Here I am again?

Step, slide, crack. Step, slide, crack. Step. Slide. Crack.

 

I grab my ankle, feeling the pain. Declaring to myself “You’re ok! You’re ok!”

 

I know it’s broken. I’m familiar with the feeling. I’ve been through this before – breaking a bone for the first time (make that 14 bones). The trauma from my previous accident is fresh. The sound of my ankle cracking immediately brings memories of my rescue – helicopters, doctors, panic. Then memories of my recovery – an inability to move, or cook, or bathe, or take care of myself.

 

I start crying in panic. Repeating to myself “I don’t know if I can do this again. How can I do this again?!”

 

This is my reality. After 18 months of clawing my way back from a nearly fatal accident, rediscovering my strength as a human and athlete, I’m here again. Injured. Broken.

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Photo by Mike Thurk, September 2017

The emotions that are going through my head are numerous. But one that’s louder than the rest, is anger. Why did this happen again? Did I deserve it? Is there still something more to learn?

 

I want to scream!

 

I don’t know if I have the strength to do this. Again.

 

I read the influx of encouragement and support from my friends and the running community.

 

It’s ok to be angry. For now, anyways.

 

I’m reminded that I’m enough. The words of my dear friend David Steele, repeat in my head.

 

The portions of your self worth that are all bound up in being an athlete, on being able to perform —this is a chance to remember the other parts of yourself.

This is a reminder to be a whole person. Finding joy and success and personal, internal stability in the web of all those aspects and complexities of what makes you, you – that’s the goal.

 

 

 

Things happen for a reason – if you chose to let them. I’m reminded to take a deep breath, feel what I’m feeling and believe. BELIEVE. That this too, will create, reignite and provide an opportunity for growth.

 

 

 

Do you need more stories of perseverance? Check out the new podcast, Athletes Unfiltered, it will inspire you to keep digging deep when times get hard.

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Power Your Own Adventure

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang initiative.

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Photo by Josh Uhl

 

Traffic drives me crazy. Literally. It’s one of those things that I will avoid at all costs. I rearrange my schedule, I ride my bike to appointments, I carpool, I even get up before sunrise to be the first one at the trailhead. But, sometimes getting in a car and being stuck in traffic is inevitable.

I’m a Colorado native, so I’ve been witness to the incredible growth of the Front Range the past decade. As someone who dislikes the extra bustling on the roads but loves to recreate outdoors and in the mountains – which I totally need a car to get to – I’ve had to get creative to avoid those traffic jams, while still getting to the places I enjoy most.

So, I got really excited when I learned about CDOT’s Bustang lines. It’s a bus service that commutes along the front range of I-25 and the I-70 mountain corridors and links major transit systems together. Right now they’re even providing extra routes to DTC from I-25 to help with commuter traffic from all the construction.

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As a professional endurance athlete, I train in the mountains. I live in Boulder, CO, so the foothills are accessible from my doorstep, and for those trips I like to get to where I’m going by using the power of my body. Whether that means riding my bike to a trailhead or starting a run from my house instead of at the proper trailhead, I like to power my own adventures. But, let’s be honest, to have access to the bigger mountains, I can’t always ride my bike there, I need a car. Driving, however, takes time and energy, especially with all the new traffic on the roads. This is where Bustang comes in –  I was intrigued by the opportunities for adventures without the headache of traffic and driving.

 

I wanted to try out Bustang and see how reliable and easy it could be. There’s a lot of  route/trip options Ride Bustang offers, but I decided to take the South Line to Colorado Springs, one of my favorite places to trail run. But, once I got there, I didn’t want to be limited without a car, so I decided to bring my bike along on.

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Riding to Denver on the bike path from Boulder

For this adventure I wanted the theme to be as ‘self-propelled’ as possible. I also had some company along the way too, because adventures are so much better with a partner! From Boulder, I wanted to ride my bike to Union Station in Denver to catch the bus. So, we packed up our bikes with a few changes of clothes, lots of warm layers, an assortment of food and running shoes.

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Our packed up bikes

 

The ride to Denver from Boulder is a continuous bike path, and then there was less than a quarter mile of actual road to reach Union Station. I already had our Bustang tickets downloaded on my phone with the Just Ride Bustang app, so I just scanned the tickets, loaded the bikes on the rack and we were ready to go. The bus ride to Colorado Springs, even in rush hour traffic, was less than 2 hours. I was already impressed.

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Once we got there, since I had my bike, transportation was simple. Our Airbnb was a short ride from downtown Colorado Springs, same with all the restaurants. So, it was pretty straightforward to get around with my bike and Google maps.

The next day was when the real fun began! I had mapped out a route to ride my bike from downtown Colorado Springs, up a gravel dirt road, to the trailhead of Mount Rosa. The peak itself, which is visible from the city, sits at 11,533 feet, but since the gravel road dead-ends at the trailhead (around 9,500 feet) we planned to lock up the bikes and go by foot from the trailhead to the top of Mount Rosa.

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I wasn’t sure of the road or trail conditions, but I was pretty certain there would be some snow and ice up high – again, it was December. But, I read the road was maintained, so we thought we’d give it a try. We packed up the bikes with extra water, extra warm clothes, and lots of food – it was going to be an all-day adventure.

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Photo by Josh Uhl

Going south from downtown, we headed to Cheyenne Mountain State park to find Old Stage Road. This road climbs 22 miles and 5,000 feet of steep terrain before reaching the trailhead for Mount Rosa. What’s incredible is that this road leads all the way to the summit of a neighboring peak, Mount Almagre too – and Almagre sits at 12,367 feet! As the road reached more of a plateau, it got rather snowy and icy, which made for some interesting bike riding.

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The road got fairly rough and really icy around 9,000 feet, so we found a good spot to hide the bikes, switched into running shoes and started running toward the trailhead for Mount Rosa. Once there, it was all snowy trail to the summit. Even for December, the weather was clear and the sun was out, although it was 30 degrees.

After returning to the bikes, it was time for a chilly descent back into town – and lots of food!

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photo by Josh Uhl

The next morning we reversed the trip home, catching Bustang back to Union Station and then riding my bike back to Boulder. It was such an incredible trip and not having to sit in traffic or deal with the headache of driving made the trip even better! CDOT really has provided a reliable and fast alternative for commuting along the Front Range and it’s a resource I plan to use again. I’m already planning my next adventure, this time heading west! Where would you want to take the ‘Stang?

 

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

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“Many people have been impressed, even awestruck with my recovery. I’ve been asked frequently how it was possible to recover so quickly and to such a high level after such a serious accident. Although the process was grueling, arduous and full of set backs, my success in recovery can be attributed to one thing – my strength program.

— Hillary Allen

So what’s the deal with a strength routine for endurance athletes? Is it necessary? Won’t it make me slower, or cause me to bulk up?

These are questions I’ve asked myself, and excuses I’ve relied upon to prevent me from entering the weight room. As a professional ultra runner for The North Face, if I want to improve performance, it’s an easy default to think I must do MORE – miles, hours, vertical feet – to make improvements. Since the race distances I cover range from 30 -70 miles in one go, and cover extreme elevation changes, my immediate thought is – I need to put in a ton of volume so my body can handle these distances on race day.

Although this argument is true to some extent – running is the most specific way to train for a running race – it’s not the complete picture. If my body isn’t strong enough to withstand my training load, injuries will start to creep in. The most common source of injuries in runners originate from weak hips or core. These are the powerhouses which support the biomechanics of running, so why don’t we pay more attention to them, and strengthen them?

As an endurance runner, I did zero strength work. It wasn’t until I got my first running injury that I saw a physical therapist and began to understand the importance of strength. My injury was a pinched nerve in my calf. I thought I had strained it running, but it really resulted from a weak glute causing severe compensation issues. I was forced to stop running and had no choice but go to the gym and address my hip imbalances.

At first I viewed my gym work as a tedious task, boring, and something I could leave behind when I returned to the trails. But, when I was able to start running again, I noticed how smooth, fluid and effortless my running felt. Maybe it could be the strength work? So, I continued my strength routine as I upped my running volume and I continued to see the benefits. It was the strength work that changed my body’s ability to withstand my training load. It became my new routine, and kept me injury free for 2 years, competing at a professional level.

Last year, however, I was faced with a new challenge. During the final race of my season, a rock gave way underneath my foot and I fell 150 feet off of a ridge-line. I broke 14 bones including my back and some major ligaments in my feet and ankles. I was told I would never run again, let alone compete at a world class level. My spirit – and body – were crushed.

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I was faced with an intense recovery, starting from ground zero. I had to learn how to walk again before I could even think about running. So what did I do? I got my butt into the weight room.

Now, I’m going to ruin the surprise, but nearly a year after sustaining such traumatic injuries I’m back competing and running. Many people have been impressed, even awestruck with my recovery. I’ve been asked frequently how it was possible to recover so quickly and to such a high level after such a serious accident. Although the process was grueling, arduous and full of set backs, my success in recovery can be attributed to one thing – my strength program.

Long before I could run, or even walk properly, I was working with Matt Smith at Revo Physiotherapy and Sports Performance. I would come in 5 days a week working on my hip strength, glute activation, and an all around strength program for endurance athletes. If it wasn’t for their devotion and expertise in rebuilding my body (and booty), I would have never been strong enough to start running trails again. It wasn’t about the number of miles I was putting in, it was about how strong my supporting framework was to withstand the training, allowing me to compete at my first ultra only 10 months after the accident.

So if you have doubts about your performance, maybe some niggles that keep popping up, or you’re in need of an off-season activity, I encourage you to head into Revo. They will get you up and running again, and stronger than before. From a performance and injury prevention perspective, strength training is the best thing I ever did for my endurance running.

So go work on that booty, you’ll enjoy more about it than just the look in the mirror.

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Strength training for endurance athletes

What’s Nutrition Got to do with it?

No matter how you slice it, training won’t add up unless you’re refilling your tank – and not with just anything – with quality fuel.

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When I speak about nutrition, most athletes focus in on racing. They think about gels and the number of calories they should be consuming to maintain a race effort. Of course, this is an important part of nutrition, but it’s not the whole picture. I think more holistically, not only about my needs during my training, but about my day-in, day-out habits of fueling pre run, post run and everything in between.

I, personally abide by a plant-based diet. Even with all the traveling I do, it’s really quite simple to stick to. Skratch Labs products play a key role in supporting this lifestyle and my training. Now, if you’re curious about this plant-based diet, the science supporting it and specifics of meeting your body’s requirements, I encourage you to check out Thought for Food Lifestyle for great information and resources surrounding the powerful world of plants. Then start doing some research on your own! But for now, I’ll take you back to the task at hand, and tell you my general routine for fueling pre run and post run during a big week of training.

The big take away – eat often, eat sufficiently and (for me at least) eat all the plants you can!

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I recently completed a 105 mile route through the alps, over 4 days. Some know about this course, it follows the race course of the famous Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc ultra marathon over 3 countries and around the Mont Blanc massif. It’s a gnarly course, with 33,000 ft of positive elevation gain. The average finish time is about 40 hours. To complete this thing, not only did I have to eat properly during my runs, to maintain energy, but I also had to eat properly, before and especially after, to recover adequately.

 

First of all, consuming sufficient calories and quality calories is the first step. During a run I aim for 200 calories per hour, strictly from a carbohydrate source. I use Skratch Labs drink mix and Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews (the new matcha flavor is my FAV!) during my runs. I also like to bring along fruit for an extra crunch and treat for the summits. Typically, I start fueling in the second hour of my run, only because I started my days with a good breakfast (oatmeal, fruit and nuts), that would tide me over the first hour. Then, it’s a matter of staying on top of the fueling throughout the duration of my runs, which were typically 6-7 hours each day for this route. I’ve found that if I fuel well during my run, I’m more likely to recovery more quickly, physically feel better (less sore, achy, etc.) and to run better the next day. This also includes hydration! Skratch Labs drink mix is the perfect balance for full hydration – not only replenishing my water loss, but also my salt loss. I’ve had a sweat test to determine exactly how much salt i’m losing per hour – so I know exactly how much drink mix I need to replenish it. Science is pretty neat!

The big take away here is – eat and drink during your run! It has long term benefits and aids in overall recovery!

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Now onto post run. I kick off recovery with a recovery drink. Most athletes have great success with Skratch Labs Sport Recovery Drink Mix, but because I don’t consume diary, I have my own recovery drink (generally a smoothie with the Skratch Labs Wellness Hydration mix mixed in to get some extra electrolytes, almond or oat milk, plenty of fruit and some nut butter). It’s the best post run treat you could ask for. Not only does it satiate me until I can start refueling with real food, it has a good balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein to start the refueling process.

Then, once I’m ready for a meal, I make sure I consume whole foods, as many plants as possible, and again, make sure I get in fat, protein and filling foods to make sure my body replenishes all that it lost during the day. Then, lots of water! Even in France, Italy and Switzerland, there was no shortage of plants, so there was nothing lacking in the fat, protein or carb department.

After the food is taken care of, many athletes like to stretch or foam roll for extra help with their recovery. I’m a big fan of stretching and light muscle activation (if I feel I need it), but the most important for me is a good night sleep – as many hours as I can. Sleep, combined with all that good food, helps me to best prepare for the next day of training – oh, and some comfy slippers. Then it’s time to rinse and repeat the process of fueling and refueling.

 

How I love the simplicity of training life:  Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

 

I am better than a result

I am better than a result. I have inherent worth. There is no such thing as good enough because I am innately good.

Despite the challenges of my injuries, I am certain that my best physical and mental days are ahead – that being the best athlete I can ever be is only possible because of the challenges I face now.

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These are the mantras I repeat, daily. My days are not always perfect, and there are times I question if I’m moving in the ‘right’ direction or forward at all. I face some sort of doubt and fear, every day. It’s an active choice to acknowledge them, confront them and lean into them.

Especially as I return to running, I am still holding onto many doubts surrounding my body, its capabilities and abilities to sustain the activities I want to do.

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Photo: Running in the Dolomites

This past week I faced some huge fears. I planned to complete a route I had always dreamed of completing – the HardRock 100-mile course. A group of good friends planned the adventure, aiming to complete the course in 3 days, averaging about 30 miles per day, with 10,000 feet of positive elevation gain, traversing the San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado. I knew this undertaking would test me physically, but more so mentally. I was excited, yet anxious. Fearful of the technical terrain and its impact on my (still) recovering injuries.

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As I look back on the hours spent in the mountains, I’m in awe of our bodies and their resilience. I’m also in awe of the human spirit, how energy can ebb and flow. Entering this softrock endeavor, I was certain I would be the weakest one. But, each person in the group had their low moments and high moments, including myself. We supported each other – encouraging and supporting during the low moments, and doing the same when energy and motivation returned.

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Photo: SoftRock Day #2, on top of Handies Peak

I learned that energy is not constant, and no matter how well-trained an athlete is, there is also doubt and insecurities to face. It was empowering to see every single person confront these fears head on. One practice that helped me to confront my fears/insecurities and to keep pushing forward, was to say – out loud – three things I am grateful for, and one reason why I am great. My good friend, Lucy Bartholomew, had the idea. The only rule – we couldn’t repeat the same three things twice and we had to come up with a new reason we were great each day as well. It was a humbling practice and gave me strength to look for the positive, instead of focusing on my doubts of completing the route.

Filling my head with positive thoughts, even when I hurt, lacked energy, or was lagging behind on a downhill, wouldn’t allow room for negative thoughts or doubts in my head. It’s a daily practice I’m going to incorporate into my routine.

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Photo: Ice Lake

Upon writing this piece, I thought I was going to focus on the feelings of each day, and the pride of finishing such an epic course, just shy of a year from my accident. But now, I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark in my mental training, to remember it’s possible to accomplish the impossible if you’re willing to try and challenge doubt. Positivity and gratitude can alter your course, if you allow a little light to shine through.

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Photo: Silverton, CO after finishing the Hardrock 100 mile course.

Lift The Label: My Experience with Opioids

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Photo: Mike Thurk

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Office of Behavioral Health’s Lift The Label campaign.

Pain and I have an interesting relationship. As an athlete – and runner – I’m pretty comfortable with it. In fact, a main goal of training is to get comfortable in the uncomfortable. The only way to do this is to experience pain, to invite pain into my training, to wrestle with the physical sensation of wanting to quit, wanting to stop moving, but continuing, despite the physical cues insisting otherwise. Then, do it again.

Pain is my training tool, and I think many other athletes can relate to this well. I’m describing a hard workout, a race or an ‘off day’ in training. They are painful. These hard days are instrumental in getting stronger mentally, but also physically. Some of the best-trained athletes are those that have the highest tolerance to pain, at their peak in a training season (Endure by Alex Hutchinson). I know that’s the case for me.

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So what is my relationship to pain, besides familiar? Is it healthy? Extreme, maybe? I experience pain on a daily basis and use it as a barometer to effort level, progress and the onset of an injury. Although my relationship with pain is a bit extreme compared to most, I think it is my familiarity with pain that allowed me to avoid other potentially dangerous conditions.

After my near fatal fall in Tromso, Norway, I sustained multiple, serious injuries. I was admitted to the hospital for nearly two weeks, had a total of five surgeries with twelve broken bones, and a very lengthy recovery process. Even as someone very familiar with pain, this pain was new, more intense, and at times, unbearable.

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I remember the first nights in the hospital, being unable to sleep due to an unrelenting pain. In order to receive some comfort and relief, the nurses gave me morphine and other prescription opioids so I could relax, sleep, and my body could try to repair itself. At this point in my recovery, I needed the relief so I could start to heal, so I could rest and not focus on the unyielding sensation of pain. But, as I made the transition to home, after my last round of surgeries and new prescriptions of painkillers, when was it appropriate to stop taking them? A sensation that I referred to as useful, as a mark of progress, had now turned into a sensation linked to fear. I was now afraid to feel pain. I didn’t want to feel it. I wanted to numb it. I wanted to be able to sleep, to relax, to feel normal. If I was in pain, I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly focus. I couldn’t live that way.

But the more I read about the effects of my painkillers – opioids – on healing my bones and ligaments, the more I questioned my use of them. I was instructed by my physicians to take the painkillers, insisting they would help me as my body healed from my accident. Opioids are prescribed extremely regularly – in fact, the prescribing rate for opioids in Colorado is 59.8 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Yet, I was unconvinced. So I stopped. I didn’t refill my prescriptions and I became re-acquainted with my body, and how it was truly feeling.

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My story with opioids isn’t how everyone’s story goes, unfortunately. In the U.S., 2.1 million people suffer from opioid addiction and 115 people die every day from opioid overdose. Prescription opioids are incredibly normal – they’re prescribed to everyone, regularly. Grandmothers, teachers, children, you or me – we could all receive an opioid prescription from a doctor, so they can seem harmless to take. The truth is, opioid use is not so straightforward. It’s terrifying to think it can take as little as 7 days of opioid use for a person’s brain to become dependent on them.

Some people may be able to choose not to take them, like in my circumstance; some may take them and be fine.  Others may one day find themselves a part of the 2.1 million statistic. Prescriptions are often cited as the way many people first come into contact with opioids – 80% of people who use heroin first misused opioids from a prescription, and 40% of those overdose deaths I mentioned come from prescription opioids.

In addition to my familiarity with pain and its use as a training tool, I also have a master’s in neuroscience. So, my knowledge of the brain, addiction and its response to chemicals made my skepticism of opioid use even higher. Often, opioid use has the stigma of being seen as a moral failing, something a person chooses to do. This is just not true, it’s not how the brain works. Can you stop yourself from feeling hungry or thirsty? Or from telling your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe? There are certain things your brain overrides, and this is what happens when addiction takes over. It’s no longer a choice. Scientifically, we know that opioid addiction is actually a brain disorder – an actual illness that needs medical treatment.

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Photo credit: Mike Thurk

In Colorado, there are 22 certified opioid treatment programs and 600 doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners statewide who can prescribe buprenorphine treatment. Often, what keeps those with opioid addiction from seeking help from these resources is that same stigma. The one that equates addiction with failure or poor choices. These labels only cause more harm, so, if you’re looking to make a difference in the opioid crisis, I’d encourage you to remember this –  beneath the label of opioid addiction is a person just like you or me, whose use of opioids may have started innocently, but then found themselves wrestling with a very real medical struggle.

If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction, please reach out! You can also visit LiftTheLabel.org for more information, or if you feel your or another’s life is in immediate danger, call the Crisis Hotline at 1-844-493-8255.

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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