Post-race blues: Grief in athletic achievement

It was my first Spartan race. No; it was my first race as a vegan. No, wait – it was my first race of any sort in my entire life. I lifted a 75-pound Atlas ball from the ground all by myself, carried a 70-pound bucket around a field without help, and breezed through the Hercules hoist in five seconds as if pulling a 75-pound sandbag up a pulley was peanuts.

Stef dela Cruz Vegan Strong Philippines Spartan Race

I had never felt stronger my entire life.

So, after I got my first-ever finisher medal, I went home and cried all night, grieving a loss I didn't understand and feeling like I just lost everything that mattered to me.

Wait. What?

Post-race blues: Sad for no good reason

It started right after the race. Something felt amiss, like I left a huge chunk of me before I reached the finish line.

As I walked back to where the rest of the team was waiting, I felt grief wash over me in waves. I didn't understand. Why was I sad? Why was I overcome with a feeling of grief? It felt like someone close to me died.

Everyone else around me was happy and enjoying their post-race endorphins. Me, on the other hand? I was pretending to be okay. I couldn't interact like the normal me. Overall, it sucked ass.

It was only after hours of crying my eyes out that I tried to look for answers. I realized what was going on with me: I was suffering from a commonly reported but medically underdocumented phenomenon: post-race blues.

What was fascinating about post-race blues was that it could happen to an athlete even if there was no reason to be upset. Imagine running your best race and setting a personal record, only for you to feel overwhelmed with extreme sadness hours to days after. If anything, the lack of something to be upset about adds to the grief: the confusion makes one feel even more miserable because it sucks to feel sad about nothing.

Pretty huge obstacle

People look up to athletes with physical issues: “Wow, he can climb ropes even without legs,” or, “She walks with a cane but finishes an obstacle course in record time!” Many of us look up to them so much that when it comes to achieving race goals, we tell ourselves, “We have no excuse.” But the very people who put these athletes with physical disabilities on a pedestal might not even feel comfortable when they realize you're an athlete with mental health issues.

The stigma of mental health problems is real. It is also utterly unwarranted, not to mention harmful.

I know that my mind has always been broken – I think I was born this way. I am, after all, the daughter of someone who battled schizophrenia his entire adult life. However, my spirit remains whole. It reassembles itself and grows new parts whenever it gets frayed or worse for wear.

I fight despite my invisible disability. I accept who I am and move forward, recognizing the Spartan in me and overcoming any obstacle that comes my way – even the ones the rest of my vegan-strong team might never experience their entire lives.

As they say in our language, partida. I finished the Spartan race despite my mental crutch. If anything, I underestimated my own strength, what with the obstacles I had to overcome that day continuing well beyond the race... and well beyond the physical realm.

Having said that, as a friend once said, it's okay to not be okay. I am okay with my post-race blues. I see it, I feel it, I recognize it, I accept it, and I can live with it. (Here's how to overcome post-race blues.)

Ah, well. Too bad I don't get a finisher t-shirt and a medal for overcoming this particularly emotional obstacle.
Wondering if I'm joining the race again? Of course, I am! If you knew me well enough, you would know I'm not one to quit. My vegan spirit can deadlift more than my puny body.

And before I forget, I would like to thank my Spartan team, Vegan Strong Philippines, for the love and support. AROO!

SPOILER: A personal post about life lessons gleaned from deadlift training up ahead. Stay tuned!

Falling in love with Miuccia Luxe Cakes vegan doughnuts

“That’s the thing with any relationship. Think of a tree…”

And right there in the middle of Mandala Park, with happy people milling around and the smell of vegan cheese french fries and Christmas in the air, I cried for the first time since my father died.

But I digress. This post, after all, is not about trees, relationships, or tears. It’s about the vegan dessert brand Miuccia Luxe Cakes, of which I’ve been a big fan since almost nine months ago.

Miuccia Luxe Cakes

Okay, maybe it’s a little bit about trees. And relationships. And tears.

Good people, good food?

They say everybody loves sweets, except maybe psychopaths. I tend to agree.

This is, of course, not a professional opinion. It’s just me trying to be irreverent. It’s also me trying to bang out words on my laptop after having downed a glass of wine. (I’m lying. I downed three.) Then again, a 2016 study by Christina Sagiouglou and Tobias Greitemeyer says that one’s personality is closely related to food preferences, and that sadists and people with antisocial personality (“psychopathic”) traits prefer bitter food.

I tend to defend desserts like they’re my relatives. I know they can be bad for me if I don’t have any self-control, but they’re sweet and they make me feel good. See? Just like relatives.

And Miuccia’s new line of vegan doughnuts? Just like my favorite first cousins.

I'm going vegan - will my meat-loving friends leave me?

"You will lose friends if you go vegan."

It sounded like a threat. Will good people choose to unfriend me (or, more realistically, unfollow me on Facebook) if I chose to eat vegetables and fruits instead of meat?


Will my good friends no longer read what I write if I learned to have compassion for cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and fishes?

When our children become deniable guinea pigs

I am about to tell you how the dengue vaccine program broke my heart. Bear with me as I wax emotional about a tragedy I saw coming but couldn’t stop.

One year and nine months ago, I wrote a carefully-crafted dengue vaccine article for MIMS that advised caution even as it stayed optimistic, given how children who received it were at a greater risk for severe disease compared to those who didn’t. I wasn’t alone in my fears after colleagues saw the evidence.

Despite fair warning from health experts, the Philippine government procured the vaccine, showing telltale signs of strong-arm tactics, for a vaccine program targeting 1 million school children. The program cost a staggering PHP 3.5 billion – almost twice as much as what was spent for a preexisting comprehensive immunization program against hepatitis B, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, and measles, available to all qualified members of the pediatric population.

Children were immunized even as the dengue vaccine trials were still ongoing.

dengue vaccine

Five days ago, Sanofi released a statement finally admitting that the dengue vaccine they sold to the Philippines may lead to a severe form of dengue in those without prior infection.

Oddly enough, the drug group denied turning our children into guinea pigs.


Sad to be right

I am so tempted to tell Sanofi, “I told you so.” In fact, many others told you so. Filipino doctors, scientists – and even Dr. Scott Halstead, noted dengue researcher who coined the term antibody-dependent enhancement, a unique and potentially deadly reaction to dengue infection – warned against the dengue vaccine due to signals of harm evident in previous studies.

But I won’t say it. It feels awful to be right.

Warnings fell on deaf ears as money talked louder. After the vaccine program pushed through, Sanofi even partnered with Watsons to provide dengue vaccination on a commercial basis, despite orders from the Food and Drug Authority to halt marketing.

While Sanofi and the government officials who pushed for the dengue vaccine program deserve all the shade coming their way, I can’t seem to find the energy to gloat. I was right. My colleagues were right. But at what price? The lives of innocent children?

In this war of wills, the children lose. Do any of us really want to win?


700,000 lives too late

Sanofi’s statement, coming at the heels of a long-overdue change in vaccine label, is one year and nine months too late. Hundreds of thousands of Filipino children have already been given the vaccine. It would be difficult to figure out who among them never had dengue in the past, because an initial dengue infection can have nonspecific symptoms. Testing the serologic status is expensive and, in this case, one vaccine – and 700,000 lives – too late.

Because of a vaccine prematurely approved for use while it was still undergoing Phase IV trials, these children will be at risk for potentially-lethal severe dengue for an indefinite period of time.

Checks and balances existed to ensure the safety of the people. Regrettably, these were set aside to ensure the vaccine was included in the formulary, approved for use, and procured with a multibillion price tag not even remotely proportionate to the disease burden it hoped to relieve.

Several deaths post-vaccination have allegedly been reported. What happens now? Who will be held accountable for any loss of life?

What do we do as a people after we realize that our children have become deniable guinea pigs for an allegedly-corrupt experiment masquerading as a vaccine program?


No immunity to blame

Label changes are not enough. Adding salt to the wound, press statements that prioritized deniability over liability are a travesty of the apology we demand and deserve.

We need to seek justice, just as much as we need to grieve. Sanofi and the government officials who kowtowed to them can no longer put lipstick on this ugly pig.

But they are not the only ones accountable for this sad scam of an experiment. While health advocates continue to fight and give hope, a war against corruption and death cannot be fought without the active involvement of the entire medical community.

There should never have been recommendations until there was enough information. There should never have been immunization schedules released by medical societies that included the dengue vaccine until its safety was certain.

Doctors now find themselves in a dilemma, wondering what to do after giving vaccines to patients who were never tested for previous dengue exposure. The government has rightfully suspended the distribution and sale of the dengue vaccine, but now finds itself the subject of a public backlash.

Nobody is immune to blame in this catastrophe of a vaccine program.

This is, plain and simple, a sad controversy involving political and pharmaceutical giants; a health tragedy colored by politics and money that breaks the heart of every Filipino forced to witness the disinclination to accountability.


We are all in this together. We have to join forces and pick up the pieces. We have to move on and figure out how to protect our children from further harm. But we have to uncover the truth and hold people responsible to ensure this will never happen again.

And the next time you hear of some really vocal health advocates openly criticizing a new drug or vaccine, I hope you join the conversation. We should all speak up, ask questions, and exercise discretion.

Silence is agreement. Neutrality is endorsement. Don’t our children deserve better?

The morbid business of recovery

I feel like an empty house. No, not empty; looted. Ravaged by thieves, with tables upended; curtains ripped. Misspelled graffiti on the walls.

blood extractionFour tubes of my blood stayed on my bed as the medical technician tinkered with his kit. Blood extraction wasn’t hard; inserting a peripheral line was – my veins had collapsed after I vomited bile several times and went on to have watery stools 20 times a day.

A week ago, I was finally sent home by my doctors after ten days in the hospital – ten days that would become some of the longest in my life. After working on a tentative diagnosis, my doctors finally saw me fit to go home and heal there.

But recovery is slow. Peaceful, if you ignore the occasional text messages reminding you of the work you’ve left behind, but slow. And painful.


Permission to heal

It seems I have regressed to a former self, one that prefers to curl up in a corner. I devour books with an emotional hunger that cannot be sated. (You have any good ones? Send them over; I’m seriously famished.) Words swim in my mind, hoping to find themselves on paper, willing me to find the energy to jot them down. My fingers still tremble as I give in, still weak from a sickness that drained me of vital fluids and salts (and more), but that scrappy little thing in my chest continues to beat steadily, driving me forward, telling me I have much to do before my flame is extinguished from this beautiful, temporary world.

I’m healing, but it will take a long time before I become the me that the world and I have become familiar with. My sickness has taken away a big chunk of me, leaving in its wake a gaping emptiness that, like any vacuum, craves to be filled. Ergo, the books. Why exactly these books are what I need, I can probably blame on my inherent introversion.

I have retreated into my own mind – not too far to be out of touch, but far enough to be mulling things over with a morbid sobriety bereft of any laughter. My usual acerbic sense of humor tickles the edges of my mind, but it’s not welcome yet.

I feel like a house that needs more than just new furniture. I need a major overhaul: new walls, new windows, new paint job. My foundation stands firm, but so much of me has been taken away that what remains is a promising DIY project at best.

At worst, it’s a potential haunted house. Then again, I’m a Stephen King fan, so why worry?

The wheels in my mind creak as they struggle to turn in their rusted axles, not having found enough momentum to move in their usual rhythm. And their usual rhythm is at breakneck speed. Everything is agonizingly slow and hazy, like a chilly December night with expected heavy fog.

My mind suffers the most, and it knows this.

At least I’m writing again. And I share this with you, painstakingly, with heavy eyelids that tell me I’ll be snoring in my sleep from the effort it took to write this, because I know I’m healing and I want to show you the ugly, private things that happen to me and to my mind during my convalescence. I do not want to be positive if it means I have to be fake.

More importantly, I want to show you how after illness steals from you like looters helping themselves to the best your cushy home has to offer, you always, always have the option to “renovate”.

I’m not yet back, but I will be. This scrappy, steady, beating thing in my chest tells me this with certainty.

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