In life, dark times are a given. The marathon is no different. We plan, we prepare, we pray, however, it’s not so much a question of if but when the hard times hit and for how long they last. Part of the training is learning how to accept this in advance, so when our time comes, it’s no surprise and the focus remains on the task at hand. Whether life prepares us for the marathon or the marathon prepares us for life it’s impossible to know. The two are so entwined. I’d like to think we get better at both with age, yet if I could sum up my 2018 in a sentence it would be: “I was not expecting this.”
First year of marriage. A new job. A non-healing stress fracture. Over 8 months of rehab. A truncated marathon build-up. An Olympic Trials Qualifier. Experience with teammates and friends that I will never forget. For posterity and anyone interested, I’ve chronicled a handful of “lessons learned”, in the hopes of – if not making sense of it – affirming that the dark times did not exist in vain.
1. Limitation is real
One of the spin instructors at the YMCA had a phrase she would repeat as a motivation for the class to dig deeper. “What is your ‘why?'” explaining that “you can do anything as long as you have a ‘why’.” This phrase had a way of grating on my spirit to the point where I almost had to leave the class. Over half a year of dedication to overcoming a handicap with no sign of improvement and I understood what it feels like to be helpless. In my embittered cynicism, her words sounded like a pithy shallow aphorism that held no meaning for me. There are people suffering from real limitation and real disability, whether or not it’s apparent. Being unable – unable to run, unable to walk without support, unable to ride my bike to work or move freely outside – was the first blow of this injury. Because of the nature of the injury, it was a blow that left a lingering ache. The reality is, she was right. It’s simply a matter of perspective. Ultimately, we are the arbiters of our own purpose. When purpose is defined, challenge is put in perspective. But it was too early for me to see this, then.
Running is a socially acceptable way to be an introvert in the modern age. Whether in the company of a few or on your lonesome, it’s a passage through time and space together with your own thoughts and observations. While running, I’ve rarely felt alone, though the majority of my time running has been comprised of exactly that. Running is the kind of solitude one finds wandering well-known paths or an intensely familiar memory. Through this injury, I felt a different kind of solitude: one that feels empty and pointless. One that is allied with the confinement that results from being unable. Most of the time, it was harder to communicate what that solitude felt like than it was to simply endure it, which likely compounded the isolation. I don’t really have a take-away here, other than a greater appreciation for the kind of solitude that happens as a consequence of being free to do what you love.
3. The ambassador to faith is an open heart
I had always thought I was a person of faith. That notion was turned on its head this year. With each new inconclusive MRI or doctor’s visit or PT treatment, I grew incredulous at the prospects of not running again. I found it harder and harder to maintain a stable emotional outlook as my will was at odds with what was. Resentment grew. My heart was closed to the idea of an early retirement, thus closed to the possibilities of a great many things that could amount from it. While in the pit of a tailspin, it dawned on me that this must be what it feels like to have a loss of faith. I had tethered myself to the ship of the elite runner and that ship was sinking. Part of the process of finding equilibrium was releasing the grip on what I thought I was losing and opening up to possibility. If God wanted me to run again, I would. If not, I wouldn’t. That simple binary basically sums up the turning point in the course of this injury.
4. Letting go ≠ giving up
Nonetheless, it’s hard to let go of something you’ve devoted much of yourself to for most of your life. I’ve done so with competitive running for life passions that will continue to compete with it. Architecture, art creation, and an insatiable thirst to travel will always be at odds with the uncompromising discipline of a runners life. Thus the stakes had already been raised when I decided to give the marathon a real shot in 2015. This injury only raised the stakes again. I am no longer 20-something. Energy feels more finite. Time feels precious. Decisions hold more consequence. “Was this injury a sign that I needed to give it up?” was plaguing my mind, but I wasn’t prepared to put the nail in the coffin. Finding motivation to cross-train indefinitely while knowing that doing so may never amount to a tangible purpose, felt like an exercise in cognitive dissonance. I knew I hated cross-training – it was simply a means towards an uncertain end. I knew I wanted to keep the option of competing again open – it takes time to build fitness and no time at all to lose it. In limbo, I was backed into a place outside my comfort zone: the present. To put in the work that day, without a goal, without a purpose, other than to put in the work that day. Again, turning to God for the infinite source of meaning I needed until I could see light at the end.
5. Cherish the ones you’re with
Life is better when you are surrounded by good people. It’s really that simple though easily forgotten in the throes of depression. Through the months, a small but mighty band of fellow-injured teammates grew, laying a foundation optimism and strength for what was to come. Their commitment and energy renewed mine. With them, what was a grind became a joy; what was solitude became solidarity. Cross-training with them not only passed the time with ease, but was a time to give voice to goals that seemed unattainable in the solitary confinement of ones own mind.
6. Work on the mind and soul first. The body will follow.
Everything is connected to everything, but I do believe there is a sequence. When ones personal affliction, at root, hinders ones self expression or limits ones ability to feel free, it wears on the soul. In my effort to maintain cardiovascular fitness, focus on my job, and be responsible to other commitments I had, I neglected to take the time and space to be myself. Running used to fill that space as it did my soul because it was the most immediate and accessible form or transport away, anywhere, just somewhere other than here. Through the injury, I learned just how much my mind and soul depend on having a daily escape, outside, and at least a weekly escape, far outside. The lions share of my struggle with this injury stemmed from feeling trapped, from one load of work to another, without a release or reprieve.
7. Work on the body, too
With the guidance of my teammate and strength coach, Angela Tieri, my husband and resident strength & mobility guru, Brian, and years of PT experience, I added exercises to my strength routine, specific to building the neurological connection to the lower extremities. Years of compensation, stemming from various injuries and my lack of proper attention to them, has dealt me the hand (or should I say foot) that I have now. Of the 14 running-related injuries I’ve had on record, 7 of them have been in my left foot. Whether directly or indirectly, the cumulative effects of the rigors of running have taken their toll. This particular left foot injury, has been by far, been the most debilitating and dismaying one. I believe it will ultimately be the determining factor of my competitive running carrier, yet it will remain a constant reminder of my physical fragility long after I hang up my racing flats.
8. Like the brain, the body has a memory
“The amount of time off and previous training load determine how you should return.”David Roche, Returning to Running After an Injury
Once cleared to run on July 1, 8 1/2 months after diagnosis, running felt like a mechanical failure. The ankle hurt, legs uncoordinated, foot strike heavy. Three weeks of jogging every other day, starting with 5 x 1 minute run, 5 minute walk; increasing the run by 30 seconds and reducing the walk by the same until I was running 5 minutes and walking 1. At that point, I started stringing minutes together more liberally – adding 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there – until I was up to 20 consecutive minutes. Then started running two days in a row, with a day off in between, continuing to add minutes. Within a month, my body had more or less figured it out. By the end of August, I ran 15 miles and started to feel like a runner again. My coach and I decided to give the B-standard (sub 2:45:00) a shot at CIM in December. Up until that point, I had no vision beyond the next day. This too was going to be an incremental process. I had read about Coach Jack Daniels’ “ease of maintenance” principle in an article by David Roche, postulating that “the body maintains training adaptations better than it builds them in the first place.” If this principle were true, my 17 years of competitive running and 3 marathon cycles should count for something. In the following 14 weeks, I learned exactly how much.
9. Pay attention
It sounds simple, but when there’s a lot to do in front of you, it’s not. Looking back, I can see the signs I missed while so resolutely looking forward. Before the injury, I was looking forward to PRs and high profile races. Once injured, I was looking forward to not being injured. While cross-training, I was looking forward to when I would be done cross-training (as if I wasn’t going to do it all over again the next day). Paying attention is more than seeing signs, it starts with being aware of yourself.
10. Take time
With the ones you love. They suffer with your suffering, and grieve with your grieving. They are the ones closest to you because they care the most about you, yet their care and love do not receive accolades or attention, rather they go unseen. It is impossible for me to reflect on this year or celebrate the outcome without giving voice to the steady, patient support of my husband. His capacity to take in my struggle and feed me back his level insight at various breaking points along the way, is second only to his faith in me. As runners, time holds a unique significance for both of us. The mark of our prowess as runners is measured in time over distance traveled. We time our workouts, we time our long runs, we time our tempos, we time our paces in all of the above. The aggregate of these time measurements helps us chart our own development and project goals and benchmarks over months and years. Yet it’s the unmeasured time that dominates experience. It simply is. The ultimate gift one can give another: one’s time.