A year of not running: being happy when the shit hits the fan

For runners and triathletes, not being able to run or train for any length of time feels like torture. Not being able to do it for A YEAR is generally unthinkable and horrifying. Whatever kind of athlete you are, when suddenly you can no longer do much of anything, it’s a fucking nightmare difficult transition.

Sometimes, the unthinkable happens. 

Just over a year ago, I did a half-iron triathlon. It was the fittest and strongest I have ever been in my life; yet, when I crossed the finish line after just over 7 hours, I allowed myself only a split second (no joke. maybe one full second.) worth of joy before the “could-have-done-better” began. Shortly thereafter, the shit hit the fan big time, with my body going into a year of perplexing dysfunction and often-debilitating pain. During this time, I’ve probably spent more time getting health care – with doctors (6), physical therapists (4), chiropractors (3), acupuncturists (3), the ART (active release techniques) guy (1), and, thank GOD, one truly remarkable therapist – than I have spent training. There were times, over the Winter, when the pain was at its worst, that I honestly did not think I could live with it, that I *wanted* to live with it. It is, so thankfully, much better now, but my activities are still very limited.

I’m not going to say I’ve got it all figured out, by any stretch; but I must admit, I have handled it all about a zillion times better than I would have anticipated. Early on, I thought I’d “go crazy” or “lose my mind.” I’ve done my best to stay active on the days and in the ways in which I’ve been able. And, though I’ve lost a lot of strength physically…I’ve most definitely picked up strength mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Here are a few of the things I’d like every athlete coping with an injury…or every athlete who may one day deal with an injury, so, basically every athlete…to know. And, actually, these things are just as applicable to non-athletes, too.

Let yourself truly celebrate your achievements, while staying humble and grateful. 

I can see from my new vantage point here mostly on the sidelines that a more fitting finish line response a year ago would have been sobbing tears of joy while doing cartwheels and screaming “OMFG! OMFG! OMFG! I AM ON TOP OF OF THE WORLD!!!” On the other hand, there’s something to be said for humility, which is part of what you learn from this type of experience. The universe, it seems, does not want you to have a big old arrogant head; conversely, it does not want you to relentlessly beat the crap out of yourself. And oddly enough it is very possible – commonplace, even – to do both simultaneously. If Facebook triathlon groups are any indication, I am not alone in this regard.

So, let yourself *really* feel those intensely joyful, peak experiences while also not having the arrogance to take them the least bit for granted. Because really – none of us ever knows when a race or a ride or a run or a walk for that matter may be our last for a very long time or even forever. 

Humility goes hand in hand with gratitude. For me, now, every swim, every ride when they can happen, and every one-mile jog-walk which I just now am finally able to try – is a win. It’s tempting to belittle it, but NO. It’s an absolute gift.

Learn to stay with your feelings, not run from them. 

Whether we’re aware of it or not, many of us routinely run from our feelings of insecurity, groundlessness, fear and sadness. This has been a HUGE strategy for me my whole life, and I don’t do it halfway: when my Mom and Dad were getting divorced, I picked up and moved to the other side of the country. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone by any means, but for me, triathlon training – as much as I often genuinely enjoyed it – became just another means of running from my feelings of deep dissatisfaction and of not being good enough.

In this way, being “forced” by my injury to sit still long enough to feel my feelings was a true blessing. I’d go so far as to say, as hard as it’s been, I’m grateful for it. When you sit still long enough to actually experience your not-so-happy feelings, you move through them and…guess what…then you feel the HAPPY feelings more, too. The universe is amazing that way.

To do this, instead of distracting yourself from your feelings via whatever means you traditionally do (Facebook? Cookies? Another work out when you really don’t need one?)…just hang with them. Let them be. Give them some room to breathe.

Read or listen to some Pema Chodron. She has become my favorite writer during all of this, after my therapist recommended her. And she can say all of this much better than I. When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, The Wisdom of No Escape … all incredible books that will help you through any injury and probably change your life.

The big one: Learn to listen to your true self. 

With every swim, every bike, every run, every weight lifted, I was, without awareness, on a mission to prove to myself that I was good. So much so that, even after one particular PT whom I saw only once accidentally went too far and made my injury worse, I put myself through an awful 13-mile run, which was intended to be my first training run for the Chicago Marathon. Clearly this was not in the cards; my body was telling me almost every step of that run to stop. I ignored it, and listened to the louder voice of “I can push through this.” Because I felt if I didn’t, I would have failed. I would have been less. At times, on that run, it felt like I was punishing myself for some unknown offense. I truly crossed a line.

But it is not our training or our race times or our accomplishments that makes us good. We all have innate goodness (or Buddha nature, if you’re into that, as I am). Sometimes we need to learn to listen to THAT voice…not the voice of our egos but the voice of our deeper selves. If there is a nagging “doubt” in your mind, you might need to listen.

As endurance athletes, we all walk a fine line. Sometimes it is completely appropriate to listen to that voice in our head that drives us, that pushes us farther than we’ve gone before, the voice of motivation and determination. And, sometimes, as I have now learned the hard way (actually, there IS no easy way), the voice that whispers “stop” is more true. Learning to distinguish between the two has been an absolutely invaluable lesson.

Thank you, Universe. 

For the first time in my life, even though I can’t run even a mile, even though I have regained some of the weight I lost three years ago, even though I am not racing these summer weekends like so many of my friends, I can honestly say that I believe I am good. It’s a very peaceful feeling.

If you are dealing with an injury or the shit has hit the fan and you want to chat, drop me a line. I understand.

  • Linda Neff

    Completely motivating and inspiring – thank you Sue for your honesty – a reminder that there are lines worth crossing and those that are detrimental in the pursuit of accomplishment.

    • suespaight

      Thank you, Linda!

  • http://bananza.tumblr.com/ Anne Munkwitz

    Sue, this post has stuck with me since I first read it. I’ve thought about it a few times since then. I struggle in many of the same ways you do, but the line that got me was this:

    “…instead of distracting yourself from your feelings via whatever means you traditionally do (Facebook? Cookies? Another work out when you really don’t need one?)…just hang with them. Let them be. Give them some room to breathe.”

    Thank you for sharing, I love that you are learning to be still and know that you are good. And I’m glad to see you are back at it writing. :)

    • suespaight

      Anne, I’m sorry I’m just seeing this now, when I came back to write again. There was a vacation in there…but still. Thank you so much for your comment. It means a lot to me to know that this resonates with someone other than myself. Namaste. :)