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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Balance

Strictly speaking, balance is defined as the ability to remain upright and steady due to an even distribution of weight. This is definitely applicable for most trail runners – although falling is inevitable at times. However, I’d like to talk about a different kind of balance, one dealing with the stability of one’s mind and state of being. I’m constantly striving for balance. Maybe you laugh, scoff even, that an ultra runner knows the meaning of the word. Balance? Indeed, I am familiar with the term, and I strive for balance in my daily life.

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First, I start with running. It’s a huge part of my life, and my favorite way of enjoying nature. However, I don’t want to overdo it. This is to prevent over-training, but even more importantly, to prevent burn out or lack of motivation in my running/racing. I balance my training: mileage, hours and vertical gain.

Now, it’s not always easy to maintain this balance. Heard of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)? What about YOLO (You Only Live Once)? I fall victim to these ailments, especially when I’m traveling or exploring a new area. All I want to do is get out and run for hours and hours up every mountain I see! Of course, I will get after it, but I’m constantly monitoring how I feel. I allow myself the freedom to slow down, skip a workout, take an extra rest day, or go longer that day if I’m feeling good. I am dedicated to my training plan, but want to maintain a playfulness and happiness with running. This balance keeps me hungry for more.

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I can’t run all the time, and even if I could, I don’t want to. Another important aspect to maintain a balanced mind is work. This is something us runners don’t talk about a lot. We assume that if someone is a sponsored runner, that’s all they do. Wrong. In fact, the majority of ‘professional’ trail runners have a day job too, a family and other interests that they are balancing. For me, it’s science.

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I’ve been a scientist since before I could walk. I’m pretty sure my first words were ‘miller moth,’ you know, those moths that come around in hoards once a year and get stuck in your house? Yep. I wanted to be an entomologist for as longa as I can remember, dressing up as an entomologist on career day in kindergarten, or for every Halloween.

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This love of science and curiosity in the natural world motivated me to earn an undergraduate degree in Organic Chemistry and a Masters degree in neuroscience. I worked or volunteered in labs starting in middle school.

Currently, I’m teaching chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology at a small college outside of Boulder, CO. It’s the perfect way to motivate the next generation of scientists. Plus, it’s challenging to teach the material well.

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Science, teaching and running are major parts of my life, without each piece I am not whole. I’m a better teacher if I prioritize running before class. I have more energy and more focus. Then, when it’s time to run, I make it count no matter what the training is that day (even rest days). Balance is more of a way of living, rather than an achievement. It allows me the freedom for change, constantly adjusting my life as my interests evolve. I also coach runners, I ski, and rock climb. I do yoga, cycle, read, cook and travel. Now, of course, I can’t balance those daily, but I can incorporate them in my lifestyle as a whole. Each adding a unique value to my life, while contributing to entirety of me.

 

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