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Injury: how I survived and learned to thrive

Why do you run? What does running mean to you? Are you a different person because you’re a runner? Who would you be without running? In my case, the answers to these questions are instant and unequivocal - I am one hundred percent a different person from my pre-running days. I have more self-belief; I define myself as strong, resilient and determined. I also believe I am calmer, more accepting of setbacks and disappointments, and have more humility than I did before I ran. You will undoubtedly have your own answers; running gives and teaches us so much. Of course, this fact alone poses another big question: what happens when we can’t run?

Most runners will at some point go through a period of injury – short or long, serious or trivial. Most of us find it difficult to discover that, for some period, we’re not going to be able to run. Physios are used to patients begging to be given the go-ahead to put their shoes back on. Injury often triggers a re-examination of the questions above – in particular, are we still runners when we can’t run? I have been wrestling with these questions, because at the time of writing I have been injured for almost exactly twelve months. I recently had scan results that reveal a small physical problem that may require surgery to resolve. I can run intermittently, but my body’s response to it varies, making it hard to plan for training or races, and I have a near-constant low level of pain.

My experience of injury has been characterised by a huge difficulty in disentangling my positive self-perception from my ability to run, which at times has pushed my mental state to its limits. To work out why this was, I had to look back to the beginning of my running career, around nine years ago. I was living in the hectic but exciting environment of London. Work was intense, both stressful and enjoyable. I relaxed with wine, food and television, but found myself three stone overweight, and feeling unhealthy in both body and mind. Knowing that I needed to act, I began running for the ease and convenience it offers, and quickly became hooked, progressing within a couple of years from 5k to marathon.

As my running developed, the rest of me blossomed too. I lost weight, I felt stronger, my mental health improved. I gained self-worth and confidence, and believed in my own abilities. I soared professionally, and my personal relationships improved. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how I became so dependent on running in order to perceive myself positively – it was the catalyst for a huge amount of personal development.

When injury struck last year, I was furious with my body - I felt betrayed and abandoned by it. I first noticed the pain in the same week as I handed in my notice to my secure, well-paid, prestigious job in London to move back home to my beloved Lake District and retrain as a running coach and mountain guide. It felt like some awful karma - because I had dared to put myself first and prioritise doing something I really wanted to do, I had been visited with the misery of endless pain, uncertainty, and confusion. I cancelled the races, training, and work opportunities I had lined up, and spent many hours sitting indoors in my new rented room during the time I had planned and longed to be outside, honing my skills on the hill.

I repeatedly tried to push through the pain. I ran distances and paces that I should not have done, spent hours in the gym trying to strengthen all the bits of my body that I thought were too weak, not fit for purpose, not serving me the way I wanted them to. I saw endless physios, hoping that someone would be able finally to diagnose and fix the problem. Eventually, exhausted, I rested. I had tried everything else, I reasoned, so I would have to try letting my body have some rest. When even two months of almost no activity didn’t ease the pain, my rage and despair were at their deepest. I felt utterly worthless and hopeless, because I could no longer do the thing that had given me so much pride. If you’re getting a sense of frantic desperation reading this – that is certainly what it felt like, going through it.

So what changed? I’m still not quite sure what happened. All I know is that I finally stopped fighting my body. Something in me realised that if I was going to get through this, I would have to do it with my body and brain on the same side, not at odds with one another. This acceptance of my situation was the first kernel of progress in a process which has ended, at the time of writing, with me still injured, but now the pain is only in my body. I no longer believe that I am worthless or useless because I can’t train as I want to, or that it is my fault that I got injured. I know that I’m still a runner, even if my mileage isn’t as high as I would like – and I know that I am strong and capable. If anything, injury has made me more so, as this experience has been harder than any training or race – and I’m still standing. I have learned that I don’t have to continually rage against my situation to keep the flame of my love for running alive. Nobody needs me to prove to them that I love running, and my fear that I would forget how much I love it proved unfounded. Gradually, the reasons for fighting myself have ebbed away, and what is left is a quiet confidence that I am still the same person as I was when I could run for 50 miles a week and 12 hours at a time. Everything I have learned and become through running is still true.

This process took months. I started working with a sports psychologist, because I couldn’t speak about my situation without breaking down in floods of tears, recrimination, self-hatred and guilt. At the beginning of our work together, I couldn’t use (or bear for him to use!) any phrasing that included the idea of ‘accepting’ my situation - I felt that to ‘accept’ that I was injured was to betray myself, to give up on my running ambitions and to turn away from my sport. Now, I can see that existing in a bubble of misery does not represent a badge of honour that displays how much I love running. It is perfectly possible simultaneously to be striving to recover and return to activity, while also finding joy and fulfilment in other activities. But at the start of my injury journey, these two ideas represented a cognitive dissonance that I was completely incapable of resolving.

I know that I’m nowhere near the end. The journey is only just beginning now that I know what’s wrong. There will be more hard work and possibly heartache to come, but the big difference in my approach now is that my mind and my body will be trying to go hand in hand, each supporting the other. Neither can do something that the other is not willing and capable of, and when one tries to force the other it only damages their relationship. I practice mental strategies alongside my physical training. I tell myself good things about myself – that I’m strong, that I’m courageous, that I’m worthy of people’s care and attention. If I catch myself thinking recriminatory or negative things, I literally envisage changing the channel to something more positive, as if my brain is a radio.

In the future, when I’m running freely (and free of pain!) again, I think that I will run with even more freedom than before. I think that this experience will make my running more confident, and more joyful. I will hold my pride in my running more lightly because I know now that I don’t need to cling to it. What it gives me is not transient or temporary – my pride in myself can’t ever be taken away.

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