Every serious runner has seen that nasty porta-potty, streams of toilet paper guiding you to its repugnant entrance like the yellow brick road. The smell beckons a gag even after unsuccessful attempts to mouth breath as you approach its daunting entrance. But, you gotta do what you gotta do. I bet any passionate runner would prance on in, lick the seat, and seal a deal with the devil himself to avoid the dreaded: INJURY. Nasty visual, yes…but a little barbeque sauce and I'd be the first volunteer.
A recent injury and setback has invaded the deepest depths of my mind while restricting my training, sidelining me from running altogether. This is a bad combination and I feel the utmost empathy for my friends, family, and society in general. Historically I haven't dealt with injury well. Finding myself in the seventh circle of Hell supported by physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, and random bouts of insanity, I knew I needed to get a grip and make the best out of this unsolicited time off. Self-examination as well as an extensive survey of reality has lead to significant observations. Much like any loss, I found myself cruising through the stages of grief, hovering in some more than others. To counteract this natural sequence of fate, I've learned that acknowledging each stage and then conquering it with conscious effort not only moves me quicker through the series, but also makes me a stronger runner and better asset to my peers and society overall. My thoughts on the stages runner’s injury grief:
1. Denial: "Nope, I'm not limping..it's just my swagger." Denial is a sneaky thing. Progressive injuries can sneak into your life like that a roofy in your IPA. Everything feels funny, you know you're not quite right, but you keep your eyes on the prize and keep running. Next thing you know your on your back and you’re an unwilling star in a YouTube video.
My body and brain fight itself when there is even a hint of possibility that a nagging 'ouch' is creeping into trauma. Too often I have found that my frontal lobe (decision making) of my brain screaming at me but my limbic system (driven by emotion) flips it the bird and takes over my body, thriving on pure emotional desire and passion for the trails. Mid-race and injury-free, this is a phenomenal asset and has driven me to podium finishes. However, all too often denial results in injury being the ultimate victor.
Overcoming denial: Evoke outside opinion, but choose your victim wisely. I am blessed to have pals that specialize in the medical field who will give it to me straight…usually hiding behind a barrier with a buddy to act as witness. I may or may not have been compared to Tyler Durden, 'Fight Club'. Make sure that you are prepared for an outsider's perspective and be gracious. Education, science, and fact will trump any argument, pushing denial to a place in your mind that cannot be justified.. unless justification mimics ignorance. Also, don't forget to thank your victim and at no point should the F bomb be part of this courtesy.
2. Anger: "SOB! MF! ((..Ipod flies through the air)) I'm running sub-7's and now this? This is absolute horsesh!t!!!" I can't imagine the insane lunatic that would utter those words and throw stuff. Umm.. Disappointment at a level that is so disruptive to your lifestyle will definitely tip toe on anger. Heck, it may do the friggin cha-cha. Just like any emotion, it's natural and specific to the host.
Overcoming anger: Go ahead, let it out. Scream, cry, and punch stuff (nothing with a pulse) if nature calls. However, your REACTION to anger is what we need to pay attention to here. I tend to turn into a hermit at this stage which is probably the best and has kept my criminal record spick and span.
There is a legit physiological reaction in the body that supports and encourages these strong emotions. Dopamine is released in our brains when we are happy and when the prime source of dopamine release comes from trails, the consequences can be significant. Be real; your life isn't over if you have to hang up your Altras for a bit. Expand your mind, open yourself to new experiences that make you happy. Nonrunners will not understand and even seasoned runners will eventually tell you to suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself. I recently chatted with another Y member on the bike who is battling skin cancer. Reality check.
Find a healthy anger release: Cross train like a beast; write a blog; clean the hell out of your house; take up competitive ax throwing (it's a thing, really). You get it. Just remember that anger is healthy and natural but a poor reaction to it isn't.
3. Bargaining: Trying to bargain while injured only encourages thinking and actions that will slow the healing process. I've done it. I've told myself that I will only run 20 instead of a marathon. To me, it's a perfectly reasonable deal and my prize would be that I would be less injured. Ridiculous. I might as well just beat myself with a mallet instead of stepping in front of a semi. There is logic here, but it's laced with denial.
Overcoming bargaining stage: Don't be an idiot.
4. Depression: Guilty, guilty, guilty. This is the real deal for many runners for losing something (even temporarily) that has become a part of their day, their month, their lifestyle. This is the result of the loss of running, supported by a decrease of dopamine release, missing out on the awesome adrenaline surges, and overall biological body orgasm that results from such a magnificence that can only be captured by running. Before you’re know it, you are sitting on your butt eating bonbons while icing your injury and contemplating the meaning of life. You start to question things you have never questioned and pessimism dominates every thought. You look at your Lone Peaks in the corner, still covered in mud from your last trail run, and instinctively move them out of sight. The struggle is real.
Overcoming depression: Knock it off! Life is NOT over; it's an injury not the friggin plague. Negative thoughts will breed negative actions. As most ultrarunners know, the mental strength of an individual will make or break a runner. Tapping into positive thinking then moving it to positive action will put the situation into perspective. Suggestions relevant to your running:
• Eat right; raw, less processed foods are natural healers and anti-inflammatories. Goggle it and then load up on super foods. Try new recipes and schedule your eating as religiously as you scheduled your runs. Exploring new, better eating habits will not only have a physical benefit but will consume your down time. Check out different supplements and integrate them with nutrition. Stress fractures require bone healing so jack up your Calcium, Magnesium, Vitamin D, etc…and don't forget to drink more water! Remember that caffeine and alcohol actually inhibits healing. (Boo!) Nutrition planning and implementation is a HUGE factor in injury recovery. Keep in mind that you are eating for fuel and recovery, not entertainment. Read that last sentence again, it's worth it. Many resources will highlight that you actually need to increase your caloric intake when the body is healing. No, this doesn't mean you can super-size. Be smart about this and choose your calories wisely.
• Cross-train; listen to your doctor obviously. If you are an athlete, you will not be able to stop being an athlete, regardless if you're broken. Make sure that when your doctor tells you what you can't do, ask what you can do. Many people get so caught up in the bad news that they don't have the perspective to learn about healthy alternatives. You may require some time off if the trauma is severe, so deal with it. Your muscles and endocrine system may literally need some chill time to recover back to their normal, functional state. Start planning your cross training during this time, research exercises, and get psyched to build a stronger body. Build up your core. Too many of us runners are focused on mileage and we cut our time allowance short on building our core, stretching and range of motion, and building up supportive muscles. My triathlete background kicks in immediately when I'm hurting and I dominate the bike, bands, machines, weights, and even that damn pool. It's a common sight to see me pool-running and highly suggest it to any runner.
• Think about your form. Review race pictures and look at your stance and body positioning. I know that many resources will tell you to avoid reminiscing about your running but I think that's a bunch of crap. Learn from your past to build a stronger future. Check out your pics… how is your head positioning, arm swings, posture, chest, heel touch? And, are you smiling? I could talk for days on any of these factors but I'll bore you another time.
• Give back. Ultrarunning has given me more than I could ever ask for and I always try and keep that in perspective and pay my respects: Work an aid station at a race. Crew your buddy. Help an up and coming runner work on their form. Make training suggestions. Blog your random brain spews. Inspire, motivate, and respect your sport with the highest integrity. How many times have you have seen an individual that's not in the best of shape, working their butt off at the gym? Tell them you respect their focus on improving their health… or just offer up a high five. It speaks volumes and benefits both the giver and the recipient. Be an active member of your running community and respect the sport that has changed your life.
• Read. Learn about the origin of your favorite race or running mentor… maybe their aspirations and trials will strike a chord with you. Read about an upcoming goal race and keep the excitement coursing through your veins. This may be hard at first but once you can come to grips with the fact that you are one day closer to running through smart, active recovery, all will be well.
• Keep your workout routines. If on Monday you typically run high intensity ten miles, fill that time slot with a high intensity bike ride that takes just as long. Empty, purposeless time that was previously run time can either be an opportunity or threat to your sanity. The choice is yours.
Take advantage of your recovery time to step outside of running as well. Pick up low impact sports. I've restored my love for rock climbing and most recently, a little boxing. Grow intellectually or spiritually. Choose an author that challenges your mind. Personally, I would recommend Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, or anything by Edgar Allen Poe. Volunteer in your community and serve the less fortunate. It's sad that we instigate this behavior due to injury, but better late than never. It's important to realize that we aren't the center of the world and there are communities of people and demographics with demons that will far outweigh our own. Be humble.
5. Acceptance. Congrats! You've reached stage that only comes from humbling acknowledging that you aren't the center of the universe and the sun did not explode extinguishing life as you know it because you can't run.
Embracing acceptance: Make the best out of your time to grow as a runner, an individual, a friend, a family member, a community member, and a representative of our running family. You will survive (hopefully without having to sign a contract with Satan) and if you are smart, you'll learn from your experience.
Lace up when the time is right. My plan is to return to running a week after I think I am ready. My passion for running can be cunning as hell, so I'm trying to proactively beat myself at my own game. Let that marinate.
Injuries don't have to own you. If you find yourself bowing to your injury, you may need to examine your overall strength, focus, and… in some cases… intelligence. Take control, be determined, and make decisions to come out on top.
Want more? Check out Steph’s blog at: stephwhitmore.blogspot.com