I was running and running, but at some point, I simply couldn’t run anymore. I didn’t think I could be injured. Not in an invincible sense, but there was no event, no precipitating jolt that signaled a malady. It was a gradual erosion. Something was off, had been off, but I was denying it with a stubborn power that only grows with time. The hurt wouldn’t wear off, no matter how hard I willed it to. I wasn’t psychic, just psycho.
Since February, I’d been training for a marathon, pounding the treadmill in the face of an unending cold snap. Something painful began to creep into my right leg, but I ignored it. The pain was temporary, I told myself, just a symptom of the treadmill belt and a bleak winter. Epsom salts cure everything, right? You can run through the pain, right? I wasn’t listening.
This was in the bone. I started feeling a bump on my tibia, sickeningly visible through my skin. I could feel it even more when it rained, like a soothsayer trying to block out all the signals. I didn’t want that particular information.
I kept building my mileage, dutifully carrying out the training plan I made for myself. I rose every morning in the arctic dark to run closer to my next goal. Here, on this piece of paper, was a plan that perhaps the gods wouldn’t laugh too hard at. But the pain in my leg built, too, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it out of existence. I wouldn’t even let myself consider the prospect of not running this marathon in June – no, never, not me! Running is what I have, what I aim for, the habit that gives my life shape.
The knot in my leg persisted. Falling further into delusion, I thought I could make it through the rest of training and the marathon, and then see about getting help. If I could only pretend to be okay for a couple hundred more miles, then I could acknowledge what my body was telling me. Then the low buzz of hurt turned into a bad garage band.
I finally conceded and made a doctor appointment. I could barely explain what my issue was. A hurt? In my leg? But when the doctor stuck a giant man-thumb into the leg knot and pushed hard, I truly registered what was happening. The stress fracture I’d been denying for a good 2.5 months was still there, ready to ruin all my plans. The gods, they laughed.
The doctor prescribed an MRI to hone in on what an X-ray apparently couldn’t show. I do not recommend thinking about your life for 45 minutes in a large tube. While the giant, iron-long-from-Space-Jam-seeming machine made disturbing noises, I asked myself: Why am I like this? Why do I let myself go so far into delusion? The imaging revealed a crack in the bone with a calcified bump on the outside. Like an embittered bridge troll fiercely guarding its gold from a nonexistent foe, I was holding onto running so hard I broke.
Reality set in hard. I got an unwieldy plastic boot, one that seems to have mystical powers of drawing out unsolicited opinions from most who encounter it. While I was admittedly somewhat relieved to know what was going on, my mind couldn’t take the loss of time and energy. I needed to run, I thought. How will I manage without it, even temporarily? I raged inside that cage. This is what it is when you physically cannot continue, but your mind is screaming for more. When all you want is the thing you can’t have.
Running was my fortress of solitude. My place to be only myself, and push that self faster and farther. It was perhaps the only space I felt good about being me, I thought. Outside of it, I chastised myself for any failures, talked to myself harshly, bent myself into twisting shapes to please other people.
Running was mine, but also a connection to my parents and the past. I liked to think of it as following a river, always moving forward but flowing over a deep geological plate full of history. As I ran longer races, I would imagine my grandfather in a B-17, freezing at high altitudes with low oxygen for hours on combat missions over WWII Germany, or my grandmother, who commanded such respect from all who encountered her that her dog would bring her live snakes as tribute. Who was I if I could not live up to these bastions of resilience and excellence? I kept following that line, on and on. I thought I was the keeper of a pathway. I was forever reaching for something.
My parents had decided to run a marathon together the day they met, and ran Grandma’s Marathon a month after they were married. This was my foundation. I didn’t know what would happen if I stopped running – would time pass over me? Would water stop running past my gills, the oxygen run out? I’d grafted this story’s roots so firmly with my own, and I couldn’t untangle it.
It was hard not to see this as another failure. Running, this thing that helped me stay sane, was now gone, ripped from my grasp because I tried not to pay attention to pain. Running was what helped me feel good, the place I went to escape the din of everything else. Now it was slipping away from my death grip. I had to reckon with what fell off the shelf.
On Saturday, I was supposed to take my place on that road up on Lake Superior, fling myself back into that path, run Grandma’s the way my parents had done. Not doing so has been harder than I thought. A year ago, I found a bit of myself on this road from Two Harbors to Duluth, MN – not all of it, but a snippet of history I gravitated towards and absorbed. Getting to run that pathway was one of the best days of my life. Now I was literally standing on the sidelines, aching to be out there on both feet again. I was trying to talk to the spirits – now, who will attend to the shrine?
The reminders were constant – I was getting race information every week, counting down to something I couldn’t actually participate in. I was looking down at this hole. What place did this training, this work, have in my life? I had decided that this is what made me a person. The part of me I loved the most was fading. Running, I thought, kept me sane – but when you put all your anxiety eggs in one basket, you end up with one monster chicken. (Science.)
Part of the appeal was knowing I could push through and keep running, always. That obstacles were surmountable if I tried hard enough. This wasn’t so much an obstacle as an avalanche that deposited me at the bottom of something I thought I’d already climbed. I suppose I had morphed an innocent physical activity into running away from myself. Who was I without this? I had started to use running as a too-deep retreat, another way to ignore myself. Confronted once more with my entire self, I didn’t know what to do. Moving is one thing, finding another.
Confined to a boot, I couldn’t outrun what I felt anymore. I was hurt, angry, sad, disappointed. But I’d also been forced to look up for the first time in a while and look at how far I had come.
The things that broke me: You can push through anything. Never ask for help, lest you show a crack.
The things I tell myself now: Physical injuries are not personal failures. There will be more of this. Sometimes you can’t push through the pain.
The things I know post-fracture: I am a stubborn monster. I should apply that to other things, like self-recognition and world peace.
It will be waiting for me. Running didn’t fall off the shelf, I did.
Through all of this, I still forged a path I can return to. But it can only give me so much shape – if I let go of one thing, I need myself as an anchor. I will keep the path, but I don’t always need to be running on it.