Since I got serious about running, I have been very lucky when it comes avoiding injuries or any setbacks that would take me away from running for weeks at a time. However, life is full of surprises. On an evening about 9 weeks ago, only 4 weeks into my Berlin Marathon training cycle, I was rushing downstairs while wearing socks and slipped and fell on our wooden stairs. After a chaotic midnight ER visit, I was informed that I have an acute, comminuted fracture of the inferior sacrum, which I had to google. “You are lucky it’s a clean break! You need to refrain from any exercise for a couple of weeks, but you can probably still run the Berlin Marathon,” doctor said to me while putting me on a heavy dose of painkillers to help me rest.
I knew then that if I didn’t want this injury to consume me, I needed to make some changes in my life and how I approach running. And I was also aware that being injured sucks. I knew that I would be sad and frustrated during the recovery process no matter how hard I tried to be positive, and it’s totally ok to feel those feelings. Sit with them. Process them. For me, it was a lot of sitting in a dark room playing back the scene when I fell in my head until I got to the point where I acknowledged that there was nothing I can do to change what has already happened. I accepted the situation, and tried my best to stop blaming myself. I still fall back into that negative mental space from time to time, thinking what if. I have to constantly remind myself that I am here now. I need to look ahead and move forward.
Separating Myself from the Sport
I happened to be reading the book “How She Did It” when I was injured. There was a quote from the sports psychologist Ro McGettigan, “It’s a secure place to know and believe that you are whole without this sport.”
I tried my best to be intentional about the things I do to cultivate a positive environment for myself. I deleted Strava, and stopped listening to running related podcasts (which was about 60% of my podcast consumption). I made a list of things that bring me joy outside of running. It included things like reading, cooking, baking, socializing, and bubble baths with scented candles. But in the beginning of the recovery, things were rough. I couldn’t stand for an extended period of time, and I couldn’t sit up straight without a donut pillow. And even with the pillow, I could only sit still without pain for about 20 minutes at a time. This ruled out most of the things that were on my list. Luckily, listening to audiobooks was still on the table. So in the first couple of weeks, I was mostly in the crocodile pose, listening to audiobooks recommended by friends and family.
Slowly but surely, I was able to take longer walks, start cooking on my feet, and hanging out with friends. Every little bit of progress felt like a big milestone.
The World Athletics Championship was happening two weeks after my injury. By then, I was able to get into a good mental state knowing that I can still be a fan of the sport without being a part of the sport. I cannot tell you how much energy and joy the track and field events gave me. Being able to separate these two things changed my perspective of this injury, and allowed me to maintain a healthy relationship with running.
I had big goals for Berlin. I have been seeing significant progress in my marathon times over the past couple of years, and I wanted to see how fast I could go before taking a much needed break from back to back marathon training blocks. After the injury, I had to let go of my racing goals. I tried my best to look at the positive side that I still get to go to Berlin and run the course. I knew that I wouldn’t do well in Berlin, but I wanted to be there. The new main goal was to finish the race healthy.
I reeled in my focus to small and attainable goals, like staying present (instead of thinking about what if), staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, walking 15-20 minutes every day after week 2, learning about aqua jogging and starting to incorporating that into my training, scheduling a PT session before attempting to run, trying to run/walk for 30 minutes after week 3, and starting to work with my running team’s running coach individually. I didn’t come up with all the goals at once. Many of them were built on each other based on how my body felt. I learned to be flexible with the physical goals so that I could be kind to my body. As much as I want to run the Berlin Marathon, I will take a life-long relationship with running over 3 hours in Berlin in a heartbeat.
I played around with the idea of setting long-term goals like starting weight training by x day and signing up for races down the line to fire up my competitive side. But I didn’t want to rush my body to get ready for a race if I didn’t have to, and I didn’t want to put extra pressure on my mind, which was working overtime to stay positive. I know I will race against the clock again in the future. I just don’t know when that will be at the moment.
Adjusting Body Image and Self-talk
I have always loved sweets and baked goods. And I often struggle to keep my weight up during marathon training. During my recent back-to-back marathon training blocks, I was able to eat all the sweets and pastries and ice cream that my heart desired and count them towards the fuel that my body needed to recover from hard workouts.
When I went from running 40-50 miles a week to barely able to walk, my body naturally started to change. A week after the injury, I noticed that a pair of jeans was feeling tight and I freaked out. I cut down my meal portion, refused to snack during the day, and announced to my husband that I wouldn’t have any sweets until I started running again. Was I hungry? Of course I was. I was drinking flavored water like tea and Nuun to distract myself from hunger.
About 4 weeks after the injury, I stepped on a scale (which I don’t really do). I did a double take at the number in disbelief. The last time I was that light was before high school. I asked my husband to weigh himself to see if the scale was broken. It was not. I was broken.
I started reflecting on my relationship with food, and how I let my mental image of myself and my unhealthy relationship with my body get in the way of fueling my body to recovery. Although my physical activities have gone down, I still need energy and nutrients to help in the healing process. I realized that I needed to have a healthy relationship with my body, outside of the sport.
I added more vegetables back, then carbs, then a controlled amount of sweets. With the increased calories, I noticed a significant change in productivity at work and energy during the day. There are still days when I caught myself trying to skip meals because I didn’t “move enough” or simply because I “felt heavy”. I had to remind myself that my body needs the energy to heal and recover. It’s still a work in progress. But at least it’s going in the right direction.
I’m not back yet, and that’s okay. I’m going to be here, and in running, for a long time. And that’s the point. More updates to come in the future, many more updates.