I can vouch that there is no good way to begin this topic after writing dozens of different openings over the past few months. I’ve reminded myself that athletes retire all the time, and it’s probably a difficult transition for all of us. But it seems especially difficult when your head is still in the game, and it’s only your body that has given up. At a time when there appears to be no limit to human endurance, it’s hard to accept that your body does indeed have its own independent limit.
I’ve been a runner since the early 90s. My son was in elementary school at the time, and now he’s thirty-six. I ran every morning with an inexpensive watch on my wrist to be sure I made it home in time to dress for work. And when I took a new job that required travel, I ran in beautiful and interesting cities all over the country.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunities to run in Italy, Spain, and Ireland; and on a treadmill in India where I watched the miles go by in kilometers for the first time. I experienced the horrible side effects of running at altitude when we first moved to Ecuador, and the excitement of running with an elite runner when I went to Africa. But the long runs here at home that followed the river down the mountain to the next town over where my husband met me at LuLu’s for lunch – those were my favorite runs.
Runners remember every race – the mood of the race, the course, every ache, pain and decision we make along the way, but it’s the places I remember most.
My husband encouraged me to run a 10k race in 2007. “It’s only six miles,” I remember him telling me. He realized it was actually 6.2 miles while he was waiting for me at the finish line. I found out when there was no finish line at the six-mile mark, and my lungs were already about to explode. The Chicago marathon followed a few months later, and that race changed everything. Training for marathons, recovering from marathons, planning for the next marathon, researching my injuries, researching new training plans, writing about injuries, writing about training – this became my favorite pastime.
The funny thing about following your passion is that if you go in too headstrong, according to some experts, you may crash and burn at the first sign of hardship. You have to ease your way into this new love, bond with it, and nurture the relationship over time. This way you don’t throw in the towel and quit when the going gets tough.
On the other hand, if you don’t throw yourself into this passion wholeheartedly at some point, you may never realize your full potential. I had the pleasure of easing my way into running slowly over many years, and also throwing myself at it completely.
If you truly follow your passion, your life is going to change. The challenge is to regain control of your life afterwards. The Passion Paradox
Achilles tendinitis took hold in my right foot in 2018 a few months after my first 50k. It was my new favorite distance, and I was determined to run this new further distance again – and as many times after that as possible. But when the swelling subsided there was another problem.
Some runners have run with Haglund’s Deformity in one or both heels for years, but it’s a painful existence that never improves. Your heel feels like there’s glass moving around inside. It swells, gets stiff, and then it’s painful to even walk. Surgery is an option, but it’s not pretty nor a guarantee.
I spent much of the spring and early summer of 2018 doing physical therapy to resolve the Achilles tendinitis and re-strengthen my calf. Eventually I could run without pain, but it didn’t last because the bony protusion of Haglund’s irritated the area around the tendon. So I ran every other day, continued therapy, iced my heel daily, and basically spent the last half of 2018 experimenting. I was willing to try anything, but nothing worked, and the pain and stiffness grew consistently worse. About a year ago, I threw in the towel and retired.
An injury leaves you irritable because of the lost time from training. Knowing you won’t ever run again leaves a pit in the bottom of your stomach that’s hard to resolve. I had been careful to identify myself with things other than running all these years, but there was still the question of what would I be associated with so strongly going forward that it would give my heart a place to land.
Around the same time that I retired, I also partially tore my left rotator cuff leaving my shoulder in a painful frozen state for months. Adding insult to injury, a 60-pound dog jumped up and bit my nose while I was saying hello to his owner.
I can’t begin to count the dozens of angry, untethered dogs that have scared me half out of my mind over the years. Two boxers would bolt through their invisible fence on my long runs down the mountain every week. I dreaded them with all my heart. One particularly lively laborador in South Carolina nipped at my elbows, jumped onto my shoulder, and tore the shirt right off my arm. Dogs were everywhere. I had developed a strategy of sorts: turn off my music, move to the other side of the road, stop for a minute, walk, and I’d yell “FOOEY!” when all else failed. Not one of them ever made me retreat, and they never bit me. Then, this seemingly harmless dog on a leash across the street from my house bites me while I’m standing still. It was as if my whole identity was being attacked.
My husband helped me sort through my thoughts in those early months of 2019. He researched surgery options, different shoes, orthotics, even other sports I might try. Meanwhile, I started walking the trail around the lake by my house. The pace was soooo slow, and every runner that passed me was an awful reminder of why I was on the trail around the lake in the first place. But I could walk for as long as I wanted without pain, and when I finally let go of being angry I realized I really enjoy these long walks.
Abby Wambach writes in her memoir, Forward, that she realized, “Soccer is no longer what I do, but it will always be a part of who I am, an indispensable thread of my past.” She recalls a friend giving her a metaphor about retirement:
“Trapeze artists are so amazing in so many ways because they are grounded to one rung for a long time, and in order to get to the other rung they have to let go. What makes them so brilliant and beautiful and courageous and strong is that they execute flips in the middle. The middle is their magic. If you’re brave enough to let go of that first rung, you can create your own magic in the middle.”
I’ve traveled all these miles for all these years with just my own two feet, and it’s been an amazing journey in every way. My shoulder has recovered, the scar on my nose is hardly visible, I’ve learned to manage my injured heel, and I’ve let go of that first rung.