When I watched my bus go by because I could not run across the street to catch it weeks after spectating the Chicago Marathon, I was not sure I would ever come back to racing the way I had before. I fell into a dark place, but I was held up by many wonderful and supportive people (and someday I will write a long post to thank them).
As many of you know, I was diagnosed with a femoral stress reaction right before the Chicago Marathon this fall. This meant ten weeks of no running and a very gradual return after that. After weeks of run/walk intervals and super slow runs, I was so eager to mix things up: hills, speed intervals, anything to resemble my previous training regimen. I worked out goals with my coach and physical therapist. First race back would be the triathlon simulation (friendly competition of 450 yard swim, 8 mile bike, 3.1 mile run with my triathlon class) Second would the Cupid’s Chase 5k the following weekend.
The triathlon simulation went very well. The swim was a personal worst, and that knocked my confidence a bit but I am not the strongest swimmer. The 8-mile spin bike was a struggle but ended up being a slight PR at 24:39. I did the 5k run in 21:33 with all sub 7-minute miles and actually felt like I could have pushed harder. I had my friends around me, and that gave me comfort that everything would be OK. Yet, I wondered, what will happen on the roads?
Before the 5k, I asked my coach a bunch of times what my goal should be. The response was “to have fun” and “finish strong.” This felt like another language to me. It felt like if I focused on having fun, I would no longer be a serious runner, and I was so desperate to hang on to my identity as a serious runner post-injury. What if I am so much slower than I used to be? What if I hurt something again? And if I was slow and got hurt, how could I “have fun?” Who “has fun” at 5ks anyway?
When we got to the bib pick up, everyone got a bib with a different inspirational quote on it. I looked down at mine and saw the words of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorite saints. “Start by doing what is necessary; then do what’s possible; then suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Tears filled my eyes. Of all the quotes, the theologian received this one! I have to believe it was more than a coincidence and it brought me a sense of calm.
At the starting line, I started to panic again. My husband pushed me to the front of the crowd. “I don’t look like a runner anymore. I don’t belong here.” My husband would not let me move back. “I believe you are faster than you think, you stay there.”
I told myself to just run, no looking at my watch, no looking at other people. When the gun went off, I did just that. If someone passed me, I just let them go. If I could pass someone, I did. Surprisingly, it did not feel as bad as I thought. This course was the same course I ran a 10k PR last September (my last big happy running moment before the injury) but just one loop instead of two, so it had a special place in my heart. When I passed the first mile mark, I started to pray. I just need to maintain this.
It was not until a little bit after the second mile that I began to not feel so great. There were some slight rolling hills and I began to panic. What if my femur snaps? Then, at mile 2.5, I said, “no, fuck you anxiety, fuck you stress reaction, you do not win. My coach, my physical therapist, my sports nutritionist, my husband, everyone wants me to finish strong and go all out. So that is what I am going to do!”
Because I was not looking at my watch, I had no clue what my time was and that made me nervous as I approached the finish line. Do I look at the clock? How bad will it be? Is it even worth sprinting? Yes, it is always worth sprinting.
I looked up as I sprinted in and saw 21:17. I screamed with delight, probably with more delight than I did when I qualified for the Boston Marathon (of course, I was severely dehydrated the times I did that but still….) It was not so much that 21:17 is the best time or anything. It is not. I did not win the race. I did not even PR. However, I ran a time that is around my usual, pre-injury time for 5ks. In fact, I have run 5ks slower than this pre-injury when I was in tip-top shape. In others words, I was back to being me. And it was only 12 seconds off of my all-time 5k PR (21:05) Tears spilled down my cheeks. A lady took my picture. I think people thought it was my first 5k. “I can’t believe it. First race post-injury!” Best of all, I did not even feel that awful. Sure, I took some time to catch my breath but I did not need to sit on the ground and I did not regret signing up for the race. I had enough energy to get my phone out so that I could capture Bryan finishing in 22:52,an excellent race for him as well.
Something else I forgot to mention is that when I was deep into my injury and depression and really missed running, I started to feel sad that I used to take it for granted. I was so focused on certain big goals that I lost sight of all the great running experiences that I have had. Back in November, when I was just starting to run/walk and it still felt iffy, I said to my nutritionist with tears in my eyes, “I just miss running local 5ks with my husband and winning age group awards. I took it for granted. What if I can’t even do that again?” She said, “you will do that again.” And of course, because I am a big pain in the neck, I said “how do you know?” like 300 times. And she said, “Because you did all that before, you will do it again. You did not lose all of that ability just because of this injury. It may not be tomorrow, but you will get there.” I wanted with all my heart to believe that, but most of the time, my body and my mind would not let me.
While cooling down, I received a text from my husband. “I got second place in my age group, you got third place in your age group.” At first, I was so disappointed. Third place? Why do I care? I rushed back to the awards station, and my husband was beaming. “You got an award! You got an award! They are giving them out to the top 3!”
I looked at the results. Yes, I was third, but in the most competitive age category (by the way, the fact that the 30-39 year old women were more competitive than the 20-20 year old men and women made me all sorts of happy for those of us who may feel bad about aging). 3/52 people. OK, I’ll take it. And yes, I have to admit, while my husband and I held up our beer coolers with the words “top finisher” on them, I was “having fun.” Yes, yes, my people are never going to let me live it down. I “had fun” and I still took my running seriously.
So, I learned an important lesson. “Having fun” does not make you less serious, and you cannot really do anything to the best of your ability if fun is not part of the equation. If running does not bring me any joy, how will I ever find the motivation to pursue even greater goals and to push when the going gets tough? And, what is the point of setting goals, if there is no laughter and appreciation in between? And it’s the same with anything in life. If I do not have fun doing theology, how will I be an effective professor and convince my students to take an interest in the field? How will I produce work that is valuable to my field if I do not share jokes, glasses of wine, theology memes, or long conversations with colleagues (where valuable learning often takes place)? Working hard and having fun are not mutually exclusive.
So, yes, I am Running Theologian. I like to have fun.
This race was not a PR. I did not win first place (although I love my age group award) but it may have just been “the best 5k ever.” Also, I need to be better about trusting my people (don’t let them read this :P)