“This Is Not a Suggestion”: How Being Injured Made Me Crazy, Then Sane

Note: I started writing this post to share with you about the beautiful mornings I have spent walking and (recently) jogging in the Bali countryside over the past week or two. I also wanted to share about the insanely exhilarating run we did with the Bali Hash House Harriers and our trek up Mount Agung. But as I started I realized that I couldn’t explain how much I have enjoyed these adventures without a bit of insight into my mental and emotional state, especially towards running. So this is “Part 1” of a series, with more travel-related (and less lamenting) offerings to follow.   

About two weeks before we left for Southeast Asia, I injured my right calf during a run in the Virginia mountains. I had gone to the Shenandoahs for a few days – seeking a change of scenery from DC and trying to temper a bit of nostalgia for a magnificent summer in Colorado that had recently come to an end. During a 10-miler on rocky, hilly Old Rag trail, I got a sudden, spasmodic calf cramp, the type I hadn’t felt since the marathon in March. I limped the 5 miles to the car and then headed straight to IHOP to ease the pain.

Rocky trails at Old Rag

I was really upset about this injury. Like, probably overly so. While this year has been anything but short of adventure and fun, one ongoing frustration I have struggled with has been my relatively disappointing performance in racing, particularly triathlons. After a really exciting 2011 in my individual Wide World of Sports, where I watched myself get steadily stronger and faster, I had expected to reach the next level in 2012, which would have taken me to a breakthrough level of fitness that I have never before seen.

So in early 2012, I set my race schedule, and benchmark improvement goals for the bike and the run (swimming, alas, is a lost cause). With no office job after March to eat up most of my day, beautiful locales that would be perfect for training, and a race schedule that included half-ironman and ironman distance races in California, Idaho, and Maryland, I figured my goals – which included a sub-3:25 in a March marathon, a 10:45 in Ironman Coeur d’Alene, and a sub-5:50 finish at Savageman – were not only realistic, but probably a given.

But as the training and racing wore on from January through September, things didn’t quite go as I had planned. Despite all the fantastic locations and fun we were having, my body was tired, and I had a hard time staying motivated when it came time for long rides and runs. I was constantly sore, but didn’t feel I could “afford” time off. I made a lot of rookie training mistakes, focused as I was on my goals. I was also trying to follow a fairly rigid training schedule, but – as it turned out – for me, my office job actually had supported that kind of training better than my new wayfaring lifestyle.

Training in Colorado this summer.

In the end, my racing results were….well, they were just okay. Not catastrophic, but nowhere near my expectations. I got debilitating cramps during my March marathon and finished in 3:29. After a surprisingly good finish at Wildflower Triathlon in California, I had a disappointing Ironman Coeur d’Alene, dragging in nearly an hour slower than my goal time. At the Savageman half-ironman, I fought a severe mental battle, nearly quitting halfway through the run and limping home to the finish line 15 minutes slower than the year before.

I share these thoughts not to belly-ache. I am absolutely aware not only that I have absolutely nothing to complain about (look at my life and the amazing people in it), but also that these results are nothing to scoff at. Lots and lots of fit people would be thrilled to run a sub-3:30 marathon, or to finish a really tough ironman in 11:35. I should be too.

What I am trying to communicate is the context for my frame of mind – rational, justified or not – when I got injured in September. Instead of seeing this upcoming trip to SE Asia as a thoughtful person would – a gift of time in a new place to reassess, rest and re-evaluate – I instead become a crazy person.

I started scouring websites for adventure races and ultra-runs in SE Asia. I began plotting races on a calendar in Thailand, and tried (without success) to talk Jimmy into a 3-day footrace in Cambodia. I was fixated on running a 100-miler in Hong Kong in January. The ostensible reason for this was that I had rediscovered my love of trail running this summer in Colorado, which was true. Spending time out on the trails alone, with just the sound of my own breathing and footfalls, had inspired me indeed. But the reality was a little more complicated. I was fed up with what I saw as my body and my mind’s unwillingness to cooperate the way I wanted them to, and I was looking for some sort of vindication, or perhaps simply a distraction, from that.

So after I got injured in the mountains and buried my sorrows in a pile of strawberry-and-whipped-cream pancakes, I returned to DC and did what any crazy person would do. I ran 16 miles that weekend with my brother Danny and a couple of other friends. The next week, I ran three days in a row – something I hadn’t done for months. Predictably, a week later as I set out for what I planned as an 18-mile long run (Hong Kong, you know!) bam! Two miles in – the calf cramp happens again.

Determination in the face of injury.

And yet, I was not to be deterred. That very day, I got on the elliptical trainer to “finish” my run. And the next day, and the next – despite the fact that I was struggling to walk without a limp. Then two hours before we left to fly from Dulles to Singapore, the motherboard on our computer fried. We decided to try to replace it by stopping into BestBuy on the way to the airport. It was pouring down rain, and as we left I ran from the door to the car, straining the calf muscle even more severely.

Forced rest on the airplane ensued. We arrived in Singapore, and I decided to be prudent. I did an 8-mile walk one day, and 6 miles the next day. Only. I went to yoga twice. I felt extremely proud of myself – and restrained.

We headed to Bali. A week into the trip now, and I decided it was time to try a run on the beach: one minute walk, one minute run. I made it 14 minutes before I felt a slight twinge. I sulk back to the bungalow. Jimmy gave me a sympathetic looks, then told me to cut it out and relax. (Jimmy is VERY good at relaxing.) I realize he’s right and agree. For a day I drink daiquiris by the pool.

The next day, I couldn’t stand the pace of life so I went to the gym. I took it easy; I do the elliptical for 20 minutes and then do my glute and core exercises. I felt proud of myself once again

I walk down the stairs out of the gym. On the last step, I feel a massive shooting pain in my right calf. I think I actually heard a “pop!” but I am not positive because louder than that I heard a voice in my head at that very moment. It said, ever so clearly, “This is NOT a suggestion.”

That step was a turning point. After I said a lot of cursewords, I finally realized that I have been given this great opportunity to use this trip as a gift to look around. At myself and the world around me. At my relationship to the things and people that give my life meaning.

Doing my best imitation of a person relaxed and resting.

This journey has always been about more than fitness, or sports, or even adventure. But those are all things that form an important part of my identity, so it makes sense that it takes a disruption of my normal pace to force me to try something new. Like slowing down. Like walking, before I run.