Who I am – Without Running?

When did it become commonplace to define one’s life by a single subjective thing? When did we start whittling a person’s existence to a singularity; a career, a relationship or single attribute? Throughout evolution mammals never fixated on  one thing – if they had, they never would have survived. So why do we choose to judge, assume or react to ourselves and others based solely on one single attribute? Whether that be a physical characteristic, a personality trait or a job, modern society – enhanced by social media – encourages these snap judgements and generalizations.
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Photo Credit: Mike Thurk

I’ve certainly fell into this trap, especially when it comes to the activities I do. Since finding the sport, I have built a whole new life around running and the person I am as a runner. It’s an empowering community. To be surrounded by people who share your passions and can relate about gross toenails, ducking into the woods for a quick “break,” and especially those tiny moments where you feel so small, yet so connected to this vast universe. It’s addicting and can quickly become all you care about.

 

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

Recently, I’ve been forced to reevaluate this lifestyle. Now, the community and environment that has been a source of joy, belonging and acceptance has become painful. Running doesn’t come naturally to me now, it’s a battle of recovery, to regain strength so I can walk normally. Instead of finding solace in this community, connected and cemented in the life-centering activity of running, I find myself angry and consumed with grief. It has become isolating – a self inflicted ailment. Since I’m not running at the moment, I feel as though I have lost my identity, who I am. I’m lost in getting back to the “runner I was.” Trying desperately to prove to myself that this emptiness I feel can be fixed if I can just run again, if I could just walk down the street like a normal person, if I could just push through the pain of each step, if I could only go back in time and not step on that rock that cast me off the mountain side. If only . . . .

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Am I really that unbalanced? To be someone who defines their entire self-worth solely on one activity? Before my accident I would have defined myself as a balanced person. I have a Masters degree in Neuroscience and I teach Chemistry, Biology, and Physiology at a small college in Colorado. Anyone who knows me can see my extreme fascination and intrigue in the world around me, with science, especially with bugs, lizards and frogs. It’s been a passion of mine long before I became a runner and will likely continue to be something that captivates me long after I stop running competitively. I do have a life outside of running and I enjoy fostering those interests.

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Yet, I am still devastated by this state of injury I find myself in, and the halo of sadness that constantly surrounds me. So much so that it has begun to negatively affect my life outside of running, those interesting parts of me that have always been there. I’m realizing now that I have intertwined my identity with running. My injury is temporary, and as I continue to show signs of progress to regaining my strength and a sense of normalcy, this feeling of disconnection still persists. It can be dangerous, especially when ‘health’ and being ‘injury free’ seems to be the only cure – the promise of a wholly better self in all capacities, even those that weren’t directly injured in my accident. It is the utopian idea that once I can run again, all of my problems will disappear. But this is not true. Real life problems, the ones that running once helped alleviate, have a persistent nature and lay in wait for the next time I slow down or find myself injured again.

So I ask the question: who am I without running? Beyond my job, my hobbies, my relationships, what lays in wait there? I’ve struggled immensely since my injury and it’s forced me to take a deeper look and connect with who I am at my core – without the preconception of a job, activity or physical attribute interfering.

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

It’s a difficult question to ask, one I still struggle with. In fact, I’m still amid the process of introspection. It is the part of the injury recovery process that most people don’t get to see, and one we most often try to keep private, attempting to hide our struggle from others to save face. Why? I’m not sure I have those answers quite yet. I’m finding a sense of ease in the process but I still struggle. The biggest impact of this rebuilding process has been that I no longer look at myself through the lens of singularity. I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes. One that enjoys being outside, with eyes glued to the ground in search of bugs, or frogs, simply because it makes me giggle and brings me joy. I want more of that complexity and diversity in my life. This injury and break from running has been immensely difficult but the blessing has been the lessons it has taught me about myself.

Of course, I’ll get back to running – it brings me so much joy to move in that way – but I’m no longer allowing my happiness to be fixed to that linear timeline. In the meantime, anyone want to go bug hunting?

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20 thoughts on “Who I am – Without Running?

  1. I went through something very similar. An injury took me out of running for about 6 months and it was devastating. It was crazy, I had moments where I really felt like i was nothing if i couldn’t run. Now looking back, I am glad that it happened. I realize now that there can’t be any one thing outside myself that defines who i am–cause all of these things can be taken away, and many will be, at some point–cause that’s life. I’ve tried to focus now on building a strong foundation on the inside–letting how i treat people and how i act in the world define me–and I try to let all these outside things–running, writing, yoga, just be these awesome things that add to but don’t define that character.
    Great piece–brought up a lot for me obviously! Thanks!

    • I’m so glad you can relate!! It’s easy to get caught up in what we do, but so important to realize we are so much more than that. I’m glad your injury taught you that!

    • Bryan J says:

      Wishing you a speedy recovery. I just finished a book call The Long Run by Matt Long that is an inspirational story of a NY firefighter/marathoner/Ironman who was ran over by a bus and given a 5% chance to live. He battled back with the ultimate goal of running again and I think the story might be worth your time.
      I’m done with the book and will gladly donate it and drop it in the mail for you to enjoy.
      Just send me an email and it’ll be on the way!
      Good luck!

  2. Kaci Lickteig says:

    This was just what I needed to read. I am also going through an injury that has taken me out of running for over 4 months. It is like a piece of me is missing, yet I am finding out the other part of who I am. I wish us a full recovery and happiness along the way. Stay strong my friend. 🙂

    • You too Kaci! I’m so glad you can relate and i’m so sorry for your injury too, I know how hard it is and to feel like something is missing. Keep your head up, we will be back in full force, stronger than ever!

  3. Susan Adamkovics says:

    Very well written. I 110% understand every word you are saying. It is a hard battle….one of the hardest you will ever face. In the end you will win, because that is the kind of person you are. In the past, I have said…I will learn something valuable about myself out of this, but I just don’t know what that is at the moment..that’s me trying to put a silver lining around a very shitty situation 🙂 You got this one…trust in yourself.

    • Thank you for reading. It’s hard to try to find the meaning in things especially when you’re in the middle of it (it’s like trying to write about a race while you are racing). The lessons will come in time, it’s a good start to be aware.

  4. Rodney D Millard says:

    Great story, I think all athletes go through this at some point in there athletic life. I have, and I believe it helps make you understand yourself a little better.
    And helps create a better person!!😊.
    Thank You for being so candid. I feel a connection.
    I wish you a full , happy recovery.
    Al the BEST 😊

  5. trailandkale says:

    That made for a great read, thank you Hillary!

    We can relate but on a much smaller scale of the injury spectrum. Wishing you all the best in your recovery, you’ll be back at it in no time!

    Until then, enjoy the other simple things that life has to offer, like bug hunting! 🙂

    Best wishes,

    Alastair & Helen (Trail & Kale)

  6. Víctor says:

    Hola Hillygoat, ¿te puedo responder?…Eres una tía super simpática que rie hasta de ver la lluvia. Y eso que tan solo te conozco de hablar contigo 30 segundos, sentados en un banco, en la puerta del supermercado de Barruera en la Buff Epic Trail 2016.
    Hoy me preguntaba, que tal tu recuperación tras Tromso y he leido este Blog. Pasé por algo parecido en 2012 y conocí a gente en mucha peor situación que la mía, no obstante mi frustración era grande al no poder hacer cualquier rutina y la incertidumbre de la recuperación casi era aún peor. Tras un año de recuperación, la sensación al poder disfrutar de todo lo que no pude hacer durante mi lesión es de una alegría inmensa cada día, da igual al nivel que sea capaz. De hecho hay días que río yo sólo justo cuando salgo a correr o cuando empiezo un entrenamiento de escalada. Además la empatía hacia la gente con dolor y/o enfermedad, creo que me ha hecho crecer como persona.
    La vida no es sólo para los guapos, rapidos y listos.
    Espero que desaparezca en ti todo el dolor y le sepas sacar jugo a este periodo. Por cierto si pasas de nuevo por España, estaré encantado de bichear contigo buscando insectos o anfibios.
    Un saludo.

    • Victor!! Muchas gracias por tu nota. De verdad, tus palabras y sentimientos me hacen llorar . . . de felicidad, a saber que hay gente en este mundo, como tu, que puede entender este tiempo en mi vida. Pienso que mi recuperación (y el tuyo) es una oportunidad a aprender sobre yo misma, y ponerme mejor y mas fuerte. Al mismo tiempo, es lo mas dificil tiempo en mi vida, pero cada dia tengo que elegir que hacer, y cada día estoy recuperando mas y mas. Por supuesto regresaré a España. Es como mi hogar segundo 🙂 si pases por Colorado dime, podemos buscar por insectos y ranas aqui también 🙂 Besos y abrazos! Estoy feliz que estas recuperado de tu lesion también.

  7. Molly says:

    Super great to read about all of this on Outside and your blog. Running has been my sanity and release for the last twenty years, but I broke my leg last September and it’s been super hard. It’s been 9 months, a slower recovery than expected by the professionals around me, and I’m still not back to “normal”… but I’m getting there. I ran this morning and, while it hurt, I PR’d and got 2nd overall on a hill segment on Strava. I know I’m not the only one in recovery and I, too, know this is temporary, but those things don’t always make it easier. This has been the hardest experience I’ve endured. It’s so helpful to read about the recovery of others, and to be reminded to stay strong and determined to recover with all that I have. I love your idea of having a white board in your room asking, “Did I honor my process today? Did I take care of myself today?” Thank you for the encouragement and inspiration. I pray your recovery continues to build you into a stronger you (runner, teacher, friend, companion, role model, etc.).

    • Thank you so much for reading Molly!! I’m so glad to hear about your recovery and that it’s going better now. It’s all those days that you wanted to give up, but didn’t!! Those are what count!! So happy for you! It’s the hard things in life that show us what we are made of. 🙂

  8. Hillary, I know I’m not the first to say you’re incredible, and I’m sure you’re sick of/used to hearing it. I’m from Milwaukee, WI, and am friends with Laura Green through November Project (I used to co-lead in MKE). I love love love your WI notes podcast (and stumbled upon a song called Boll Weevil by Punch Brothers, give it a listen).

    I’ve always been active, and the past six years I’ve gotten into long distance running, but grew up playing soccer. April 8 of this year, I tore my ACL and both menisci and had surgery exactly six months ago. It sucked. Also having anxiety and depression/history of an eating disorder and managing it with running didn’t make taking such an extended period of time off easy. I first listened to your WI notes episode in the middle of recovery when I was having an incredibly shitty week of pain, frustration, mental exhaustion, etc. You said a lot of things I needed to hear then, and I kept thinking about the lessons you (and I) learned by being faced with really awful circumstances.

    I re-listened to the episode today during a five mile (!!!) run and was sobbing while I ran haha. It was amazing to get to the other side of mental battles (although there will always be new ones), know that I wasn’t the same, and instead of defining myself by my marathon time, defining myself by the depth of my relationships, the love I had put into my knee recovery, and the mental toughness I gained along the way.

    Thank you for being open with what you went through, thank you for understanding what’s truly important, and for being a great model for average Joe’s like me. It’s not often you find a vulnerable, honest, raw elite athlete and I love that about you. Keep being awesome, and thank you for everything you’ve done to help my recovery!! -Christine

    • Hi Christine! This message is so sweet and really makes my heart feel full. Thank you so much for reading, listening and taking the time to write to me! It really makes all the difference to me and motivates me to keep being honest and open during my recovery and athletic career. If I can help just one person get through a tough time or injury, it really makes all the struggling and suffering worth it. Thank you for all the kind words and I’m so happy for you and your recovery! It makes me smile so big that I could be a part of it! Thank you 🙂

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