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June 28, 2017

Riding Pine: Long-Term Injuries and Finding Meaning in Running

I’ll never forget the indignation on my assistant coach’s face the first time I showed up late to middle school baseball practice. Seeing his annoyance, I hastily explained that I would have to arrive late from time to time because I’d also signed up for track. Surely he would understand— I had good reason for my tardiness.

Instead, I was promptly chided for my divided allegiances:  “You’ll be riding pine soon enough.” Sadly, he was right. That spring, I started games probably half as often as I’d hoped. My remaining time was spent on the bench, chomping Big League Chew.

In my hometown, seventh grade marked the year when sport ceased to be recreation and started contributing to an integral part of our identities. (Over)zealous dads demanded a degree of seriousness that would prove our commitment to competitive, athletic enterprise.

Several parents bemoaned the Sunday games. “Baseball is a religion around here,” they would joke. Their lamentations mainly stemmed from the missed church services. Still, I found their quip perhaps more apt than they intended: there were identifiable rituals; teams and leagues functioned somewhat like denominations; participation played a major role in one’s identity.

Amid all this, my love affair with running began as something of a conversion story.

By eighth grade, I’d graduated from pine and spent my time riding grass and dirt behind dugouts or asphalt on rural side streets. My previous coach would have applauded my seriousness. Running turned into a somber affair, albeit cathartic. I preferred to run alone, hard, and on a fixed, familiar route. Unlike baseball, running struck me as supremely just and fair: if I trained hard, then I ran fast and won races.

Still, while it was the austere character of the baseball community that drove me towards running, I fell into ironically similar patterns. Sure, I loved running, itself. But the routine, the focus on achievement, even the ascetic element: these were what addicted me. Occasionally, I’ve reflected on shameful memories of acting irritable and antsy while on day-trips with my family, all l because I was anxious to get home and run. Running occupied a peculiar place in my life—a monkey, always in need of feeding. Admittedly, he was pleasant when satisfied, but borderline insatiable.

Through high school and especially college, I came to develop a stronger sense of community associated with running. No longer could I run alone every day. Instead, I learned to appreciate the different flavors that teammates imparted to runs. From lighthearted, goofy recovery days to competitive, borderline-hostile long runs, my teammates contributed something novel and indispensible to my running experience. Still, the strongest connection I felt to them came in virtue of a common sense of purpose. We all wanted to win and run fast. Running was merely our canvas, fitness our paint, and a craving for achievement our muse.

I graduated college unfulfilled. Several of my goals had gone unachieved, and the monkey was in desperate need of feeding. Following a stressful and unforeseen set of circumstances, my plans to start graduate school were postponed and I was left reassessing my future. A summer of maddening uncertainty culminated in a part-time job at my alma mater, a volunteer coaching position, and plans to hit the half-marathon standard for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

I spent the fall vying for top spots on the running2win leaderboard (I think my highest was third. I was pretty amped); every aspect of my training saw immense improvement. 2,000 miles and one tune-up race later, the B-Standard of 65 minutes seemed within reach. Early November, I gave it a crack at the Monumental Half in Indianapolis. I made it in by the skin of my teeth: 1:04:58.  I had reached my zenith—the Trials had been a goal of mine for at least a decade. But obligation outweighs elation, and there was still work to be done. Focused as ever, I returned to training a week later.

Now I’ve looked back at my log dozens of times and ruminated on how stupid my comeback was. No doubt I’d gotten cocky. My injury history was so meager that I assumed I must be invincible. That, coupled with the fact that I had just run the best race of my life, convinced me that recovery days were no longer necessary. Unsurprisingly, I suffered setbacks pretty quickly. My right hamstring had shouldered one too many (admittedly heel-heavy) steps.

After some deliberation and several difficult conversations, I decided to bite the bullet and ride pine through winter break. It would be better than risking my long-term health for maybe 40th in Los Angeles (at berunner snoopyst?). In the end, my safety plan landed me a beautiful trip to L.A., a DNF, an unforgettable experience with loved ones and some delicious consolation beers (Shout-out to the Yardhouse for their incredible draft menu).

Following a lengthy hibernation, I tried to mount a comeback. The hammy would have none of it. Again, a few weeks later, I gave it another go—still bad. Throughout the summer and into the fall, I tried at various intervals to come back, each time experiencing some degree of letdown as I realized that my condition refused to improve.

In the meantime, I had reapplied, gotten accepted and begun graduate school in St. Louis.  As my first semester dragged on, I felt increasingly like Gollum, seeing little reason to go outside, even brooding a bit.  I was riding pine yet again—only this time it was a desk chair behind computer screens and yellowed pages.  The line between “runner” and “has-been” eventually blurred, and running seemed a specter of things past.

Things weren’t all so dismal though. For once, I understood what it was like to live as a student, and not a student-athlete. Much to my surprise, studying turned out to be more than just a war of attrition with my sagging eyelids. Never before had I seen so much growth in my academic life (or my belly). Even the previously blasphemous concept of other hobbies entered my radar.

Admittedly, I missed running at every juncture, but not in the ways I might have expected. Whereas I had always loved the solitude of a run, I came to miss my teammates. Whereas I loved the sense of pride in crushing a workout, I longed for the simple way that a run gave my day balance, segmenting it into two parts. Whereas I used to relish the cadence of footsteps during a tempo run, I longed for the whimsical chatter of a recovery day.

Towards the end of the fall semester, I managed some relatively painless runs. At long last, I had gained a foothold. Fitness was at a mortifying low, but with the help of a former teammate living in St. Louis, I slowly worked back to a routine running schedule. There was still discomfort, but I could make it through normal runs again—some days, I could even do light fartlek work. Finally I was off the bench.

Things were different though.

The discomfort was too much if I risked anything faster than sub-tempo pace. Runs much longer than ten or eleven miles could also get dicey. On a few occasions, I neared the mileage of a “decent” week or finished runs that my old self might have applauded, but always at a cost. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t have returned to my former running habits. This realization vexed me surprisingly little. The habitual impulse to push too hard remained, but for once, the mere act of running sufficed. It was a curious but welcome change in perspective.

I recently read a fascinating article from a famous historian of religion. He observes that religious persons historically draw lines between profane and sacred spaces. In sacred spaces, nothing is accidental—everything, be it the ritual eating of a meal or the mere intrusion of a fly, carries meaning. When something we might call “accidental” happens inside of a sacred space, it is interpreted as carrying something above and beyond mundane significance. This sort of interpretation, he claims, involves a remarkable act of human imagination and ingenuity.

When things don’t work out according to the ideal in our heads, we’re rarely fazed. Instead, we adapt.

Running has always been meaningful, even sacred, in my life. Or maybe a better way of saying it is “I have always made running meaningful in my life.” In the past, I’ve found meaning and fulfillment in the pride, the structure, and the sense of achievement that running has provided. But with changing circumstances, I’ve developed a much different relationship with this wonderful sport. Lately, one of my greatest joys has been my younger brother’s enthusiasm about biking along with me while I run. We’ve enjoyed some of our most stimulating, hilarious, and personal conversations thanks to the runs that we’ve shared in.

What once appealed to me through my pride and sense of obligation has recast itself as a balance-bringing factor. Running is what has connected me to some of my closest friends, relieved my stresses and even made food and water so satisfying. Without this setback, I may never have fully realized or appreciated this.

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