For many of us, running is a way of life. But for Rebecca Benish, she is literally running for her life.
Read on to learn how this MKE runner is battling MS, one mile at a time.
Years running: 2 years (still a newbie!)
Favorite workout: I have a different view of training, I don’t necessarily believe that more mileage = better running performance. I Crossfit and I love it when there is running built into the WOD (workout of the day). Ladder runs, sprints, sled pulls – those types of running workouts are my favorite.
Favorite distance to race: 5k and 10k
Pre-race routine: The night before a race, I layout all of my gear, pack my race bag, make sure my playlist is updated and Garmin watch is charged. I paint my nails, too. The morning of a race I get up about 3 hours before I need to leave the house, have a banana (sometimes I will have an English muffin in addition to the banana) and a Starbucks caramel frap. Then I hit the shower, get dressed, grab my bag and am out the door. I take the time during my morning routine going over my plan for the race and the normalcy of my shower routine helps to settle my nerves.
Favorite post-race treat: Surprisingly, it isn’t food or beer; I prefer to treat myself to a pedicure and/or a massage.
Must-have gear: My Garmin watch, my iPod shuffle and my Inov-8 Road x lite 155s. I have tried other shoes and I just keep coming back to these.
How did you get started with running?
I was diagnosed with MS, and I knew I had to do something to stop it, if I could. So I downloaded the Couch to 5k app in the spring of 2012 and haven’t looked back. I have learned from my MS diagnosis that I need to keep moving to stop the disease in its tracks.
What’s kept you running?
I run for everyone that can’t. When I don’t want to run because I am feeling lazy, I think about those that can’t run or even walk for that matter. I run because it is better than the alternative. I literally know what it means to have to run for your life.
Do you have a quote or philosophy that inspires your running?
I have been really lucky to know a couple of real-life heroes that inspire me. A few years ago, I started working for the City of Oak Creek and after my first year with the City, we were faced with an awful tragedy. My friend and coworker was shot several times, a peaceful temple was turned into chaos and many lives were lost. My friend/coworker did many, many interviews after this tragedy and one of his quotes sticks with me, “But what you learn more than anything is you’re much more capable than you think you are, and you’re much more able to do what you think you can’t.” He has become one of my biggest cheerleaders on my running journey. If a man that took more bullets than 50 Cent tells you that you are tough and brave, boy you better prove him right!
What does a typical training week look like for you?
Typically, I Crossfit 2 days a week and run 3 days (one long run day and two days tempo/fartlek type runs), my weekly mileage is shockingly low at 15-20 miles a week.
Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to volunteer as a mentor for Performance Running Outfitters 5k Training Program?
I learned about their programs back in the spring of 2013 when I participated in the Rock n Sole 10k program. Since I was so new to the running community, and I had only one runner friend, I wanted to connect with other runners and make new friends. I mentor to help new runners realize that they can do what they once thought they couldn’t. Seeing them at the finish line of the goal race is one of the best feelings in the world, knowing that I was a part of their journey from non-runner or former runner to full-fledged 5ker!
What is involved with being a mentor for this type of program?
PRO puts together the weekly schedule of workouts for the participants and once a week we do their long runs with them. Each week before the long run, there is a topic (injury prevention, apparel, etc.) or a guest speaker. It is our job as mentors to expand on the topics covered each week and to pace the runners on the run. I am usually super chatty out on the runs to distract them from what they are doing and by the time they know it we are done. Keeping them talking helps me to gauge if we are running too hard or if someone is struggling and needs to slow down.
What have you learned/gained by being a mentor?
Confidence. Being a mentor makes me feel not so new at running and it keeps me running. It inspires me to keep learning about running so that I have current and valid input for the weekly topics. I have gained lots of new runner friends.
You were diagnosed with MS in 2010 – Can you tell us a bit about the condition?
I may have been diagnosed in 2010 but I had my first clinically isolated event in 1996, which was a pretty traumatic ordeal. If anyone would like to dive deeper into my history with MS, they can check out my blog at http://runningms.com. The National MS Society (taken from the NMSS website) defines MS as an immune-mediated process, in which an abnormal response of the body’s immune system is directed against the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. The exact antigen — or target that the immune cells are sensitized to attack — remains unknown, which is why MS is considered by many experts to be “immune-mediated” rather than “autoimmune.”
Within the CNS, the immune system attacks myelin — the fatty substance that surrounds and insulates the nerve fibers — as well as the nerve fibers themselves. The damaged myelin forms scar tissue (sclerosis), which gives the disease its name. When any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fiber is damaged or destroyed, nerve impulses traveling to and from the brain and spinal cord are distorted or interrupted, producing a wide variety of symptoms. The disease is thought to be triggered in a genetically susceptible individual by a combination of one or more environmental factors.
An easy way to think of MS is to imagine that you have a lamp and the cord is all broken, frayed and damaged in places. What happens if you plug it in? Maybe the light bulb blows? Maybe sparks fly and start a fire? Maybe nothing happens? Maybe the lamp works fine for a while but then all of the above start? That’s MS in a nutshell. Except our maybes are vision problems, numbness, tingling, the MS Hug (it isn’t as nice as it sounds), a decline in cognitive function, extreme fatigue (like brushing your hair is impossible because you don’t have the energy or strength to stand up and hold the brush at the same time). The fatigue ugggg, I guess if you imagined having 25 pound kettlebells attached to each extremity and then not sleeping for a week and then try to get ready for work. I guess that would start to describe it.
There are 4 types of MS and I, luckily, have the milder form of relapsing-remitting (for now), meaning I have periods of no symptoms and have periods of symptoms. During remission, you may bounce back to your former self or you may hold on to a symptom and that becomes your new normal. The other three forms are secondary progressive (the disease worsens over time with periods of remission), primary progressive (only diagnosed in 10% of MSers and you slowly get worse with no remission periods over time) and progressive relapsing (even more rare occurring in 5% of MSers, you just steadily get worse from the beginning of the disease with no remissions at all). At any time, the disease can take a turn and your MS turns into a more aggressive form. Most of us diagnosed with relapsing remitting will eventually progress to secondary progressive.
What types of thoughts and emotions did you have to work through after getting your diagnosis?
Well, I didn’t have much time to process my diagnosis. My father-in-law was diagnosed with lung/brain cancer within weeks of my diagnosis. I knew his battle was going to be far worse than mine. I decided I would not feel sorry for myself one tiny bit and that I would fight my disease like hell. He was such a positive, happy person that his positive outlook always sticks with me to this day and I like to think he is cheering me on from above at my races. I learned from this diagnosis that it could always be worse and having a positive attitude makes the disease easier to fight and tolerate.
How has running helped you with MS?
It is thought that exercise quiets an overactive immune system. I think exercise, coupled with a (mostly) Paleo diet and my Copaxone is doing the trick for me. However, no one person’s MS will be the same as the next. Every single one of us has a different set of symptoms and different disease progression. In the beginning, I am not going to sugar coat, starting to exercise was beyond hard and my body hurt all the time. I was exhausted but I stuck with it and now most days I feel energized and great. I cannot stress this enough, you have to deal with the suck to get to the feel good. There will be days you don’t want to run or workout but those are the days it is most important because when you stop moving that is when the disease takes over.
Does MS ever affect your running?
Running makes your core body temperature increase, which is a big trigger for MS symptoms (as long as those symptoms resolve in 24 hours it isn’t considered a flare up). So summer running is slightly hectic for me but luckily the only symptoms I have had during a hot run are my vision getting all wonky (think about a head rush when your vision goes slightly black) and my legs feeling like lead, but as soon as I cool down I am back to normal. Also, running is a stress on the body and there is some mention of excessive stress causing symptoms or flare ups, so anyone with MS would want to increase their mileage slowly over time to see how their MS does with the increased stress and they would want to start running in the cooler months.
In addition to the MS, I have something called Reynaud’s Syndrome, which is an excessively reduced blood flow in response to cold and/or emotional stress. The Reynaud’s started almost exactly when I had my second major MS flare up in 2010. My toes/feet and left hand get ice cold, and turn white when I get too cold or am under significant emotional stress. It can be painful and take forever to feel back to normal.
How do you overcome the challenges?
Usually, going out really early or really late for a run during the summer is enough to get around the heat but sometimes the humidity is just too much and I am forced to use the treadmill. It also helps to wear as little as possible. At one point I was self-conscious about wearing shorts and tanks but then I thought, who cares? My body is doing incredible things and even though it is attacking itself on the inside I am still out there running and finishing and PRing.
You recently joined MS Run the US as an ambassador – Can you tell us a bit about the organization? What are your responsibilities in this role?
MS Run the US is an amazing organization started by Ashley Kumlein is 2013 in support of her mom, Jill, a long time MS fighter. It is a relay run across the country, where the runners run 140 miles per week as their leg of the race. MS Run the US’s goal is to raise money to help those living with MS and also to raise money for research to help find a cure. As an Ambassador, I have committed to raising $1000 by this time next year and to help spread awareness of the disease. I joined to become an Ambassador when I did because I saw team MS Run the US help Jill walk across the finish line at the Brewer’s Mini back in September. It really hit home for me and I was close to tears. I even got to say a few words to her before I left.
Everyone knows what the pink ribbon means and the month of October but how many know the significance of the orange ribbon and the month of March? I want the same level of awareness for MS. Odds are readers know someone fighting breast cancer (I know I do, my stepmom fought it and won) and the odds are just as good that readers know someone fighting MS – but there seems to be far less awareness about the disease.
Where are your favorite places to run in Milwaukee?
I love running in Shorewood on our weekly runs with PRO. I love running the big hill at Bender Park in Oak Creek. I live way out in Caledonia and running the roads helped me to learn our little part of town, plus I know lots of people that live near us so I always feel safe. My routes usually take me past people we know in case I ever need help.
What are your favorite Milwaukee races and what do you like about them?
I love the Brewer’s Mini and 10k because it is a challenging, hilly course. I love/hate Rock N Sole because of that darn bridge. The Irish Jig Jog 5k is great because it raises funds for MS Run the US.
What are your running goals for the upcoming year?
I would really like to break 25 minutes in the 5k and 1 hour for the quarter marathon/10k. I will probably run the South Shore Half and Lakefront next year (Anne Chapman the Shorewood PRO store manager, put that little bug in my head, so thanks Anne!).
Thanks for chatting with us, Rebecca! To connect with Rebecca, check out her blog at http://runningms.com/.
If you’re a runner in MKE, we’d love to chat with you. Send us an email at email@example.com if you’d like to be featured or know someone who should be featured in an upcoming Let’s Get to Know . . . post.
Keep Running MKE – you’re doing great!