As I sit down to write, I realize that easily half (and probably more) of the trail runners I know are dealing with some sort of injury, including myself. It’s almost inevitable, especially when find ourselves in pursuit of longer distances, faster times, or both. Although the root cause of many common running injuries have still not been pinned down, it almost seems normal to expect myself or someone I know to be injured every year. So, why do we do this to ourselves? What do we get from it all, and how do we reconcile the idea that it’s ok to be mortal? I had some downtime to look for answers, so I decided to look inward.
Setting Goals, and being Set to Fail
Ellie Greenwood recently blogged “Dreams are made to be Broken” of her injury that kept her out of the Comrades Marathon. I’m no super athlete but I can relate. Injury, frustration, failure… elite runners don’t have an exclusive license on those things.
I don’t know exactly where our worlds intersect- the elite athlete whose life revolves around a few events each year, and the guy/gal who likes to go for long trail runs (and everyone in between). Maybe the commonality is in the setting of goals. Although my goals are less lofty than say, winning Western States or Comrades, there’s this thing that happens once a goal’s been set – the possibility of failing becomes real.
There’s zero chance I can “fail” if I decide to just go out for a run this evening. But maybe I decide to enter a race or two this year, and maybe I want to improve my time from last year… now I have training goals and race goals to live up to. Even if I keep my plans to myself there’s a certain burden to bear. It’s natural (not necessarily healthy) to be self critical, but of course I’ll be sharing my goals with running buddies and other friends and family. So now it’s not just me that I can let down, but also the other people in my life who share in what I do. The rational side of me knows that they’re not going to think any less of me for not making my time (or whatever) but it’s hard to think rationally under the dark cloud of failure.
I tend to internalize disappointment, especially the feeling that I let someone else down. I can only imagine what the sponsored athlete deals with. I totally understand how people can go to dark places; the weight of the world is a heavy thing to carry. I think it’s important to realize though that we don’t let down the people we care about, they look to us and see strength.
In Ellie’s blog post she wrote about her “disappointing 6th place” finish at Comrades marathon in 2015; a year when she suffered an injury that derailed her training. I couldn’t help but think: damn, if I had a year of injury and derailed training, I would be stoked to have a top 10 finish at a world class running event! I get the fact that she’s an elite athlete and I’m not, but the glass-is-half-empty attitude is a perfect illustration of the difference between what we perceive as failure and the way others see us. What she sees as a failure to reach her potential, I see as an incredible effort in the face of adversity – something that’s as commendable as the effort the first place finisher put forth. I’m working on re-wiring my self-perspective on failure. Easier said than done, it’s really hard to appreciate ourselves for what we do when disappointment is the default feeling. My current mantra is: failure is not the opposite of success, it’s a stepping stone that leads to success.
Stubbornness and Injury
I could pick one – fear of failure, the uncomfortable feeling of disappointment, a need to feed my ego, or a hundred other reasons – it won’t make admitting defeat any less difficult. Maybe this stubbornness is the thread that weaves together a complex set of variables, which ultimately culminate in injury.
I don’t have the VO2 MAX of Sage Canaday. I don’t have the physique of Dean Karnazes. I don’t have Timothy Olson’s efficient stride. Mechanically speaking, there are
probably a number of things I can improve about my running. But I can go out for a run, and return in one piece. No problemo. However, like a lot of distance runners, I don’t just go out for a run. Nope. I’m out there working on increasing my volume, running lots of hills, improving my 5k and HM paces, doing runs with varying levels of intensity, and so on. I don’t think it really matters if you’re currently running 40 miles a week, or 100 miles a week, when you’re in the phase of building on your current base there’s a potential for injury. Coupled with other classic runner personality traits like the ability to minimize the nagging signals of pain, a steeled mental discipline, and a drive to not quit, injury doesn’t just seem possible, it’s more like inevitable.
Late 2015 thru early 2016 I was in good shape and had some plans. The Miwok 100k was on my radar. I was in, and I was building on my base which included pretty frequent 50k runs, and some occasional 50 mile runs. Things were going well; in spring I ran the Marin Ultra Challenge 50 mile, and cruised to the finish in leisurely fashion with some gas left in the tank. That was sort of my test flight to get an idea what kind of pace I should target for Miwok. That was also the last time my legs were 100%, and would lead to some forced time off which I’m only just starting to come back from.
When Miwok rolled around a couple months later my legs were shot. Sometime after the MUC 50 I ended up with a proximal hamstring injury (possibly a tear in the obturator internus muscle). Even though this was feeling weird and somewhat painful, my running persisted. “A few days off” was what I prescribed myself. Then back at it. Probably some subconscious adjustment to my gait following that injury led to a worsening case of ITB syndrome in my opposite leg, and eventually both legs. My quads in general were feeling more and more wrecked. I tapered early for Miwok, telling myself on race day that I was “pretty good, 80% at least”. I ran Miwok, and finished. I didn’t make my goal time, but I didn’t let it get to me too much (I was having a blast despite any issues). I had a lot of time to think about things that day as I struggled through ITB pain early on and legs that felt flat before I even hit the 50k mark. Well before I finished the race I had come to a profound conclusion: I was nowhere near “pretty good”; for the past several months I had been lying to myself about how things were going.
The Discipline to Recover
After Miwok I was pretty thrashed. Not in the sense that I couldn’t get up and move around, it was just that all my issues came to a head. The pain was no longer something I could ignore. Crouching down I would feel daggers shoot into my legs. While sitting pain would radiate from my ass down to my knee. Going down the stairs my IT bands would scream at me. The outermost quad muscles in both legs were in a permanently cramped state. I simply had to stop running. During that time I read something Dakota Jones wrote about being forced to take some downtime and how he would use it to make him better. I thought yeah, I get this now.
I can see that just as training takes discipline, so does recovery. I know more than a few people who “can’t not be active” when they’re on the injured list, and tend to spiral downward even harder until things come to a full stop. In a sense that was my way of thinking too; I wanted to stick with my training at all costs. Recalling what Dakota wrote, I stepped outside myself for a minute to assess what I was doing. Going out for runs, workouts, etc… while dealing with injuries is not only dumb, it shows a lack of discipline. I realize this now. While I don’t necessarily proclaim to never do dumb things, I can’t stand the idea of feeling like my discipline is slipping. So I see it as yet another opportunity to improve. Through focused training AND focused recovery I’ll be a healthier and happier runner. The new goal is to be disciplined on all fronts. Now the task is to put it all together.
So far I have slowly started to regroup and do some runs. I turned off Strava and left my watch at home a few times, which was hard to do. I’m reminding myself to run for fun. I cancelled all my race plans for the remainder of the year… nothing to train for feels good. I’m doing yoga with my kids to limber up. I’m doing some bodyweight workout to strengthen stabilizer muscles and other core groups. Slacklining for balance and foot strength. I’m massaging, rolling, and icing regularly. I’ve seen a physical therapist and will do so throughout the year, and probably monthly during peak training times. I found my backpack and spent some time hiking and camping. It’s a focused effort but it feels good to come back with a plan and a new mindset with eyes wide open. -JD