Photo credit: MileSplit Virginia
“Can we finally give these back?”
I remember my mother asking me, holding up the pair of crutches I had used for nearly three months after being diagnosed with a femoral stress fracture. Given that I was finally ready to face my first cross country race back, I confidently conceded I had no use for them anymore.
The next day as I laced up my spikes for my very last race on my favorite high school cross country course, I tried, and failed, to manage my expectations. While I knew that I couldn’t expect myself to PR in my first race back, it was hard to accept that in my last race on this course I wouldn’t give it my all. As the gun went off, I was pleasantly surprised to be comfortably drafting in the back of the lead pack.
Little more than 1000 meters in, I was still racing within myself. As the course wound around a large overgrown field, there was a small rustling in the brush next to our pack. Assuming it was nothing more than a spectator, I didn’t think twice. Until I was flying through the air.
As I hit the ground, everything seemed to move in slow motion. I heard the runner next to me gasp, the deer run off into the woods, a large crash in the underbrush. Unsure of what had just happened, my first instinct was to simply get up and continue the race.
I tried to stand up, but the pain in my leg was so acute that it gave out from under me.
Crawling on my hands and knees to the ATV at the back of the pack, the girls running by me offered words of encouragement: “you got it,” “keep it up,” as if I would suddenly be able to stand up and keep running.
“What’s wrong sweetie?” the woman in the ATV asked. Even with tears streaming down my face, I couldn’t help but laugh describing how one minute I was running, the next I had literally gotten run over by a deer. As they picked me up onto the ATV and radioed into the medical tent that they were bringing a girl that had gotten hit by a deer, the disbelief of the medics was tangible even through the walkie-talkie.
Next thing I knew, I was surrounded at the medic tent. A swarm of people crowded around me, each offering their own perspective. My mother was “at least relieved it wasn’t my femur again.”
The reporter from the local newspaper remarked “this was one of the weirdest things he had ever heard of.” The Milesplit reporter asked if, once I was able to stand again, if he could get a picture and interview. The medic remarked on the extent of the bruising on my leg while picking deer hair and thorns out of my spandex with tweezers.
To be honest, I don’t have a clear memory of what happened in that tent. Instead of worrying about if my leg was going to be okay, if I would make it back home in time for my homecoming dance that night, I just recall a sinking feeling that my running career was over.
Not that the injury was extensive enough to require me to stop running, but I had put so much pressure on hitting my times for collegiate running, and knew that now one of my last opportunities to break through had just slipped away.
Driving home, I tried to stay positive and embrace my newfound “fame” within the running world as my interview on Milesplit went from 100 to 1,000 to 95,000 views. Responding to texts, I made sure to remark on how funny it was to get hit by a deer, how at least I would never forget this meet, but deep down, I would have much rather finished the race. Coming out of the ER, we hurried to pick back up the crutches I had just returned to get ready for my senior homecoming dance.
While a homecoming with a distended leg, too many Advil to count, and crutches certainly made for a memorable evening, I couldn’t help but be consumed with a feeling of doom about the future of my running career.
Over the next two weeks, I lost count of the number of times I had to tell my story. The security guards at my school were calling me Bambi, all the patients at my physical therapist’s office called me Deer Girl, and to this day every time my father sees a deer he sends me a picture with a caption along the lines of “they’re waiting for you.”
Against the advice of my physical therapist, I raced at the District Championships in hopes to help our team qualify for regionals.
For the first time since my freshman year, I was not the fastest girl on the team at our district meet, finishing second on our team and outside the top fifteen overall.
Even though our team qualified for regionals, I found it hard to be happy for them when I felt as though my own career was slowly collapsing. The next week at Regionals I finished first on my team, but for the first time in my entire high school career, I didn’t qualify for the state championships.
My senior year was supposed to be my breakout year, where I would hit my fastest times, my last chance to achieve my goals. Instead it felt like I was falling apart.
While I knew I couldn’t blame missing states just on the deer, I began to question my devotion to the sport. Facing rejection from my top choice colleges following my disappointing season, I gave up on my dream of running in college. Throughout my indoor track season, I was frustrated with not seeing the results in races even though I was training even harder.
Finally, during my outdoor season, the pieces began to come together.
I began to fall in love with the sport again.
After ending my final race of my high school career with a long-awaited PR, I recall my mother telling me something that my physical therapist had told her, in confidence. It was that the extensive muscle trauma from my injury would, in reality, need 5-6 months to heal.
For the first time, I began to feel proud of my lackluster prior performances, as these times were a reflection of perseverance through adversity, not just my fitness level.
It was this moment when I realized that I couldn’t leave this sport.
If I could survive getting hit by a deer, I knew I could overcome any obstacle the sport placed in my path, even if it threw me 10 feet into the air. The perseverance that one deer taught me gave me the confidence to walk on to Duke University’s women’s track & women’s cross country teams. Just as I failed many races before I was able to succeed, I had to face many rejections before I finally made the team. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve embraced being the deer girl. Aside from always having a great story to tell, getting run over by a deer ironically taught me to keep picking myself back up and never give up. It allowed me to regain my true joy for running, and perhaps most importantly, it put me in a position to succeed, both on and off the track. I know I wouldn’t be the runner, nor the person I am today, had I not gotten *absolutely obliterated* on that fateful October day.
The only thing that remains? I am still superstitious about those crutches.
CAROLINE HOWLEY — DUKE UNIVERSITY
Follow Caroline on Instagram