Afraid to swing my legs off the bed and put my feet on the floor, I stared at the blankness of my bedroom walls. When I was younger, this would have been because I was afraid some raptor clawed monster with long, snatching arms waited beneath the bed, ready to drag me to its lair in the basement. Or if at home in Milwaukee during the winter, because the hardwood floor of my bedroom tended to match the outside's midwest temperatures, ready to freeze bare feet. Now I stared at the paintings on my bedroom walls. Checked my heart rate. The morning light made reflections in the altitude tent plastic, little faces that distorted and chuckled in the breeze coming from the window.
I was delaying the beginning of the day because I felt a sharp ache in my upper outside ankle. I didn't want to put weight on it and confirm my worst fears: another bone injury. I was being dramatic. A year ago Id’ve chalked this kind of pain up to just another demon sorely haunting my flesh, tendons, and bones. One of the countless reliably exorcised during the first cracking, tendon popping shuffle to the bathroom, or if stubborn, during the first few running steps of the day.
As it turns out, I got up, went to practice, ran, and have kept on running since. The ankle thingy was just that: a thing. But my hesitancy shows one thing: getting hurt last September has certainly made me keenly aware of my vincibility. I think that’s a word.
Having neglected to write for so long I feel obliged to rewind (still a word I think) to September twentieth. I had just posted a blog piece that mentioned how taking a longer break from running had left me refreshed and healthy. I was about to be proven (mostly) wrong. The very next morning, on a hard hill workout with (ya done messed up) Aaron at Bass Lake, hubris struck swiftly and sans mercy. Somewhere in my pelvis, some of the strongest ligaments in the body pulled hard enough on my sacrum, a bone between the pelvic wings, to fracture it. I knew immediately during the workout that something was wrong. Donald Trump was way too close in the polls. And my back really hurt. Luckily I only ran about an extra mile on the injury, hoping it was just freak pain, before I stopped.
Several days later, an MRI confirmed what we were already almost certain of: a sacral stress fracture. Pete’s recovery protocol called for a full eight weeks totally away from running. Unlike other types of fractures, virtually every cross training modality, including biking, elliptical, swimming, pool running, walking, and even helping to construct a scale replica of the Great Pyramids of Giza by hand end up irritating a sacrum fracture. Exercise was out. I was now wanted by the Sacral Police around the Zap Fitness campus. Five-stars-on-GTA wanted. If I was caught so much as dancing I’d receive a stern reprimand from team mates. Eight weeks of electrifying ossification it was.
|Wanted by the sacral police in Boston|
As it turns out, running problems aren’t much different from living in Egypt under Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues. Pee transforming into blood. Lyme disease. Shards of glass impaling the foot. Food poisoning from diseased livestock. Disintegrating bones. I’ve seen friends and team mates with it all over the years.
Stress fractures are about as common as Starbucks locations will be on the moon in 2050. Most athletes on the professional circuit have suffered at least one bone fracture or reaction in their career. Many ridiculously accomplished athletes seem to exist in a perpetual state of duct taped-ness, cross training from one window slit of health to the next, yet still pulling off amazing performances in times of relative health despite their apparent fragility.
And I’m finally a member of the Bones Brigade. I know their secrets.
Rule number one: You don’t talk about the…
You believe you’re going to come back stronger than before. Not in an abstract, cliche way, either. You believe you’re going to have your best season ever, right after being in the worst shape of your life, or at least since your middle school skateboarding years. As in, you’re going to win stuff you’ve never won before and run personal bests you’ve never run before. Which is the definition of a personal best. This helps get you through the days when the altitude tent faces start to look like that clown from It, or worse, James Franco.
I didn’t delight in not engaging in the activity I enjoy the most for two months. I had too much time to think. I started writing a novel about a coach that mentors athletes for years, only to sadistically murder them and stuff their corpses in a collapsed mineshaft. I envisioned a toaster that prints the weather forecast, motivational phrases, and market futures on your toast. (already been done) I did quite a bit of sifting through thoughts, most of which fall under the “holy shit I’m getting old where did the time go and what am I doing with my life” theme.
I’m proud to report I came out on the other side. No. I didn’t quite experience the sunlit burst of mach-nine-jet-fighter-flying-out-of-a-masisve-kerosene-explosion type inspiration that some people claim they get after overcoming injury. I know success won’t be automatic. It’ll have to be worked for over time. It’s a long trail back to peak lifetime fitness. That’s the realist in me. What I am feeling, now healthy, with three workouts under my belt and running mid-seventies miles per week, on the way up, is a sense of reset and swift progress away from the bottom.
I returned to running Thanksgiving week with a blissful nine minute jaunt on the alter-gravity treadmill at 70 percent body weight. We did several weeks worth of short alter-G runs alternating with swim days. By mid December most runs were on land with all 9.81 meters per second squared of sweet gravity pulling my aching limbs that forgot how to run down towards the center of the Earth.
The first hard workout back was here in Tallahassee. Brandon and Matt dragged my mouth breathing self around four times two kilometer repetitions on grass soccer fields. The 800 meter loop that Pete measured and marked out would have made lovers of quicksand and many sided polygons proud. I didn’t care how much energy the angel food cake-like ground soaked up from our strides. I was just glad to be back rolling after so much lying around doing crosswords.
|Matt, Brandon, and I running a hill cycle workout in Tallahassee earlier this month.|
Admittedly, there were moments during time off and the early phase of starting again when I was mildly depressed. Doubtful that I’d be able to climb back to competitive fitness. I didn’t feel like a runner, which, despite trying to stay diversified in my interests, is a huge part of my identity. While not running in September, October, and November, the next most exciting aspects of life began creeping into my thoughts. What am I going to do after professional running? I want to engineer and invent. My dream is to be an entrepreneur. With nothing else to do, I began doing research, sketching ideas, calling people. Which is great, except for one thing: I’m not done committing myself fully to running yet. Post-running life was making a house call while running was away. The desire to do something frankly stressed me out, because I was, and still am, around Zap, a running environment (except for the occasional drag race and pistol duel).
In the end I learned from this injury something I already knew, but had to be reminded of: to just relax and live the life I’m living currently. That’s easier to write now, when I’m grabbing fitness left, right, port, and starboard and beginning to see the light. When you’re going through a tough time, believe that your wayward anchor, when it’s given back to you, will serve its purpose and make you happy again. I forgot for a time how great working towards hefty goals, finishing a hard workout, and sharing a swift run with friends makes me feel. Natural. Purposeful.
Maybe I just came to the exact same conclusion that many before me already have. But everyone has to wade through the same experiences, bound by shallows and miseries at times. Would life be any fun if you were born with the wisdom of humanity come before you? Probably not. I always preferred the Do It Yourself (w/ your contemporaries) section.
One day I was staring out of my window at a tree high up on the ridge opposite our house. It towered above all the rest against the sky. The wind had gradually bent its limbs until they permanently embraced the trunk’s leeward side. I was trying to determine from my window whether the tree was an evergreen or a deciduous tree, but at that distance I couldn’t be sure. I resolved to take a steep hike up to find out. But then I got hurt and couldn’t walk.
Six weeks later in November when the valley was awash in fiery yellows and reds, I looked out the window and my tree stood out, clearly ever green, high on the ridge. Sometimes you just have to wait.
|Team field trip to St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge and alligator alley. Matt was so scared he kept his eyes closed the whole time.|
Zap Fitness is in hard training at Tallahassee training camp until mid February. Then we’ll retreat back into the mountains and enjoy Chef Michael (co-author of a forthcoming Zap Fitness cookbook + workout book!) food once again.
Having started training so late following the injury, my agenda for 2017 is a long track and road racing season extending all the way into October. The first time I put the uniform on will be to pace 5,000m and mile heats at the Iowa State Classic indoor meet in a few weeks. My first real race will be the Gate River Run / US 15k Championship in March. That one will be successful if I avoid a post-race thermometer up the butt like two years ago. TMI?
Thanks for reading all the way to the end, gentle reader. To reward you, I leave you with this: flamingoes are pink because they eat shrimp.
Here's my tentative race schedule: