Getting out of my Comfort Zone: Starting from Scratch

As a professional athlete. I know how to work hard, how to push and to squeeze out that very last drop. But what happens when motivation, fitness and determination isn’t the limiting factor? But instead, a lack of knowledge, practice and experience?

Well, this is what I’m encountering as I’m beginning to explore gravel bike riding and racing. I’m Starting from scratch.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

Think it would be easy to just hop on a bike and go? Yea, I thought this was the case too, but apparently it’s a bit more complicated than that. After a near fatal fall in 2017 during a race in 2017, I decided to get a gravel bike in 2018 as a means to get outside while I was learning to walk and run again. But honestly, I wouldn’t go for very long on a bike, because I didn’t know where to go, it was uncomfortable and once I started running again, that took precedent. It wasn’t until this winter, after breaking my ankle, that I decided to give cycling a serious try. I had to scratch my early season races and focus on getting better. I couldn’t fully weight bear for 2 months, so I decided to get on a bike.

 

One of the first things I learned as a newbie cyclist was that your butt isn’t supposed to hurt. Yea, I spent hours riding a bike with my ass literally killing me . . . maybe that’s why I didn’t like cycling very much the first go around. I thought that this was the status quo, this was normal, that my sit bone nerves apparently had to die before I was able to bear sitting on my bike seat for more than 2 hours. I remember taking my good friend Liz, a professional mountain biker, aside, commending her on the strength of her hiney (and her lady parts) and asking when my butt would behave. She laughed and said, ‘oh Hill, you need a new saddle . . . and a bike fit.’

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Photo: Josh Uhl

 

Now that my butt was more comfy, riding became way more enjoyable, but there was still the dilemma of technique. Cycling is the exact opposite of running. It involves concentric muscle contractions versus more eccentric and spring loading for running. My muscles weren’t used to this type of movement and coordination, neither was my brain. It was a bit frustrating at first because my heart rate wouldn’t get as high before my legs started to fatigue. I had to learn and practice this motion and movement. Some things I did to combat this was just practice riding. I also did high intensity workouts on a bike trainer so I could elevate my heart rate and get in a good cross training workout. I was amazed by how quickly my body reacted and adapted.

 

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

But, I still wasn’t quite there. Sure, gravel bike riding is fun, and it suits my craving for going far, uphill, and with little traffic, but there’s the whole other aspect about bike handling skills and communication. Apparently there’s this whole language to cycling that I had no idea about. When I’d go on rides, the people in front of me would point at things on the ground, use hand gestures behind them, tap their butt as they rode by, telling me to ‘hop on.’ I was a bit confused. If I did that during my group trail run, I would be yelling ‘ROCK’ and pointing at debris every 2 seconds. Also, drafting, where you literally let someone block the wind for you and pull you along. If I did that running, I would either trip or get elbowed in the boob for running too close.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

Also, gravel can be rutted, loose and rocky; I had to learn how to handle my bike in these conditions. So, that meant lots of practice riding in different terrain and going to the Valmont Bike Park to do the pump tracks.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

But, the more I ride the better I’m getting and the more fun I’m having. I’m amazed by how far I can go on a bike in one day. It’s completely different to running in that way, and that one of the parts about cycling I like the most – the exploration aspect of it. Also, the culture of linking up towns for snacks and coffee breaks is my favorite! Cycling is much different that running because I can eat easier on a bike than I can running. I can eat more real food (Skratch Labs rice cakes and energy bars) and not get sick to my stomach. Usually for running I have to stick to the Skratch Labs Fruit Drops and Skratch Lab Hydration drink mix to avoid stomach issues, but for long bike rides, the more I fuel the more I can go. It’s quite wonderful.

 

To top it all off, I’m tackling my first gravel bike race, The Dirty Kanza 200, June 1st. And, of course, this race is a BIG DEAL! It’s become the premiere gravel bike race in the country with pros showing up and it’s gaining lots of attention in the cycling world. So what am I doing at this race? Good question. Even though I’m completely out of my comfort zone and have only been riding gravel for 2 months, I’m having a lot of fun in the process. It’s not easy to be out of my comfort zone every single day, trying my best at something that doesn’t come naturally or easily. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s frustrating. And, it’s worth it. To become a well-rounded athlete. To learn new things, to grow and be humble throughout the process. These are the most important lessons I’m learning. To have fun, enjoy the process, and to NEVER go on a bike ride without chamois cream.

Check out more details about “Operation make Hillary Allen a cyclist” in Episode 1 of Starting from Skratch.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s The Best Way To Recover?

One of the hardest pats of recovery is learning to trust your body again. I’m not talking about the physical aspect of recovery . . . learning to run again or gaining fitness. I’m talking about trust. Really trusting in my body and the movements it makes.

 

The human body and it’s complexity fascinates me! Especially how the nervous system works. Our nervous system is closely integrated with our motion, constantly inputting sensory data as we move through the world. This is true when we are running or playing a sport, it’s all connected – nothing is independent, or at least, each independent system requires the other to gain importance.

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I learned this through my first injury. I had a major ligament injury in my foot. A ligament rupture in the arch. I had surgery and hardware placed (then removed). There was a lot of damage. The recovery was long and slow, but eventually the pain went away and I was able to get back to walking and then running. But there were still certain limitations to the movement of my foot.

 

Technically, my foot was healed. I was cleared by my PT and my doctor to start running. But there would be days, I would inexplicably feel uncertain and weak on my right foot. I was constantly worried about it, hyper aware if it was hurting, if it was swollen or was getting injured again. I had built an association of pain and hesitance in my foot, even though it was no longer injured.  This neuro-connection lead my body to start favoring it.

 

My good friend, Levi Younger, reached out to me and told me about this technique called Rolfing and we began working together. We worked on structural integration with manual manipulation of the injury site, but the most important aspect of it was talking through the emotional/mental side of the injury. We worked on associating new movements in a positive, safe environment so that my body learned to trust in the motions it once did. This in combination with my regular physical therapy at Revo was groundbreaking. I never had considered the power of mindset when working on a physical problem – I had just assumed they were separate.

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Now, you would think I would be done right? Well, that’s never true. Even though it’s been almost 2 years since breaking my back and my ribs, there were still some days when certain movements were a bit restricted. I was doing fine and trying my best to integrate everything I had learned, but then I broke my ankle and had to really focus in on recovery again.

 

I always think things happen for a reason because through this injury I met Travis Jones, and he told me about Eldoa. It’s a technique that aims to increase the space between joints. It can be done on any area of the body, but we started working on my broken ankle, to create space in the ankle joint, to prevent stiffness and encourage full range of motion.

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The more we worked together, the more I became aware of other areas of my body that still had scare tissue from my injuries 2 years ago! Sure, I was fully recovered and my bones were healed, but why was I feeling so stuck? I felt like I had certain restrictions to the motion and no matter how much I tried my body was good at resisting these motions; it was protecting me.

 

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Working through some of these Eldoa techniques with Travis has helped bring awareness to the movement of my body and the importance of creating space between even the smallest joint spaces. It’s changed how I think about recovery from injury – focusing more on the support network of the body and how those influence the bigger picture. It’s impressive how a shift in mental perspective integrated with the correct manual manipulation can encourage a more productive recovery process.

 

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If you’d like to learn more about Eldoa check out @eldoatrainer and share your recovery tips with me!

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.

 

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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