"There’s life to be lived in the downtime"
With World Mental Health Day just around the corner, I’ve been lucky enough to use this opportunity to shed some insight into my own experience as to how a setback can take a hit on more than just performance. My name is Samantha and I am a distance runner for Saucony. I grew up, live and train in northeast Ohio where I attended Youngstown State University, graduating in 2014 after 5 years in the collegiate running scene. I competed in both track and cross country, setting 10 school records and personal bests that I never could have imagined coming close to.
My success in running has been, in my own mind, sort of fairy-tale like – free of injuries and full of PRs. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t bumps along the way. I came into college running 35 to 40 miles a week and landed in the arms of a college coach who believed in not trying to fix what wasn’t broken. My coach had a simple game plan with me that proved to be successful, as I pretty much set PRs in every event that I ran every season. In fact, I had an entire season where I basically set a new personal record every single time that I raced. He was patient with me, gradually building up my mileage to 70 miles a week, slowly putting me in bigger situations, taking risks when he felt I was ready, and pretty much letting me map out my racing schedule as I saw fit. He didn’t hold my hand but instead trusted that I was putting in the work because he knew how much this whole running thing meant to me. It was a pretty good match.
I saw a lot of success in college. Things didn’t click as quickly as I would have hoped for, but as I mentioned before, I was injury free. I saw multiple conference championships, NCAA rounds and competed alongside some pretty badass women that you probably know all about or even follow on Instagram. After college, I wasn’t ready to hang up my spikes. So with three years of grad school ahead of me, I kept training and racing until I eventually found a place with Saucony.
Now that you know a little more about me, let’s get into the good stuff - the stuff that nobody really wants to talk about. The point where the game plan derails and you find yourself stuck on the injury train with what seems like a one-way ticket to the last place on earth that you ever want to be. Let’s talk about that.
Back in December I started feeling a little discomfort in my right foot. It was annoying but I really didn’t freak out. As runners, we’re used to aches and pains, so I continued to train, as I was getting ready for indoor season. The discomfort hung around, causing me to cut some workouts short and even take a few days off here and there, but again, it wasn’t anything that was setting an alarm off in my head. Spring rolled around, outdoor season was underway and the little discomfort in my foot started turning into something that I was ready to call pain. I was in decent shape but I was starting to come to terms with the fact that all the dots weren’t connecting and there were some gaps in my training that were starting to affect the way I competed. So in April I decided to get an x-ray to find out once in for all what was going on.
I’m a physical therapist, so I kind of knew in my head what it could or couldn’t be. But an x-ray was cheap and it would certainly put my mind at ease. The test came out clean – no bone spurs or stress fractures. I continued to train because I had no reason not to. By May the pain started to get worse and not only was I limping while running, but I was hobbling around my house. Eventually I started developing a sharp pain in my left hip and pelvis and that’s when I started to get a little bit scared. My training partner started making comments about how I just wasn’t myself as I was quiet on every run and stopped pushing the pace like I used to.
I gave a road mile on Memorial Day a shot and as I crossed the finish line I told myself I needed to step away from running and figure out what was really going on. I took seven weeks off in hopes that whatever was wrong would heal. When I started running again, the pain hadn’t gone away – in fact it was worse. I cried and cried out of disbelief because even if whatever was going on wasn’t 100% healed, how could it possibly be worse? I saw multiple healthcare professionals and was given what seemed like a laundry list of diagnosis including plantar fasciitis, a nerve entrapment, a tear, a stress fracture - you name it. When I finally got an MRI, the results showed chronic swelling and posterior tibialis tendinosis, and as much as that sounds like good news, to me it was almost devastating. How can something that seems so little cause so much pain and basically sideline me for over 10 months?
Being injured has changed my life, and as dramatic as that sounds, it’s the truth. Most athletes, especially runners, can admit that when it comes to our routine, we take it pretty seriously. All of a sudden this thing that used to take up so much of my day had been tucked away and thrown in the bottom of a closet that had to stay locked for a long time. Immediately my brain went into panic mode and I started to make a list in my head of all the things I needed to do so that I didn’t lose fitness. I was stuck wrestling these constant thoughts and questions in my mind and I didn’t have that 60 to 90 minutes of running everyday to help sort everything out. I became stressed about everything and anything.
What am I going to do if I miss the entire summer of training? Will I be back for track? Should I be in a boot? Is my sponsor going to drop me? What am I going to make for dinner tonight? Will I have enough time to put gas in my car in the morning? Shit, my moms birthday is tomorrow. When am I going to get a cake?
Stress is real, and not having an outlet makes it a thousand times worse. My mood was constantly changing. One minute I was telling myself “this isn’t a big deal, I’ll be back soon” and the next I was crying in the middle of the day after hearing about the awesome tempo my training partner had, wishing that I was out there with him even though I hated tempos more than anything.
Everyone is so plugged in nowadays and everything we could ever want to know is literally at our fingertips. My social media accounts are flooded with bits and pieces of the running world and scrolling through my feed turned from a way to stay connected to all these overwhelming emotions because truthfully, I felt worthless. I felt like I didn’t have anything to contribute – no pictures of me running and no race photos to post. On top of that, I watched as everyone else was grinding through their long runs and dropping the hammer on their workouts. I was constantly stumbling upon race results, wishing I were out there competing. Going online was a daily punch to the gut reminding me that I was injured and since I hadn’t found success with treatment, I had no idea when I would be back.
I think everyone has his or her own definition of depression. We all look at it in our own way, but I can definitely say I’ve experienced my own form of it. One minute I was distracted and happy and the next minute I was tuned in to my injury and trapped in my own mind that was flooded with negative thoughts and self-doubt. I felt guilty doing anything else that wasn’t going to help me with running in some way – going out with friends, having a beer or two, or staying up too late. Food started to worry me because “if I wasn’t running, I was going to gain weight.” I felt miserable after eating and instantly felt like I needed to go to the gym or drop to the ground for a core session so that I didn’t lose my body.
Everyone around me had lots of opinions. I heard everything from “it’s good to take a break from running anyway” to “now you can focus on looking for a real job.” Everyone knew of the best doctor that I had to go to or raved about an injection that magically healed them so it had to work for me too. I remember being in a clinic and an employee who overheard my conversation came up to me and asked “is having a sponsorship really even worth it?” and followed up his own question with “I mean, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you just quit running.”
Back when I was nearing the end of my college running career, the athletic department brought in these speakers to talk to all the student athletes about transitioning into the “real world” and learning to go through life without an identity as an athlete once our college eligibility was up. I’ve been fortunate to pursue semi-professional running and haven’t had to face giving it up. A friend and professional for Oiselle, Becki Spellman, sent me a text after reading my latest blog post about my injury and said “it’s not always easy to give up so much for something society says is so little.” Pursing running has forced me to make a lot of hard decisions. My job search is limited because I can’t look for employment opportunities in places that would leave me spending too much time in the car driving back and forth because I’d be hard pressed for the time and energy to get my runs in everyday. I constantly wonder when the best time to start a family would be. It’s a struggle finding a new and much needed place to live that won’t be too far away from family and friends and too far away from a safe and reliable place to run.
Running has been a struggle for almost an entire year now and it’s been a long time since I’ve raced. Last week I was allowed to jog one test mile. Two days later I was allowed to jog another one and so far I’ve put together 3 runs that have lasted between 7 and 8 minutes each. Competing has always been my favorite thing about running. I love to race and I love running fast. But after being unable to run for so long, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other is something to be appreciated – legs heavy and lungs burning. Running has changed me, molded me, built me up and torn me down. It has at times destroyed me – mentally and right now, physically. But it’s one of the best things in my life and I don’t know if there is anything else out there that I could have this much passion for. The running community is really something, and those who belong to it know it’s one hell of a club to belong to. Of course it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I just quit running, but what a ridiculous question to ask somebody.
Gabe Grunewald recently told me, “there is life to be lived in the downtime.” I’ve spent months wondering and worrying when I’ll be back competing but I’ve learned to accept that the body has to do its thing. I’ve been going through some really intense and painful therapy and I believe and trust that it’s going to work. The road back is going to be slow but I know that it has to be in order to stay one step ahead of the problem. Gabe reminded me that there’s more to life than running and that we have to keep moving forward even when it seems like there’s something pulling us back. There’s so much to enjoy even in the hard times.
One thing that has helped me get back on track is setting goals. I might not be setting goals for a mile or 5K PR right now, but I’ve been able to set goals for myself in other ways. There are so many things we can do as runners other than running to be fitter, stronger and less injury-prone. Spend more time in the gym working on your weaknesses and I promise you’ll see results. Log what you do everyday. I hated seeing my running app on my iPhone everyday when I wasn’t using it, so I went out and got the Believe I Am Training Journal so that I could write out what I was doing daily in order to get better. Taking the time to make small changes in the kitchen can go a long way too. I finally got my hands on Shalane Flanagans “Run Fast, Eat Slow” and it’s given me tons of new ideas and has served as a great resource to help trim out the bad stuff.
I’ve been so lucky to have not faced any major injuries up to this point. I think that’s almost unheard of – but the thing that I wished somebody would have told me about an injury is that as impossible as it seems, you can’t let it consume you. There’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel and even the smallest of victories are still victories. Book that trip that you’ve been meaning to take or read that book that you’ve walked past a thousand times but never had the time to give it. Seek out a new place to cross train. Start doing yoga (because let’s be honest, who doesn’t need to work on some good breathing and flexibility). Take some time to remember why you started this whole running thing to begin with. When I think back to when I started running, I was a naïve thirteen year old, and at that age I wasn’t worried about breaking 16 minutes in a 5K.
Find joy in the journey no matter how dark and hard it seems. It can be a battle and sometimes battles leave us with scars. I think scars make us look tough, and I promise you, you’re a lot stronger than you think.