An Inspiring Account from Dr. Alan Christianson

I just finished a casual run this morning and wanted to share a story with you.

I’m running in the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon this coming Saturday. There is no reason you would have any idea how much this race means to me. I wanted to share a brief version of the backstory in case it might inspire someone.

As a toddler, I ran all around our yard in Northern Minnesota. In my mind, I moved with effortless grace. I loved breathing hard and the feeling of the air moving across my arms.

One day mom brought over a playmate my age and we ran around the yard together. I was devastated to learn that, compared to him, I was slow and clumsy. Mom tried consoling me by telling me that I was a reader and he was a runner. She meant well but it was no consolation.

This was the first undeniable proof that something was wrong with how my body worked. I was clumsy, my legs did not move right, and they hurt.

I had seizures as an infant and toddler yet the coordination issues preceded them. I had all the classic signs of cerebral palsy. I was adopted and later learned that my birth-mother had a stressful pregnancy. In retrospect, I’m glad I was not labeled and treated differently. It always seemed that I just needed to try harder.

Later on in school, PE class was my biggest stressor. Usually, it meant humiliation. I was last by a long shot when we ran as a group and always last picked when choosing teams.

By 7th grade, I wanted to be fit so badly that I decided to force the issue and join the football team.

Talk about things not going as planned! I lost consciousness in the first practice session. You might think that I took a hard hit to the head or worked myself mercilessly into exhaustion.

Nope. I blacked out while running across the field to where the practice was held – on the first day of practice. That was how my first attempt ended.

Thus came the health books. I needed plans other than mine. These books changed my life. Because of them, I changed my diet and I started exercising gradually.

The first sessions were laps around our kitchen. I’d guess that each lap was about 15-20 strides. I would run 10 laps for a workout. It was challenging, but I did it every day and I built on it. Soon I could do 15, then eventually 50. Next, I was brave enough to run down the alley and then, in the open area near our home. I lost a bunch of weight and became able to run for several miles.

My fitness lapsed due to the stress of moving across the country multiple times. Near the end of my senior year, I got tired of being out of shape and started to run again. In college, I did some amateur races.

My first was a marathon. I did well but could not walk for days afterward. The same happened on all of my runs over 10 miles or so and I thought it was normal.

My second race was a local 10k – I came in second. Then I won a 5k. A friend in college was working on his kinesiology degree and he asked if I would volunteer to have my VO2 max tested. He was surprised at the results – apparently, my innate level of cardiovascular fitness was exceptional.

I have a vivid memory from this chapter in which I was running in the woods with my dog. It was effortless and I was in a state of bliss. I’d regained the joy I felt when I was a toddler.

In the coming years, recurrent injuries kept setting me back. No matter how much I stretched or did rehab, I could never train consistently. I did several more races. Without much training, I won a trail marathon. Years later I decided to train for an ultra marathon. Despite growing pain and injuries, I knuckled through training and completed a 50-mile trail run. It was rocky with constant elevation changes.

I could not walk without crutches for weeks afterward and was unable to run much at all for the next 15 years.

During those 15 years, I vacillated between trying new treatments so that I could run and trying other activities to ease the loss.

Special shoes, injections, podiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, exercises, padded shoes, barefoot, minimalist shoes, electrical procedures, physical therapists – you name it. I could expand this paragraph to 20 pages.

The despair set in. During much of that time, I was sure I would never be able to even run occasionally for recreation, never mind to my potential. Other activities were fun, but they weren’t running. It was never the same.

Surgeons offered procedures to possibly reduce the pain but it would be at the cost of further limiting my mobility. They offered no hope of me running again. It was a dark time.

I kept thinking it through and trying to find some structural change that could help. Finally, I found a procedure that made sense. Its pioneer happened to be in the Phoenix area.

Dr. Stephen Barrett performed 4 surgeries on me over the course of a year. He was the first of my health heroes on my journey back.

After the surgeries, I did not bounce back as I hoped. The pain was different but I was still in pain. Dr. Susan Wilder helped me find some genetic circulatory issues that may have limited my recovery. I addressed them and Joe Tatta connected me with an incredible physical therapist, David Bayliff.

Over several years, David spent countless hours working on my feet and legs and guiding me on exercises do to on my own. Slowly I made progress but I was not able to run. I walked, I hiked, I did my rehab and I kept building on it.

By early 2018 I found myself able to run on occasion. It was pretty cool but I was afraid to push my luck. By mid-2018 I could do a few miles several times per week without too much pain. It was clear that things were changing.

I did structured training from August through October. I took it slow because my biggest fear was that I would get too enthusiastic and set myself back. I started getting faster and I thought it would be great to be able to run a marathon again.

I did a 15k and a 1/2 Marathon and saw that I was faster than I thought. I thought how cool would it be to run my fastest marathon ever at age 50? Then when that started looking easy, I thought I might be able to run a marathon fast enough to qualify to run in the Boston marathon.

By November, I knew that I could tolerate distances so I started working with Angie Anderson, a running coach. She tested my fitness levels and told me that I was stronger than I thought. I’ve been training with her since then with the clear goal of qualifying for Boston.

This Saturday will be the qualifying attempt. It is the culmination of a lifelong journey.

In writing this note, I’ve realized that to me, running is proof that I’m not damaged beyond repair. It is my ‘in your face’ reply to all the hurtful comments. It is my feeling of freedom.

Some people do not readily show feelings, but you can’t assume they are not there. Even those closest to me may never have known the depths of despair or the highs of joy that I’ve felt from running.

I’m so thankful to be able to run again.

Throughout it all, my biggest health hero would be my lovely wife, Kirin. She has always been so patient and supportive. She encouraged me when I was at my worst from pain or recovering from surgery and she is patient with me now when I wake up at 3:30am to train, or when I want to go to bed at 7pm because I am wiped out from a hard workout.

The last six months of training have been hard but I realized, it will always be hard. The only thing that hurts more than training hard is not being able to train hard.

Even if we are not trying, we are still dealt with struggles. The more you can choose your challenges, the more fulfilling life becomes.

During the years after my ultramarathon, there were so many times in which I saw no way out. No path back to movement and joy. I was sure it was not possible but it sucked so bad, I kept digging at it.

The core message is that you can be in the depths of pain or trauma, you can be sure to your core that things will never get better. And they can.

Never lose sight of that fact and never give up. And wish me luck on Saturday!

To your health,

Dr. C

Here is a picture from about that time.
I kept this up for the next few years. I leaned out more and grew some muscle. In 9th grade, I attempted football again. I had no technical skills but I was fit and did well. When we did long runs for practice, I was the second fastest kid among all of the high school teams. (And I did it while rocking my first and only perm)