The new year, and winter more broadly, is a season for rest, reflection, and rejuvenation. Time slips by quietly, and so turning the calendar provides a tangible milestone for its passage. Such a milestone accentuates the changes that have taken place over the course of one, five, or ten years, and sometimes, more painfully, the ones that have not. Perhaps the lurking ghost of a DNF at some bucket list race comes back to haunt you, or the persistence of bad eating habits, or a broken relationship. Perspective can also fill you with gratitude for happiness found or recaptured: race victories, marriages, finishing an old project.
This year, as I reflected on changes in my own life, the time machine took me back to April 2021, when I suffered a stress fracture in my right foot. The event was pivotal in my relationship with running; up until that point, it had seemed untouchable, one reliable constant in an ever-changing world. Nearly two years later, I can still recall how I felt at the lowest points. I imagine that it is the same for anyone who suffers such a jarring, seismic shift. A feeling of frustration and total disorientation, as though someone has picked up your house and shuffled all the rooms around like a Rubik’s cube, and what was once familiar has now become a maze. I was soaring, and then I wasn’t. I slammed into a concrete barrier which I didn’t even know was there.
My response was one of selfish entitlement. I begrudgingly put myself through months of physical therapy, fuming at my body or mysterious cosmic energy or whatever I could think of for having the audacity to take away my ability to run, my escape. Any desperate hope that managed to squeeze its way into my brain after a modicum of progress was counteracted by a similarly desperate rage when I would inevitably backslide and have a bad day, a bad week. I was spinning faster and faster in dark places, tearing myself apart, and after one particularly raw emotional episode, I knew that I couldn’t continue on as I was.
Yet I didn’t know how to adapt. I would gladly have done 100 burpees, worn my clothes inside out, and danced the hokey pokey every morning if it meant ridding myself of the emotional pain that had become like an oversized dog dragging me around by its leash. It led me where it pleased. I was not in control. I was still locked in pitched battle with my identity as a “trail runner,” trying to reconcile my association of myself with a tribe of individuals that bounded over mountains as I lay bound to my bedroom.
Because it was imprudent for me to hike on uneven and unsteady ground – not to mention the bursts of discomfort in my foot that would provide a fresh reminder of my limitations – I relegated myself to the sidewalks around my neighborhood. I was so starved for outdoor movement that just a half mile was a delicious reprieve. On my walks, I looked with new eyes at the world around me and felt the slow pace of the changing seasons. Often, I would look to and study the trees. They wore the scars of their past in plain view. It struck me that, for the trees, there was no such thing as a mistake. Bending over, one might see a root fitting itself through a crack in the sidewalk. There must have been a time when the probing root felt the solidity of the concrete, but there was no panic and no regret. It continued to search, and, eventually, discover the crack–the one opening, diminutive as it may have been, where growth was still possible. And so, it grew there, around the concrete. It did not attempt to punch through the sidewalk with its might. The obstacle did not block its path; it became a part of its path.
During a recent visit to my physical therapist, he took a video of me running on the treadmill at my behest so that we could evaluate my form. Knowing my prior tendency for pronation and collapsing at the arch, I wanted to ensure that we understood the extent to which it was still affecting my stride, and that no similar quirks were present which could lead to further injury.
He zoomed in at the point of contact, and I saw the workings of my grainy foot unmistakably. “See that,” he remarked. “Didn’t you used to be a heel striker?” I did. Very much so. Yet as I watched myself alight on the whirring belt and spring off of it again, it was the balls of my feet doing all of the work. The motion was efficient and natural. Gone was the pounding, the clunkiness that I had witnessed when we first filmed my stride months and months ago. More than that, the change in my physical mechanics seemed to corroborate a change in my demeanor, my headspace. I ran with a comfort and sense of calm, whereas previously there had been a frenetic eagerness, each stride seeking to outdo the last, to satisfy the need to go faster, faster, and to ameliorate a grasping need for validation as an athlete and as a human being. I realized it was gratitude that I was watching. Gratitude in motion.
All those months of PT had felt so fruitless and so blind, as though they were leading me around and around in circles, even as I stubbornly persisted, if only because I am a stickler for routine. Yet in that moment, watching the video, I realized I had only been subconsciously searching, a root probing for a crack, a place where growth was still possible. My body had found a crack without me even knowing it. In walking differently, in running differently, my only intent had been to avoid pain and the frustration and shame that came with it, but my body was also assimilating the past injury and reforming itself, so as to be better protected in the future. This obstacle which had seemed to be such a curse at the time became an instrument for growth and change. I had hit the concrete slab of the walkway and, instead of trying to grow through it, I had grown around it.
While healing is a continuous, never-ending process–something I have gradually come to realize–I have been running consistently for a couple months now, and for that I am filled with immense gratitude. My next goal is to complete, and hopefully compete, in my first ultramarathon–the Worlds End 50K–this June. I may achieve this goal, and I may not. Yet I know now that we don’t move beyond past injuries, grief, trauma–we grow around them. They are very much a part of us. Like trees, we do not know our path. We cannot say for sure where our growth will take us, or what obstacles we will encounter along the way. What seems like senseless deprivation in the moment will often reveal itself to have been necessary in retrospect.
This New Year, work toward whatever goals you have set, but don’t expect instant change, and don’t expect it to be clean. Instead, remain sure that, whatever may come, you will always be searching for that crack in the sidewalk. You will always be growing.