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On Wednesday, I set out to run for an hour in the Arapaho National Forest outside of Fraser, Colo. I picked a trail that was closed to cars and ATVs and bikes, which seemed like a safe bet, but the trail also went uphill. After running for about two minutes, I started to walk.
In my mind, I began to criticize my efforts as pathetic, but then I backed up to reframe my thinking. Instead of berating myself for what I couldn’t do, I would try to focus on how far I’ve come.
I’ve now completed seven weeks of training for the New York City Marathon. I had to stop running this winter after being diagnosed with a stress fracture to my tibia, so I was excited to get going again. I feel better when I run. I eat better, I sleep better, and I’m more focused at work too. I’m a better person when I run. Without it this winter and spring, I was like a car without power steering: still able to move forward, but a lot harder to keep on track.
I’d run in fits and starts since May, but training for the marathon meant running five days a week, which I hadn’t done since February, and I expected everything to snap back into place: my endurance, my speed, and the shape of my body. That happened at 29, when I had my first big running injury, but I’m 39 now. My body isn’t as elastic as it used to be, and while I’ve been covering the distances my schedule calls for, I’ve been doing them in slower, sweaty, frustrating fashion. Sometimes I’ve woken up before dawn to run and wondered why I bothered (other than that my mother would kill me if I didn’t start the race with her when we run the New York City Marathon together this fall).
But I did bother on Wednesday morning, and I did put myself on an uphill trail about 9,000 feet above sea level, which I knew would make it harder to run because there is significantly less oxygen in the air than what I’m used to at home in New Jersey.
Why? Because I like to challenge myself, and what was the point of being in Colorado if I wasn’t going to run in the mountains? And what was the point of berating myself when, despite all of the frustration of trying to get back in running shape again, I was still on that hill that morning? With an all or nothing attitude, I had been looking back at who I was before the stress fracture, not at how much I’d accomplished in these last seven weeks. Not only can I walk without pain, but I don’t flinch at getting in six miles before work. I’m not sore after running 10 miles, and even if it was slow with some walking, I could run at altitude for an hour where not so long ago I could barely walk around my block in New Jersey.
On that morning, I was outside in the mountains on a gorgeous 44-degree morning (in August!), on a path dotted with wildflowers and smelling like Christmas trees. Who cared if I was struggling up a hill?
After a half-hour of climbing up, I turned around and ran back down, and felt so good that I shot past where I had parked my car and continued on the trail in the other direction until I got the full hour in.
For most of us, running is not our job, but we’re still competitive with ourselves. That’s what’s made coming back this time so hard. But at least on Wednesday morning, as I ate my breakfast on a tree stump by the trailhead after my run, I finally saw that I was on my way, and that there’s no shame in taking the time I need to get there.
A lot of you have written to me about dealing with injury — stress fractures and beyond. For those who have been through the healing process, what helped you to get there mentally? Let me know — I’m @byjenamiller on Twitter.
Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story”
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