Exercising through the pain

When ailing woman is not pushing herself, she's encouraging other athletes to excel


August 05, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | By Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

In 1999, Caryn Jaffe "C.J." Texler was working as a nurse in an upstate New York hospital. One of her patients was Shane Sullivan, a 9-year-old boy with leukemia and a perfectly healthy sense of humor.

Shane's idea of fun (pulled off with a little help from his parents) was to surreptitiously empty his I.V. drip bag and refill it with tap water, plus a live goldfish.

Texler, who has a fish phobia, loved the joke and the joker.

"That was the night I knew I had to do something for him," she says.

Texler decided to raise money for cancer research in Sullivan's honor and signed up to run a marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's "Team in Training" program.

It probably would have made more sense if Texler -- who had never run farther than three miles before -- picked up her flute and tried hustling spare change as a street musician. She was once a prodigy of sorts, on the fast track to a symphony-orchestra career until she contracted Lyme disease during her sophomore year at Ithaca College.

Hers is one of the more onerous strains of that tick-borne bacteria. Texler, now 31 and living in Columbia, still suffers chronic fatigue, muscle aches, fevers, headaches and joint pain. It's like having a flu that won't go away.

The physical constraints of Lyme disease eventually forced her to abandon her dream of being a professional musician. She became a paramedic, then a nurse. Thanks to Shane Sullivan's clowning, she suddenly found herself going on a fitness binge for the first time in her life. No problem.

"I'm so strong-willed I can get myself through anything," says Texler.

She got herself through that Team in Training marathon in 5 hours, 8 minutes and raised nearly $5,000. What's more, she discovered that, for all the misery she endured pushing her body through long pre-race runs, there was an unexpected side effect: being in top shape helped her better cope with Lyme disease.

Exercise became her preferred pain reliever and stress reducer. In the last five years, Texler has done about 10 marathons and a dozen triathlons, including two full-length Ironmans (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run).

"It pretty much kept me healthy," Texler says of her fitness conversion.

Mark Texler says running, swimming and cycling is his wife's quality-of-life preserver. Without them, "she'd probably be dead or in some hospital or mental institution."

Last July, however, C.J. got bit on the leg by two ticks during a 16-mile training run in her neighborhood. Gradually, her Lyme-disease symptoms ramped up to even more debilitating levels.

Vomiting has become a daily occurrence. Sometimes it's difficult for her to speak or think clearly. Her knees and hips are so sore she has started relying on crutches to get around. Texler recently had a "mediport" tube implanted in her chest that allows her to pump antibiotics directly into her heart.

"I've had one good night's sleep since January," she says.

Now on disability leave from her nursing job, Texler has had to curtail almost all physical activity. Her plans to run Washington's Marine Corps Marathon in October are on hold.

To fill the void, she took a triathlon-coaching course last winter and has begun mentoring a handful of local athletes; not Olympic hopefuls, just regular, middle-of-the-pack weekend warriors such as herself.

"Someone will come to me if they need that extra motivational push," says Texler. "My experience is more motivational rather than the science of sport. The other reason people come to me is my heart. I love the new beginners."

Carlos Holgado, a 49-year-old human-resources manager from Elkridge, falls into that category. He decided to do a Team in Training triathlon this spring, but has a fear of water -- a definite liability in the swimming leg of the race.

During his first training session at the Ellicott City YMCA, Holgado quickly wanted out of the pool, but Texler blocked his path.

"She said, 'Where are you going? It's going to work out. You're not getting out of the pool,' " Holgado recalls. "It wasn't condescending or demanding. The way it came across, it gave me reassurance. ... It's my mental block that was really the obstacle in achieving my goal. She was the icebreaker, so to speak."

They worked on his stroke and breathing and relaxation techniques for several months. In May, Holgado successfully completed the Columbia Triathlon. Texler was there to cheer him on. "To see him start the race, I cried," she says.

Texler is now working with Gretchen Tucker, a 34-year-old newbie triathlete from Columbia, to smooth some of the kinks out of her swim stroke and cycling technique.

"I'm someone that needs a lot of encouragement," says Tucker. "She's a very optimistic, positive, you-can-do-it person."

Texler's Lyme-disease specialist says this latest flare-up of symptoms eventually should subside. If that turnaround doesn't come in time for her to run the Marine Corps Marathon, she already has a backup event: the November 2006 Florida Ironman in Panama City Beach, Fla.

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