How to Win a Marathon Without Running It

Here in Massachusetts, it’s Patriot’s Day, which has very little implication for my life: It’s still a regular work day and I don’t do anything to “recognize” the holiday. That said, it is the day the Boston Marathon is run, so I’ll be following along periodically to see how the race is shaking out, especially on the elite American women’s side. It was slated to be one of the most stacked fields possible, but several of the top contenders have withdrawn from the race before starting due to injuries. I was particularly interested to see how younger stud Jordan Hasay would do against the most seasoned pros after her really strong debut last year. However, she has a stress reaction in her heel, according to the BAA via Twitter, and has chosen not to run. I was also excited to watch Allie Kiefer get back out there after her second-place finish (in the USA women’s field) in the 2017 NYC Marathon, after knocking something like 20 minutes off her previous best time. She then turned professional and started training intensely in Kenya over the winter, but I believe she sustained a metatarsal stress fracture, so she is also out of the race. There are still some me of the biggest names in competitive female distance running towing the line in Hopkinton this morning, so it’ll be an exciting race to follow.

I’ve come a long way in my emotional growth and healing in terms of running (or lack thereof). As a competitive sub-elite runner myself when I was younger, it was painfully difficult to come to terms with the fact that my days of training and racing as much and at such a competitive level are over. They have been for a few years, though my determination and refusal to quit (qualities which I’m sure helped afford me some of the success I had as a distance runner) kept me pushing my body and trying to train and race at my former levels for quite some time after my body was firing stop signals. I wasn’t ready to accept the huge loss of not only this part of my identity, but this huge part of my passion and heart. And so, I kept pushing and trying to outperform my career bests and stay ahead of the injury curve, but I just kept getting hurt. Even with very minimal mileage, my body seemed unable to withstand the forces of running and after injury upon injury, my dense little brain is finally learning to let go, to grieve the loss, and find new ways to be active and find joy and purpose. It’s still a near-daily emotional battle I face–the longing, the loss of my self-identity as a great athlete, the realization I’ll never race that way again or even really lace up my shoes and bound along for miles. Fortunately, I’m maturing and starting to find peace and respect for my body instead of loathing it for failing to permit running anymore.

Because of the immense personal struggle with this loss over the past few years, and my determination to find a way to get my body to cooperate with training, it’s really only been a matter of a couple months that I’m more on-board with this loss and see it as the more finite decision that it is rather than feeling like I’m just “taking a break” or “rehabbing an injury” but was a “competitive runner” who would be back in action once the “injury” healed. The use of quotes is appropriate here because many times, setbacks weren’t discrete injuries, but more of a systemic resistance from my body against running (pervasive, sometimes traveling joint and muscle pains that would not go away for months on end). These types of nondescript, but severe, symptoms would make running impossibly painful and didn’t carry the helpful piece of information that many true injuries do in terms of anticipated time off to heal. It turns out that my issue isn’t genuine musculoskeletal injuries most of the time, but flare-ups of the systemic autoimmune disease called psoriatic arthritis. Accordingly, I never knew how long I would be out of running until I felt well again.

I could write a tome about the loss I feel ending my near-twenty-year competitive running career and my struggle through the process of letting this passion and large piece of my identity go. Maybe someday, for my own personal use, I will. Perhaps it will help me out some of the grieving process to rest, especially because I’ve found writing to be so therapeutic and beneficial for my personal development and emotional healing.

Watching and following races I can’t run has, understandably, been a form of emotional torture for me during this period of losing the ability to run. As such, I haven’t been as in-tune with the running community and the racing scene as I once was. It certainly used to be an obsession, likely fairly categorized as an autistic special interest. I memorized all sorts of running stats and was constantly reading about and researching all aspects of the sport. I stopped paying much attention at all to elite racing once I had to scratch (pull out of) from many races I had entered and planned to run, not even making it to the starting line because of an injury. When there was a big race, I almost felt resentful when everyone would ask why I wasn’t competing, as most people knew me as a good runner. When big races were occurring or ones I had wanted to run, I’d religiously avoid social media and running-related websites that would obviously inundate me with painful reminders that I wasn’t out there running too. This is actually a more difficult task than it may seem when your brain is obsessively compelled to saturate itself with all things running. Needless to say, days like today, the running of such a major event in the sport were just brutal for me. I would do all I could to close myself off from outlets that would trigger this jealous and sad feelings.

This year, I’m clearly better. I’m not only able to tolerate watching without feeling left out or full of a sense of deep loss, but I’m genuinely excited for the racers and want to root them on and see them achieve great feats. My feelings of loss are simply not there; they are replaced by an appreciation for the work and sacrifice all those thousands of runners (and their family members) who are toeing the line have invested into their training and dreams. It’s nothing but thrilling to see it all come together on race day. I won’t be there in person to run alongside these athletes, but I’m there in spirit and there in full support. I’ll be cheering and pushing for them at home, and today, that’s good enough for me. I have many wonderful things in my life and though tomorrow (or any other day), I might take a step backward and feel the hole and grief from not being a runner anymore, today, I’m happy with who I am and accepting of my evolution as s person and athlete. Progress isn’t always linear, but isn’t it great that it occurs at all? Moving out of that place of overwhelming sadness and anger is such a monumental accomplishment for me at this stage of my life. And for that, I’m a champion.

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