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.
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.
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.