“So are you disappointed that you can’t run?”
Ah, an innocent seeming question from a well-meaning person. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve been asked this throughout my especially injury-ridden career. Other sports have their iterations: “Do you miss playing soccer since your concussion?” “Is it hard to watch your teammates play without you?”
My usual answer: “Yes, but I’ll be back soon!”
In my head: “Yes. Yes, OBVIOUSLY I’m disappointed I can’t run. What do you expect? I want to be faster more than I want oxygen (or else I wouldn’t be sprinting those repeat quarters, trust me.) I HATE sitting here on the sidelines, awkwardly jogging in the water and sleeping in on Sundays. Ok, the sleeping in part is nice but then I feel guilty all day until I spin for 90 minutes and try not to eat my feelings since I only burned like 300 calories + however much your body takes to live, which isn’t much these days since my muscles are slowly wasting away. And ok, life is kind of easier now and I can go out on weekends but I feel like I’m missing some color in my life. I miss it so badly that I have to swallow hard when I think about it. But I don’t really want to tell you that because you might think I’m too obsessed and for some reason that makes me feel insecure about how badly I want to do this versus how good I actually am, even though it shouldn’t so… yeah. I guess overall we can call that ‘disappointed’.”
I don’t mind talking about my injuries: anatomical descriptions and recovery times and all the bloody details. It’s just that if anyone asks me how I feel, it’s hard to be open. Learning to fail, and to hurt, and to get back up has been incredibly impactful on my life. Running was my first love, the first thing I discovered on my own, and thing I’ve most wholeheartedly dedicated myself to. It’s broken my heart more completely and consistently than anything or anyone I’ve ever known. But when it’s good, it feels like flying.
Running touches my soul in such a unique way that bearing the truth about how it affects me feels incredibly intimate. I don’t want someone to take my answer lightly or trivialize the experience or to misconstrue it into something that is unhealthy or cause for pity.
Someone close to me recently asked me, tenderly, “Hannah, how does it feel for you not to be able to run?”
At first I pushed the question away, “Oh, it’s hard; it’s definitely isolating. But I learn so much about myself during these times… ” But a minute went by and I realized that I wanted to try to articulate what the experience is like.
So I did some thinking. Why is it so profoundly painful to get injured?
Perhaps the biggest struggle is that athletes pride themselves in the ability to hide fear and pain. Sure, we’re proud of our post-lactic puke. And we’re not trying to disguise how much a fast 5k burns. But it’s the smaller stuff that we hide.
When I stand on the line before the gun goes off, I’m trying to function through decently strong physiological anxiety. Even in the days leading up to big races, there have been times when I’ve struggled to swallow food I normally love, or had to take frequent trips to the bathroom. When this happens, I know: my body is straight-up scared.
And then there’s the other side of that coin: the adrenal let-down. The days when I wake up and wonder if I’ll be able to get out of bed. The days when I’m so tired from training that my brain runs on autopilot: essential functions only. The days when I almost convince myself that I’m too exhausted to do a run.
That’s the stuff that we don’t talk about NEARLY as much as it happens, and that’s the stuff that we have to handle with grace if we want to be successful in our sport.
So maybe dealing with discomfort and fear and disappointment isn’t that hard part of being injured; we’re used to that stuff.
The hard part, at least for me, is the sheer obviousness of our pain and disability to the outside observer. It’s learning that for right now, you can’t just rely on yourself. That doesn’t come naturally when you’re used to a sport where it’s all on you. But learning to be vulnerable and to trust your support system and your wholeness as a person (sans running) is incredibly valuable, and something I’m still working on.
Being injured has broken me hard and fast and more than once, but I’ve become more whole because of it. Someday the challenge I face won’t be running, but through these experiences, I’m empowering myself to make it through what’s next.
So I’ll leave you with a metaphor (simile? It’s been too long, sorry Erf!) that I feverishly wrote in my journal one night when I was dealing with a bout of heartsickness about whatever my latest injury was.
Running is like wakeboarding.
When you’re strong, you’re flying—everything is in perfect flow as you skate over the water. Sometimes it gets bumpy, but you hold on. You learn to trust yourself and your ability. Others see this and aspire to this. Sometimes, though, you look down at the water rushing under your feet and you feel your aching fingers losing grip and realize that you’re completely terrified to let go.
Instead of letting go, you wait for too long. Without warning, you’re down—hard. Your body slaps the water and leaves your skin stinging, and for a few moments you’re completely disoriented. But the water is warm and enveloping and your life jacket helps you surface gently. The boat is in the distance, already turning around to come get you.
The talent, the muscle memory, the support system, the feeling, the flow—it’s all there. You won’t lose it and it won’t leave you. You just have to reset and go again.