Thursday, April 11, 2013

Injury=History, Plus How Running Can Feel Like a Blind Taste-Test...just go with me on this one...

The last blog I posted was all about a knee injury that was slowing me down. The first thing I'm happy to report today is I am now referring to that injury in the past tense! Aka, it's history!! All-in-all, it took 3 weeks of no workouts before I was cleared to get back into things, and since then, I've had four weeks of pain-free training to try to make up for lost time- both physically, and mentally.

For any runner, at any time of year, injuries can be quite frustrating. For a professional, facing an injury so close to the beginning of a new season is especially intimidating. During those three weeks of unwanted down-time, I did my best to remain calm, focus on the things I could control, and keep my spirits up.

I'm sure my fears were similar to many other runners in my situation, so I'm not ashamed to share what I was worried about during this lapse. I feel compelled to expound on this because it seems to me that a lot of professional runners are so secretive about their injuries, as if talking openly about what is going on will make them weaker than they already are feeling.

Here's my quick list of things I was most afraid of losing, and/or gaining...

Losing fitness- I have always visualized each workout I do as a building block that accumulates into a solid pyramid of fitness. When I was missing workouts, I was picturing blocks being pulled out, and there was no way of knowing how many can be missing before the whole foundation cracks. Even though people always say that you can't lose fitness that quickly, the fact that I wasn't continually gaining fitness felt equivalent to losing it.

Gaining weight- I've always found it unrealistic to cut out all junk food from my diet. I often joke that I run so I CAN eat dessert, and feel I earned it. However, when I was limited to working out maybe only half as hard as I usually do because of my injury, I found myself eating about the same as I always do. In my mind, I just KNEW my energy expenditure vs. energy intake was not balanced, and began seeing myself a little differently in the mirror. For me, as an athlete, the fear of gaining weight is not so much of a personal vanity issue (though that is certainly part of it, I won't lie)- even more important, is the anxiety that comes from watching my body evolve into something that looks and feels less swift, efficient, and powerful. Since I invest a good part of my identity in being a runner, and I house that identity in my runner's body, it felt a little like losing part of myself to perceive myself as looking less like an 'athlete'.

Losing opportunities- In my entire running career, I have never had to pull out of a race due to injury. I know I am VERY blessed to say this, trust me. Having never done it, however, makes it seem that much worse. To me, pulling out of a race would mean admitting defeat, and walking away (or more accurately, never even approaching) an opportunity. I would hate to watch results come up for my first race (which, at the time, was going to be the US Championships in the Road Mile), and know that I wasn't even there to attempt to defend that title.

Losing money- In this sport, I'll be honest. I make a little bit for representing Team USA Minnesota and Asics (something I am oh-so-grateful for!!), but much more of my earning opportunities come from racing. If I am unable to race, I am unable to earn. I am primarily driven by non-monetary dreams in running, but it is also a reality that I want to be a responsible, income-earning member of society, so the prospect of not racing is daunting. Especially if I were to be injured long enough to make my sponsors drop me.

Losing respect/being forgotten- As I was going through the ups and downs of recovery, I had to at least consider the possibility that this injury would be long-term. I daydreamed about what it would be like if I just had to walk away from professional running, as many athletes have done due to injury at some point or another. I thought about how I have said before, "Whatever happened to her?" in reference to athletes who are curbed by injury. I cringed at the idea that someone someday could say that about me. I'd hate for people to assume I 'gave up', or wasn't tough enough to run through pain, and lose respect of the people who follow my career and have supported me on this journey.

I realized that there is a cruel reality in professional running- people rarely retire on a high note. No one walks away from an Olympic Gold and says 'That's good enough for me!" We keep running. We run, pursuing our dreams until we either get hurt, get old, or admit that we no longer believe we can achieve what we once thought we could. (Sorry to be a downer on this, but I think it's an important truth to recognize, so when my day comes to hang up the spikes, I will have processed these thoughts, and be prepared to reflect positively on my accomplishments and experiences. At this point in my career, I am grateful to say that I think I could accept that.)

Thankfully, this is not the end for me. My knee healed up well, and workouts post-injury seemed to come back almost exactly where I left off! I was thinking that maybe that disruption in training was God's way of giving me the rest He thought I needed, in order to prepare for the good things that are to come this season. Each workout I did was giving me more confidence, helping me to loosen my grip on the fears and uncertainties I felt while I was dealing with the injury. With this positive momentum in play, I decided to jump into a race even earlier than my originally planned 'opener'.

That race is the BAA Road Mile, to take place this coming Sunday (the 14th) morning, in Boston.

At this time of year, I can't help but read into everything I do in training as an 'indicator' for what is to come...

Have you ever accidentally taken a sip out of a glass, expecting one thing, and then experiencing something totally different? (Say, you thought you poured yourself water, but it is actually milk in the glass?) It's oddly shocking, and sometimes it takes a few seconds to even realize what just happened. That's pretty much how I'd describe my final preparations for this upcoming race.

Last Thursday, I set out to run a 1200m time trial, so I'd at least have one 'race-like' experience under my belt before I arrive in Boston. I had a time I intended to run for it, and I thought it was optimistic, but realistic enough. However, after 400m into it, I was already 2 seconds off. I fell off the pace by 4 seconds on the second lap, and then managed to scrap back up to 2 seconds slow on the final quarter. Needless to say, I left the track feeling a little bit like I had taken a sip of pond water, when I was expecting something much more refreshing. Over the weekend, my analytical brain went into overdrive, convincing myself that maybe I just thought I was in shape, when in fact, I am soo not ready to race.

Finally Monday rolled around, and it was time to work out again. I figured I'd have just a lighter workout on the schedule in prep for the race, but my coach surprised me when he sent me a workout that sounded about as challenging, if not even harder, than the time trial I had attempted on Thursday. He even asked via text, "Do you think this is doable?" (Whenever Dennis asks that, there's a solid chance it might not be doable.) Out of frustration from the week before, and desperation to prove my previous 'indicator' workout wrong, I said I'd try it. I even recruited my training partner from last year, Lance, to run it with me.

I am SOO happy I did, because I totally ended up kicking that workout's ass (excuse my language, young readers!). I ran faster than Dennis had prescribed, on every leg of the workout- which included an 800m repeat that was 9 seconds faster than what I ran through the first 800 in the time trial on Thursday. This time, I came to the track metaphorically expecting more pond water, and got a sweet, thirst-quenching taste of my favorite sports drink instead.

Afterwards, I was talking with Lance about how weird it is to have one day of running go so poorly and another go so well. He agreed, but every-the-optimist, reminded me that no matter how well the workout goes, I am still gaining fitness from the effort I put it. This point of wisdom really drove home the metaphor I was working with: whether it's a sip of something I like or not, I am still hydrating myself and doing something good for my body, and it doesn't have to mean I will always be drinking pond water if I taste it every once in awhile.

As I pack to leave for this first race of the 2013 outdoor season, I am bearing this lesson in mind, knowing the race could go in any degree of two possible directions, but either way, it is hydrating- priming me for what is to come. And what use is there to expect something bland or tasteless? Better to expect the finest wine for my future in racing. Cheers!


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