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Finding a Purpose Outside of Running

Photograph Courtesy of Trey Gannon


I want to begin by saying that I am still learning more everyday about injury, my body, and the recovery process of coming back to running. I don’t know it all, and I certainly know that I am not alone in the injury or recovery process that can be heartbreaking for so many athletes. I want to share my insights and hopefully help or relate to others who have had to deal with the hardships and isolation of being sidelined for multiple seasons.

My love for running began eleven years ago. I remember toeing the line with my brother and his friends in little sprint races at our local track from the 100-meter mark, and running as hard as I could to win. I never limited myself, and I always gave myself a shot against the boys even if they were three years older than me. I never had that part in my brain that told me a challenge was too big for me. There is a balance between being realistic and dreaming big, like really big.

A balance of both is ideal, but I think I've always been a big dreamer. To this day, I want to make it to the Olympics. It’s what keeps me going. I’ll never forget a quote I heard from a world class skier: “Never feel like you don’t have a chance, it’s up to you.”

I joined the Dashers track and cross country club team in fifth grade. It was there where I learned that running was fun and something I could be good at if I kept showing up. I was lucky to have met mentors and teammates that pushed me to be my best, and were gritty and worked hard. It is important to surround yourself in an environment of people you want to be like, because even if you don’t realize it, you become the average of those people. In my case, I was lucky to be placed in the group that I was in at Dashers, and made friends with the kids that I ran with. They were people that didn’t make excuses.

They wanted to work hard and be great while having fun with it, too, and that fanned my flame.

Ever since I can remember starting to run, I never let go of it. It has always been a constant in my life. I just ran because it made me feel good, and I loved to beat other people. I think knowing that someone else was better than me always kept me in the sport. I resented getting beat, and hated the feeling of losing, or not putting my absolute all into the sport. There was even a point in high school where I would finish a strenuous workout or race and question if I could have tried even harder, and put more into it because I felt too comfortable at the end. I wanted to fall over that finish line; get so built up with lactic acid that I physically couldn’t move my legs anymore.

I wanted to look up from the ground at the runners coming through the finish, barely making sense of anything in fatigue, and think to myself “that was my all, that was everything.” I thought it was the most rewarding feeling. It is what made me excel in the sport. Of course, I was at times afraid of the pain too, but reframing it as an exciting challenge, and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is something I think I always had.

I was never the best in the state by any means, but being the best in the county, being close to medaling at state championships, and winning the league championships a few times was all I needed to taste success and that chasing urge to excel more.

Throughout high school I chipped away at my goals each day, becoming better each year. I fell in love with the sport and the people that it had brought me. Pushing myself was one thing to love about running, but the relationships, adventures, and experiences that shaped me into who I am today, I will forever be grateful for.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was lucky to be able to make it through all my years of running and training hard, having dodged injury and true hardships that come with the sport. Yes, I have experienced failures before. However, I never had to experience painfully sitting on the sidelines watching people race instead of me, standing at practice while everyone else ran circles around me warming up and working out when all I wanted in the world was to be there running with them.

I never had to experience the thing that I loved being ripped away from me.

This was all until October of 2021. Because running was so much of who I was, and how I defined myself and my happiness, the scariest thing for me was to stop running. So, when I began having pain in my left IT band, not only did I not realize how bad it could become by running full mileage on it, but I was also in deep denial of admitting to myself that I needed to stop running. Looking back on it now it sounds crazy, but I ended up running a full month on this pain, over 200 miles, of it getting progressively worse. On the last days of running before I had to stop because of my severe limp; I couldn't even feel my left leg. Every step I took was a shooting numbing pain that ran up my leg.

I felt as if I needed running to live.

It sounds dramatic, but it is truthfully how I felt. I had such an attachment to my sport. This can be normal too, being a Division I athlete gets intense, and you can only last if you truly (and almost insanely) love what you do. At the same time however, it is important to find ourselves and a purpose outside of our sport. It is so easy to define ourselves and our purpose in this world with our performance in sports, but it is crucial to realize that behind the student and the athlete, we are humans who like hanging out with friends, going on adventures, going on drives, creating music, creating art, traveling, cooking, and so much more.

It is essential to ground yourself in everything that makes you happy, and surround yourself with people that lift you up and love you regardless of running status and times. We deserve to live a life that we enjoy, and I think that can be hard if we put all our eggs in one basket. Life can be so simple depending on how you perceive it.

I got my MRI on the morning of November 11th, and even though I was in a lot of pain, and could barely walk, hobbling around everywhere on campus, I was shocked with the news that I got. I had never experienced injury before, and I thought that if I had something as bad as I did then it would be the most painful thing ever. It turned out that I had a grade-four fracture in my left femur which is the most severe fracture level in the biggest bone in my body. I was told that it was the worst fracture she has ever seen here in her 16 years working at Pitt, and that my femur was close to being broken in half.

If my femur were to have broken in half, I would have to get an intensive surgery to get a rod inserted into my femur, and I would never be able to run competitively again. This was crazy to me.

Going into the training room that day I thought it’d be rare if they even found anything, but coming out of that room I was honestly traumatized with the news. It was quite literally the worst news possible. I remember the orthopedic surgeon even saying fractures like mine are seen in people who get hit by buses.

The next three months I was directed to use crutches and was told that I could do no exercise whatsoever. After a reevaluation, I would be able to know if my bone healed enough to be allowed to start swimming as cross training in the beginning of January. Looking back at it now, three months doesn’t even sound like that long, but at the moment, it was difficult for me to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This absolutely sucked. It was a complete contrast to what I was used to. I went from running seven miles a day, 55 miles a week, having the time of my life at practice everyday running with my friends, to doing absolutely nothing for three months. It felt like my whole world was crashing down on me. I had just tasted college running and the potential that I had coming into the fall in the best shape of my life. It was hard to be knocked off the pedestal to embark on a completely opposite journey. At the peak of the suckiness of my injury I journaled a lot, which did help.

I kept imagining my future running self looking back on what I wrote and acknowledging how far I have come. I made a notes tab on my phone titled “I miss” and began listing off things I missed about running. “I miss the sweaty hugs, I miss the nervous fidgeting in the team huddle before the big dance, I miss getting told good job, I miss pulling my teammates along, I miss flying when I run, and I miss getting goosebumps from excitement.”

It’s ok to allow yourself to be sad, process the heartbreak, embrace the suckiness. But it’s also important to accept the new reality, and get going on what you can do. There is always something you can do, and there is always something to be grateful for. I learned to be grateful for the things that I did have in my life.

My amazing team and support group of coaches and trainers were all with me along my journey coming back from injury. Even though at first it was hard for me to come and watch practice and write down splits with how much I wanted to be out there, it became the best part of my day. Being able to lift others up, and support my team like they have for me was something so special. It taught me that I don’t need to be running fast to contribute to the team. I didn’t need to be running fast to have a purpose, or an impact.

Believing that I would have the comeback of a lifetime really fired up my recovery-cross training journey that I am still working through today six months later. My injury is a character-building experience that I have learned a lot from and am still learning today.

Photograph Courtesy of Alex Mowery

Before my injury, I used to tell people all the time that I was a person outside of running, and that running did not define me. I believed it too, until it was taken away from me, and I was absolutely lost. I guess you could say I had to learn the hard way.

With the extra time I had from not running or working out, not only did I grow closer with others on the team that were not in my previous training group, but I also learned that I am capable of living life without running. Although obviously not by choice, not running for a while made me realize other things that I enjoyed that were not running related. I really liked going for walks, learning to cook better, trying new coffee shops, and even writing poetry.

I learned that to get over this, I had to go through it. I found that taking it day by day, and focusing on the little wins in the injury recovery process was key. My teammates helped me recognize and celebrate those little victories too.

If I get to swim for 30 minutes today, it’s like “wow I get to hop in the pool and workout my body for 30 minutes.” For the record I do think swimming sucks, but if it is what I can do right now and what I can do to get better and get back out there, I am going to do it and get after it.

Patience was a skill I had to learn that pained and frustrated me. If patience was a person, it was a thorn in my side. Being surrounded by runners and DI athletes everyday is sometimes difficult because I find myself often comparing my running journey and where I am at with others.

Whether that be with athletes on social media or teammates, I had to frequently remind myself that my journey was different, and soon enough I would be out there clicking off intervals at workouts again. My body needed a break, and that is okay. It is temporary, everybody is different, and comebacks are possible. Sometimes a deep breath and a reminder to take things day by day, slowly chipping away, kept me grounded.

As runners and athletes sometimes we want it so bad, and are so passionate about our sport that it is so frustrating to have to wait, but greatness requires patience, and does not happen suddenly.

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