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May 22, 2017

Eight stress fractures for one elusive season; was it worth it?

I first met Keenan Piper in 2012 when he was a high school senior on his recruiting trip to Columbia University. I was a senior so I would never actually be his teammate, but for whatever reason I spent a good amount of time with the gangly teenage Seattleite and really liked the kid. We stayed in touch and would go for a run or eat pizza when our paths crossed.

I loosely followed his career–as washed-up alums are wont to do–but there really wasn’t much to follow. It was noteworthy if he was training at all. The guy suffered from eight stress fractures during his four year stint at CU.

Then this spring, something changed. When I’d click around meet results, Keenan’s name started popping up. He was running the steeple, frequently, and improving every time out the gate. He scored at his only Heps meet. And then he ran 9:00.56 at IC4As to qualify for regionals.

I was stoked for him. He has a very real shot at making nationals at this point, which is about all you can ask for in closing out a college career. But I was also curious. Because until a few months ago, his college career was the antithesis of what I’m sure he’d envisioned it being when we first met. Between the injuries, the miserable academic course load, and being by all accounts a social, normal, fun person, he had every reason to quit before this point.

So I asked him why he didn’t.

Could you describe your high school career’s trajectory?

I was recruited out of middle school to run for one of the top programs/coaches in the state of Washington. I started off running a pretty sophisticated training regiment. This, along with my physical development, led to a sharp rise in my running trajectory. I ran a 9:46 3200 as a freshman, and 9:22 as a sophomore. I wanted to break 9:00 as a junior but due to audacious training that led to injury, the finale of puberty and a counterproductive mindset, I plateaued. I finished my high school career with a 9:19 PR in the 3200 and a 15:38 5K PR. I arrived at Columbia with some of the weakest PR’s in my recruiting class.

How about college?

It’s difficult to chronicle my college trajectory because, until this year, it was truly an injury expedition with blips of racing. My freshman year I had a great summer of training and finished as the second freshman on the team during our first race, finishing only behind the legendary CBA stud, Jack Boyle. That year I got two stress fractures: one after that first cross race and the other before outdoors. My sophomore year I don’t even know if I “officially” competed for an entire season due to injury. It’s kind of a blur. I tried to block out those seasons back when an injury meant a crushing blow to my strongest self-identifier. Junior year I raced a bit of cross and just missed making Heps due to spraining my ankle before our final regular season meet (not to mention some stiff competition). I got another stress fracture during indoors (go figure) but finished up with a productive outdoor season in which I actually won a good deal of (slow) races. My senior cross season, I put together some solid races and went sub 25 in the 8K for the first time. I arrived at the end of the season looking at a high likelihood to race Heps. However, a few weeks out from the meet, I got another stress fracture. After taking some time off, I ended up running pretty well at the end of indoors. I closed up the season with a 10 second PR in the 1600 running 4:08 split in the DMR. That was the first time since my freshman year of high school that I surprised myself with a finish. I carried that confidence into this outdoor season and have had a season that I’m truly proud of. I keep PR’ing in the steeple, ran a solid 4:12 mile and grabbed a fourth place finish at my first Heps. With regionals next week, I’m not counting anything out.

What sorts of injuries did you battle? 

I’m a big stress fracture guy. My body loves ’em. Femur, shin, foot, whatever. I’ve had eight. I’ve also sprained an ankle or two and have had your standard tendonitis in the knees and achilles.

You’re going to med school and were pre-med at a notoriously hard school to be pre-med at–how was that?

Really hard. Once I really decided wholeheartedly that there was no other option than to be a physician, I threw myself into it. I spent most days/nights in the library and refused to be outcompeted. It’s a competitive school but I’m a competitive person so I fit right in.

You also are a pretty normal and social person by distance runner standards, would you agree?

Runners are really weird. I’m not running weird, but I think my peers would say that I have my own brand. I’m also, by nature, an extremely social person. However, my junior and senior year I really prioritized academics above all else. Thankfully, I had a really stellar group of friends that I was comfortable enough with to continuously tell, “sorry, man, tonight I gotta grind.”

It seems like given your injuries, you had every excuse and opportunity to step away from the sport and focus on school and being a tall and handsome funnyman. What made you stick with it?

At first it was pure hubris. Runners at every level allow the sport to become such an integral part of their sense of identity. I simply wasn’t ready to consider exploring what it meant to be Keenan Piper without that identifier. I wanted to, with feigned humility, tell people how fast I was. I wanted to keep my friends on the team. I thought running mattered more to others than it really did. When I started to give up hope, things started to click. When I could joke about stress fractures, they held less power over me. I wasn’t depressed when I thought about running. I didn’t run each workout dreading whether or not my body would hold up. It became fun again. For the first time since my freshman year of high school, I really truly started having fun running again. Now I just want to beat people, feel my body move fast, and be around my friends.

This was your first outdoor Heps [Ivy League Championships] and you placed fourth in the steeple–did you expect the outcome?

I’d be lying if I said no. I used my 4:08 in indoors as a springboard to develop my confidence in running this year. I try to swag out before every workout and every race. When my coach told me “I think you can place top five at Heps,” I responded, “I know.” I bang on my chest before races. I yell. I listen to bangers. I told my friend “I’m gonna make regionals” before IC4A’s and I really believed it.

From that race then, did you really think you could shave off the seven or so seconds necessary to qualify for regionals?

Definitely. Heps was tactical and windy and I still PR’d. I knew that if I got in a fast race I could drop seven seconds or more.

Have any concrete goals for regionals? 

Make nationals.

Have any post collegiate running ambitions? What’s next, even if the answer’s no.

Currently planning on playing lots of basketball. When running wasn’t going well I could at least brag to my scrawny running friends that I would destroy them in basketball. Now I gotta back that up. I’m also gonna box and try a few other things to stay in shape. I have very little faith in myself to hang up my shoes for good, though. I’m going to be on a run someday and get passed by someone and decide then and there that I need to pull out the flats and beat some old people in a road race. It sucks but I haven’t learned how to cool my pride quite yet.

Was it all worth it? Columbia? Running four years? Etc.?

I mentioned this at my senior sendoff, but I can’t say for sure. I don’t know anything different. I don’t say this to diminish what running has meant to me. It really is a testament to how much it does mean to me. Running was a direct cause of depression in my life. It exacerbated my anxiety to the point where I would break things and have panic attacks. I know I’m not alone on this one, either. That SUCKED. Workouts and knee pain sucks but that SUCKED.

What I can say is this: this sport has shown me the power of the human mind, what it means to be a friend and me what it means to fail.

1) The power of the human mind: I know that I am going to be a physician someday. I don’t think I would be able to say that without my running experience. I know that I am going to be a physician someday the same way that I knew that I was going to score at Heps. The same way that I knew that I would race again after my eighth stress fracture. I want to so who the f**k is going to stop me?

2) What it means to be a friend: Man. The people on this team really want to see me succeed more than I do. It’s crazy. I’ll finish a good race and Sam Ritz will come up to me with this look in his eyes like he’s my father and I flew home to surprise my mother on mothers day and also saved our grandmother from falling down the stairs then shared my ice cream with my little sister. And I feel the same way. When Rob [Napolitano] won Heps in the 1500m this year I was losing it. I don’t think I would have felt that I way if I myself had won. I know that there’s more to friendship than that, but it indicates something significant. There’s some love there that no matter how much one of my teammates pisses me off, I retain.

3) What it means to fail: I would say that it has shown me “how to accept failure,” but I’m still working on that. Failing hurts a lot, but it also forces you to find a sense of identity in other things. It has helped me try to put into perspective those things that are fleeting, but which my happiness so deeply relies on (running, academics, the acceptance of others). Who is Keenan beyond a runner, an academic, and a funny guy? Without constant failure, I don’t know if I’d be addressing those questions.

What else do you want the people to know?

Treat running like a sport. That’s what it is. You can still work your ass off to compete at a sport, but don’t make it more than it is. The people that really love you care about you beyond being a runner. If the sport is making you depressed, take a second to step back and explore what it means to be a human without it. Don’t re-immerse yourself in it until you can treat it more healthily. If you don’t let it strangle you, it can be an incredible sport. Every runner knows this, but there is no sensation that parallels feeling swift. Get fit, run fast, but don’t let your mental health deteriorate for its sake.

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