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FIRST PERSON

I can't have a baby, so I've turned to running to focus on what my body can do

Every step I take I remind myself that I can get through just about anything, Erin MacLeod writes

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"I can't run," I told my athletic Auntie Clare. I mean, I could run for about 15 seconds, but there was no way that I could run a five-kilometre marathon or the even longer distances that she'd accomplished – and rather quickly at that.

But every time I mentioned it, she always insisted that I could. "As long as you start slow, you can do it," Auntie said, "It's supposed to be hard."

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A number of years later, while living in Jamaica on a fellowship, I decided I would try. I had no designs on sprinting (as if inspired by the island of Usain Bolt), but I did have a gorgeous green and leafy park down the road from my home in Kingston. It housed a large open reservoir that is exactly 2.6 km around. This reservoir is smack dab in the middle of mountains and it has become one of my favourite places on Earth.

I started interspersing my walking around the trail with running. Bit by bit I was able to run more and more. Within a year I ran my first 10K. And my goodness, Auntie Clare was right: It was really hard. It wasn't fun; it was an accomplishment. The first five km of any distance is always hellish. But then it gets slightly easier, and then you show yourself that you can do it. And that feels good.

It was nice to think that, as an adult, your body can still surprise you. I just didn't realize what the next surprise would be.

I moved back home to Montreal in the interest of starting a family. After all, this was sensible: Quebec is the land of subsidized childcare and year-long maternity leaves. I had a decent job. It all seemed wonderfully possible. This was something I could do. Until I couldn't.

Fancying myself a practical woman, I decided to check my fertility before trying to get pregnant. I had recently turned 39. After my first test, an ultrasound, I knew there was something wrong when almost immediately after the technician had finished the scan, a doctor called me into another room and told me to sit down. Whereas many women (especially women of my age) have a lessened fertility, my body really didn't look good at all, I was told. He said he didn't think I should have to wait three more weeks to see a fertility specialist; it was obvious that my ovaries had significant problems. There were virtually no follicles – and that, I've learned, is what you need to get pregnant. The doctor was kind enough to tell me right there and then, and he said that there might be some options, but the news was really not good.

When I finally went to see the fertility specialist, she began by asking me questions: Have you always been vigilant with birth control? "No." So, have you ever had a pregnancy scare? "No."

Her diagnosis: either premature ovarian failure or straight infertility. I was stunned. I began to think of some of my great Aunties who didn't have children. We'd never really talked about it in my family, but once I thought about it, it didn't seem that rare. Maybe they couldn't conceive either?

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"That might be the case," said the specialist, but it's hard to really confirm genetic infertility. My best chance, from her perspective, was to use IVF with donor eggs, an incredibly expensive and uncertain procedure.

After finding this out, I took off to Costa Rica. As you do when you find out something deeply upsetting. On the plane, I sat next to a woman in her mid-60s who told me she'd started working on a college degree. Her husband had left her for someone significantly younger – after she'd moved across the country for the guy."Thank God for running," she said as she ended her story.

"What?" I asked, startled. It turned out she'd run over a dozen marathons. Sure, the end of her marriage was difficult. "But I can get through just about anything," she told me, "I can run a marathon."

Roaming charges be damned, I used my cellphone to sign up for the Toronto Marathon the next day. All 42.2 km of it.

At home I trained hard. Every other day I went out for hours at a time, plodding away, never fast, but never stopping. I went up and down the hill we call a mountain in Montreal, I ran from my uptown neighbourhood until I would hit the edge of the island, I looked for routes online that would give me more and more distance, moving up a few km each week until I could do about 35 in one go. People would tell me that I must "love running." But that's not the case. I was running because it was hard. Because it could prove to me that my body could do something right after all. Something ridiculous, perhaps, but something.

I didn't run that marathon fast. The first couple of hours was fine, but I felt off after the halfway point. My knee and foot were in extreme pain about 10 km from the end, but I kept going. "If I can get through this," I repeated over the din of the soca music I always listen to while running, "I can do just about anything."

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After five full hours I finished. I finished the marathon.

I'm still devastated about my dashed plans for getting pregnant, and I still don't know what to do about it, but I also still run. I've decided to demonstrate that my body can do a lot of things. I can dance on the road for hours on end wearing a sparkly bikini and feathers for Carnival in Trinidad. I can plod around that Kingston reservoir in blazing hot weather and I can run in the snow in Montreal. There might be something that my body can't do, but my Auntie was right. I can run. And every step I take I remind myself that I can get through just about anything.

Erin MacLeod lives in Montreal.

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