I am strong, I am healthy, I am free…

For anyone who has been injured, it probably comes as no surprise that I’ve been struggling my way through the ‘comeback’ phase for about six weeks.  Sometimes it almost feels easier to be sidelined with an injury, forced to cross train.  As an ‘injured runner,’ the reality of actual running fitness is difficult to determine.  All efforts are focused on avoiding discomfort at the site of the injury.  As much as aqua jogging can be monotonous, the challenge is limited to my heart rate, the clock, and me.  But as a runner returning to training, there are major hurdles to overcome…loss of fitness, limitations in training distance/time/effort, and fear of re-injury. 

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am overjoyed and tremendously grateful to be able to run again.  The first time I took more than a walking stride, I had tears in my eyes.  There is nothing that feeds my soul more or makes me feel freer than taking a few steps and then breaking into a run.  But for this comeback from injury, as it has been coming back from injuries before, I am experiencing a steep curve in returning to running shape, to the level of strength and endurance that makes running feel free.

So as glorious and tear-jerking as those first few running strides felt, they also felt heavy and awkward.  With stress fractures, it is important to pay attention to the site of the injury and to make sure that return to activity is not causing re-injury.  But during those first few strides  weeks of running, everything hurt.  How could I possibly pay attention to my foot when all of my rested leg muscles were refusing to fire and I felt pain in my glute and low back and calf muscles?

So I remember, there is no miraculous moment when being injured and in pain gives way to running freely, and free from discomfort.  There is a break-in period for remembering how to run.  And when the running feels less awkward, and the right muscles start to fire, then there is hypersensitivity to the discomfort at the site of the injury.  Our bodies and our minds create emotionally attachments to injuries and negative experiences.  We store tension, not only in our shoulders and necks, but also throughout our physical selves. 

 As an athlete, there is an especially fine line between discomfort that is temporary and discomfort that will lead to the onset of an injury.  Coming back from an injury, my immediate reaction to discomfort is fear of injury: the same injury, a new injury, it doesn’t matter.  My mind takes over with fear of being hurt again.

It is not easy to find the balance between forging ahead and succumbing to twinges of pain and the fears that surface.  But as I build back mileage and fitness, I have developed a new mantra I repeat to myself in the face of that fear: “I am strong, I am healthy, I am free…”

Well, and: “Come on pain and fear, I’m ready for some endurance and speed!”

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Luckily this dirt road starts .25 mile from my house. The soft surface is great for a return from injury.

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Broken Foot Can’t Break Me

Most often, when I sit down to write (however rarely that might be), the ideas in my head transfer effortlessly through my fingers onto the page.  But since I broke my foot almost six weeks ago in Eugene, I have sat down at my computer more than a dozen times, only to struggle through and trash various failed efforts to document my thoughts. I have expended more than enough time and energy feeling angry and confused.  Today is the day.

At first I was angry with myself for attempting to race in Eugene.  I had just raced two weeks before in Atlanta, but I found myself mourning the bombings in Boston and the impact of that terrorist attack on runners everywhere.  Running so many lonely miles, deep into training for the USA Half Marathon Championships, I ached to be with other runners, to have an opportunity for some camaraderie.  So at the last minute I found a ticket I could purchase with miles to join scores of Oiselle teammates competing in the Marathon and Half Marathon in Eugene.  But even though the race plan was a workout with my teammate, Allison Delancey (@azrunparents), it was still a ‘race’ with all of the stress and excitement and adrenalin that goes along with it. 

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Racing with Allison (photo credit: @JackElizabethK )

The strange feeling in my foot started around mile five or six.  Running along comfortably at 6:20 pace as planned, I felt something funny in my shoe.  Thinking I needed to adjust the laces, I stopped for a few seconds, straightened the tongue, and then caught up with Allison.  Over the next couple of miles the strange feeling turned into discomfort and then increasingly severe pain.  Somewhere between miles eight and nine I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish the race and hobbled off the course in disbelief.  Never before have I dropped out of a race.  Never before have I succumbed to pain.  I am a competitor.  In high school, when I was still a tennis player, I severely sprained my ankle in the finals of the State Championships Doubles and still won the match with a grapefruit size bulge on top of my shoe (most of the credit goes to my partner, of course).  But after the match, I couldn’t walk normally for weeks. 

Competitiveness and toughness were not enough in Eugene.  Those were not the lessons for me that day.  Sometimes we imagine learning about ourselves in our heads.   But, it seems the lessons we actually internalize are those we learn through experience.  I had traveled to Eugene with the intention of connecting, of experiencing relationship and camaraderie.  And, in fact, my broken foot has brought me nothing but that over the past six weeks.  Well, ok, I still have a painful sinking feeling in my belly every time I think about not racing in Duluth on June 22nd, but I am learning to spool that thread of energy into an expanding ball of competitive fire.  I will continue to get stronger and faster and race at the highest levels.  I will realize my athletic potential…just not today.  Today my opportunity is to experience feeling connected.  Here are some highlights of how that has happened over the last six weeks:

  1. I had travelled to Eugene to meet and cheer on teammates.  After hobbling off the course, I found my way to the Oiselle team cheering squad and yelled my heart out for almost three hours.  It was totally inspiring to watch runners pushing themselves to their limits and heart pumping every time a teammate raced by.  The adrenaline kept me on my feet but when it was all over, the pain really set in and I couldn’t take a step without feeling like there was a knife through my foot.  As the devastation of the injury started to set in, I was hobbling alone back to my car when Oiselle Team Manager, Kristen Metcalf came up to me with Jacquelyn Komen and a flock of Birds.  She offered to go get my car and as I hugged her with appreciation, I finally broke down in tears.  Not only did she and JJ run to get my car, but they fed me, drove me home, and ran their way back to their apartment.

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The Cheering Squad (photo credit: @enduroTwerd)

2.  Once I got back to the house, I found my five roommates and new friends who were overflowing with concern and grace.  In the purest demonstration of selflessness, they forgot about their personal best or worst performances, their exhaustion and marathon-sore legs and spent the next 24 hours driving me all over Eugene to find crutches, helping me stay positive, taking me out for drinks and dinner, packing my suitcase and making sure I could get to the airport with my rental car.  They were patient as I slowly hobbled and crutched and cried and made them late, offering the kindness and support I desperately needed.  I am unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with leaning on others.  One of my biggest weaknesses is I’m horrible at reaching out for help, even when I need it, even when I know I need it.  I’ll struggle and fight and claw my way through on my own, even though I know I’d be a whole lot better with some support and a little company.  But in Eugene, I did not have a choice.  I received a tremendous gift from these women.

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Roomies!
Molly, Corey, Holly, Laura, me and Steph (photo credit: @lscwech)

3. And the outpouring of concern did not end once I returned to Colorado.  For the past six weeks I have received daily emails, texts, and twitter messages from teammates checking in on me.  United by our passion for running and by our Oiselle Team, I have never experienced such concentrated support.   Amazed and appreciative only adequately describes the fullness in my heart.

 

4.  In Eugene, I was fortunate enough to meet some of the leadership of Nuun (the very best source of hydration and electrolyte replacement).  For the past few years Nuun has sponsored teams of women runners in the Hood to Coast Relay.  To be a part of one of their teams is competitive and a huge privilege and honor.   The women I roomed with in Eugene knew each other primarily through the HTC relay and/or Oiselle.  Both have an amazing cult-following of super cool people.  Shortly after returning from Eugene, I was humbled to receive an invitation to participate on this year’s Nuun HTC Competitive Team.  I know the experience promises to offer a great opportunity to race on a team and to cultivate new lifelong friendships.  I am doing everything I can to be ready to race in August.

5.  Part of my commitment to getting healthy as quickly as possible required a huge sacrifice.  After much soul searching and serious tears, I decided not to join my family on my stepdaughter’s high school graduation trip to Europe.  Needing to be off my feet more than less, I felt that the walking demands of the trip and the long travel days would probably set me back in healing.  But after the initial disappointment and loneliness of being away from my family, I began to appreciate all of the friends who have reached out to invite me to spend time together while I’m on my own.  I am a high-functioning introvert, so it would be my first instinct to spend this free time alone.  But as I’m learning, I need people more than I think.  And this time to cultivate relationships has been a true blessing.

6. And this brings me to the real source of inspiration for today’s post.  No blessing has been greater than the one I experienced last night.  One of my dearest friends gave birth to her first child, a daughter.  When I drove my family to the airport last Tuesday, I reached out to her to meet for lunch, as she was in her 36th week of pregnancy and I knew this might be one of the last few times we could be together before her life offered a little less free and undistracted time.  When we said good-bye, I knew it wouldn’t be a full month before I received the call that it was time. 

With all of her family a flight away, I had promised I would be back up for her husband.  In the event that he passed out in the midst of her labor, I would be there.  So I wasn’t too surprised when on Thursday morning I got the call and was on my way back down to Denver to meet her at the hospital.  Fortunately I had two hours to drive and gather myself so I could be calm by the time I reached her.  Even more fortunately, for all of us, her husband made it through almost 24 hours of labor and delivery while I waited to meet their new baby. 

If you’ve sat in uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, you know why I imagine it is the closest experience to solitary confinement, without committing a crime.  But finally, after hours and hours waiting outside the nursery (my girlfriend is exceedingly tough and endured a marathon of work to bring her child into this world), I met the sweet soul that was born as her daughter.  And through much of the waiting, as part of my friend’s team, I was supported by my own friends and teammates through emails, texts and twitter messages.  I was not alone.  (With special thanks to Dr. Meggie Smith @mbsthinks, for all of the technical insight on childbirth)! 

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Life-it’s amazing!

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Walking around in a boot is much easier with a wedge sneaker!

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Boston Marathon F37: DNS

For about a month or so I had been planning to write a blog post titled Not Running the Boston Marathon.   I waited because one of the main reasons for not running was a surprise party for my Uncle’s 80th birthday on Saturday, April 13, 2013.   Uncle Jerry is technologically savvy, so nothing on the Internet would be safe from ruining the surprise for him.

When I signed up to compete in the 117th Boston Marathon last September, I was just back after injury, barely able to run a mile at a time, with long walk breaks still needed.  To run continuously for the marathon distance seemed a long shot, but something to work towards.  And no marathon is more motivating than Big Bada$$ Boston.

As fall became winter and I realized that my speed and endurance were progressing less quickly than I’d hoped, I started to reconsider racing 26.2 in April.  And when the new Olympic Trials Marathon standards were announced, I decided I needed to be even more focused on training and selective about racing.  Boston 2013 was out.  Fortunately, this made it easy to commit to attending my Uncle’s surprise party without second thought.  We cancelled our hotel room in Boston and booked flights to Atlanta.

In accordance with Murphy’s Law, within days I received an email from the BAA inviting me to participate in the Elite Women’s Race.  When I started to pursue running more seriously in 2008, it was with the clear intentions of wanting to find out how fast I could be and to compete at the highest possible level.  I have been fortunate to be invited to race among ‘sub-elite’ athletes at a handful of World Marathon Majors, but never before among the ‘elites’.

Having raced in Boston three times before, once from the way back of the pack (2007-bib#14675), once from the back of the first wave (2008-bib#12933) and finally closer to the front (2009-bib#2074), I had dreamed of joining the elite women in their march from the Korean First Presbyterian Church to the start.  Finally given the chance, I wrestled with my decision to turn it down.  I thought of flying on Sunday from Atlanta to Boston, racing without a goal, and being open to a DNF.  In my head, I worked through all the ways I could be at that starting line, but in my heart, I kept receiving the same message: Not this year; there will be another chance.  Stay focused on a weekend with family.  It is not uncommon for our intuition to defy logic, to be impossible to confirm or understand with our intellect.  I often struggle to trust my gut; I am glad in this instance I listened.

So yesterday, shortly after noon, when my workout and errands were complete, I sat down to the recording of the Boston Marathon.  I was choking back tears of regret watching the Elite Women’s Start when my phone started blowing up.  I received hundreds of voicemails, text messages, and Facebook alerts from friends across the country checking in.  Not only did they want to be sure I was ok, but to make sure all of my teammates and runner friends were safe.  Everyone in my circle accounted for, I felt grateful but deeply devastated by the scores of people who were not so fortunate.  I flooded with emotion that still fills me today with shock and disbelief.

For the past 20-plus hours, glued to the television and online media, I find myself searching for a source of relief, some answers, anything that might make me feel a bit more ok.  Running can be a very solitary and lonely pursuit.  I have covered thousands of miles with no company other than the sound of my breath and my feet.  I am personally driven by my strong sense that even alone, I am connected with something far bigger: my Oiselle team, the greater running community, the breath and life of humanity, even.  And through the outpouring of grace in response to the terrible tragedy of yesterday, this awareness only deepens.

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A Long Road to Recovery

I broke my foot at the end of May.  Out for an easy run three weeks before the US Half Marathon Championships, what had been mild pain that felt like I had worn shoes tied too tightly turned into a sharp pain that forced me to walk hobble three miles home.  I was devastated when I heard the results of the MRI.  It took about a week of complete shock and questions of ‘why me, why now before the biggest race of my running career’ before I could come to terms with focusing on the opportunity.

My running coach tells a story about his father, who started running as an adult and posted his fastest times in his mid-40s.  My coach believes that it takes runners about 10 years of focused training to realize their maximum potential, and always brings up his father when I have concerns about not starting to run seriously until I was 28, getting too old, or feeling like I’ve plateaued.  As a corollary to this idea, he also believes that injuries extend this 10-year period.  I hope he is correct…and with this latest setback, it would mean I might hit new PRs at 40.

Terrified about losing all fitness, I bought a floatation belt, did a little research, and started to do some serious pool running.  I used ideas from Pete Pfitzinger (http://www.pfitzinger.com/labreports/9wkH2O.htm) and built up to a program that mimicked my running schedule, with long workouts reaching almost two hours.

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Great view at the pool

I found I could do long, hard intervals nearly every day, as the recovery required was minimal with no impact.  I am fortunate that I was able to workout outdoors at a beautiful pool and am grateful for all the people at the pool who thought I was crazy enough to want to talk to me about what I doing (breathing so heavily, though moving so slowly).  This helped pass the time.  I had some terrific training partners too.  One, a professional hockey player and good friend, even put on a pair of old sneakers and did an interval workout with me, running on the bottom of the pool!

I spent June and much of July on crutches before I was cleared to walk.  By mid-August, I was able to run, first a minute at a time, slowly building back continuous running time and total running time.  By mid-September, I was up to about 40 minutes of continuous running and ready to test out some speed.

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Posing with my running hero

Lucky for me, it coincided with a running clinic in Vail hosted by one of my greatest heros, Uta Pippig.  She too was recovering from injury, so the clinic was low key.  And Uta was as overjoyed as I was, when we did our first strides in months across a grassy field in Vail.  When we finished, she picked me up and spun me around, as a few tears fell from my eyes.

That same weekend, I decided to enter a local trail race.  At 5k on dirt, I thought it would be ok for testing out my foot, and a good opportunity to attack my fear of re-injury.  It was a slow and challenging race, but I was in the hunt and trading the lead with one other woman.  In the last kilometer, I put a move on her on an uphill climb, hoping I could drop her and then hold the lead until the finish.  I charged my way up the hill with every bit of power I could find, my lungs and legs burning.  For about 30 seconds, I felt like I was really racing for the first time in almost five months.  It was exhilarating, and it worked!

The race was a huge mental breakthrough and a confidence booster for a return to more formal training.  Each week, I was able to add a little more distance and each month, a little more intensity.  Similarly, with road racing, I started with a 5k in November, then a 10k in January, and have a half marathon planned for February.  It has been a long, slow process.  The two road races have been incredibly challenging and PAINFUL.  Sometimes I think back to my fitness before I was injured and cannot believe I was ever able to run those paces and distances.  But I remind myself that every flip-side has a flip-side and that each injury is a lesson.

In this case, the lesson is not yet completely clear to me, but I do often return to this:

I am a runner.  I will always be a runner.  Even when I am not or cannot run, I am still ok and I am still a runner.

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Coach Laing

Today I received a random email from Evann in Alumni Relations at my high school, the University School of Milwaukee (USM).  He wrote:

As a former school athlete, you hopefully have fond memories of your time on USM,  athletic teams. For our next issue of USM Today, we are interested in the role athletics played in your life. Did your life unfold in a new way personally or professionally because of the knowledge gained or skills learned from your school athletic experience? Are you currently in a coaching role, which has offered you the opportunity to reflect on your own athletic experiences? 

So, I responded:

In high school at USM, I was a two-sport varsity athlete in soccer and tennis.  I won individual State Championships in Singles and Doubles, as well as two Tennis Team Championships.  I learned from Coach Laing to play every match to the last point and to play every point with unwavering heart.  During matches, Coach Laing would stand behind the fences and ‘coach’; he never said much, but we always knew when he was there.  And even when he wasn’t, we knew he was behind us, supporting us in his unique, sage-like way.  From Coach Laing, I learned the foundation for mental toughness.  I developed an ability to rely on myself, to fight back when I was down in the score, and to dig deep to find the next gear, even when I was running out of steam.  Coach Laing’s lessons have, of course, translated into critical skills for all aspects of personal and professional experience.  They have become fundamental to my success as a human.   Ironically, I have also been able to put them to good use in an athletic career long after high school.

 In my adult life, I developed a passion for long distance running, focusing primarily on the half-marathon and marathon distances.  Over the past few years, I have surprised myself with increasing success in races.  While I do credit my training and the extra red blood cells I get from living at 7500 feet, I know deeply the feeling of having Coach Laing behind me, supporting me in finding the very best version of myself on race day.  There have been many moments during races when every part of my physical body wants to just stop, but my brain remembers how to dig deep, find the next gear, and push it all the way to the finish.  After a 7th place finish at the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon and a 3rd place finish at the 2012 Arizona Half Marathon, I qualified to race in the USA Track and Field Half Marathon Championships in June.  If you’re in Duluth, Minnesota, come cheer me on!

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