I've written a lot of blog post beginnings over the last 3 months time since my last post. But they have never really resonated with me enough, or my feelings have changed the next moment, or my perspective has shifted. 5 months of my life has past with this still never diagnosed definitively, hard to understand, persistent foot/ankle injury. I spent 10 weeks not running and then the remaining trying to rebuild. But even in that rebuild, things were never straight forward, it was never easy. I had to wake up every day and figure out "what am I capable of today". For every three steps forward there were 17 steps back, left, right like some sort of sadistic samba that I was perpetually out of beat to. It was like a game of whack-a-mole that just would not end. The highs and lows and spaces in between meant, eventually, that I had to really focus on my perspective. I had to relinquish the "return to run" idea for the "return to health and able-bodied functioning". I had to let goal of races and goals and plans and be humbled. I had to face my own running mortality. That may sound to some very somber to some, but I see it instead as a very positive mental shift. I stopped seeing my injury as some plot point on a heroes journey that would inevitably bring me to some triumphant return and be wrapped up in a neat little perfect package. I started seeing my injury as simply the obstacle that I was currently tasked with working through. Sure it hurts and sucks, but life is indeed a series of obstacles, large and small. Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced.
I had to change my perspective and my thinking. I had to turn around my injury and find some benefit, turn it into fuel. I had to stop giving lip service to honoring where you are, and really BE, in the moment, in whatever capacity I was capable of. I had to stop thinking about what I wasn't capable of and start finding out different ways of moving forward. Mostly, I had to stop beating myself up over what I wasn't capable of and start celebrating and executing the things I was capable of. Instead of being paralyzed by sadness every time I had a setback, I had to find a way to feel the grief all while "working the problem". I focused on my mental game and owning my own power and control over the situation. Over time, I felt like even though the samba didn't stop, I was starting to learn the steps and tricks to keep time.
There was never a distinct moment in time when I went from injured to not injured. Even now, I classify myself as "returning from injury" and every day I wake up I have to make an assessment of how I feel. It wasn't until the last week in January that I even felt like I was on a very loose "return to run plan" and that plan included running flat mileage, with minimal climbing, no trails, no speed or workouts. Plus about 950 PT exercises every day, group fitness classes at Fuelhouse in Seattle and grinding hours on the stairclimber. Even as the mileage accumulated, I still felt like I was returning to health, not returning to running. I didn't see the obstacle as overcome and behind me, and so I carefully and methodically, just did what I could. And celebrated each step back.
In all of this, I had races and adventures looming, big goals that I hadn't wiped from my slate but that I was able to also hold lightly, knowing I was not in charge of this process. During the second week of February, I did my first real long run of substance since October. I ran 17 miles with my #birdstrike teammate Cathleen, as we tried to build our mileage for this week's Speed Project 3.0. I felt great, I had no pain. The next week we ran 20 miles pain free, even after having a few bad days in between with pain. Over the course of February, I had to change my perspective on what it meant to feel fit, to tell myself I was fit. I again stopped looking at what I wasn't doing and instead focused on what I was doing: miles, strength, yoga, mobility, PT, radical self-care, nutrition, sleep. I was on point, building myself back up without a whole lot of glamour or big sparkly wins. I was just grinding, working. And I found joy in that. I saw progress in that.
After a fall and winter of having races on the calendars and then missing them, it was with some trepidation that I kept Caumsett 50km, the USATF road national championship, on my calendar. As it loomed closer, I made an important decision: I was going to run it. I felt that despite the fact that my training was not yet what I wanted, hell I didn't even do my first workout until the week of Caumsett and my longest long run was a week before the race (as well as 11 miles shorter than the race itself), that it was important for me to get back on a start line. I didn't want to make my transition back to racing a huge pressure situation or an A goal race, I wanted it to be something for me, a symbolic moment of transition, of liberation from this obstacle. A week before Caumsett, I said to a friend about her own race, "you have nothing to lose and nothing to prove" and as I journeyed to New York to race, I realized that this was not just true for her, but for me as well. Win, lose, fast, slow, it didn't matter- I had made it to a race and for that I was just grateful and filled with joy. I was free of expectations because I was able to be real about my fitness and speed (or lack there of). I suffered no nerves and instead just lined up curious to what the day would reveal.
Before the race, I started calling this my first pancake race. I feel like I want to refrain from explaining this because if you don't understand it, you just need to make more pancakes. The gist: you gotta start somewhere. And a lot can happen. So I showed up in New York and let it shake out.
Caumsett was indeed a tasty pancake. We were treated to an unexpected cold burst, with temperatures in the mid-teens BEFORE accounting for the wind, when it had been 60 degrees the week before. I nearly didn't pack any cold weather clothes at all since when I had looked at the weather report the week before the low was going to be about 40. Running in that kind of cold was actually a benefit to me since it further encouraged me not to run outside of myself since that kind of brutal cold affects performance by a good 3-5% (according to the internet). I bundled up, got on the line and bang, off we went. The course is a 5km loop, repeated 10 times. I was quickly left in the dust by last year's winner Caroline Boller and this year's eventual winner, as I got moving around 7 min pace. I just wanted to find a pace that felt good and maintainable. I wanted to see where the end of my endurance was at a quick but not suicidal pace.
It was very cold, but I settled in to a rhythm and cranked along in 3rd place, happy to be feeling good and pain free. And like I had been for the past few months, I just kept grinding. Loops passed, my body held. Around lap 4 or 5, my mind tried some games on me, but for the first time, instead of indulging the thoughts or getting emotional, I just said, no thanks, reframed and kept myself in control. I choose positive or neutral. I said, yep, these middle loops are boring but we are not going to occupy this space with problems that don't exist. Let's just stay present and keep chopping, keep working. I practiced some of the mindfulness techniques that I've been utilizing while using the Headspace app over the last many months, but instead of counting breathes, I counted laps and they dwindled and dwindled. I simply was able to fly free. With two laps to go, I was informed that unfortunately Caroline had to drop and I had moved into second place. While in other circumstances, I might have been enticed to try and chase down first (who I had no idea how far ahead she was), I took it as an opportunity to just keep grinding, or like Dori in Finding Nemo, "just keep swimming, swimming, swimming". My pace stayed strong, my energy held despite taking only 4 gels in the whole race and I allowed the experience of each step to fill me with pride. I split the marathon in 3:10 and didn't back down from there, despite the fact that the wind had intensified. I ran my 10th lap with joy, with gratitude. I ran that 10th lap for myself and everything that I overcame to get there. I crossed the line as the clock dared to touch 3:46 (3:45:56 or some such business). 2nd place in the national championship. My first pancake showed me that yes, I am going in the right direction. Yes, I am healing. Yes, I can run without pain. No, I will not return to where I was, I will in fact arrive somewhere else as someone else completely.
This race was not a perfect ending to my injury story. It didn't neatly tie it all up and cue the music and credits. It was a step, it was progress. It was moving the line. It was a celebration. If there is any great take away that I have from this injury and this part of my life's journey, it is this: be deeply connected to the process, not the prize. As Ryan Holiday says in the "Obstacle is the Way:: "Process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture."