heart reminds me of the task at hand: kee...

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Does That Have To Do With Running A Marathon?

Six and half years ago, I lay on a cold, padded hospital gurney in a dimly lit room.  My husband Dave was at my side holding my hand, an imaging tech on the other side managing equipment and talking low.  I felt sick.  My belly—still somewhat normally shaped then—was covered in a thick, warm jelly and the tech slid a heated piece of medical equipment over my lower midsection, back and forth, saying things like “just need to get oriented” and “here’s your uterus.”  On the screen beyond my feet, mottled images of digital caverns moved in and out of view.  It was a surreal experience for me.  Only days earlier had we confirmed we were expecting our first child, and that news had arrived as a total surprise. 

I had been in Mexico working for a volunteer group that helps to keep young people off of drugs and alcohol.  Just before leaving the U.S., Dave called and said he had a premonition that I was pregnant.  He said he sat up in bed and said it out loud, “Rhonda’s pregnant.”

I told him to go back to bed and made jokes about his mental state.  Then I drove with some girlfriends deep into the interior of Mexico’s mainland and while I was there, I got very sick.  Naturally, I went to the Pharmacia and purchased some antibiotics; I had done this before.  Besides, this seemed like the right thing to do, suspecting I had been exposed to strep and had possibly developed a secondary infection.  In fact, I spent the entire trip in Mexico sick.  Headaches, nausea, vomiting—I thought I had the flu.  By the time I got back to the States, Dave asked about my ‘cycle.’  I told him his words got in my head and messed me up, so that I was just running a little late.  I also thought the Mexican antibiotics might have messed me up a little, too, but that I would be fine by the time I flew back to Oregon from San Diego.

A few days later, when Dave picked me up at the airport in Eugene, we went straight to the drug store and bought a pregnancy test.  It was one of those extra simple ‘plus/minus’ tests for people like me who over think things.  I didn’t even unpack when I got home.  Instead, I went right into the bathroom and took the test.  It turned to ‘plus’ as soon as I had taken it, while Dave stood nearby reading the directions.  He glanced down at the ‘plus’ sign and said something I’ll never forget.  He said “It’s not done yet.  The directions say you have to wait a full 2 minutes.”

This made me laugh, which might have also kept me from crying.  I wasn’t sure what I felt at that moment.  We had talked about having kids, but I was finally going to finish my degree (I was that close), we had just bought our house, had just moved 1,000 miles away from any family—the reaction was not what I dreamed it might be.

The next day, we made an appointment to see Dr. Blumenstein.  She came in to the exam room as gave us both a happy look saying, “What brings you two in?”  I answered and told her we had taken a pregnancy test and the results said I was pregnant.  She sang, “Ours did, too!” And she was giddy about it. 

Dave and I looked blankly at one another from across the small exam room, poker faces both, afraid to show any emotion or unable to.

Dr. Blumenstein asked if this wasn’t good news.  We both started in about how scary it was and how alone we were so far from extended family and how unprepared we felt…  She seemed all the more amused.  She reminded us that we have a lot more than many people when they first conceive and their kids end up fine and everything works out.  I insisted that the Mexican antibiotics should be considered as a threatening aspect of this experience, so to assuage me she made an appointment for us to see the imaging tech for an ultra sound.

This is how we came to be in that dark, cold room six and half years ago, at only 8 weeks pregnant, looking into the digital abyss that was allegedly my uterus.

“THERE!” the tech pointed to a small, peanut-shape on the screen.  There wasn’t much to it, the little legume.  It fluttered faintly and Dave squeezed my hand.  The tech said she needed to get some measurements and she clicked on the keyboard to her right with her free hand.  She was merry about her task commenting that she didn’t often get to see them so early.  I felt happy for her and that feeling started to transfer back to me—I started to feel happy for me, for Dave, for this little person within me.  Well, this measurement business went on for a bit, long enough for me to really start to like this idea of this little peanut growing in me that would someday call me ‘Mom,’ maybe play games with me, run around with me, and sings songs and dance and do all sorts of active things. 

I was fixated on the screen then, Dave squeezed my hand tighter.  The tech moved the instrument from one side of my lower belly to the other.  I thought of Wayne Campbell from Wayne’s World: “camera one, camera two.”  The tech reapplied the warm jelly, continuing to move back and forth.  I thought, here is the peanut’s far left side.  Now, here is the peanut’s far right.  I glanced up at Dave.  He was not having the same experience I was, finally starting to accept and enjoy this special condition.  He face seemed pinched; it’s funny to remember it that way now.  See, he knew what the tech knew but what I had missed.  I would not know it or even for a split second suspect it until the tech spoke again, as if reading Dave’s mind and answering his question, “Yes, there’s two of them in there.”  My fleeting happiness diminished back into my former state of terror. She got them both in the same field of view—finally—and she snapped a picture and printed it out.

In our state of shock, we stumbled upstairs, picture in hand, back to Dr. Blumenstein’s office.  We couldn’t even speak when the receptionist asked if we had an appointment.  No.  What we had were twins…there on the small print out from the tech.  Without words, I extended the picture to the receptionist.  She looked at it, smiled wide, then asked us to wait just a minute.  We did and a moment later were ushered into another exam room.  Seconds later, Dr. Blumenstein arrived as giddy as she had been days earlier when she ordered the ultra sound for us. 

“You guys!” She was so excited; I envied her ability to respond with such joy.  “I am a twin!”  She then began recommending doctors for us, saying that we could no longer explore the option of a home delivery, etc., etc.

What does all of this have to do with running a marathon?

I’ll tell you.

During my pregnancy, I found out about the lesions in my brain and spine.  Shortly after the girls were delivered, I had my first spinal tap and confirmed that I had the abnormally high levels of immunoglobulins indicative of MS sufferers.  I also had what’s called oligoclonal bands in my cerebrospinal fluid that sealed the deal.  It was confirmed that I had MS, a much scarier diagnosis than being told there were two babies in my belly.

It didn’t happen all at once, but each time I thought about playing with my girls, running around the park with them, pushing them in the stroller, even seeing their faces on the day of their graduation, I became afraid.  What kind of a life would they have with a mother who might be dependent on a cane for walking, confined to a wheelchair, or blind?

The doctors wanted to get me on the MS modifying drugs right away.  I chose to delay starting them so that I could breastfeed my children and give their immune systems as much of an advantage as I could.  There was also the factor that I have a severe needle phobia, and MS medications are almost all still injectable.  However, when they were 13 months old, they were weaned and I was tested to start the medication.

All during this time, I ran when I could.  Naturally, I could not run during my pregnancy with two very large babies inside of me, but I ran again within a month after the girls were born.  I can tell you that it is not much fun to run as a breastfeeding mother when milk is letting down. I often wore two jog-bras and stayed near the house in case I needed to hightail it home.  Dave was very supportive during this time, as he always is.  He was hopeful that I would start the medication as soon as feasible, but he also supported my choice to breastfeed.  He also supported my running, as he always has and continues to do so now.

And an amazing thing happened during that first year with my children.  So amazing, in fact, that I never would have guess it, but at the end of that year it seemed so obvious.  Over that first year, I had fallen madly in love with my children.  I am not talking about the kind of love that has me giddy with joy or strong affection.  I mean that I would have done anything for those girls, that I would do anything for them still, whether they ask for it or not.  I knew it in my heart that no disease would keep me from being their mom in whatever capacity, regardless of my limitations, as long as there was still a breath in me.  I also knew that I would do everything I could to fight to be the mom that I had dreamed of being for them.

…then I decided to fight this disease.  I decided that I would not let the Multiple Sclerosis win.  Ever since then I have been pushing against it with all my might, in the name of the love that I have for my children.  They have been my inspiration, my motivation, my calming acceptance and my tenacity.  When the injections made me too sick to function, I functioned anyway.  When my fatigue renders me helpless, I look to my girls for strength.  When my fear holds me still in my tracks, the faces of Veronica and Gabriella smile at me in my mind with their hope and acceptance encouraging me to not give up, to keep trying.

And so it was at mile 25-point-something that they were there on the side of the marathon path.  Dave had brought them to watch from a few different places, but here, they decided they would jump out on the street and run a bit with me.  Veronica matched my stride, which by then was tired and slow.  Gabriella, however, took off into the river of runners, swept up by their current and pace. We had to call her back and I was laughing and crying and my girls were hugging my legs as we moved.

They are 6 now.  They do not know me to be diseased and frail.  They think of me as a runner.  They have seen me at mile 25 and after and they have carried me.  I ran this first marathon for them.  I told them days before that I was running it for them, though I am not sure they understood what that meant.  Some day they will.

See, that’s exactly what it has to do with running for me.  For me, running has everything to do with my children.  I run for them, for the chance to run for them again tomorrow, to show them (and myself) that I do not have to surrender to my limits.  They gave me the strength and courage each moment of each training session when I just wanted to quit.  The least I could do was give them my first marathon…and whatever else they want, whether they ask or not.  I can never repay the love I have received in knowing them, and the inspiration it has brought me.

Thank you Gabriella.  Thank you Veronica.  I ran it for you.  You made every step worth the effort.  You are the reason why I was able to do what I did that day.  You, my darling girls, carried me each mile.  I love you.


  1. I am so proud and grateful to know such an amazing Hermann being :)
    -Chase Browning

  2. Jeff McKay wrote about this on his blog. Thanks Jeff! Here's the link: http://blog.oregonlive.com/runoregon/2011/11/rhonda_zimlich_multiple_sclero.html

  3. Thanks for being such an inspiration Rhonda!!! I love you! *tear


  4. So very proud that you are my daughter! I love you so much.