What a dog can teach us about self-love and recovery

A few months before I was diagnosed with hypothalamic amenorrhea, my husband and I brought home a rescue pup from an adoption event in New York City. We named our then 1-½ -year old Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen mix, Maizie. We didn’t know much about Maizie’s history, but did know she had been neglected by her previous owner, and somehow ended up in a kill shelter.

Maizie, in her first few days with us

When we first took Maizie home, her hair was dull and sparse, and she was so thin her ribs protruded. She had separation anxiety, and would bark and howl, pacing back and forth, each time we left her home alone. She was stressed.

Related: What is hypothalamic amenorrhea?

In the year before we adopted Maizie, I was under immense stress.

I had a full time job and a side hustle. My anxiety was at an all-time high. It took me three to four hours to fall asleep most nights. My husband and I had been talking about starting a family. I wasn’t quite ready, but I assured my husband I’d be more ready after I ran the 2016 Boston Marathon.

Within the first two months of my training, I was diagnosed with an Achilles injury. I modified my training schedule, went to physical therapy, and managed to make it to the Boston Marathon starting line in Hopkinton.

By mile 6, I knew it was not my day.

I hobbled to the finish line on Boylston Street, pain radiating from my inner knee down through my foot. I was super disappointed with my time. It was my slowest marathon yet. I decided (within moments of finishing) that this COULDN’T possibly be my last marathon before baby. I had to run one more Boston Qualifier (BQ).

In the ten years I’ve been running marathons, probably the most common running question I get from family and friends is, “How are your injuries?”

By the fall, I was training for my seventh marathon. Once again, I was plagued with injuries throughout my training. It seemed like one injury healed and another popped up. But to be honest, this wasn’t a new phenomenon. In the ten years I’ve been running marathons, probably the most common running question I get from family and friends is, “How are your injuries?”

Just before the marathon, I went off the birth control pill, and again had a plan:

#1 Run a BQ at the Philadelphia Marathon

#2 Get pregnant ASAP

#3 Run Boston in 2018 with said BQ

Though I was thrilled to check #1 off the list, I quickly learned #2 wasn’t going to be as easy as I anticipated.

Running the Philadelphia Marathon, 2016

Where was my period?

As we welcomed Maizie to our family a few months after Philly, I became a little concerned that my period hadn’t returned yet. I hadn’t had my period in about 5–10 years (it had been so long I’d lost count), but was always told it was because I was on the pill. My gynecologist said it could take several months for my cycle to come back after being on the pill for so many years.

Patiently, I waited.

I resisted the urge to do a spring marathon (in case I got pregnant), but did put two half-marathons on my calendar instead.

Meanwhile, we tried to help Maizie feel comfortable in her new home.

We gently nudged her to eat more, giving her extra servings at meals and plenty of peanut butter-filled Kong treats as snacks. We worked with a dog trainer, who taught us strategies to help Maizie get past her separation anxiety. Each time we left her home alone we put on calming classical music, and sprinkled her bed with treats to encourage her to relax and nap while we were away. We started small; leaving her home for just a few minutes at a time, and gradually built up to a couple of hours.

Maizie, helping me foam roll post-long run

Over the course of a few months, we earned Maizie’s trust.

She stopped barking, and was noticeably calmer. The bigger meals and more frequent snacks paid off. Her belly filled out a bit, and her coat came in thicker, shinier and softer. Our neighbors, family and friends noticed, and frequently commented on how great she looked, and how happy she seemed.

Maizie at Central Park, spectating at one of my races

I was still waiting for my own recovery.

After six months off the pill, still with no period, my gynecologist told me to come back in for blood work. She matter-of-factly informed me that my reproductive system had “shut down” and promptly recommended that I gain 10 pounds and stop running.

I was stunned. I, of all people, didn’t need to gain weight or run less. (I thought.) Other runners I knew were much thinner. Other runners logged MANY more miles per week than I did. PLUS, I’m a registered dietitian — I knew what I was doing!

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In disbelief, I decided to disregard my gynecologist’s advice.

I continued to focus on half-marathon training. I joined a new running club, and pushed myself to keep up at their weekly workouts. The hard work was worth it — I was getting faster. My body responded with more aches and pains, but I silenced it. I focused instead on my newfound speed, chasing and capturing new PRs in race after race.

Me, near the finish line of the Brooklyn Half Marathon, 2017

Eventually, my physical therapist recommended I go back in for a visit with my sports medicine doctor, who I had been seeing previously for my injuries. My physical therapist had let my doctor know she was concerned that I had actually lost weight recently, as I upped my mileage and intensity of workouts.

Let’s be honest.

My sports medicine doctor and I had an honest discussion about my recent weight loss, prior blood work, stress level, nutrition, and chronic injuries. She confirmed I had hypothalamic amenorrhea, and I finally accepted it was true. This doctor “got” me; she understood my love of running, and took a more moderate approach, partnering with me on the treatment plan. She recommended I gain some weight, limit the number of days I run weekly, and cap the overall mileage. She suggested I replace longer races with shorter distances. She said finding strategies to manage my stress was important.

After completing my last half-marathon in May, I began to chip away at the changes I was supposed to be making: eating more, stressing less, and running fewer miles. My husband, family and friends were (and continue to be) incredibly supportive of me along the way, cheering me on just as much as they used to during my marathons. My husband reminds me every day how much better I look to him now than I did at my thinnest.

Eating more has been fun at times (hello donuts and ice cream) but uncomfortable at others.

I’ve gained some weight, and my body has changed. I’m still getting used to that. I started going to acupuncture, which has really helped manage my stress, and sleep better. I left my day job, and began focusing on work that energizes and fulfills me, and allows more flexibility.

Me, enjoying a summer afternoon ice cream cone at Bedford Farms

I now work from home, with Maizie by my side.

Maizie reminds me when it’s time to take a break and go for a walk. Previously, I would fret about losing precious workday minutes, but now I thank her. I breathe, soak up the sunshine and take in the views along the East River. When I feel stressed, I stop what I’m doing and give Maizie a belly rub or cuddle with her, and she never fails to calm my nerves.

Within 4–6 weeks, I noticed my sleep improved, my hair looked better, my nails were stronger, and my skin was clearer. After two months, my period came back. I’ll never forget how exciting it was! I told my mom right away, and she insisted we celebrate. I’ve got a second cycle since then.

I realize if I want my cycle to stick around, I need to continue taking care of myself, the same way we took the time to care for and nurture Maizie.

I need to continue to eat more, stress less and run fewer miles. Running less has by far been the hardest part of this process. My mind and heart have been wrestling over running another 26.2 versus not each and every day.

I encourage my clients each and every day to use patience, kindness and self-compassion towards themselves, but realized I wasn’t practicing this myself.

But, a few months ago I knew it was time. I went for a short, easy run, and actually noticed that I was in pain with every step I took. Running wasn’t fun anymore. First I felt angry with my body, but then took a softer tone. I encourage my clients each and every day to use patience, kindness and self-compassion towards themselves, but realized I wasn’t practicing this myself. I think because of the positive changes I’ve made so far, I finally was able to gain some perspective. I cut the run short and came home.

That morning I decided it was time to take a break from running, at least for the time being. Though I’ve made a lot of progress, I truly feel rest is what I need now to fully recover.

Boston Marathon registration opened last month.

I did submit an entry, but only because I know now I’ll be able to make the right decision about whether to run or not run. I know it will be okay either way. Whether I’m working towards recovery now to prepare for pregnancy, or to be fully healed, rested, and ready for Boston, it doesn’t matter. Both goals need me to put in the same work.

For now, I’m taking Maizie’s lead, and living in the moment.

Maizie and I walking on the beach on Cape Cod

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