The Struggle is Real
Oprah Winfrey once said, “Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.” That’s what I love about this sport, the fact that hard work and obsession can overpower talent, and the sum of success is closely correlated with your level of dedication. For years this equation served me well; the more work I put in and more obsessed I became, the faster I ran. That is until an unforeseen variable was added—a variable that flips this entire equation upside down, swallows you up and spits you out—that variable being injury.
I’ve battled with injury for a long time now, four years to be exact. The most frustrating thing is that it turns one of our greatest strengths into our greatest enemy. The same obsession that it takes to reach the top suddenly becomes the source of unbearable withdrawal, hurling us down into a deep, dark hole.
There’s really no way to properly prepare yourself for an injury, but looking back there are a few things I wish I knew from the beginning. For starters, it’s that we’re not invincible—no one is, and that’s okay. I made the foolish decision to push through pain for a long time, only digging myself deeper into a hole. I was so obsessed with my present goals that I failed to look at the big picture and ended up sacrificing years of my running career in the process.
Little did I know my pain would progressively worsen to the point where I eventually had to take over a year’s worth of rest. During that time I had no choice but to reach the stage of acceptance. I was forced to let go of the goals I had been working towards for years, and that was heartbreaking. I'll be completely honest that watching my friends and competitors go off and live out my very own dream left me bottling up a mix of emotions. While I knew I should be happy for them, I couldn't help but feel jealous, frustrated and confused. I learned it was best to distance myself from the elite running world and periodically forced myself to take complete breaks from social media, but the struggle of comparison was hard to escape.
One of the hardest parts of injury was feeling like I'd lost my identity. For ten years I'd primarily identified myself as "Amanda, the runner." Deep down I've always believed that it's not what you do but who you are and that your values and faith are what really matter. I've even written tons of blogs about this, and yet I still fell victim to the trap. I tried to find other things to replace that gaping hole in my heart. I started painting more, hiking, reading and writing, but at the end of the day it seemed impossible to disconnect from the runner inside of me. Because I still had that passion for this sport, I took up coaching, and working part-time at a running store. While I really enjoyed these opportunities, they didn't exactly help me move on from my identity as "runner girl,” and looking back I wish I allowed myself to branch out a bit more from the sport. Being surrounded by runners all of the time became a constant reminder of the fact that I couldn’t do what I loved, and that made the struggle even harder at times.
One day, when I was at one of my lowest points, just getting off crutches and hobbling around the running store, I remember a customer telling me, "Wow, clearly you can't help me because you're clearly not running." What? I was outraged. I wanted to scream at him, but I bit my lip and stood there in awkward silence. The sad thing is that I actually felt slightly embarrassed and at that point my self-confidence was pretty low. I remember standing there thinking, "Maybe he's right, what am I doing here? Am I even a real runner anymore?"
After many months of no running, I didn't feel like a real runner anymore, not to mention I didn't look like the runner I used to be. Around that same time I remember hopping on a scale and being appalled at what I saw. I've never been one to obsess over weight, but seeing it read 15lbs more than expected left me feeling pretty miserable. I tried to be more strict with my diet, but that only lead to binging on more candy, cookies, beer and pizza--things I rarely digested when I was seriously training. One voice was telling me to "live a little, don't worry, it's not like you have a competition coming up," and the other voice was saying, "Look in the mirror, this is embarrassing, how do you expect to run fast again!" I toggled back and forth between being super strict and completely letting myself go before I finally found the middle ground.
Eventually I decided to stop worrying about it, and stop weighing myself completely. Low and behold, getting back to running a couple months later put my weight right back to where it was before. It certainly wasn't easy, and it didn't happen overnight, but I share this because it's important to remember that everyone deals with this. Everyone is different, but it’s natural for the body to go through some degree of change when you go from running up to 70 miles a week to zero miles. Allowing some degree of change and simply following your normal, balanced diet is far better than fighting it with obsession and giving in to what can lead to years of disordered eating cycles.
Beyond the physical changes that often take place during injury, another aspect of change that's often ignored is how injuries can impact our social life. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an introvert. Yet, running has always brought out a more extroverted side of me, and my closest of friendships have grown out of many miles run together. But when you’re injured, and you’re not out there with your training partners, you not only lose fitness but also quality time spent with friends. Coming off of surgery this was especially hard for me, being stuck at home, or going to the pool by myself day-after-day became incredibly draining. It’s easy to become isolated in times like these, but the best thing I learned to do was intentionally make plans with people; whether it was meeting up over a cup of coffee, cross-train together, or picking up the phone and calling someone to talk when I was feeling lonely. I’ll always be grateful for the people who stayed close during times.
The last thing I would tell anyone facing an injury would be that it's okay to admit you're not okay. There were many mornings when it was tough to get out of bed, when the tears wouldn't stop flowing and I had little motivation to do anything. When I finally got the courage to talk about this with friends, family and a sports psychologist, I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders (literally there were some days my shoulders were more tight than my hamstring because of all the stress!) I learned helpful techniques such as journaling about my frustrations, but also making sure to always write down at least three things for which I was grateful. One of my favorite quotes came from a book I read by Matt Fitzgerald titled How Bad Do You Want It? “Gratitude is about letting go of desired outcomes and fully embracing the privilege and process of pursuing goals and dreams.” While I wasn’t pursuing the exact dreams I had hoped for, I learned to be grateful that I could still get out there and cross train and I tried to enjoy the process day by day rather than constantly looking far off into the future.
While I wish I had a great comeback story about returning to the elite level, the truth is I'm still making my way along this journey. Of course I hope to run PR's again and prove that the long wait has been worthwhile, but I’ve finally realized that either way this whole journey was not a waste. Dealing with chronic injury has forced me to grow stronger mentally and spiritually, and I’m certain that anyone who goes through these struggles will come out a stronger person. After all, the greatest battles do not take place on a track, in a boxing ring, or soccer field; they take place in that short space between our own two ears.