Clawing your way back

The talented Amanda Sandlin (http://www.amandasandlin.com) made this #atwildwoman portrait for me - I love it.  

The talented Amanda Sandlin (http://www.amandasandlin.com) made this #atwildwoman portrait for me - I love it.  

Clawing your way back

After athletes suffer a significant injury there’s usually a period where we mourn – for races we won’t get to run and lost entry fees, for runs with friends that are often the highlight of our weekend.  We watch our hard earned fitness slowly slip away while clothes begin feeling tighter than we would like.  But at some point along our slide into the abyss, our feet hit solid ground.  And it is time to cautiously stand and take stock:  given my injury, what can I do NOW with my current limitations, to improve my fitness?  To begin again?  

As we climb and fight our way back up the mountain there will be footholds.  The first time our injury is healed enough to pool run.  The first time we get to take off our aircast or ankle brace.  That amazingly awesome first “run” back where we get to take fledgling running steps amidst lots of walking.  We may occasionally take a wrong step, push too hard and find ourselves sliding back down the side of the mountain – or holding on to a rock for dear life.  But even with the setbacks we focus our gaze on the peak and keep pressing forward. 

There’s strength to be found in the journey.  We know that we will emerge from the process as a stronger, wiser athlete than before.  And so we begin to fan the flames of that tiny spark of athletic fire still burning inside of us, and we embrace the long, arduous process of clawing our way back to the top. 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I wrote the above about 4 months ago.  In April I was playing with my kids at a local park when I leapt off a platform to catch my youngest child who was about to fall.  I landed badly and immediately crumpled to the ground.  (Youngest child had not a scratch though!!) After driving myself to urgent care, I learned that I had fractured (completely) my 4th metatarsal.   I spent several weeks on crutches, and three months in a boot before finally graduating to a running shoe with titanium inserts to prevent my foot from flexing while walking around.   Surgery was discussed, fretted about, cried about, and ultimately dismissed in favor of a “wait and see” approach to determine if the slightly displaced fracture would heal enough on its own.  Another two months of no running and I was finally given the green light to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding my running base.  But oh - those first few steps of freedom were glorious. 

If nothing else, the long layoff showed me that running is truly embedded somewhere deep in my soul.  When you are injured it’s natural to question your place in the sport.  I’d find myself wondering: WHY do I keep doing this to myself?  Is it worth another injury and layoff?  Why not just exercise a few times a week like most people and call it good?  But when you see runners in the pouring rain and feel an intense, burning jealousy that you can’t be out there suffering with them, or when you drive past the lonely stretch of road where you do speed work and lung-searing tempos and feel a physical yearning to be out there pushing your limits – that’s the universe speaking loud and clear that YOU AREN’T DONE YET.  Don’t give up, you are meant to be back out there.
 

It was all I needed to hear.    
 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I ran my first race post-fracture this past Sunday.  The cold, blustery day couldn’t dampen my spirits as I celebrated the fact that I was standing at a starting line of a RACE.  About to run a 5K on a foot that (several months ago) had been in pieces.  The body is a miraculous thing.  Watchless (thanks to a busted Garmin), I had the simple goal of just to go out and give it a good effort.  When I crossed the line in 20:05 I couldn’t stop the smile that appeared on my face.  I’m not there yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.  I’m climbing back up the mountain – and I’ve got my eyes fixed on the top.    

Injured Runner =
Easy Target

Must resist the siren call of new running gear.....

Must resist the siren call of new running gear.....

An hour on the elliptical this morning was a poor substitute for a run.  After yesterday's visit to the sports doc confirmed a small tear in the fascia where my gastroc meets my soleus, I was handed a sentence of two more weeks of cross training.  I'm trying to take my cross-training-and-rest medicine like a good little runner but I've noticed something interesting happening to me during the past few weeks when I've been unable to run:   I've been itching to buy stuff.  And not just any stuff:  running-related stuff.   A new Garmin, a new outfit, new shoes - you name it.  Little "buy this now" urges have been cropping up ever since my treadmill started collecting dust.   Not wanting to give in to these urges, I've been digging deeper into WHY I am feeling this way.  I have a theory:   My brain has been tricked into thinking that all that shiny new running STUFF will equal a happier runner and propel me to a new PR this fall.  But guess what?  That couldn't be further from the truth.

We are bombarded with countless advertisements each day.  Buy this!  Huge Sale!  Brand new version!  Countless messages that prey on our insecurities and know just how easy it is to get us to part with our hard-earned money.  As an injured runner I seemed to find myself even more susceptible to the advertisers' sneaky tricks.  Here's why:

Loss of control:   When we are injured, we are directly faced with a loss of control.  We have very, very limited control over how long it will take our bodies to heal, and we are forced to sit with that discomfort and that feeling of helplessness.  It's not pretty.   Our minds want to run from that discomfort and so they try desperately to find something to make us feel like we are in control - and that often ends up resulting in a purchase.  That little rush of satisfaction you get when you click "Buy Now"?  That's real, but it's fleeting at best and not an effective way to deal with your emotions.  We purchase new clothing or new shoes, or get the latest gadget - anything to help us feel less helpless and convince ourselves that we are actively taking steps back towards that runner we want to be: in control, back on the roads, running well and ready for a new PR.

Fear:  Let's face it: Deep down we all face running-related fears. We worry that we'll have to give up on our "A" race when we get sidelined with an injury.  Or worry that we'll never be the runner we aspire to be.   You may be worried that your comeback won't go well and you'll never get back to your previous level of fitness. Or you might be afraid of never being able to get your goal - no matter how hard you try.  These fears are so very real and personal to us.  And the marketing departments of companies know that - and prey on it.  They market to those fears - to convince you that once you have this new shirt/gadget/pair of shoes you'll be back on top and setting PRs.

Feelings of inadequacy:  "You aren't good enough".  The subliminal message marketers want to us to hear is "you aren't good enough without our product".  It's what drives us to purchase a cute technical t-shirt even though we have 25 free t-shirts from races already stuffed in our dresser.  It's what tempts us to upgrade our already more-than-adequate GPS watch to the latest version with all of the bells and whistles.  The unspoken rule being "you won't be a good runner until you have THIS".   We are all good enough.  WITHOUT those new, shiny things.  A new technical t-shirt won't make us suddenly run faster, and a new GPS watch won't magically propel us to a new PR.

All of these items that we feel we "need" to buy don't really give us control, or help us cope with our fears.  We hope they will, but ultimately they don't.  We will always have to deal with uncertainty and fears that we aren't good enough. It's been ugly these past few weeks as I've come face-to-face with the constant temptation to comfort myself and my restless brain by buying something running-related to make myself feel better.

So what’s the solution?  I certainly don't have all of the answers, but I can offer you a few ideas that have helped me:

  • Sit with the discomfort.  Recognize it, and acknowledge it, but don't give in to it.
  • Put the item you want on a 30-day buy list. If you still want it at the end of those 30 days, then buy it.  Chances are, the urge to purchase it and the fear that was driving you will have faded.
  • Do something else - go for walk, write, draw, read.  Meditate or pray for 10 minutes.
  • Be gentle with yourself.  Find comfort in talking to a friend or loved one.  A good friend sensed my anxiety over my injury through a text message last night and called me.  It was just the support I needed and made me so grateful for her friendship.   Before you try to solve your anxiety or sadness through shopping, call a friend instead.

A lot of us type-A runners really struggle with the loss of control when we are injured, but we can recognize that buying more running-related STUFF isn't the answer.  In the end, most of the time our bodies will heal and we will be able to get back to running and doing what we love.   But in the interim, in that difficult time that is filled with uncertainty and fear, we need to give ourselves love and grace - NOT piles of shiny new stuff.  Your future self (and bank account!) will thank you. :)

Hope & Despair

When an athlete is injured, their mind often ping-pongs daily from hope to despair.  I spent most of October through December in that state as I dealt with not one, but two bizarre (non-running related!) injuries that left me unable to run.   I'd wake up hopeful:  maybe today I'd feel better!  But the despair would flood in:  It's going to be forever until I can run again - and I'll be starting from scratch.  The truth is, I often had a hard time choosing to be hopeful - even though I know that psychologists have proven that hopeful people live longer, happier and healthier lives.   I tried each day to choose hope.  To choose to be hopeful, to be grateful for everything in my life that was going right, even if the running wasn't going the way I'd wanted.   I know that statistics say that around 79% of runners will be injured in a given year, so most of us are in good company when we do suffer an injury.  Of course, that doesn't mean we like it.  Running is a source of great joy - and for me the need to run feels akin to the need for a daily shower.  It has simply become a part of my daily routine.  So how do we keep our spirits up when we are forced to be apart from the sport we love? Do Something Different: 

Something different: Convincing my extended family to take my BodyPump class!

I decided I'd take the opportunity to try some things I'd never done - like a BodyCombat class - and surprised myself at how much fun I had getting my cross-training groove on.  Yes, it definitely wasn't the same as running and I missed my running friends and routine, but thankfully I got to get to know several amazing women at my gym and their friendship gave me lots to look forward to when I was putting in miles on the elliptical instead of on the roads.  If you are injured, use the time to do something you've maybe always wanted to do but hadn't had the time or energy to pursue.  It doesn't have to be a physical activity, but trying something that you are interested in can help remind you that there are so many things in this world to be passionate about.  

Count Your Blessings: 

Study after study has shown the positive effects of practicing gratitude:  happiness, reduction of stress/anxiety, better sleep, and improved health are only a few of the many well documented benefits.  I tried hard during the weeks rehabbing my injuries to write down a few things each day that I was grateful for.  Most of them were not athletically related and that's okay - it helped me open my eyes to the fact that while running is a big part of my life, it's not the only part.  Taking a few minutes to write down three things you are grateful for each day can go a long way to improving your mood during a time of forced rest.

Keep Your ATHLETE Mentality

When I'm injured I tend to go one of two ways:  I either let everything slide (nutrition, sleep, core work, stretching) or I use the forced time off to focus on improving each of those things.  I'll let you guess which one helps more in the long run.  :)  I started off with the first option (way too many cookies!) but halfway through my time off I decided that I wanted to feel better - less down in the dumps about not being able to run.  And in order to do so, I needed to get back into an "Athlete" mentality.  That means realizing that even though you are injured, you are still an athlete.  And you can choose to use this time to get stronger and to work on establishing good habits that will improve your running when you DO make your comeback.  And speaking of that....

Believe You WILL Come Back

For most of us, though we may feel like we'll never run again, an injury just means we have to take a certain amount of time away from doing what we love.   We are fortunate that for 99% of us, these injuries do not spell a total end to our running career.  It simply puts it on pause for a bit while our body heals.  While we rest, we are still allowed to dream of big PRs, of hard tempo workouts, of long runs on crisp fall mornings.   Even if you have such a layoff that you are essentially starting from scratch, know that your mind and body will remember how to do this - the road back will not be as steep nor as long as you fear.  You must believe that you WILL come back, and that it will be worth the work to do so.  And your success will be all the sweeter for the struggle.


One of my first runs back - got to break in my NightRunner shoe lights!

As for me, I was very, very cautious when I finally got back on the roads.  I ran 2 days the first week, then slowly added in a day at a time.   I am being rewarded for my patience - I am back to running 6 days a week and even had a small workout this week!  I am just SO, SO HAPPY to be back out there.

Run happy, friends, and be grateful.