The last time I didn’t run for more than a month was probably in the summer of 2008, when I was reporting for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing around the Olympics. I arrived in the Chinese capital sometime in late June, went out for a run on one of my first hazy mornings there (this was before the government cleared the skies for the Games), and promptly contracted a chest infection from the pollution. By the time I recovered I was too busy working round the clock to think about running, and I survived. It was at least seven weeks. Since then I’ve gotten spoiled by being fairly injury-free, apart from one two-week stretch two years ago.
Now I work for myself, which keeps me a lot less busy, and I’ve become far more invested in my running as part of my daily life and identity. To go from running almost every day this year– sometimes twice a day– and reaching the top of my sport at a World Championship, to a sudden stop of all activity was initially so devastating I couldn’t even think about it. But again, I’ll survive.
It will be a long road ahead and I’m not sure if I will come out the same runner at the end that I was, or that I want to. As running, competing, and winning became larger parts of my life, it became easy to lose perspective on the world outside of that. I felt in danger of becoming “lopsided” and taking this thing I do for fun too seriously, so that it stopped being fun. A real wake-up call came when saw all the photos of me running at the World Championship, and I was rarely smiling. I’m known for always having a big silly smile on my face when I run, and here I was looking grimly determined, frowning even. I didn’t recognize myself. And these were pictures from early in the race when I wasn’t even hurting, but do remember I’d gone into the race with an attitude of having a job to do, not of having fun, and that really showed.
The only way to deal with this injury is to put running in the somewhat distant future, something that I’ll eventually get back to, but that I know can’t be rushed, because first I have to walk. At five weeks since my injury (which I almost want to call” an accident,” since that’s what if felt like with its sudden onset), I’m still on crutches, and not just because it’s what the doctor ordered, but because my right leg is still “broken”- not in the sense of being cracked through, but it’s non-functional, it doesn’t work.
In the meantime there has been learning and self-reflection. Yes, there were nights of tossing and turning (well, only figuratively in my condition) over the losses and heartbreak of injury. And endless little frustrations at not being able to get around, go out and enjoy the summer-y days of late spring, or the constant clumsy dropping of crutches. But I rarely cry or lose my temper. I know what I’m going through is so small compared to what others endure, it’s not even worth mentioning.
I’ve heard it said that injury is a teacher, and so I’ve learned the world looks very different from here. It’s much quieter, for one thing. I don’t go out very much but when I do I’m humbled by the many kindnesses shown by strangers. I feel vulnerable yet protected by the universe in some ways. But I still won’t venture into the subway. And I’m fortunate that I don’t have to for as long as I’m on crutches.
I slow down, way down, I plan on everything taking twice as long as it used to. My arms tire easily, though they’re getting stronger too. Times slows down too when I count the days: three and half weeks into four, and when I get to four it’s anticlimactic. Am I 2/3 of the way to being able to walk freely or only 1/3? I remind myself to focus more on the present than on past and future. Really I only have these moments, so why not use them to the fullest. I do not know what next month or next year will bring.
I read more and study new things, rediscovering so much that I’d forgotten while I was busy running and finding new interests. I make a real effort to improve my nutrition for healing and long-term wellbeing: good-bye sugar and refined carbs. I have to cut back on social media too, or I get a little sad as a bystander watching everyone else out running all the time, but that gives me even more time to find myself outside of running. And I daydream a little too, fantasy-planning all the adventures I’ll go on next year, and the year after, and the year after… In the end my deep realization is that nothing has been lost, it’s only changed. And for someone who fears change this is probably the best lesson I can find.