June 20. For months, the date loomed large in my mind like a beacon, pulling me forward: the Angel Fire 50k. It was to be my first ultra distance running race since I broke my kneecap last September. My convalescence was a humbling series of stutter steps: 12 weeks of no running, followed by a winter of swimming and skiing and dawn-patrol skin-ups at the Ski Basin—all my pent-up energy and frustration unleashed on the slopes—and a scary, head-first fall on the steeps at Taos that strained my good knee. When I finally laced up my sneakers in mid-March, I was desperate to run again but terrified to try.
Like ultra running itself, coming back from an injury is as mental as it is physical. In addition to rebuilding strength in your injured area, focusing on alignment to avoid a chain-reaction of compensatory injuries, and fueling your healing with nutrient-dense vegetables and healthy fats and plant-based protein, you’ll need to get your mojo back. You will probably be afraid of getting hurt again. You will have lots of minor, passing identity crises: Who am I without my sport? You will worry that you’ll never be as fast or as strong again. You will struggle to find the sweet spot between coming back too quickly and too slowly. All of this is normal. This is the side of sports rehab that no one talks about.
The Angel Fire 50K seemed like a reasonable goal. I’d won double the distance at the Angel Fire 100K a year ago. For an ultra trail marathon in the mountains, the course wasn’t too punishing. And three months seemed like plenty of time to train myself up to 31 miles. Or so I thought.
For the first few weeks, I ran only a few miles at a time. I was very slow, but I was very patient. Twelve weeks of doing Pilates on the floor of my living room while my quadricep jiggled off my bone taught me this. It also reminded me to be very, very grateful when I do get to run.
Gradually I increased my mileage. Last summer, before I got hurt, a long run was 24 miles in the mountains above 10,000 feet, strung together on backcountry trails to Baldy, Lake Katherine, Penitente, Lake, and Deception peaks. In early April, my long run was still in the single digits. I kept myself in check with a simple, three-point strategy: I wouldn’t run so far or long that I needed to carry water. I would stay off the high ridges and avoid long climbs and taxing descents. And whatever I did, I was not going to turn running into a BFD (big frigging deal).I told myself I wouldn’t even think about racing until I’d been running healthy for two months, but soon I realized was lying to myself.
By mid-April, I was thinking about Angel Fire, imagining my comeback race with equal parts fantastical delusion and dread. The race, once motivating and heartening, began to loom like a deadline. I pushed myself harder and farther, logging my longest post-injury run to date, 21 miles, in mid-May. But as I trained, I felt less at home in my body than I had when I’d been scissor-kicking on the living room floor with a broken knee. My stride was off, my gait uneven, my pace laborious. The ghost of a decade-old stress fracture in my foot began to flare.I knew what was going on even as I didn’t want to admit it. My competitive drive was overriding my best instincts: to be patient and gentle with myself, to take the long view. While I like to race and win, I love to run. Simply and freely, without an agenda or data, high in the mountains, by myself or with my dog or a friend. I want to be able to do this for as long as possible, and in my most private of imaginings,
I picture myself doing this right up until the day I die. For weeks I’d clung to the race in the hopes that running Angel Fire would prove to myself that I was strong and in racing form again, that I was back. It’s been nine months since I broke my knee, almost a year: an eternity in racing, but a blip in real life. If I’m smart and cautious and kind to my body, there will be many more years and many more races. But if I get impatient and strive too fast too soon, I could jeopardize it all.So I let go of Angel Fire. Pulling out of a race or competition is never a decision I take lightly, but I know that it was the right thing to do. The good thing about ultra running is that it trains you to tolerate uncertainty and teaches you to be nimble in the face of change. So this summer I have a new goal: I’m going to run for fun. I’m going to run the trails I love for the pure pleasure of moving through nature on my own two feet. I’m going to go high, like I did today, 14 miles to Santa Fe Baldy and back, #fueledbyverde, with an ease and speed I haven’t felt in months. My instincts and experience tell me that I run stronger, faster, healthier, and happier when I #runforfun than when I train to win. I already am.And I’m going to try to remember to be grateful for every step, to run forward into the runner I am becoming, not backwards to the runner I used to be. The next race will come in its own time, at the right time.
In the meantime, I’m taking the long view. It’s beautiful from up here.