Marta Brodsky isn’t a runner.
She’ll tell you herself.
“I don’t have the build for it. I have hips and boobs and it’s so hard to do,” she said.
There’s also the issue of a debilitating and extremely rare neuro-muscular auto immune disorder that leaves her barely able to get out of bed each morning.
So she’s not a runner. But after nearly a year of training, 51-year-old Brodsky showed up on a damp, windy Saturday morning to face down the Womble Rumble, a 5K race along the winding paths at Lodi Lake.
“Last night I was nervous, and depressed. My disease can be so unpredictable,” she said. “But I’m here. I’m ready. I’m good to go.”
The race was a chance for Brodsky to honor her heroes, tackle her demons, and prove her body is still hers to command.
And she took it.
One foot in front of the other
Her training regimen is steady and systematic.
Her iPod is stocked with songs like “Don’t Stop Believing” by Queen, “Sleepwalk” by Ultravox, and “Wild Night” by Van Morrison. They all keep a steady rhythm at 150 beats per minute, or a 12 to 13 minute mile pace.
“It’s a little fast for me, but it keeps me moving,” she said. She wears black leggings and blue-green running shoes, her wild curly hair tied up out of her face.
The run starts outside, to the left of her boyfriend’s family home on Locust Tree Road. Brodsky calls over George, a fluffy German Shepherd mix, taps a timer on her phone and gets moving.
Her pace is slow, as though she is measuring her energy with every step. She travels over damp earth packed solid with thick tire tracks. These runs are not about calories burned. They are about Brodsky proving to herself that she is still in charge of her body, and her life.
Local roots Brodsky grew up in the Stonewood neighborhood of North Stockton and attended Tokay High School. An unlikely athlete, the teenage Brodsky joined the cross country and track teams in an attempt to honor her father.
Walt Deike was an All-American distance runner and an Olympic contender who broke numerous records all over the country, including the Dipsea Race in Mill Valley. But that legendary runner drowned in Mendocino Bay about four months before Brodsky was born in 1963. She only knows him through old stories and newspaper clippings.
Learning to run reminded her of him, and took her mind off a tense home life.
During Brodsky’s time on the Tokay cross country team, she received support from an unexpected source: The coach of her rival school.
Brodsky doesn’t remember exactly how she met Coach Don Womble, but she remembers how he made her feel. She attended school with his daughter, Amanda Womble, and recalls Coach Womble pulling her aside at track meets to ask her how she was doing.
“Coach Womble helped me so much. He was always telling me I was doing a good job, and to just do my personal best,” she said. “He was a kind of father figure for me. I don’t think he even knew it.”
Brodsky remembers Womble asking her if running made her happy.
“He said if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it,” she said.
Back at the house, Brodsky rounds the perimeter of a second home on the property, pacing over crunchy soil and a patch of gravel.
She smiles, and yells out cheers, and keeps the dog running along with her.
Her body remembers the running techniques it learned at age 15. Heels hit the ground first, then toes. Breathing is an in-two-three-four, out-two-three-four measured beat in time with her music. Elbows tuck in, but arms are firm, not inflexible. It’s an ingrained pattern her body automatically falls back into.
One thing her body can’t remember how to do force her muscles to accept messages from her nerves. There’s an antibody in Brodsky’s blood that blocks the entrance of her nerve endings, like a bouncer blocking the door of a club. Without those physiological signals getting through, Brodsky’s muscles are like so much dead weight. And that’s all her muscles: Legs, arms, shoulders, eyelids, mouth, lungs.
It’s called Lambert-Eaton Myasthentic Syndrome, or LEMS. And it slowed down her whole life.
A misdiagnosis and a dangerous solution
Brodsky left home after graduating from Tokay High School in 1981. She moved to San Francisco, enrolled in school and became a writer. She moved to Minnesota in 1989, then again to New York in 1996. She earned a law degree at St. John’s University and got a job working as an assistant district attorney in Nassau County.
It was a fast-paced stressful world, but Brodsky reveled in her ability to keep up and thrive. So when unusual symptoms hit her in December of 2005, she assumed it was a simple problem she could tough her way through.
“I noticed I couldn’t cross my legs, like my hip flexors were paralyzed,” she said. She couldn’t walk quickly, or lift her legs without manual assistance. Two weeks later the same feeling appeared in her shoulders. On Jan. 19, 2006, Brodsky saw a neurologist and spent the night in the hospital for testing. The diagnosis? Myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. The remedy? Remove Brodsky’s thymus gland, take four weeks off work to recover, and she’d be good as new.
But she wasn’t. Four weeks after the surgery, an invasive open chest procedure that left Brodsky with a four inch scar on her breastbone, Brodsky’s muscles showed no improvement. She spent most of the next year in bed, unable to gather enough strength to move.
She tried to return to work several times, in April, then November, then February of 2007. She was finally able to handle a desk position for four hours a week, but any attempt to increase those hours left her exhausted. Her doctor assured her the recovery would be complete in two years’ time, so Brodsky hung on. She visited the neurologist again in November of 2007 for a check up on her recovery.
“He told me I was healed. He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have this illness any more,’” Brodsky said. “I knew I needed a second opinion.”
A second neurologist ran Brodsky’s blood through a battery of tests. He found an unusual antibody in her system, and prescribed a drug called 3,4-Diaminopyridine, or DAP. It’s not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, it’s offered free to LEMS patients by the company that makes it: Jacobus, in New Jersey.
When she first took the pill, it felt like a miracle, she said.
“Within 20 minutes, I was able to stand up, and sit down and stand up again,” she said. “It just felt like I could move.”
Brodsky was able to return to work, and return to what she thought was her dream life. The drug is a solution, but it’s tricky.
“I’m not the same. I’ll never be the same as I was before this happened. I’m locked into this schedule of medication,” she said.
She takes about 10 to 15 milligrams at a time. The effects last for about three to four hours. But if she takes too much within 24 hours, the medicine could throw her body into severe seizures or sudden death.
That stark reality is what pushed Brodsky to return to California. She could sense her body needed less stress, more sunshine and better food. Brodsky is convinced that if she takes better care of herself, she won’t need as much of the drug to get through the day.
In 2013, Brodsky took a leave of absence from work, sold her apartment and drove home to reinvent her life.
Training for a healthier life
Trees spread long shadows as Brodsky runs the final stretch of her looped course along the edge of Locust Tree Road. She doesn’t stop, though. Each run lasts about 20 minutes and just over 1.7 miles, according to an app on Brodsky’s phone. She has six laps more to go. The routine is smooth, no stops and starts or fits of speed. Just beat, beat, beat.
When it’s over, Brodsky raises her arms over her head in celebration. While her exertion is evident in her heavy breathing and red face, she doesn’t actually sweat. Instead, her pupils lock into place, and everything around her appears to zoom away.
“I don’t feel dizzy. I don’t feel like I’m going to faint,” she said. She steps inside to splash cold water on her face and wait for the fugue to leave her.
These happen after the longer runs, and doctors don’t have an explanation. It’s not clear how her body will respond after a 5K race, which is over 3 miles.
Brodsky isn’t worried. When she heard about the Womble Rumble last year, she knew there was no way she could do it. Now, it’s a goal to prove how far she has come.
“When I run out there, I keep hearing ‘Just do the best you can.’ And this really is the best I can,” she said. “But I never thought I would be doing this much.”
Reaching the finish line
On Saturday, Brodsky lined up with 300 other locals on the shoreline of Lodi Lake, including about 100 students from Heritage Elementary School. Boyfriend Randy Chaney was supporting her from the sidelines, along with members of his family.
When the starting buzzer went off, Brodsky didn’t join the kids in their jubilant sprint, or try to match pace with the athletic high schoolers representing their track teams.
She settled into her own pace, following the 150 beats per minute of the music blaring in her headphones. The rain didn’t matter. The wind didn’t matter.
Marta Brodsky was running.
Brodsky finished her first 5K in 45 minutes, slowing to a walk for just a few moments during the race due to muscle fatigue.
“I feel good. I feel great. I’m going to go home and lay down,” she said.
Brodsky’s name and run time will go into the official records for the 2014 Womble Rumble 5K. Even if her running shoes return to the closet for the rest of her life, she has proof. She’s a runner.
Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.