There are times in life when you feel like everything is FINALLY coming together, like life is finally making sense. And you are happy. Really, truly happy and excited for what’s to come.
Unfortunately, it always seems like life has other plans for you. Maybe a reminder that “heeeey there, Amelia – you’re flying a bit too high – don’t be going all Icarus on me now. Remember that time you accidentally stepped on a newt while running? Well karma wants to come back and kick you in the nuts right now.”
In November, I made a really bonehead move. After securing a Western States lottery ball with my Georgia Death Race (and first ultra) finish last spring, I completely failed to submit my qualifying time in the window provided. I could give excuses – it was the week before World’s Toughest Mudder, I had just moved to California and started a new job, etc. But in reality, I just blew it. I was angry at myself for a hot minute (though, the chances of making it in the lottery to the prestigious Western States was like……zero). But I quickly got over it, and moved on. Besides, I wasn’t READY for Western States, I told myself. Plenty of time for that, Amelia.
But when OCR season wound down in November, I was looking for a late-winter, early spring ultra – something to fill my “offseason.” Lo and behold, Sean O’Brien 100k appeared on ultra sign-up. And lo and behold, it was a Golden Ticket race (top two male and female finishers get an automatic entry into Western States). So in a state of irrationality, I thought “hell, if I’m such an idiot that I can’t even properly get into the lottery for Western States, maybe, just MAYBE, I’ll just run my way in.”
I found myself asking that question several times throughout 2015. Ok, maybe on an (almost) daily basis. (And then it’d be followed by hours of trying to get “Bohemian Rhapsody” out of my head)
But, no, seriously – 2015 was a trip. Tumultuous at times, but so incredibly, freaking awesome at others. I constantly have to remind myself to take a look back at the last few years and really take in and embrace the sideways turn my life took back in 2011, and where it’s brought me to today – the highs, the lows, and sometimes, the utter ridiculousness.
But as the sport continues to grow and evolve (and actually be defined as “a sport”), I’d like to think I continue to grow and evolve with it. And I do so, in part, by taking stock of what has happened, and letting that help shape my future.
But last fall (fresh off of knee surgery), I was looking for something different. A new challenge, a new venture. Having made a brief foray into competitive CrossFit at Regionals last year, I realized that lifting heavy things for just a few minutes at a time probably wasn’t my wheelhouse. So when I sat down to think about what I love the MOST about OCR, I realized it’s running up and down mountains (or the Death Race, where all I wanted to do was hike up and down Bloodroot endlessly).
So why not try something where I’m doing just that? Let’s write a new chapter, a new book. And call it The Book of Ultra.
Before I begin, let me preface that I am not a medical professional and hold no qualifications or certifications (even meaningless ones where you pay one thousand bucks for a t-shirt), and the last anatomy class I took was a 3 week unit in 9th grade biology. I am, however, a lawyer, so I know I need to cover my ass because inevitably someone may rely on this shit. So what I’m saying here is solely based on my own personal experiences, observations, and the ever trust-worthy interwebs. Follow at your own risk.
Injury is an inevitable part of being an athlete. It feels kind of weird to say that, for two reasons: (1) I’ve never really considered myself “an athlete”, and (2) up until about a year ago, aside from a few broken bones growing up, I’ve never really been injured. Hurt, yes – but never a diagnosable injury that has taken me out of training for more than a week or two at a time.
There are times in life when things just feel right. When you know you are where you are supposed to be.
And as soon as I pulled up to the site of World’s Toughest Mudder 2014 in Lake Las Vegas last Friday, I knew it was one of those times.
Hugging old friends, meeting new ones, we all anxiously set up our pits areas, commenting on how the Vegas desert was the FURTHEST thing from Raceway Park in Jersey that we had all grown accustomed to over the past few years. Excitement ran high. We were ready to begin.
But 8 weeks ago, I didn’t think I would be there in Vegas, preparing to race. 8 weeks ago, I was mourning the loss of running the Spartan World Championship, and undergoing surgery on a bum knee. I had mentioned to my surgeon that I would love to make it back in time for a “24 hour race,” and he rolled his eyes.
The typical interview question will go something like this: “So why do you think you are successful in obstacle racing?”
It’s a question that has given me pause, and has stumped me for as long as I’ve been hurdling over walls and throwing myself under barbed wire. I typically will stumble through it with some answer about a mixture of speed and strength, and how you need both in obstacle racing.
However, it took me a 2014 CrossFit Open workout for me to finally realize the answer to the question that’s been there all along:
I’m not the fastest, and I’m not the strongest, but I’m REALLY good at suffering.
Perhaps almost too good.*
By way of illustration, let’s take CrossFit. Putting aside all the arguments for and against it (NOT going there…just…not…step off that Rogue soapbox), it constitutes the bulk of my training for obstacle racing. And for the past two years, I’ve competed in the CrossFit Open (which, by the way, there is nothing that will make you feel like a more mediocre athlete than to measure yourself by a score against the world’s top CrossFitters…but I digress).
Anyway, just like with races, I shine at long, high rep, panic-inducing WODs. Give me short and heavy and I die. My Olympic lifting form is wonky, I have a unsteady right shoulder from years of softball and rotator cuff abuse that refuses to lock out in heavy overhead lifts, and I blame my puny squat numbers on extremely awkward and long femurs.
I am, by all measurements, an extremely mediocre Crossfitter (sorry – “CrossFit athlete”). But with two workouts in this year’s CrossFit Open – the first and the last, I excelled, even with a max snatch and a max thruster 50-75% of the most women CrossFit athletes out there. So what was it about those two?
In announcing 14.5 (an absolutely awful combo of thrusters and burpees), one of the CrossFit talking heads said something about the workout being about a willingness to go to a dark place: a willingness to suffer.
What we do in obstacle racing is so much more than being fleet of foot, or having raw strength. It’s enduring the bumps and the bruises, the utter fatigue of a mountainous sandbag carry, or raw and bloody appendages, sometimes on an almost-weekly basis. It’s facing the unexpected and the unknown, and it’s confronting a new course every time you race with different terrain and different obstacles. It’s the mental game that comes into play in longer races, the ability to push yourself into that dark place, and to come out on the other side. It’s about testing your limits, and mentally blocking out the chatter. And it’s the willingness to go back out there, again and again, even when your body is thrashed and exhausted.
Of course, this is all fine and dandy and good to tuck away as an “a-ha”, but listing “suffering” as a strength on an application isn’t going to win you any awards. Unfortunately, being good at suffering is not going to make me that much faster. I’ve got some former road-racing speedsters I need to chase down nowadays. But I suppose if I excel at suffering in CrossFit, I can learn to suffer through speedwork? (heh…heh…)
Likewise being willing to suffer is not going to save me as I fall magnificently on my face competing at the North Central CrossFit Regionals this week (Go Team Foundry!).** But for a girl without much of a stellar athletic past, I think I’ve been surprised how much the ability to suffer can make up for the lack of other, more marketable, skills (at least for the time being).
And yes, it totally explains the Death Races. And World’s Toughest Mudder.
I’ve heard people ask: “how do I get better at obstacle racing?” Or Death Racing, whatevs. Sure, you can give answers about training and nutrition, but from my perspective – it’s the mental side that everyone should hone. It’s the setting aside of boundaries, the mental grit to not just survive, but to compete.
So here’s to suffering: I think all obstacle racers, to some degree, excel in it. Some of us may even thrive in it.*** And it explains why I never feel those damned bloody knees.
*One could argue, for example, an ability to suffer led to ignoring injuries until too late…hence, my recent months on the DL.
** And I LITERALLY will be falling my face, epically, during the max handstand walk event. And the strict HSPUs. Oh dear. Humans were not made to walk on their hands – God gave us feet for a reason. Epic dismounts for everyone! Side note – damn you, gymnasts *shakes fists*
***Now, let me be clear – I’m not advocating that being good at suffering is a GOOD thing, or a “normal” thing. It’s probably not the wisest move in terms of the whole Darwinian natural selection thing. It’d behoove most people to stay away from disease infested waters and carrying axes for 72-hrs. There are plenty of us oddballs out there to take this masochistic abuse – someone smarter than myself should probably be responsible for the fate of the human race.
It’s been a hibernation kind of winter here in Chicago.
And for most of it, I’ve buried my head in the sand. Thrown myself into work (lawyering like a BOSS), rehab (so many Jane Fondas…), and recovery (which means rest. Which blows). And football, of course (Thanks Seahawks for salvaging an otherwise miserable winter. #LOB baby).
It’s a humbling experience to watch your friends compete and race, knowing that you’d give anything to be out there. It was with much fear and trepidation that I still traveled out to World’s Toughest Mudder in November, worried about how awful it would be to have to watch from the sidelines.
The odd part? It really wasn’t that bad. If anything, it was extremely rewarding and eye-opening. I cherished the opportunity to sit back and watch the race from the other side. And to put aside my own sadness at not being able to compete and share in the joy, pain, and raw emotion of the competitors. To see old friends and to meet others. And to really take a step back and marvel at the outright ridiculousness of it all.
Surprisingly, as time ticked by while I sat on the sidelines, it got easier, not harder. I learned to build a life outside of racing (oddly, and perhaps pitifully, hard), I learned to listen to my body (even harder, and it’s still a struggle), and I learned how to readjust my goals and priorities surrounding OCR.
There were points where I was sure I’d never recover (and to be fair, I’m still not quite sure “pain-free” will ever be a familiar concept again). Where I had to be driven to work because even walking to the ‘L’ stop brought me to tears from pain. All while seeing specialist after specialist, all with different diagnoses but no real clear recovery/rehab plan or explanation of what was going on with the ever shifting leg pain, back pain, numbness and weakness.
And here we are 4+ months later and with no clear label (and dear God, do people, including myself, always feel the need to have a label). But slowly, I began to recover. And feel better. I managed a few 400’s. And then a half-mile. And then one mile. And then 3. Nothing feels FANTASTIC, but I’ve been getting there. Some days I feel great, others I’m hobbling around. And it’s difficult to tell sometimes what sets it off.
But I finally got to the point where I can’t wait any longer. The need to get back out there is strong. And so I am. Smartest decision ever? Probably not, but no one has ever accused me of being wise.
Am I nervous? Extremely. Do I feel ready? Not exactly. Am I back in “race shape”? Definitely not. So we’ll give this a go and see how it feels. No expectations, no regrets (if I tell myself that, maybe I’ll believe it).
I hate it when cliches are true: one moment, you feel like you are on top of the world, and the next – things coming crashing down. And you sit and struggle with “why me” and kick and scream and fight, thinking timing is never fair.
Such is my life right now. I’ve been mum on this subject as of late, laying low on social media, hoping/thinking things would resolve, ashamed to admit what I hate to admit to myself: I’m hurt.
As someone who has been fortunately injury-free for a long time, it’s been devastating. Compound that with my calf injury pre-Spartan World Championships, I’ve been hesitant to let people know about the injury for fear of what other people think (I’ll call it “FOWOPT.” Deal with it). But you can only go so hard for so long until something has to give. And it gave, at a horrible time (admittedly, there is never a “good” time).
About a month ago, I pulled out of the Omaha Spartan Sprint 10 minutes before the Elite heats started after being seized by hip pain and debilitating sciatica. Since then, it’s been a month-long endeavor in pinpointing the cause and battling ever-present nerve pain. All signs point to some combination of pelvic misalignment, SI joint, and piriformis issues (back is cool, ohthankyouJesus). Some days I wake up fine, other days every step sends shooting pains down my legs into my feet (and the leg choice seems to rotate). X-rays, MRIs, ART, countless physical therapy sessions later, I’m making steady progress thanks to a combination of incredibly boring, seemingly wussy strengthening exercises and enduring torturous weekly sessions of my hips and legs being abused by dry needles. In fact, I was pretty confident about my WTM prospects until I suffered a flare up this past weekend, and I’m back to nowhere close to 100%. I’ve managed a few 2 or 3 mile runs, only to be stopped short by seizing pain or a completely numb leg. On the bright side, I’m learning how better “not to drown.” (hot damn, swimming is HARD. And boring. I have utmost respect for all you swimmers out there).
Oh, the irony: the so-called “Queen of Pain” is now in immense pain. Amelia Boone is now crippled from the simple act of sitting at her desk for 10 hours a day or walking 2 miles to work.
So while I’m currently going stir crazy not being able to train, “that one big race” looms in a week. Where I am supposed to “defend my title” and “win it all.” And nothing drives me to tears right now more than the thought of not being able to compete.
I’ve blogged before about the special place World’s Toughest Mudder has in my heart: it’s the race that started it all (or, the race that ruined it all). In 2011, it was a community of less than 1,000 of us with no idea what we were getting into. And the thought of not being out there again, mostly with these people, just kills me. Despite how much I bemoan what a miserable race it is, how it’s a battle in fighting off hypothermia and boredom, I can’t deny that I love this race.
So what do I do? All signs point to “sit out.” Aside from the fact that I could risk setting myself back even further in my recovery, my training has been severely limited (hello Airdyne sprints!), I’m in pain, and I’m obviously not 100% – making “defending my title” a Herculean task right now.
I wish I could just go out to WTM, run a few laps for “fun,” and be fine with that. But as someone reminded me the other day, I don’t have that luxury, because “people expect me to win.” In other words, “if I’m not going out to win, it’s not worth going out at all.”
HOLD UP – it’s not? With that comment, it really hit me: this is not what I signed up for when I got into this a few years ago. What happened to to obstacle racing being a stress release for me? Of being a hobby, a pastime, a fun outlet? I suppose that all went out the window when I started winning. Somewhere along the way, amidst sponsorship offers, magazine articles, and documentaries, I lost myself. (or, to quote Macklemore – “lost the compass where self is”).
I started racing because I loved the sport. And I still race because I love the sport. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional and I have no plans to make this my sole occupation. I’ve struggled to reconcile the pressure of winning and of people’s expectations with going out there and having fun, regardless of how I do. Suddenly, winning becomes an expectation, whether I want it to or not.
But as long as I love the sport, why should it matter?
I keep praying for a miracle in the next week. Of going out on race day, feeling fine, and breezing through without pain (well, aside from the crippling pain of running 90+ miles). But you can’t fake 24 hours. And you certainly can’t fake it when even a few miles wreaks havoc on your body right now. While I’m chomping at the bit to get out there and tear up a course, I also have to listen to my body telling me there is something seriously “off.” That the entire left side of your body going numb isn’t “normal.” And as frustrated as I am that the doctors can’t exactly pinpoint a cause, that rehab isn’t coming as fast as I want it, ignoring the reality isn’t a sound “recovery strategy.” And when I started PT after Omaha, doctors and physical therapists warned me that, try as I might, WTM didn’t look good. Granted, I’ve never been one to listen to doctors.
So I can’t tell you what I’m going to do come next Saturday in Englishtown, New Jersey (though the new race format looks AMAZING. So awesome). For now, it’s a day-to-day struggle. More than anything, I want to run. Whether that can be competitively, I don’t know. But I don’t feel like there should be any shame in that.
Regardless of whether I’m out there or not, I know I’ll be back to healthy very soon, smarter and stronger. We all know there is nothing more frustrated than watching from the sidelines. You can’t keep me down for long: a new race season awaits.
"The timorous may stay at home." ~ Murphy v. Steeplechase Amusement Co., 250 N.Y. 479, 483 (N.Y. 1929)