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The Only Word That’s Getting Me Back Into Running After an Injury

I became a runner during the pandemic. I’ve never been able to go very fast or very far, but over the past two years, the two-to-three times a week I’d lace up my shoes and hit the pavement were always precious to me. Short, easy runs cleared my head and brought me peace, while longer distances took me to a mental and physical place of joy and strength. I miss that so, so much.

A little over three months ago my running practice came to a halt after I slipped on a patch of ice and sprained my ankle during a trip to the mountains. I went from logging miles to limping and not being able to put weight on my foot as I walked down stairs. With time, my injury healed, however, and I’m now able to do jump squats and take hikes again. And, finally, last month I decided to test the waters with a run. The plan was to go for a super-slow, 20-minute jog, I decided. If it hurt, I would stop.

I bought a brace from the pharmacy and remember feeling incredibly excited. That feeling lasted as I got into my running shorts, my ultra-light top, my running hat and belt and shoes. I had missed this stuff! Putting it on made me feel like a version of myself who I loved. I fired up my playlist and set out.

My body is strong and capable, and not being able to do what I did three months ago doesn’t change that.

Immediately, everything felt different. The beginning of a run used to be blissful, because I was moving without exerting myself. That day, it felt like running through molasses. My ankle was okay, but my calves were on fire and my hamstrings were aching. Worst of all, I felt pain in my lower back–a sign that my core muscles were weak. I realized that two-and-a-half months had put all those specialized tiny muscles that support a run–the ones I had developed without even really realizing it over the last two years–into hibernation mode.

Feeling defeated, I cooled down with a walk and called my mom. I was nearly in tears. I felt angry at myself for slipping on that ice, and jilted by my body for backtracking in what felt like such a short amount of time. How could this have happened in just two months? How could the peace of a short, easy run be stolen from me so quickly?

But there was nothing to do but keep going because I had an event coming up that involved a run, and I was not going to back out. It was on the beach, the site where I had run my longest distance ever (five miles), the place I always feel best.

During my training, I liked using the guided runs from the Nike Run Club app. One day, halfway through a 30-minute run, the narrator, Coach Bennett, asked me to think of a word to describe how I wanted to be feeling. Immediately I thought: energized! That was how I had always felt about 15 minutes into a run. But then I realized I was anything but energized. I was tired, and achey, and that feeling probably wasn’t going anywhere. Maybe, I thought, I could pick a new, better word, for the moment, and I went with “acceptance.”

I repeated it to myself again and again as I acknowledged my tired body. It’s okay, I thought. I can be tired and slow down. If I’m still tired, I can walk for 30 seconds and catch my breath. I was inhabiting the struggle, and by living in it rather than being angry at it, I was able to get through it. I finished the run.

Getting back to running has been the ultimate lesson in humility and acceptance. How quickly so much can change has humbled me, and I’ve had to reconcile myself with how much is out of my control. But I’m also in awe of the human body’s resilience. My body is strong and capable, and not being able to do what I did three months ago doesn’t change that. I’m re-learning how to take strides, and feeling all the more grateful for my overall health and love of movement.

After many miles (and more than a few tears), I made it to the day of the event. Immediately fell to the back of the pack, the very last person. I accepted that. I was going slow, but it was beautiful out, and my body somehow wasn’t aching quite as badly. I managed to run 27 minutes, and yeah I felt muscle pain, but also elation. Was I back? I was back!

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