It's Better to Feel Pain Than Nothing at All
Nearly 900 days ago, as a high school sophomore, I walked off the NXR Heartland course with a time of 18:26 in the 5k. I wasn’t at all satisfied with the result, but I knew I had two and a half years left to prove myself as a high school runner. That never came to fruition.
This story is not about setting personal records, breaking 4 minutes in the mile or running at your dream school. Instead, these past 900 days were full of injury, pain, loss, and grief. By telling my story, I want to inspire and give hope to anyone whose goals and dreams could not be achieved. This is not because of lack of effort or motivation, but rather because of obstacles that are out of your control.
It is okay to be lost in the sport of moving forward.
As I mentioned, my story includes difficult topics. If you are sensitive to topics such as depression, self harm, and suicide, this may be challenging to read. I want to respect any triggers you may have. Only my family, my girlfriend, and a few close friends know the extent of my struggles.
Therefore, presenting my story publicly is terrifying. My hope is that by sharing what I’ve gone through and what I’ve learned, it may give others hope to continue their fight. Now that you have some background context, let's start at the beginning.
In my freshman year of high school my best friend Matthew persuaded me to run cross country. Although I was always told I had the runner's build, I was set on basketball being my main sport. But, Matthew was always a positive and funny guy to be around, so I thought, “why not?” The worst-case scenario was that it would get me in good shape for basketball.
However, I was hooked after my freshman cross country season.
I quit basketball my sophomore year to focus on running year-round. Matthew and I would train rigorously together in the summer and compete in the fall and spring. Although Matthew always beat me, I hoped one day to be able to race side-by-side with him. He was a significantly more talented runner than I, yet I strived to be like him on and off the course.
I saw my times drop steadily during my freshman and sophomore cross country seasons. I became eager and motivated to prove myself as a truly competitive runner following my sophomore cross country season. If only it was that simple…
I remember the exact moment I suffered my first major injury. It was February 13, 2020. I was preparing for my sophomore track season that was only a few weeks away. Until this point I was in the best shape of my life and was beginning to compile consecutive 50 mile weeks. I was so excited for the racing to begin. But, during a typical Friday 400 meter repeat workout I noticed a sharp, nagging pain in the top of my right foot. This pain never went away, and as the track season approached doctors still could not find a solution.
I vividly recall stepping gingerly, praying that the shooting pain would not occur when my foot made contact with the ground… but every time the pain persisted.
As my mind worried about finding a cure for my foot pain, the world worried about finding a cure for the COVID-19 pandemic that was spreading rapidly. The pandemic ended up canceling the track season that I spent months preparing for. However, due to my new-found nagging foot injury I was not completely heartbroken that the season was canceled. Every step I took felt like a scorching knife was slicing through my foot. I turned my focus to getting my injury diagnosed and healed, in order to salvage any potential season we may have.
Although my foot pain improved after many cortisone shots, injections, and inserts, it took the entire summer for the pain to subside to a level that could withstand running. To this day, the lingering pain and the lack of diagnosis perplexes myself and doctors. The chronic pain I was experiencing, along with the isolation due to the pandemic, was the dawn of a painful 900 days to come.
It is now the summer of 2020.
As my foot slowly improved to a level that could tolerate running and the pandemic eased, I was able to return to some level of normalcy in my life. I began to run with Matthew again and return to some degree of my normal training. Although life during a pandemic and my foot were far from perfect, at least I could run with Matthew again. Little did I know, the worst was still ahead.
It's August, just a month before my junior year. Although my training was less than I had hoped for due to my lingering foot injury, I was starting to get into decent shape for the cross country season that was only a few weeks away.
I remember August 9th vividly.
I had a double run scheduled, a seven mile workout in the morning, with a three mile shakeout in the evening. I recall feeling incredible during that morning run. It was the best my foot felt since the injury in February. I remember thinking to myself,
“Maybe I will be ready for the season after all!”
My excitement and hopefulness was back, and I had only one more run scheduled to reach 50 miles for the week. I thought the physical and mental pain were drawing to a close.
I was completely wrong. On that same day during my second run I tore my labrum in my right hip. 0.82 miles away from my house, descending from a hill, I heard a sharp pop followed by a crippling shooting pain. I shuffled the remaining 0.82 miles with my right side in severe pain. The labrum is cartilage that helps keep the bones of the hip joint aligned and in place as you move.
Due to the pain I felt, I knew it was not just a sore muscle and my brain battled with the realization that I completely tore my hip.
Accepting this was one of the hardest moments in my entire journey. It destroyed me, because I knew I had to go through the injury and recovery cycle all over again. More doctor visits, more physical therapy, MRI, needling, electroshock treatment and more followed.
My gut was right and, sadly, none of this treatment worked. To add to my luck, a few weeks after my right hip tear, I tore my left hip labrum while doing PT exercises for my right hip. I was at physical therapy, doing squats to see if I had any strength at all in the torn labrum muscle. As I squatted down, the same sharp, popping, crippling pain shot down my left side.
At that moment I knew I had two torn labrums.
Now both of my hips would require surgery and months of PT. I went home that night and cried myself to sleep. The uncertainties of my physical health, and the loss of control and despair I felt is something I wish on no one.
It was now late August. My motivation was completely shot. The ongoing pandemic and healthcare staffing shortages delayed my hip surgeries until November (right hip) and December (left hip).
Now it was just a waiting game until surgery time.
I tried to keep my mental health afloat but this was when things truly took a turn for the worst. Being in chronic pain is obviously not only physically challenging, but it is mentally debilitating. I began to show signs of depression and suicidal tendencies. I would separate myself from family and friends, not eat, sit in my room the entire day, self harm with cutting, and refuse to recognize any signs of my deteriorating self.
Not only was my mental health starting to deteriorate, but so was Matthew’s. Matthew started to deal with depression in his freshman year. Although you would never know because of his bubbly, energetic persona, his ongoing battle was taking its toll.
The pandemic, his own running injuries, and ultimately his battle with depression became too much for the beloved 16 year old. Five days before his 17th birthday, Matthew died by suicide.
That morning I had received a text, asking if I had seen or heard from Matthew. I became a little bit worried, as I knew his mental health struggles. But my mind did not even consider suicide for a millisecond. I was with him and all our friends the night before.
We joked and laughed like normal while watching opening night football.
But as the day went on, the clouds became darker and the rain began to pour harder… and there was still no sign of Matthew. Finally, that night, my friends and I received the gut-wrenching news of what happened and that, ultimately, it was death by suicide. I immediately dropped to my knees for what felt like an eternity. I sank onto the wet grass, my body was lifeless on the piercing ground, hoping to wake up from this nightmare.
I never woke up from the nightmare. As the following days, weeks, months and years have passed I have learned how to live without my best friend. Although I wish he was here every second of every day, I know he is not suffering.
Depression is paralyzing, and knowing he is not dealing with that pain brings me immense peace. Matthew touched everyone who ever knew him. He was a kind, genuine, funny and loving soul whose laugh and smile lit up a room. He lived a life full of love, family, and friendship.
I truly do not know anyone who had a greater life and impact than Matthew had in his 16 years.
Matthew lived his life in the way everyone should live their life. Over time and particularly over these last few months, I have been able to fully process the life that Matthew lived. Matthew taught me a number of lessons to live by, so I need you to listen. As a runner, this is what you need to know:
Your time when you cross the line does not define you.
Running is a sport where times can seem like the end all be all. But time does not tell the full story, and therefore it should not reflect in that way.
A time does not determine your kindness. A time does not determine if you are loved. A time does not determine if you are valued. A time does not define you. I feel many runners, myself included, put way too much pressure on what time the clock reads when we cross the line.
It is important to realize that it truly does not matter as much as you think it does.
Running is a sport of self improvement. And as long as you put one foot in front of the other, then that is all you can judge yourself on. Instead of basing your success or character on a time, live like Matthew. Put forth effort like Matthew did, treat others with the level of kindness that Matthew did, love unconditionally like Matthew did, and serve others like Matthew did.
If the running community, much less the world, put half the effort into the values that Matthew lived by, this world would be a much better place.
It was now my junior year, and the stages of grief were in full effect. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance were all phases necessary to go through, even though each one was painful. As my mind grappled with my emotions tied to Matthew, my body was finally undergoing the hip surgeries. The two surgeries on both hips were anything but easy.
Post-surgery hyperventilation, a litany of agonizing drugs, along with the stitches and scars made me completely hate my body. In addition, the recovery and PT process was, and continues to be, brutal. The surgeries caused complications to surrounding muscles, especially both TFL muscles. Therefore, the original six month recovery timeline has shifted to 16+ months, with no “finish line” date in place.
I remember arriving home after the second surgery in December and being wheeled into my bedroom. My broken body and mind were paralyzed and drained. I sat in my dark room for what seemed like an eternity, thinking how I ended up here. I was giving up hope and I wanted to be done.
Everything I loved had been taken away, but I knew I could not give up.
While working on my physical recovery, I also worked on my mental health. Some days were extremely challenging, but the heartbreak and damage that Matthew's death caused, showed me that I cannot ever make the decision he made. No matter how hard the depression or pain seems to be. I began to see a therapist, who has helped me in extraordinary ways. I learned to re-shape how I view certain situations and cut out negative people in my life. In addition, I started taking an antidepressant drug.
As young males, you are taught to be tough and that medication or talking openly about mental health is weak. But this stigma needs to be challenged and broken. This way of thinking is completely incorrect. Getting the help you need and reaching out when you need it is masculine and courageous, and way healthier than denying the struggles in your head.
Currently, it is the spring of my senior year. It has been almost a year a half without Matthew, and nearly three years since the last time I was pain free. I have improved a great deal, and am now starting a back-to-run program. Although I have gained back most of the strength in my hips and glutes, there is still a long way to go before I will be able to crank out any double-digit mile weeks.
My difficult recovery and unexpected complications in other muscles still give my doctors trouble when choosing the best course of treatment. My road to recovery has not been straight, and my case study has led to confusion and countless doctors telling me it may be in my best interest to never run again. I am proud of the progress I have made and I hope to return to the track one last time later this season and race, to show the full circle improvement.
I have experienced a lot in the past few years, running related or not. I think many of my struggles and lessons I have learned can be useful to runners or anyone going through challenges. Matthew’s decision and my own physical and mental struggles are things no one should have to experience, but if you are struggling, here are some tips that helped me the most:
I. Suicide is never the answer
No matter how hard it gets, the pain and suffering will eventually end. The world is better with you in it.
II. Build your support team
Find a trusted family member, partner, friend, coach etc… that you know is in your corner. Turn to them when you need to, and do not feel ashamed. Find a therapist, find your true friends, and find the doctors that believe in you. Some may judge, or tell you that your goals are not realistic. I went to many “expert” doctors that told me I would not be able to do things that I am now doing. If they do not support your goals, do not go back to them. Find the team that believes in you and will push you until you reach your goals.
All things are difficult before they are easy, it will be worth it. Be patient with yourself in all aspects of your life.
IV. Your sport and success in that sport does not define you
Like I mentioned earlier, the time on the clock does not define you. Live a diverse life that exemplifies kindness and love through many areas of life, not just athletic success.
V. Find other passions
When Matthew was suffering he became interested in painting and expanding his music taste. I also got more into music and became even more obsessed with college sports. I also joined a church group, which has helped tremendously not only in my religious life but as another activity to look forward to. By finding other passions, your life will have a healthy balance that is needed for success.
In conclusion, I hope my story helps in some way. Every challenge is a learning opportunity and although my trials were extremely difficult, I am a better person because of what I went through. Anyone can do the easy stuff, but persevering through the challenges of life makes it worth it.
And, life is always worth it.