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Distance running helps Idaho woman heal

by KATHERINE JONES (The Boise) Idaho Statesman on May 14, 2013 11:00 AM

BOISE, Idaho — There is a moment in her life in which she can define “before” and “after.”

It’s the time between learning she had a tumor in her brain and life after the surgery. It’s marked by the difference between being a top women’s finisher in races — and by having to teach her brain how to run again.

But one of the amazing things about Katie O’Shea is that the difference isn’t full of angst and grief and loss. It simply is what it is.

She says: “Life happens. The brain surgery? Part of life.”

Katie, 49, noticed the first symptoms while training for Robie Creek in 2000. She was having trouble breathing, but she thought it was just seasonal allergies.

Allergy medications didn’t help, and later that summer, she noticed she couldn’t hear certain sounds. A test confirmed she was losing her hearing, which meant an MRI, which indicated a diagnosis.

Katie produces a black-and-white printout of the inside of her skull and points out the tumor. It’s noncancerous, but it’s the size of a quarter, right at the base of the cerebellum.

“I guess I’m one of those people, I take things in stride. I’ll deal with the stuff when it comes along; that’s my approach to most things. When something good — or something bad — happens, I just deal with it.”

Because of the tumor’s proximity to the cerebellum, even a successful surgery had its collateral damage. Katie’s right vocal cord is paralyzed, and the right side of her tongue partially, so she speaks softly. She is deaf in her right ear, which affects her balance, and has limited peripheral vision, which affects her depth perception.

“I (decided) I won’t let these obstacles — I’ll call them obstacles — stand in the way of my pursuit of running, because I love it.”

After the surgery, when nurses had to support her simply to walk around the halls of the hospital, running seemed like a tall order. But at home, under the care of her parents, who came for a couple of months, sitting on the couch was not an option.

So Katie walked. Slowly perhaps, but she walked. Around the “little block” by her house in Kuna and then the “big block”; with a walker, and then a cane. For two years, she walked. Even through subsequent radiation (with 50/50 odds, the tumor had continued to grow), Katie walked.

“Then (one day, I said), OK, I’m going to go from this telephone pole to that telephone pole, and see how far I can jog between them.

“Basically, running is my life. If I didn’t have that, I guess I’d have to find something else as a close substitute. But there really is no substitute for running.”

As Katie progressed, she had to relearn how to run. Instead of the unconscious rhythm of walking, she had to remind her brain to tell her feet to lift higher. It took months of practice for the motion to become unconscious again.

“(Plus), I used to run like I was really drunk. I’d go all over the road. It still happens. The brain says, ‘We’re going to go this way.’ I have to correct it and say, ‘No, we’re not.’ I still run on the (painted) lines so I can keep myself going straight.”

On Sundays, she went down to the Greenbelt and ran between the tenth-mile markers. She’d walk for a couple of tenths to recover until, slowly and gradually, she didn’t have to walk in between.

“I took it one day at a time. I didn’t just start out running a 10K. I worked up to it. Of course, there’s always days when you have setbacks. Basically, I say, you’ve got to take them in stride.”

Walking the Barber to Boise was her comeback 10K, two years after surgery. The 2002 Christmas Run that same year was the first race she and her first dog, Taiga, ran since the surgery.

They came in dead last.

“That really hit me. I will never run like I used to. I am not a philosophical person at all. But what I’ve learned is that you can’t compete with other people. You can’t measure yourself against other people; you’ve got to measure yourself against yourself.

“And I can’t even measure myself with what I did in the past, because that’s the past. And I know I’ll never be a fast runner again.”

But to think that slowed her down is to severely underestimate Katie’s determination. And her humor.

“I joke a lot: ‘Yeah, I used to do this in this amount of time. I used to be really fast, and now I’m just a slowpoke.’

“I don’t even wear a watch anymore. I’m more interested in how far did we go, not how long were we out there. I used to wear a watch, but I was always so concerned: ‘It used to take me 45 minutes, now it took me 50. That’s not good. What’s wrong with you today?’ I don’t do that anymore.”

She also decided to run trails again in the Boise Foothills. Besides her balance being tenuous, Katie’s compromised depth perception makes it hard to gauge the steepness of a trail, and her peripheral vision makes narrow trails with drop-offs daunting.

That’s where others come in, starting with her second dog. Calling Kahlua her “trail eye dog,” Katie focuses on Kahlua and follows her along narrow, rocky trails. Katie also joined the Y Striders, a running club, and with their camaraderie, Katie has done what she never thought possible.

“I used to be a 6ᄑ- or 7-minute miler. When I first started with the Striders, I was 12 or 11 minutes. Now I’m down to about nine. I guess being with the Striders has pushed me to do more than I thought I’d be doing.

“I never thought I’d be running the distances that I am or running the trails. I thought I’d be stuck on the road for the rest of my life. Which is not a bad thing, but I love running the trails.”

Katie, who works in Nampa for a company that moves freight for businesses, runs and walks 35-40 miles per week.

Or, more accurately, Katie and Kahlua. When Kahlua is allowed, she accompanies Katie to steady her, and together they’ve racked up a long list of races.

Katie not only finished a marathon, she placed first in her age group.

She ran an ultra-marathon (50K) on Boise Foothills trails — her biggest challenge — and in spite of her words about not being competitive, she surprised and thrilled herself with a 1:52 half-marathon last October. (“Kahlua helped get me that time,” Katie says.)

“I want other runners to know they can achieve their goals, no matter how bad it seems. You’re always going to have your bad days, but the good days outweigh the bad. That’s about as philosophical as I’ll get.”

Katie also has little nodes on her vocal cord that restrict her breathing. In addition to all the other things she has to focus on while running, Katie is still re-learning how to breathe with ease. Most of the time, she wheezes like she has asthma, and people get concerned.

“I say, yeah, I’m fine. I kind of explain (that it’s) because I have a paralyzed vocal cord and a few other issues going on. Then they say, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be complaining.’ I say, ‘That’s all right, you can complain. I’ve been there, too, before all this stuff and I know what it’s like.’

“A couple of (people) I run with, they tell me, ‘It’s amazing you’re out here running the trails, that you’re doing the races.’

“I’m not the one who says I’m an amazing runner. I just go out and run.”

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