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  • Michelle Howell

Down on the infield



The first thing I looked at when I finally composed myself was the jumbotron clock waiting for the heat currently running to finish and see it flash the time. 7:58. It had been nearly a half-hour since I finished racing and I hadn't made it far from the finish as what I've termed my "ovary issue" decided to fully make itself at home. For nearly thirty minutes I moved from the fetal position to my stomach to my legs haphazardly elevated on the bleacher bench nearby somewhere between incapacitated and acutely aware of every aspect of my surrounding environment. The gun going off over and over again. The loud shouts from coaches. The noise of people coming and going from the staging area, their breaths indicating whether or not they had just come from their races. The worry of an official coming over to attempt to move which A. was not happening, moving only made things worse B. was I even capable of explaining to them in my current state exactly what was happening? C. if they did come over and attempt to move me and realize my lack of ability to communicate that would lead to yet another trip to a trainer incapable of figuring out what was going on and even worse the potential of an ER visit.


All I can do is focus on my breathing and wait until the writhing pain originating below my naval stops before any of the above happen. It feels like someone has a knife that's been lit on fire and is stabbing and twisting it into me over and over again. It's nothing new. It's happened before and it will most likely happen again, but knowing this doesn't make it any more bearable. Counting my breath in for three seconds, holding for two, breathing out for three again is all I can do apart from thinking this must be what dying feels like and if not this is going to at least make popping a baby out at some point (maybe) a walk in the park and maybe is I stop this whole running thing I'll never have to go through this again. My pulse is getting faster again as I roll onto my stomach and I feel dizzier, my thoughts getting fuzzy as I try to focus on the breathing. In an instant, I can feel sweat all over me and the color leaving my face, but the temperature hasn't changed around me. The cold sweats are a bad sign- they mean this is an extra bad bout and I'm going into shock. It's going to be a while.


This is what happened after my first race on Friday night. I knew before I crossed the finish line what was going to happen. Nausea was starting and the tangled up feeling began in my lower abdomen around 300 to go when I should have been accelerating and moving through the field. Instead, I was losing ground fast. I felt the wind off the other races as they flew by me the last 150. One, now two, three. I stopped even thinking about what place I was in, all that mattered was finishing, finishing so I could collapse and assume the position for what was coming next. The adrenaline holds off the full onset for a few minutes (usually). Just enough time to briefly explain to Maddie what's going on before I became completely useless for the unforeseeable future.


My season opener did not go as planned for several reasons. One of which is described above and the other being very poor pacing. This isn't the first time my season opener hasn't gone according to plan and it's probably not the last. This isn't my first rodeo with the ovary issue either, it's been ongoing since my freshman year of high school. This was just a relapse that was overdue.


The first time it happened I had just finished a 400 and felt like I was going to throw up, normal enough considering I probably ate pizza for lunch that day amoungst other choice nutrition options that likely occurred that morning. Then I felt the pain in my stomach and was doubled over in the bathroom stall. At this point, I lost consciousness and at some point, my friend (pictured below) found me. I took my first ride in the ambulance from a track meet. They ran tests, nothing came back. I was healthy. Conscious again and pain-free. There were no lingering after-effects, in fact halfway into my ambulance ride I felt fine and was protesting to go back to run the 4x4. They ran more tests and again nothing. They chalked it up to a freak incident. It happened that year several more times.


Eventually, we stopped calling the ambulance.


Eventually, every one of my high school teammates knew the drill for when it happened- wait it out with me (just in case something more happened), have water nearby, make light jokes to pass the time.


They hypothesized these attacks were a lot of different things. From celiacs disease (I have a gluten sensitivity it turns out so I went cold turkey for a year and a half. No dice. Still happened) to pregnancy (the bane of my existence is going to the er when it happens and being harrassed as to whether or not I'm sure I'm not pregnant) to UTI's and IBS.


Since it coincides most frequently with my cycle we've at least established that there's some correlation. It also almost always happens when my body is under new stress- ie. racing for the first time out of my comfort zone or pushing past my body's current abilities. It tends to happen the most when I first start back racing these days whereas in high school new stress was essentially every hard effort. The most likely explanation of what I have is intermittent ovarian torsion aka ovaries that twist and untwist. So far I've never met anyone else who has it or who experiences similar attacks in the running world.


Every athlete has something they go through whether it's nerves, an injury, self-doubt so on and so forth. It's part of what it takes to be able to accomplish what you do, the cost to play. Mine happens to be this. It's me lying in pain for an unknown time in the short term questioning why I do this to myself and in the long term? The long term looks uncertain. As more than one doctor has told me every time this incident happens my chances of having kids drops. At this point, I've lost track of how many times it's happened. The only thing I remember is the time between attacks. Friday night was the first time since the April 13th, 2018 Tom Jones Memorial where I found myself face first spikes still on near the jumps area after a 1500 (I had attempted to explain the best I could that I was fine and to find my coach to the medics that found me. They didn't agree and were rushing me to the training room temporarily until they could find my coach and explain I was being swept off to the ER. My college coach was better able to communicate with them and dissuade them from it).


The only thing I know for certain is that it's my choice whether or not I keep touching the flame.


Saturday while writing my training log noting this had happened my mind played around with the idea of stopping this all together. No more pain sounds nice. It's the same thought that crosses my mind in the midst of an attack. I flirt with the idea of quitting altogether, probably my body's survival mechanism attempting to stop me from going through all that again. This happens just before I get very, very mad at my body's inability to just be "normal". I get mad about my inability to compete well when it happens. My anger and frustration always win out. They fuel my races following an attack. This season may not have started off on the right foot, but it's just the beginning of a long trek ahead.


I have no intention of stopping anytime soon. It is what it is and I can't change what happens, all I can do is keep rolling with the punches and ensure people around me can better explain that I'm going to be fine when the trainers and others not in the know come to try to haul me off the infield.