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The Loneliness of the Injured Distance Runner

“You’re breaking my heart! Can’t you run on another street? I’m injured!” That’s what I want to shout to the runners who innocently stride by our house. Instead I wave half-heartedly. Like anyone who has been injured or who has had to redefine themselves after they could no longer do a sport they loved, I feel a mix of envy and sadness when they run past me. I too want to be training for something exciting. I too want to feel that runner’s high. I’d like to at least jog a fun run with my kids. But I can’t.

Since the operations two years ago on my head and spine, my surgeon says, “No running.” My surgeon isn’t cruel; he just knows that it isn’t good for me. My spine is fused from my skull to my shoulders. It is held together with metal rods and screws. Running could loosen that hardware, or break it. So I listen to him. But not being able to run makes me feel small.

Who am I if I’m not a runner? My identity as a runner goes as far back as third grade when I beat all the boys in the class at the 100 meter dash. I found something that I was good at, and then wore my blue, polyester Adidas tracksuit every day through third and fourth grade. In high school and college, I set records in the mile and half mile. Then, after I graduated, I kept running marathons and ultramarathons, because running is where I counted exhales instead of minutes on a clock in a conference room. Out running, I felt a sense of progress and of possibility.

Just weeks before the surgeries, I ran an ultramarathon in the rocky mountains and won the Masters division. I felt invincible, capable of anything. After the fusion, I was not handling the loss of running well.

Until recently, when I decided to try on a new perspective: What are the elements of running that I love?

Top of the list is being outside, on a trail. Can I still do that? Yes! Now I go on slow, daily rambles. I shift my gaze from the roots and rocks to the tops of the trees and I am learning to identify birds. I love the way it looks when hummingbirds shake off raindrops from their wings; I’d never noticed that before.

Next is the “body high” after a workout, that elation from moving fast and hard. I don’t quite get that feeling doing leg raises at the physical therapist’s office. But I recently “graduated” from PT, so I am exploring new ways to move my body. I’ve been dancing. Not very well, but still. As long as I don’t try any Baryshnikov leaps, I’m safe. I’m also swimming. But because I can’t turn my head to the side, I swim with a snorkel. The little kids think I’m cool. The adults don’t ask questions. 

But it’s not the same. It’s lonely. One of my favorite things about running is the other runners. I have always loved my morning conversations with friends and training partners. We talked about everything, from favorite places to how to survive graduate school or divorce. I always came home feeling better, like I wasn’t alone in this uncertain world. I realized it wasn’t helping to isolate myself just so I wouldn’t have to hear about their training adventures. So I’m fighting the loneliness by volunteering more.

At first I thought it would depress me to be on the side of the race course instead of in the middle of it, but it doesn’t. It brings me back in touch with a tribe I love, the conversations that move me, and a passion that is still mine. You’ll see me out there, early morning, waving you into a parking space, or handing out water at an aid station.

Finally, I had to face the truth that I thought my ability to run more than thirty miles, no sweat, was evidence that I had a superpower. It’s what made me different. I wondered, Without my ability to run, How am I extraordinary? But I had the question backwards. Why not ask, How is the world extraordinary?

Now, I slow down. I notice those wings of a hummingbird after a rain, the smell of butterscotch in a ponderosa pine, and I go for walks with my neighbor who is also feeling lonely. Life is not about the world celebrating me. It’s about me celebrating the world.

I lost something important to me, but I found unexpected joys. Now I wave to the runners on my street and mean them well. I think, I’m with you on this workout. I know it’s tough for the first mile, but hang in there. It gets easier.