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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You Don’t Look Like a Runner

I only had 5.5km left, all downhill. I told myself to focus for thirty more minutes, extra time never hurt. This course was brutal, a 55km race bragging 4000 meters (13,000ft) of gain. Technical, steep, hot – just what I like. It was a very competitive race and I had pushed into 2nd place. As I rounded the final corner to push up one final hill I finally let myself feel it as chills ran over my skin. There was excitement, relief, accomplishment, a need for more water and to take off my shoes. I had made the podium and I had fought for every single second of it. I was proud, happy to be done, and pleased with my strength and patience throughout the race.

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After some rest and recovery the athletes and volunteers gathered for congratulations and dinner. It was great to celebrate. We relived the race, our ups and downs, the views, and the terrain; assuring the organizers they had put on a tough race.

Everyone kept telling me how strong I was, how hard I pushed on the uphills, that I was a machine. Then one of the local runners had a question for me:

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“How much do you weigh?” he asked, comparing me directly to Gemma Arenas, the winner of the race, who was standing next to me at the time. She’s about 5’ tall, and petite. Not only am I 9’’ taller than Gemma, but we have completely different builds; I, being, the more muscular of the two. Then, another question, ‘”How is it you can run so fast when you weigh so much more?’

Strength, machine, powerful, animal – those were the adjectives used to describe me. Not fast, or skilled, or talented, or even the word ‘runner.’ Was it because of the way I looked? I couldn’t help but be slightly offended, hurt and extremely self-conscious. I had just finished second, amongst world-class competition, and I was asked to explain my performance and myself.

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photo credit: Ian Corless

Immediately, the first thoughts in my head were “Why am I here? How did I run that fast? I don’t look like I’m supposed to look?” I let those comments and doubts interfere with celebration of my achievement. In fact, that night I let myself stagger in confusion and self-deprecation, crying and wishing I could change how I looked to avoid future speculation from others and my own critical eye.

Like many women – and runners – I have had an eating disorder. However, trail running is what motivated my recovery. When I started running, is when I decided to take care of myself, to listen to my body and respect it. Although I am recovered now, it’s a dynamic process and one I can never ignore. That fact made clear by my shear devastation brought on by a comment about my weight.

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So I challenged that doubt and fear. I don’t need to look different to be considered a runner. I am one. I challenge that thought in all of us. Take a breath, and decide to take action. Maybe the action is an out loud declaration, quiet introspection or venting. For me it’s an all out battle inside my head to accept those uncomfortable thoughts that are urging me, convincing me that I ‘don’t look like a runner’ and that I must change my physical state to match a certain standard. They’re bullshit. Complete. Total. Irrational. Bullshit.

I can run. I can move. Uphill. Strong. Fast. Running. I am a runner.

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What is a runner supposed to look like anyway? I am a runner and so are you, no matter the size and shape of our bodies, no matter the distance covered or the terrain encountered.

I was made to run. My soul feels it; my body knows it; my heart longs for it. These are the thoughts I listen to. I am a runner. I chose to run toward that truth.

 

For more articles and inspirational stories check out the Trail Sisters Blog!