Despite my valiant efforts at anti-inflammatory eating, icing, anti-inflammatory gel application, and continued rehabilitation exercises, my IT band/knee is still giving me fits. Back in June I thought I had recovered completely, but after a race at the end of that month, a nagging pain started setting in during the last few minutes of my longer runs. A few more weeks passed, and the pain started happening even sooner. Now, some days I can only run a mile before the pain hits; other days, I’m good to go for three, four, or even five miles. There’s no rhyme or reason, and that’s part of my frustration.
And so frustrated tears were shed, there may have been some yelling (hey, I’m Italian), and I entered last weekend at a turning point. It was the Great Race 10K, something I registered for back in February before I even knew what my IT band was. Do I run the race, which is nearly all downhill? (Downhill running is not so great for the IT band.) If it was a 5K, or had it had fewer or shorter stretches of downhill grades, I’d attempt it with no question, but neither were the case. Or do I cut my losses and rest up so I can really run the Marine Corps 10K later this month, in conjunction with Ben’s first marathon?
The race was last Sunday. The Friday before, I still hadn’t decided what I would do, but I went to the race expo anyway—not only to pick up my bib so I had it if I needed it, but also to meet one of my running heroes, Lauren Fleshman, who was there on behalf of one of the race sponsors. Lauren also recently faced the same injury for almost a year, so not only did I want to meet one of the coolest runners on the planet, I hoped she might be able to offer me some pointers.
In addition to showing me a new variation on a single leg squat (you know you’re a runner when you talk to your heroes about squats), she also told me about a shakeout run her energy bar company was hosting the next day. Um, run with Lauren Fleshman? Absolutely! Despite having extreme performance anxiety about my knee (how embarrassing would it be to have to stop a mile into the run and walk the rest of the way because my knee wouldn’t work?), I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
And I’m so glad I didn’t. The run was amazing—perfect day, great company, and I was running with Lauren Fleshman! The knee even held out longer than usual, thankfully, although I ended up limping the last few yards. Afterward, we met up with Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, PickyBars’ cofounder, and Lauren’s son Jude, for some PickyBars, coffee, and conversation.
Talking with these intelligent, insightful women, both professional runners, gave me a glimpse into the life of an athlete, where your livelihood and passion are dependent on your body. Both have faced or are facing injuries; injury is inevitable for an athlete, but the ones who are able to come back and compete another day are the ones who take the time to take care of themselves, even if it means taking more time off or skipping races you really wanted to run. It’s easy to get caught up in the disappointment of missing your goal races, but there’s a bigger picture at stake if you want to continue in your sport.
With that realization, what started five long months ago in May as a badge of shame for me suddenly became a badge of honor. In the days surrounding that fateful half-marathon, my injury made me feel inadequate. In the months since, I’ve moved on to feeling left out, essentially watching from the sidelines while my running friends successfully reached pain-free distances I only wished I could run without my knee holding me back. Today, however, I feel proud and empowered. Even the pros have injuries, and a lot more than I realized. In fact, I’m convinced that if you haven’t been injured, you’re either extremely lucky or not pushing yourself very hard. (Or you’re just smarter about pushing yourself than I am.)
Part of what it means to be a competitive, driven athlete, even for amateurs like me, involves testing the limits of what you can do. There’s no way to know where those boundaries are unless you hit them at one point or another, and unfortunately, injuries are usually inevitable when that happens. But there is a silver lining: I’ve found that this experience, although frustrating, has made me a smarter runner, more aware of myself and my limits, and ultimately stronger and faster, thanks to the rehabilitation I’ve been doing—all good things to have in my pocket for when I am able to run longer distances.
I didn’t run the Great Race. My knee had only one good run in it that weekend, and I’m glad I used it the day before.