Can Illness and Injury Be Blessings for a Runner?

by Will Wan, L.Ac., MSOM, Dipl.O.M. (NCCAOM)

From Barr Trail looking at Pike’s Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Today, I went for my first trail run after a two-week involuntary hiatus. The first week off was due to a foot injury that left me only able to bear weight on my heel. The second week off was due to an upper respiratory issue that had me hacking up some gnarly phlegm. Taking the time off from running was not only a necessity but just being responsible. During my five-mile run, I felt so grateful that my foot did not hurt, and that I could breathe with some degree of ease.

I was immediately reminded of the time I had a serious illness in 2019. On a trip to Hawaii, I contracted Legionnaire’s disease and both my lungs filled up with fluid. My body temperature ranged between 104-106 degrees. My breathing became so labored that I was barely able to squeak out a few words. When I tried to walk upstairs, it became evident that this was a mistake. It felt like I wore a plastic bag over my head. In addition to the physical exhaustion, I felt emotionally and mentally defeated and humbled, especially after completing a 100k race just six months before. 

It took the loving care of my wife and dedication of several healer friends to bring me back from my post-Legionnaire’s funk. I referred to it that way because it truly was a funk. My lungs had limited breathing capacity for months. I was exhausted after shuffling 10 steps, and I would have to stop and catch my breath.  Any prolonged movement made my heart race.  My head felt like I had a constant concussion, combined with the world’s worst hangover. When I drove my car, it felt like I was driving at warp speed with visual distortions in the periphery. For the first time in my life, I felt very frail and vulnerable, especially when it came to my own mortality. 

During this long eight-month period of recovery, I learned something super important about ultrarunning and the “perfect storm” it created for me to then contract Legionnaire’s disease.  With endurance training and the final race mileage, my body was in a constant state of catabolism. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, one of the main systems affected by training for an ultra and the race itself is the Lung Channel (手太陰肺經). The Lung Channel is the master of vital energy (Qi) that functions to metabolize and equally distribute water to the far reaches of the body. It is the refiner, dispenser, and exchanger of energy derived from the food we eat and the air we breathe. The Lung Channel governs the skin layer and the body’s defensive armor (Wei Qi) to keep the pores open and the surface moist. Training for an ultra and the race itself created depletion of the body’s defensive armor, or immune system, due to the constant stressors of concentrated high miles and the outward movement of vital energy (Qi). This collapse allowed for a pathogenic force (the Legionella bacteria) to invade my body, and it wreaked havoc on my lungs, heart, and neurological system.

I contemplated the million-dollar question for any ultra-runner… what would it take to make this type of running lifestyle sustainable? Could constantly tonifying the body’s defensive armor and supporting the Lung Channel to maintain healthy distribution and levels of moisture be effective? When the Lung Channel is in balance, can an athlete function at a higher level?

Based on protocols that helped me fully recover from Legionnaire’s disease, there are multiple ways to support the Lung Channel that can be done daily.  According to the classical texts of Chinese medicine, tonifying the vital energy (Qi), and therefore the Lung Channel, generates blood. Blood is then moved and preserved in the vessels. For example, I have used a Chinese herbal formula called “Generate the Pulse Powder” (Sheng Mai San) to prevent high altitude sickness and to treat extreme exhaustion due to excessive activity. This formula strengthened the collapsed vital energy of the Lung Channel, calmed the nervous system, and moistened the dryness in the lungs. In states of deficiency, use of proper herbs and other forms of medicinals that tonify the vital energy can help build blood and bring the body back to balance.

After fully recovering from my illness, I was physically able to go for my first trail run at Mt. Tabor in Portland, Oregon. It felt so glorious to run. I could feel the wind on my face. My mind had more clarity, more peace than ever before. At that moment, I was aware that my lungs were clear and my legs strong. I was back.

As I ran up a hill, I stopped to help an elderly man who was struggling to push his grandchild in a baby stroller up the hill. In a strange way, seeing his labored breathing and exhausted body expressions reminded me of my previous challenges. This brief connection revealed to me how illness and injury can be blessings. When I was immobilized by Legionnaire’s disease, being healthy seemed so far away. When I was on the other side, the memory of being ill or challenged was equally as vague. Memory, it seemed, has a funny way of being short-lived. Looking back at it all, what is front and center now is my gratitude for the wisdom I gained and the capacity of my body to heal when given the appropriate medicine. 

One thought on “Can Illness and Injury Be Blessings for a Runner?

  1. Well, it is a beautifully composed essay on how to overcome physical illness and injury. Best wishes for your continuing effort in introducing Chinese medicine for rehabilitation and prevention. You offer excellent testimony on how to achieve optimal health.

    Liked by 1 person

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