If runners love to discuss any one topic more than running, it’s injuries. At the first sign of a twinge or niggle, we suddenly become – thanks to the Internet – experts on any and every injury going, its diagnosis and its treatment.
I recently spent 17 weeks with plantar, a subject I’m actually well-acquainted with, thanks to having had it before. In fact, when I began Sub-three in February 2012, it was with the intent of documenting my attempt to drive my marathon time down below three hours. Instead, the first day I started writing I developed a case of plantar that lasted for 11 weeks. I went on to publish not only several blog posts about my injury, but ended up researching and writing an article for one of the running magazines on the topic as well.
In other words, just like every other runner, I obsessed over my pain. This time though I needed not so much to overcome it as to learn to accept and live with it. And that meant stop running.
Well, you can imagine how easy that was: stop running? No problem – for a day or two. I’d take three or four days off and then run again and, inevitably, at four kilometres find myself hobbling along.
I became a ronner, not a runner.
Oh, what’s a ronner, you ask? Well, I have a friend named Ron whom time has not favoured. In recent years he’s developed a chronic injury for which he can find no relief. On our running group’s Saturday route, we generally run Halifax’s waterfront and dockyards. At a certain point along the dockyards is a tunnel which connects the waterfront to the bottom of Barrington Street and is a convenient short-cut to the run’s ending point if one is fatigued…or injured.
Ron took the tunnel enough that he joked he was Ronning. The tag stuck. With the plantar tearing my foot apart every time I decided to test it on a run, I soon began ronning as well. In fact, because I ended up taking the tunnel on at least one occasion with Ron I suggested that ronning might be viral, spreading from runner to runner, causing injuries to bloom inside the most healthy athletic specimens.
But I digress.
As runners, we are our own worst enemies. Hooked on the activity, slaves to the endorphins, the schedule and the social pleasure, we resist the inevitable rest necessary for the proper healing. Instead, we push through. And so I did, again and again, re-injuring myself over and over, constantly aggravating micro-tears and in the process causing unnecessary pain.
Runners are used to suffering. We embrace it. To successfully run a personal best in any distance, you learn to dial out the signals from your brain, which protest the pace, the strain and the taxing of the lungs and legs. It’s a fact that running involves, more than physical effort, training the governor in your mind that your body won’t shut down when you place the undue stress of racing on it. Because of that, we become very good at ignoring pain.
That same mind-set leads to denial. Timothy Noakes, in the runner’s Bible, The Lore of Running, notes: “Complete rest is unacceptable to most serious runners, because running involves a type of physical and emotional dependence. An athlete who is forced to stop running for any length of time will usually develop overt withdrawal symptoms and either the runner, or, not uncommonly, the runner’s spouse, will immediately commence the search for anything that will allow the distraught runner to return to the former running tranquility.”
Pretty funny stuff, eh? Not if you’re the injured runner.
Ultimately frustrated, I turned to mountain biking, road biking, spinning, kayaking, hiking – anything that would provide some sort of physical outlet. Almost all of it was enjoyable and none of it satisfied my craving to run. Enviously, I tracked friends’ races, bitter that I couldn’t participate, and suddenly with all kinds of new time on my hands tried to find ways to fill it.
Toward the end of the summer, one friend remarked on how many books I’d read. Yes, it’s amazing what you can do when you’re not on the road hour after hour training for the next race. Being injured was like being on an extended taper, with all the attendant madness. Just how do you fill up all those hours of the day, anyway? I had to train myself not to manically post endlessly on Facebook.
Most of my “friends” vanished. All those people you socialize when you run? If running is your only or main connection, don’t expect to hear from them. They’re too busy running. Working at home, running composed my social life, and that vanished, leaving me with…crickets.
Your body changes. I continued to eat and drink like a runner. Then one day you look in the mirror and it’s even less pretty than usual. That’s despite all the other exercise. Nothing burns fat like running.
Rage, resentment, disappointment – none of it serves any purpose ultimately. Finally, you arrive at a state of grace, of gratitude. You learn to embrace and live with your injury, to forego your previous lifestyle of anticipating the run, getting ready for the run, running the run, and decompressing and recapping the run after the run. (Think about it: I’m willing to bet most runners do everything I just listed.)
I learned to let running go. I began to love my bike rides. Much as when I was a child, I lost myself in books. I spent a lot of time wandering in the wilderness of our half-acre backyard with my two dogs, playing with them, watching them run, observing the birds, and looking out over the distant bay. You’ve heard of slow food? I was having a slow life.
I contemplated never running again.
Right about that point where I released running from my life, my foot felt better.
To heal my plantar, I rolled my foot on frozen water bottles, had my foot and the calf muscle stripped in painful massage sessions, used the dreaded sock – a device that hauled my foot toward my calf and which, inevitably, every night I tore off in the middle of the night – heated my foot and calf, hydrated, rested and did everything else conceivable to fix the problem.
Yet one part of me wonders, if running hard is as much mental as physical, a training of your governor to withstand pain, then at what point does your mind heal your body? So long in coming, my acceptance of my injury coincided with its diminishing. Perhaps to overcome injury, we need to meet it on its terms and listen to what it has to tell us.