Running My Spirit – A Story of Spirituality and Health
By Greg Audel
April 4th, 2015
I began running in college and quickly became addicted. I loved every bit of running, (except the first mile as any runner will agree!). I loved pushing myself to the point that I could only think about my next steps and my next few breaths. I loved the freedom of conquering the world with just my sneakers and determination.
Having watched my father suffer with horrific health my entire life, I celebrated being able to run long, far and hard. There was a part of me that knew I should enjoy everything my body was capable of in the moment because, looking at genetics, it was possible my profound fear of life becoming an endless series of doctors’ appointments, pill bottles, shots, IVs and awful diagnosis could one day be my reality.
About 15-years ago I was training for my first marathon. One day, after a completely normal run, I realized I didn’t feel right. Runners live with aches and pains. We even take pride in them. This pain was different. I remember the moment perfectly. Friends were cooking dinner. I looked up at them and said, “I think I have Rheumatoid Arthritis.” They looked perplexed and asked where I got that paranoid thought from. I still don’t have an answer to that question. I just knew.
I immediately made doctors appointments and the doctor seemed surprised that I was unemotional when given the official diagnosis of RA (even though the nurse was tearing up!). Something had prepared me. The doctor was merely confirming what I had realized a few weeks earlier in my friend’s kitchen. I prayed for the strength to make the best decisions possible in the new world.
As me condition deteriorated, running was both impractical and impossible. I hurt all the time. My shelves, which had long been filled with nutritional supplements for running, were quickly being filled with those dreaded brown plastic prescription bottles. It sucked.
I was fortunate, however, that I never felt alone in my heath struggles. I never felt abandoned by God. The words of the wise poet and spiritual leader, Mattie Stepanek, were always in my mind and heart, “Why not me?” Mattie only lived on this Earth for 13-years, most of that time in a wheelchair and on a ventilator. Yet, he made the most of every single minute and every single relationship. He loved this life and those he shared it with. If this brave young man could face his health struggles with a smile, who was I to feel sorry for myself?
I looked at the people in my life, the interests I enjoyed, my awesome dog – Kirby – and the life I was given and I always knew those things far outweighed the state of my physical health. One struggle at a time I’d check in and confirm, “We’re in this together, right God? You still got me?” I never doubted he was right there with me, often placing wonderful people and opportunities in my path. I was often frustrated at my situation, but the knowledge that I was part of a much bigger picture helped me not to feel victimized or singled out. I knew millions of people had a tougher road to travel in their lives than I had in mine. And, I knew many who suffered with my conditions did so without the elements I considered vital to my well-being: medical care, education and faith. They just suffered and died. Everyone gets problems in their life. I was fortunate to have found mine. I knew their names and I had treatment plans.
As the years went by, I got worse instead of better. Consuming food became a miserable experience and I pretty much stopped eating. This led to the additional diagnosis of severe Crohn’s Disease while a whole new realm of doctors, prescriptions, monthly IVs and medical restrictions entered my world.
As my conditions became more all consuming, I realized the importance of having a real connection with every doctor on my team, which eventually totaled eight specialists. I didn’t need mere technicians. I needed people I had confidence in on my team. That’s my number one piece of advice for those seeking healthcare. Firstly, make sure your doctors have strong credentials, extensive experience with your disease(s) and a great educational background. But, secondly, make sure this is someone you would trust with your life and trust that their advice is grounded not just in their education, but in their understanding of you as a person and as a patient. It was completely irrelevant that they share my faith. But, it was critical that they saw me as a person first and a patient second. And, I educated myself on every condition, treatment, medication, side effect, upside and risk.
While running became a distant memory, as did my excellent physical condition, I stayed busy and involved in causes important to me and the people who I was lucky to know. When one is sick, withdrawing from the world is the worst instinct to give into. I know we are put in this life to share our time and talents with others. Being sick made me appreciate that this life is short, no matter how much time you have and that the time to do things is NOW.
I tried to figure out productive and meaningful things I could do from my couch with my dog in my lap. For example, though I had absolutely no experience, I always wanted to be a producer. Someday was becoming too distant a timeframe. One summer evening, my nieces and I were sitting on my couch watching the comedian, Paula Poundstone, on television. It clicked. “I think I’m going to work with her,” I announced. They asked if I knew her. I said, “No. But, I will.” They asked what I was going to do with her. I said, “I think I’m going to produce shows for her.” I had always thought Paula was someone I’d like to work with. I felt a connection with her because, as with my health, her career had seen highs and lows. I wanted to help her rise again as I helped myself do the same. The fact that I had never produced a show was irrelevant. I wanted to show my nieces, and myself, that illness and obstacles were not good enough reasons to set the bar low or, worse yet, sit out entirely. In fact, illness is a great reason to set the bar high. Again, I knew I was not alone in my fight with my health or in any other aspect of my life. If I worked hard, listened to that quiet Voice inside giving me guidance and confidence, I would be alright.
About a year and a half later, I felt a pride I had never known when I walked onto the stage of The Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas and introduced Paula to a sold-out crowd of 835 people. Backstage she had said to me, “So, you thought you could stalk me on Facebook, harass my manager into working with you, figure out how to rent a theatre, price the tickets, advertise the show, raise $10,000 for NPR and sell out one of my biggest shows of the year?” I sheepishly said, “That’s pretty much it.” She smiled and simply said, “Well done.” Without faith that I had Someone much greater than myself to rely on, who wanted me to succeed, I never would have attempted it and I never would have succeeded. I went on to produce 5 shows for her, so far, over the years in Houston and Dallas and hope to produce many more.
The combination of wonderful doctors, being part of a strong community of people, harsh but seemingly magical medicine, the taste of success of reaching a big goal, – and my dog, of course – and knowing that God was with me in my struggles, my challenging times and my victorious ones helped my condition improve slowly. As any patient should, I also did every single thing within my ability to heal. I took my medicine, no matter how unpleasant. I had the needed surgeries. I ate a healthful diet. I asked a lot of questions, sought the best answers and I prayed for God’s guidance. A lot.
About 14-years after my initial diagnosis, I was showing a buddy my new apartment complex and pointed out the gym while asserting, “I won’t have to buy a gym membership because this is just an elevator ride down from my apartment!” My honest, and blunt, friend looked at my 40-pound overweight body that hadn’t been inside a gym in over a decade and said, “I don’t see you using this gym.” That was it.
I prayed for the health and strength to get back to the self I lost so many years before. The message I heard was “Go for it!”
My doctors didn’t think running was a great idea. So, if I couldn’t run, I could walk. And, I did. I walked for 20-minutes on the treadmill. Then, 30-minutes. Soon, I increased the speed. And, I increased it, again. Then, I was running for 45-minutes. Surprisingly, my body just kept feeling better. I looked in the mirror and saw a beaming smile of pride, and health, I hadn’t seen in a very long time. My normal run, every other night, became 6-miles in an hour. 10-minute miles. Not a world record, but not too shabby, either. I lost 40-pounds without feeling it took any effort whatsoever. Instead, I felt joy and appreciation that I was able to once again run hard, fast and joyfully. I thank God every day for helping me to find myself back in my running shoes.
My new goal? I can’t wait to cross the finish line of my first marathon. Crossing that finish line is going to be sweet. And, as with every other goal, I will know that I did not reach it alone. I will cross the finish line leaning on Someone who led me to it and helped push me across it. I simply would never have the strength to face any challenge alone. And, of course, I am also counting on the world’s most faithful and awesome dog, 16-year-old Kirby, to be there to greet me. In fact, maybe we’ll cross the finish line together! My team has been with me every step of this journey. That includes, the little furry guy, an amazing community of friends and family and the One who is always with us. With a team like that, I will cross the finish line a winner, no matter my time in the race or my time in this life.
— Greg P. Audel
Greg P. Audel is a Houstonian, a producer, a dog-lover, and the founder of Grout101, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding mentors for young people.