These past two weekends, I’ve run six miles. I didn’t run them particularly fast, and it’s not a particularly impressive distance. However, it’s an important milestone to me.
These two six-milers signify the longest distance I’ve run since my knee injury. Believe it or not, I actually used to be okay at this running thing. I’ve been running since 2011, where my New Year’s resolution was simply to learn to run. I switched over to trails in early 2015 and really fell in love. 2015 was an amazing year. I ran two half marathons, four 10ks, and finished my first 25k. Almost all of those were on trails.
And then 2016 happened. 2016 was a shitty year for me as far as my health went. I had planned to run my first marathon in February, but I managed to tweak my left psoas at the beginning of the year and missed my two longest runs. I dropped to the half, but it was painful. Between the psoas injury and something mysterious going on with my right knee, I mostly remember the last mile of that race being an incredible sufferfest, trying to will my body to get across the finish line in one piece. I figured if I got through the race, I’d be on the other side and take some time off, let all these little niggles heel. I thought that was the worst of it.
Inaccurate representation of how much pain I was in and how exhausted I was. But hey, beer makes everything better.
I was wrong. None of these pains would be what undid 2016 for me. What really wrecked my year was a fall, hard, on my right knee. It stung at the time, but the pain quickly faded. And then, after taking two weeks off following the half-marathon, I went out for my first run. Within five minutes, it was clear that something was terribly wrong. A dull, aching pain like I’d never felt before settled into my knee and didn’t go away. Within a month, I noticed I had trouble going down stairs and that I couldn’t straighten my knee without pain.
This time last year, I had just received my prescription for physical therapy. A month from now, when nothing had improved, I had the pleasure of experiencing my first MRI. It took two more months and three different doctors reviewing the scan until I finally had an answer: “nobody told you about the bone bruise?”
Taken on my birthday last year, about a month before the diagnosis. Not relevant, but it sure is gorgeous.
If you don’t know what a bone bruise is, you’re not alone; I hadn’t either until my fall. It’s basically a precursor to a fracture, the last step before your bone actually breaks. They’re normally no longer visible on an MRI at 4-6 weeks post-injury. Mine, though faint, showed up over two months after my fall. That’s how bad this was. However, bone bruises, unlike stress fractures, aren’t usually treated with a boot or a brace. You can get those things, but you have to pay out of pocket. I was basically given the order to strengthen my right quad, which had atrophied, and wait until at least September before trying to run again.
Like a lot of people who run, I had a lot of my self-worth tied up in being a runner. I won’t say it was everything to me, but it was a big part of my life. This major injury had made me absolutely miserable. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t bike. I couldn’t use the elliptical. I couldn’t even kick in the pool. All I could do without pain was walk. To go from running a half-marathon one weekend to losing the ability to be active within two weeks was mind-numbing to me. However, there was one major lesson, one good thing that I took from this injury.
I stopped seeing myself as a runner. And I started seeing myself as an athlete.
I committed to taking care of my body in a way I never had before. I consistently stuck with my PT. I iced my knee whenever I felt like I needed it. I hiked and walked when I was able, but didn’t push myself. I worked to challenge my body to get stronger as it healed. I focused hard on making sleep a priority. And finally, I learned to let go of the mental anguish. Instead of anxiously waiting for a hard date to start running again, I trusted that my body would be able to do so when it was ready. I stopped caring so much about things I couldn’t control.
Last November, I finally started running again. I’m not 100% recovered – I’m pretty sure that my right knee will always crack in a weird way and occasionally get cranky – but I’m no longer in pain. I’m doing actual workouts (HILLS!) and running long on Saturdays again, and getting lost on new trails. I’m finally hitting paces I saw once upon a time. And these past two weekends, I ran six miles. Back when I was a new runner, six miles was the golden distance, some arbitrary threshold that crossed you over from hobby jogger to a real distance-loving, long run-obsessed runner.
From last weekend’s six miles.
I’ve made it there again. But I’m not really a runner anymore. I’m an athlete, and running is my sport. I won’t ever be a pro or take home any gold medals, but it’s still a part of me. I may have big dreams and goals, but right now, the most important thing to me is to continue to build my strength and stamina so I can stay on those trails. So I can power up the hills and make it to the top, so I can roll along the single track, so I can get covered in dirt and grime and dig deep into my happy place.