On a summer night in 2017, Maureen McFarland was out on a run when the beginning of a poem came to her:
Chuff, chuff, Chuff, chuff,
Soft whisper of my Rykas kissing asphalt
Thump, thump, Thump, thump,
Heart drumming a cadence in my ears
In … out … In … out,
Lungs drawing breath, whooshing quickly,
I develop my own pace, I run my own style.
This is the time I love.
“I came home and couldn’t wait to get my hands on some paper,” says the 44-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one. “Writing has always been the way I process through things, describe my challenges and celebrate my world.”
But had she written a poem about running as a child, it might have looked something like this:
I hate running.
Born with a rotated right femur — “some call it pigeon-toed,” she says — McFarland tripped easily and experienced painful burning in her hip any time she tried to run.
“I’ve always hated running, but I’ve always admired people who did it,” she says.
McFarland had one good leg to stand on until she broke her left tibia and fibula in a car accident 17 years ago. She had a titanium rod inserted between her knee and ankle, “which makes it not as flexible as it could be,” she says.
Determined to find an activity that worked for her body, she bought a stationary bike and logged more than 500 miles over the course of a year. But when she and her husband, Jeff, sold their home in 2016 and moved into a fifth wheel for flexibility and travel, the bike was too big for “full-time tiny house living.” After that, the great outdoors of Southern California became her gym: McFarland takes sunset hikes with her family and rescue dog, Gia, almost every night.
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Her activity level shifted dramatically in late 2016 after back-to-back surgeries: breast surgery in October to remove precancerous cells and a hysterectomy in December to remove one ovary.
It led to four months of downtime — and more pounds than she wanted to carry around.
“My weight’s always been a struggle, and has been up and down the last several years,” says McFarland. “After the surgeries, I was wearing bigger sizes than I’ve ever worn before and they were getting tight. I felt overwhelmed and out of control.”
She had another reason for concern: Heart issues run in her family. One grandmother had passed away at age 39, and two aunts died at ages 44 and 49.
“When I turned 39, I thought a lot about how my grandmother’s life ended at that point. She had no clue — just had a heart attack, and that was it,” she says. “I feel like I can prevent some of that through diet, exercise and active living.”
After she recovered from her surgeries, McFarland decided it was time to try something “completely out of the box.” Inspired and encouraged by Jeff’s daily hour-long walks, McFarland started running on May 3, 2017.
“I started a couch-to-5K program with my 10-year-old son, Tristan,” she says. “When I started, I couldn’t run more than 30 seconds at a time and could only do a few intervals of that before I was gasping for breath and needing to rest my legs. A few weeks into it, Tristan said, ‘Hey Mommy, you’re getting faster!’ That affirmation brought tears to my eyes.”
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“Fitness to me is all about learning what works for our own bodies and not being afraid to do things differently than other people.”
McFarland improved her form by reading, watching videos and asking the MyFitnessPal “fit fam” for help. A MFP user since 2009, she enjoys the way it “makes the science of weight loss easier.
“Having MFP friends who cheer me on, sympathize when things are rough or give me a swift mental kick in the pants — either through their inspiring journeys or a thoughtful note — is a wonderful thing,” she says.
Had she not been sidelined in September by a third surgery — this time to remove the other ovary — McFarland would’ve hit her 5K goal.
“I felt very dejected and like it was pointless to keep fighting to get to a better place,” she says. “I gave myself a few days to wallow, whine and complain in my head and get over my frustration with my body not allowing me to run any time I wanted to. Then I decided to pick myself up again and move forward. Even on my worst days, I can usually manage some sort of walk.”
Fortunately, the surgery setback had an upside: a new perspective.
“Before the surgery, I would’ve had a more perfectionist view of things: If I can’t do it, I’m done,” she says. “But I stuck with it this time and learned that it’s not about doing it in the timeframe my brain sets for my body — it’s taking in the whole picture and making it work the best I can.”
That includes her big take-away from the couch-to-5K training: Interval training works well with her ability. “Before my third surgery, I could run for 3 minutes, walk for 30 seconds, run for 3 more, etc. That’s a big accomplishment for me physically and emotionally.”
Now that the cycle of surgery and recovery is behind her, McFarland’s all about what’s next. She just hit 200 miles outside “on my own two feet” and has a goal of logging 500 total miles before May, 2018. Still, she says her story is less about numbers and distance and more about learning something about herself she never knew:
Maureen McFarland is a runner.
“I’ve never seen myself as a runner, and it may take me 15 minutes to do what many runners can do in 5 minutes, but I am very proud of my progress and abilities,” she says. “Fitness to me is all about learning what works for our own bodies and not being afraid to do things differently than other people.”
Written by Danny Bonvissuto, a lover of words, writing for a living, independent bookstores, chips, salsa and queso, sunshine, jeans, tank tops and running – but only if ’80s rock is involved. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Food Network Magazine, HGTV, WebMD and Plate magazine.