It’s not the pain that hurts so much. We can deal with that: body and mind can react quickly, and we learn a way of separating it off from ourselves and putting it in a box, along with ice and ibuprofen.
The real hurt is the emotional one, the loss of whatever was our goal, that just-over-the-horizon which has been getting us out to run, and fuelled our miles.
It comes in an instant. You are running along smoothly; you can do anything; you are making plans. Not “visualising” as a psych would say, no – you’re actually there, strong and happy with the crowds and families on the roadside and the big yellow clock getting closer. The next moment you are on the floor with twisted flaming gristle where your ankle used to be, nauseous at the heat and pain; or hopping on one leg to keep a redhot rusty nail from gouging deep into your muscle. It may have been something as simple as a tree-root, or maybe something in your body has finally said “Enough!!”. Whatever, everything has changed, gone.
You have trained, worked, planned for months, maybe years before this idea became a goal and then a reality. And now it’s gone, in a cruel moment.
I have written before about the sense of bereavement when you complete a long-standing challenge, but that at least is positive. This is different: a 100% black vacuum where those hopes and dreams used to be; it’s disorientating, and goes to the core of us. We don’t just run, we are runners: so if we suddenly can’t run where does that leave us…?
I’d had a good winter, a good first half to the year. This Robin Hood Half-Marathon (my 16th year in 17 at the event) was to be a signpost run. In truth, for 18 months or more, I had been pondering another Marathon, not “whether” but “when” and “where”. I was cruising, holding back; I had the idea of maybe one race of each distance this year; I was daydreaming about different options for next year’s Longest Day Run.
Then in an instant I can’t even walk. It’s all gone. The pain I can deal with, but not the vacuum.
Now there starts a process similar to the “5 Stages of Grief”, which has also been adapted to other major upheavals in life such as redundancy of breakdown of a relationship.
- First we try to deny that it has happened: “It’s not that bad. A couple of days off and I’ll be back on track”.
- We get angry: “Do xxx this weekend? Why not… do what you like, it’s not as if I’m running or anything, am I?!”
- We try to bargain: “Ok. Right. Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll forget the PB. If I re-do my training-plan and ease off I can still be ready in time to at least do the event, keep my streak going…”
- We get depressed: “Whatever! Who cares! It was stupid anyway, I may as well give it all up now…”
- Eventually, we accept it, and start to formulate a plan to move forward: “It’s happened. I’m not going to give in. If I manage this properly, rest it properly, maybe even get some treatment… a few weeks off, then I can start up again, build it up gradually…”
So we reset, restart, reorientate ourselves look at our new horizons. That goal hasn’t disappeared, it’s just a little further off. We substitute some swimming or cycling or gym in place of our runs, and begin to feel better. And it’s a short step then before the calendar comes out: “How many weeks till xxx event?”, or even “Actually, to be fair, the full-marathon this year was a bit ambitious, but with a clean start, by next year I’ll be in great shape…”
Repeat after me
- It’s happened. Deal with it. It won’t be different in the morning.
- Listen to your body, respect it and protect it for the longterm.
- Better to give up a few weeks or even months, and be strong after: if you rush back now you’ll carry a weakness which will just go again in time.
- Look ahead, be realistic, and be honest. Now plan how to get there.
Ultimately these spells strengthen us. The runs which makes us most proud are not the ones we cruise through, but those which challenge us and make us battle and grit our teeth and dig deep and overcome the doubts and taste failure, but still do well. These injury-breaks are similar, but over an extended period; they test the mind and spirit as well as the body. It’s not easy, going back to the start and building in such small steps: the day of the missed event is punctuated with thoughts like “I’d be warming up about now”, and every runner seems to taunt us. But we come back, stronger in the end.
These trials are one of the deeper things which non-runners fail to understand when they ask only about our finish-time.
And especially, these times make us value the next success even more. “RH17” will count double. When I collect my medal it won’t be for the miles and hours that morning, but the miles and hours between this summer and next autumn.
I’ll be back. Just a couple of weeks then I can try a jog. I will be back at Robin Hood next year, and who knows, maybe they’ll restore the full marathon.
So here I am, looking ahead, plotting a race over a year away.
That’s how it goes. That’s what makes us. Not the instant of injury; not even the vacuum of loss; but the journey back.