Monthly Archives: January 2010

To Endure Injury

The life of an endurance athlete can be excruciatingly difficult but not for the reasons most people would think.  It isn’t because of the long hours spent covering insane distances.  It isn’t because many of us have to wake before dawn to put in those miles.  It isn’t even the pain from the overuse injuries we endure.  No, these are things we can handle.  They are par for the course, worn as badges of honor by endurance athletes.

The difficult part, the part that guts every endurance athlete without exception, is the forced rest – the days, weeks and sometimes even months following an injury when we are told we cannot run, bike or even swim.  These are the days when we wish we had never found the sport.  Because knowing how great it feels to be out there on those roads before most people are even out of bed, knowing how incredible it feels to cross that finish line after running fifty miles, knowing how great it feels to push ourselves beyond the limit, and missing those moments is absolutely gut wrenching.

And knowing that for the most part it was something we could have prevented had we just listened to our bodies, makes it all the more difficult.  As endurance athletes, we often know when an injury is coming before it is even a niggle.  We feel a twinge in the knee or the foot and we can tell you which tendon that is.  But we justify.  “It’s just that my right hip is a little sore so I am compensating. If I concentrate, I can strike just right from now on and that left ankle won’t be a problem.”  Or, “No, it’s not really an injury.  I can run through this.”

The problem is that we can run through it.  We have built a pain threshold that most people can’t understand and often we can run through the pain, sometimes to a point where it seems to disappear completely.  To be fair, half of the time, we are making the right decision.  Half of the time, we can work on our form and keep an injury from fully developing, or we can keep running, warm the muscle up and never feel the pain again.  But when we are facing an actual injury, it is hard to give ourselves a break.  We kick ourselves for not listening to our bodies at the first sign.  We kick ourselves for not calling the doctor and getting it checked out.

When we are injured, everything we know about ourselves as endurance athletes is questioned.  Maybe we are not as strong as we thought we were. Maybe we will not be able to get back into condition like we have in the past.  And the worse, maybe we were just being a baby.  Maybe the pain isn’t quite as bad as we thought.

This is the one that does us in.  This is the one that has us putting the supportive boot aside and just testing ourselves a little to see if we can run. And this is the decision that takes us from three weeks without running to six weeks without running.  We are endurance athletes.  We push ourselves.  It is not just what we do, but who we are.

As I sit here writing this, my right foot, securely ensconced in a protective boot, is propped carefully on the stool under my desk.  A bottle of anti-inflammatory and a large glass of water sits beside my computer.  Today, I am lucky.  Today, the pain in my foot is horrendous.  I tell you, as only an endurance athlete can, that the pain is a good thing because today is a speed workout day.  Today is an important run in my marathon schedule and diagnosis or not, without the pain, I know the temptation to test the foot would be too strong.  I know that the minute the pain stops I will start mourning the marathon that I am sure to miss while this foot heals.  And I know that instead of remembering that rest and recovery is my job right now, I will remember the joy of being on the roads, the joy of losing myself in the sound of my feet slapping the pavement and the joy of completing another marathon.

Being an endurance athlete is difficult but it is what I have chosen to do.  So today I remind myself, as I sit here twitching with the desire to be out there doing what I do, that it is through our struggles that we discover our strengths.  And so, I struggle with this enforced rest.  I am an endurance athlete and I will endure.


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Lately, I have found myself questioning the marathon.  Why do I bother?  I may be getting faster but I have still not broken four hours and even after I finally I do, I still have ten minutes to cut in order to qualify for Boston.  Boston has always been my aim and if that isn’t going to happen, maybe I should just hang up my shoes. Why should I keep putting myself through the stress of training?

This weekend, I found my answer.  For three years my daughter and I have made an hour long drive to Olympic Development soccer tryouts.  Over the years, Meg has put every ounce of herself into the tryouts only to be cut on the third day.  This year as tryouts approached, I found myself dragging my feet.  I knew the registration was open and I was well aware that she would want to tryout.  But personally I dreaded it.  It wasn’t the two hours spent in the car each day or the hour and a half spent standing in the cold watching my daughter play her heart out.  It was the disappointment I have witnessed as she looked carefully through the call back numbers and didn’t see hers.  It was the look on her face the next time she was on a soccer pitch.  A look that told me she wondered whether she was good enough to play at all.  There was a part of me that hoped she would change her mind.  She would decide not to go.  She would not have to face the disappointment again.

Still, as the day approached, she made her way to the computer and found the tryout times.  She told her club coach she wouldn’t be at practices because she would be at ODP tryouts.  And she made it clear to me that it was important to her.  As in years past, everyone showed their confidence in her.  “This is the year, girl.  This is the year you make the team.”  And I cringed as I wondered how high up they would push her and how much harder that would make the fall at the end.

But this is her dream.  She believes she will play on the US Women’s Soccer team. It is all she wants.  If you ask a hundred people who know her what her favorite thing in the world is, you will get only one answer, “Soccer.”  The walls of her room are covered in soccer posters.  She dresses for soccer every day, whether she has practice or not, just in case the opportunity to play should arise.  She spends hours of her week thinking of new plays for her team or new moves she might try.

I sat in my warm car on Sunday afternoon and watched out the windshield as Meg ran across the field in pouring rain and thirty five degree temperatures.  I watched as she hopped up and down before the scrimmages began, trying to stay warm, as she used every move she has ever been taught on the soccer pitch, as she offered a hand to the player who fell in the middle of play and even as she stayed on the pitch juggling the ball and practicing her moves during the water breaks.  I watched her playing and realized that that is what it is that she loves – the playing.  When she arrived back in my car every layer of clothing was soaked through, but she had a smile bigger than the Cheshire cat’s.  She had had a blast.  I asked how she played.  She didn’t answer with her thoughts on her chances.  Instead, she told me about the rain and the girls, the coaches and the goals.

Today was the last day of open tryouts.  The cut sheet will go up later this evening and my heart is in my throat as I wait.  Megan keeps checking the computer screen in hopes that this will be her year.  I hope beyond hope that she will make it but tonight I know that it doesn’t matter.  If she doesn’t make it she will be back next year and the one after that, if that is what it takes.  I realized while watching this beautiful girl playing in the freezing rain that it isn’t just about a dream to make the Olympic Team.  It isn’t just about the chance to see if she is good enough.  It is about the moments on the field, every moment on the field.  It is about the joy of the game.

As a mom, there are hundreds of lessons I try to teach my children.  Once in a while though, the shoe is on the other foot.    Seeing Meg’s love for the game, with or without the outcome she hopes for, reminds me of why it is I go out there.  Why it is that after twelve marathons without qualifying for Boston, I still find myself at the starting line each year.  Watching Meg has helped me to recognize the love I hold for my sport.  So, yes, I will sign up for the next marathon.  Maybe I will qualify for Boston this time, maybe I won’t, but now I know, it really doesn’t matter.  I love to run.  That is why I do it.  The rest is just icing on the cake.


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