Dealing (not dealing) with injury
I’m grounded from running right now. I have screeching pain in the area around my left hip flexor. Despite improvement every day, full recovery remains out of reach. What I originally thought was a small hiccup, three to five days off, has settled into an ever-present prohibition against the freedom of opening up into a long stride at the track, kicking too hard in the pool, or bouncing down the stairs.
It's telling that I recently said to someone I’d been off running for a month—when in actuality it was only two weeks. But when you’re stuck in a limbo of waiting for something to arrive over which you have so little influence, the imagination obliges with worst-case scenarios.
Worst-case scenarios. One thing my injury has revealed is how much what I do with my body—the training I put in every day, the races that mark my year—is intertwined with my identity. If I can’t run, I can’t race. If I can’t race, why am I training? If my training doesn’t matter, who am I and what am I doing with my life? And variations thereof.
“A collapse of sense-making,” as Karl Weick would say. When we lose the tools that form our identity—fire-fighters caught in a wildfire that’s suddenly gone out of control and are told to drop their tools and run—we lose our connection to purpose, to why we are even here in the first place.
(And yes, it’s my husband who has to field these phone calls, sometimes while he’s at work. He does this admirably and with so much love and support for the best version of myself; like I keep saying, man’s a saint.)
Before I started training full-time, I worked ten years for the federal government. Suddenly when I became injured, the very worst of these years came rearing to the surface. I can remember lying in bed after my alarm would go off, dreading having to get up because then I would have to go to work. I would play little bribery games: “If you get up and go to work, you can treat yourself to a latte in the courtyard at 10.”
Once the anxiety got so bad I took sick leave, for which I needed a note from my doctor. “I can write you a prescription for Xanex,” she said over the phone about one minute into the call. (I’d only met her once before, and she knew me about as well as someone can know someone from a six-minute annual check-up.) I still can’t shake the image of people crowded onto the DC metro, going to jobs that were crushing them, and they're all doped up on Xanex. But that image is probably not accurate—I think I struggle to an unusual degree to do things I don’t want to do, a personality feature most would call arrogance. Plus, some people actually like their jobs.
Being a professional athlete is a job, in a way. But I don’t make any money and I have no sick leave and there’s no detail to which I can temporarily be assigned. It’s a vulnerable place to be.
But still, I don’t think it’s too different than how a triathlete who still works full-time struggles with injury. I’ve met so many triathletes over the years and it’s clear that how much this sport means to each of us, how much meaning it brings to our lives—or how nervous we get before a race—is completely unrelated to how “good” we are.
I had a number of injuries while racing age-group: a broken collar bone, stress fractures, and plantar fasciitis. And they were no less challenging to endure than my hip is now. The only difference is that, because I was still working at the time, I didn’t have to confront this awful specter of having to go back to work if I no longer race.
Of course this is silly on two fronts: 1) I will recover and I will be racing again this year even; 2) I will go back to work one day—but to a different job that does fulfill me.
Now that I’ve progressed into a state of mind that’s more of acceptance, the greatest challenge is continuing to stay present and motivated during bike and pool workouts. Tough intervals, which used to be a source of euphoria, now feel tedious and require constant positive self-talk and reframing. Like usually envisioning my next race motivates me during a tough set, but now I have to look into the unknown. At the end of the day, I find myself thinking, “Why are my legs sore? I shouldn’t be sore, I’m not even really training, I don’t deserve to foam roll”—forgetting that I’m doing so much biking right now that I still need to be on top of my nutrition and recovery.
One of the benefits about being full-time while injured is that I can crank up the bike volume and I can spend two hours at the physical therapist’s office in the middle of the day. I’m grateful for this.
And now that I’m back to running a little, I find myself celebrating what used to be not even a warm-up jog. Sunday I ran at a 12:30 pace for twenty minutes on the tready—which is two-and-a-half minutes faster than a week ago when I was running fifteens. I tell my coach, “If I continue to drop two-and-a-half minutes per week, I’ll be down to running five-minute miles by Coeur d'Alene!”
But also, I’ve had to find more gratitude for the skills and opportunities I have outside of triathlon, the things I will carry with me even after this triathlon journey ends (whenever that may be). Being forced to confront my fears about the jobs I used to have has revealed how much I’m still running from them (or, biking from them, as it were). But things are different now: I’ve finished my MPA. I will be a mom for our daughter as she progresses through high school. This week, I started teaching yoga.
And I’m thinking more and more about writing. I just wrote my first piece of fiction and, last week over dinner, I pitched a book idea to my husband, something he and I could write together. I have yet to put down a single word of said book, but it’s immensely comforting to know there is a job I could have that would be incredibly exciting and meaningful.
So I can deal with my injury now with more patience and humor—because I’m not also trying to deal with my deepest fears.