I had nothing left to fear. After the disappointment of my second race, I felt more prepared than ever. I had seen the high of a good race and the pain of a bad one, and knew that with every approaching test, racing would become more and more comfortable. As the races came and went, that’s exactly what happened: I found myself on the receiving end of multiple top three finishes and several wins. My confidence was at an all-time high, and it seemed like nothing was going to slow me down.
As my wins became more prevalent, my miles grew longer. I felt the pressure of keeping my progress moving forward, so I was in constant search for new training grounds – untested and challenging territory that could help to shave seconds off my times. One evening, while on Google Maps, I found a gigantic succession of fields, all neatly mowed around the edge and linked together by connecting trails. I calculated that if I ran each field once, and circled back to the parking lot, it would total 14 miles. I grabbed my Nike’s and headed out the door.
When I pulled up in the parking lot, I noticed I was alone. This was a very secluded area, generally reserved for public hunting. But with the season out of session, I wouldn’t have to worry about outrunning stray arrows or bullets. I clicked start on my watch and headed out towards the first field.
As soon as I entered the trail, everything became peaceful; the birds were chirping, the wind was blowing in the trees, and there was a general lack of interruption from the rest of civilization. For that moment, there was nowhere else in the world I would have rather been.
As I entered the tenth mile, dusk began to fall. I knew that I would have pick up my pace in order to navigate these new trails and make it back to my vehicle before nightfall. The worst thing that could happen was to get lost without a flashlight or telephone, miles from the nearest streetlight. With haste in my mind, I whipped around the seventh field. Just as I started trying to do the math of miles left and minutes until sundown, I felt a sharp pain shoot through my left foot as I fell to my knees. Grimacing in agony, I looked back to see a pothole hidden in the grass that in the darkness, I had misjudged for solid ground.
As I placed my left foot on the ground to take my first stride, I fell to the ground once again. Time and time again, no matter how much I tried, my foot was unable to bear my weight. As the pain pulsated through my leg, I decided there was no more time to sit around and ponder. Moving slowly was better than not moving at all. I started the excruciating trek back to my car.
After sluggishly hopping the first quarter mile, the sun had set. I was officially alone in the woods. For all my previous romanticism about the wilderness and being miles away from humanity, this was not one of those moments. With coyotes howling in the distance and bats flying up above, I knew I was out of my element. Approaching the first stretch of woods, I eyed the brush in search of something I could use as a crutch and found a downed limb from a nearby oak tree. Jamming the end down into the ground, I swung my leg ahead.
Slowly but surely, the miles ticked away. Cutting straight through the fields instead of circling around cut the distance back from ten miles to around five. Normally that hike would take around thirty to forty minutes to run. But with the momentum of an injured snail, I spent a total of two and a half hours in the pitch black navigating my way back to safety. Entering my vehicle, I let out a sigh of relief. It wasn’t pretty or fast. But I made it.
When I got home, I made an ice bath and sat down slowly. The joy of not being coyote food had finally worn off and reality had started to sink in: my foot was in bad shape. As I arose from the bath and sat down on the bed, I noticed how swollen it had become. Twice the size of my right foot and covered in the color purple.
Sure, there was pain. But it was the diagnosis that did me in. Not because of the severity of the injury, but because of what it would mean for my training: a grade three-ligament tear with six to eight weeks of rehab. That meant no running for two months. This kind of discovery to an avid runner is mental suicide. The thought of losing all of my progress and having to start over was enough to make me sick. I had worked and worked for countless hours, putting in hundreds of miles. I felt like the subject of some cruel and unusual joke. It was impossible to shake the discouragement – not being able to run felt like a prison sentence.
Searching for what felt like every website on the internet, I wanted to find ways to maintain my cardiovascular fitness while injured. I purchased a stationary bike, swam miles of laps in a nearby lake, and made sure to do my rehabilitation exercises nightly, holding onto every bit of progress that cross training would allow. I knew that I would miss running, but the addition of other workouts allowed my body to build muscle and endurance that would otherwise be impossible with running alone. Backtracking was inevitable, but I refused to start over. I gave my exercises hell, every single day.
Eight weeks later on my first run back, something strange happened. It wasn’t my foot holding me back, or a lack of fitness – it was my mind. Though I had done months of endurance work, leading up to my injury and continued cardio work while I recovered, I still felt like a beginner again.With every step, the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough was louder than ever. It dawned on me that although the physical rehabilitation had come to a close, my mental rehabilitation was just beginning.
All of a sudden, fast food didn’t seem so detrimental and the occasional alcoholic beverage sounded appetizing. Even though I was still running and putting in miles, it felt as if I was just going through the motions. Instead of counting down the minutes until a 12-miler, I found myself dreading a 4. Competition felt like a thing of the past, and I sat around watching movies while my miles dropped week after week. I knew I was still a runner and capable of great things, I just couldn’t find the fire that once burned inside of me.
On June 5th 2016, my daughter was born. Rivaled only by the birth of my son, and the day I married my wife, ecstasy filled my veins. At home, the adjustment of raising two young children was becoming a learning experience marked by tough lessons, and sleep was becoming rarer than ever. All of these new adventures made my training even more non-existent than it already was, and the low miles became no miles. Training had officially become secondary and I accepted competitive running as a thing of the past.
With months slipping away at a rapid rate, as they tend to do, and all of the new and exciting things taking place at home, I realized there was still a void in my heart. Even with love around me, something was missing. As I sat and pondered, I tried to think about how running had changed my life and the places that it took me. From a confused and discouraged teenager, seemingly lost in a vast world, running helped me become a man I was proud of – an example for my son and daughter on how to never let anything stand in your way. That man was still in there somewhere. I wasn’t going to let him walk away.
As I stand here today, I am no longer the runner of sub-18 minute 5k’s. No longer can I run 14 miles without stopping, or easily break 5:00 when I go out for a single mile. But I have decided not to quit. Although my times aren’t as slow in my rebirth as they were when I discovered running, once again, I have a long way to go. No longer do I think I am invincible or unbeatable. Each day that I’m able to run is a blessing and no days are to be taken for granted. With many miles ahead of me and my eyes towards the sunrise, I know the value of a strong mind. Day by day and mile by mile, I will get better. Slowly but surely, I will prevail. I am a father, I am a husband and I am a runner.