On April 26th of this year, a few days after the whole “broken femur” thing started, I picked up a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book “Brave Enough.” I flipped to a page, and this stared at me:
I promptly ripped this page (and one more, which you’ll see if you make it all the way through this novel of a post) and taped it to my bathroom mirror, as a theme for my recovery journey. Granted, the journey has been much longer than I anticipated, but can be summed up with two themes: gratitude and acceptance.
When I first sat down to write this post, I titled it “2016: A Year of Injury.” But the more I wrote, I realized that, yes – I could look at this as a year of injury. Or I could look at this as a year of healing – body and mind. So that’s what I choose to do, and here are the things I picked up along the way:
(1) It gets easier
When I first heard the diagnosis of “femoral stress fracture,” I felt like my world was ending. The idea of not running for a whole TEN WEEKS seemed unfathomable, and the mere thought of it sent me into uncontrollable crying fits. And I won’t lie, the first few days were agonizing. I denied. I cried. I bargained. I yelled. I did everything to pretend it wasn’t happening – like somehow, Amelia without her morning runs up Black Mountain would cease to exist. A week in, and I was the most miserable I’d ever been.
But then, a funny thing happened as the days and weeks went by – it got easier. The tears dried. The violent waves of anger brought on by seeing someone running down the road lessened, and I adapted to a “new normal.” It’s like I’d gotten through the runner’s “withdrawals,” and the urges subsided.
Ten weeks came and went and I still couldn’t run. Hell, I was still on crutches. When all was said and done, it was December 1st, not just 10 weeks, but 7+ months before running started again. A length of time I never thought imaginable – yet, here I am. Out of shape, with lots of muscle lost, but still kicking.
I’ve had a lot of injured athletes reach out to me this past year, and the #1 thing I tell them is that it DOES get easier. You’ll go in waves where some days will be awful and others you’ll feel just fine, but overall, the first week or two is the worst. So have patience and faith.
(2) The goal was never to get back to “where I was.” And until I accepted that, I couldn’t heal.
In my last blog post, I alluded to the fact that I had a “setback” in my recovery. I was purposely vague (and that killed me, but that’s for a different blog post – coming soon!) for many reasons, but it was the overwhelming feeling of shame that lead me from hiding the truth: in the beginning of September, 4 weeks coming off of crutches for the femoral stress fracture, we discovered a second stress fracture. That meant another 12 week sentence of no impact, of no running.
To say it was a sucker punch when you are already down for the count is a bit of an understatement. But amidst the tears, my friend (and life twin!) Caroline asked me a question which I thought was rather silly at the time: “Amelia, did you ACCEPT your injury? With the femur?” And I retorted “of course I have, Burckle. It’s hard to not when you are on crutches for 3+ months.”
But what I realized is that while I couldn’t ignore the physical injury, I did everything I could to cross-train around it. I fought like hell to maintain my fitness. I denied that my training methods were wrong, or that they may have been the source of the injury. I did everything to pretend it was just a few months off, and my training would resume as normal after a clean bill showing no fracture. For months, I kept lamenting about being worried about “getting back to the place where I was.” When instead, I should have accepted that I’m NEVER going to return to “where I was,” and that’s actually the LAST place I should want to go. Instead, I need to move forward, accept that I’m never going to be the same athlete, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, the end of December, a month into a return to run program (until the careful guidance of Coach David…#rawr) from the second stress fracture, I finally feel like I’ve reached the point where I’ve accepted that I’m not trying to “get back” anywhere. And I’m probably never going to train how I used to train, but that’s ok. Because I have faith that, with the perspective and knowledge, I’ll train better.
(3) When one door closes…
…sometimes a TV microphone gets shoved in your face and you say, “hey, why not?” I certainly didn’t expect this year to turn into the year of OCR commentary, but it somehow did, and it was by far, the best thing that could have happened. I don’t pretend to be any good at it, but hot damn – it was a blast. Starting with ESPN and Battlefrog in the spring, SNY with Civilian Military Combine in September, some semi-suspect Facebook live stream hosting for Spartan, and finishing it out with the 24-hour Tough Mudder livestream and hosting the CBS Sports World’s Toughest After Show…phew.
Suffice it to say I had absolutely ZERO idea what I was getting myself into, and I definitely look at some of the footage and cringe, but, aside from the TV makeup, I kinda like this gig. I hope this little sport of our sticks around so I have something to do when I’m long past my racing days. Or I’ll just have to convince a sports channel to let me talk about football all day instead.
(4) You don’t HAVE to cultivate outside interests or pick up a new hobby. Don’t give into a case of the SHOULDS.
From the first day of my injury, I received the standard line over and over again from well-meaning folks: “this is a great time to pick up a new interest or hobby!” “Sure,” I replied, through gritted teeth, contemplating whether it was acceptable to slap said person across the face. And I thought about – I tossed around ideas, I started a few things here and there, but it all felt so…forced. I was going through the motions merely because other people said that was “the thing to do.” So eff it – once I gave myself permission to NOT have to pick up the ukulele or underwater basket weaving, I felt so much freer. Sometimes you don’t HAVE to fill the time spent not training. Sometimes the best use of that time is just to be.
Though I will say that, amidst much kicking and screaming I did start a daily meditation practice. Most days, I really suck at it – my mind wanders, I get bored, sometimes I fall asleep (oops). But one of the best things it’s taught me is the value of observing how I’m feeling without judgment. I’m well-known for hopping on the never-ending merry go-round of self-flagellation. Meditation has taught me to observe how I’m feeling as a bystander, and how to stop berating myself because I SHOULD be feeling a different way. Or how I SHOULD be doing a different thing, such as “picking up a new hobby”.
So, stop with the shoulds. Be kind to yourself.
(5) Develop a new normal
There came a point, probably around mid-July, where I realize I didn’t even remember what it felt like to run, let alone walk for more than a few blocks. I had been on crutches for 3 months at this point. But oddly enough, I was content. As I alluded to in (1), it gets easier. And I owe that a lot to creating a new normal, but to keeping a routine. I firmly believe in routines to keep us productive and grounded. My new routine didn’t involve sunrise mountain summits and 100 mile weeks, but that’s ok. It still involved early morning wake-up times, but those hours consisted of the pool, physical therapy, or sometimes just prolonged meditation instead. The “workouts” weren’t hard, and sometimes I’d just go to the gym and sit and watch people while I did some baby core exercises, but the habit helped.
(6) The longer you are out of the game, the more you doubt you can ever get back in it
This, unfortunately, is still my great big unknown. And, not going to lie, I’m struggling mightily with this one. I haven’t run an obstacle race in over a year (not that I’m counting…sigh). An ultra in 9 months. And with every 2 steps forward, 1 step back in the crazy process of injury rehab, I continually question if I’m EVER going to make it back (shoot, I’m already violating (2) – sorry, Burckle). If I’m ever going to be able to reclaim the top of that podium, or be a shred of the athlete that I was. Or have I simply…lost it? The worst feeling is the inability to trust your own body, and the constant self-doubt that plagues an athlete when you’ve been sidelined for so long.
I wish I had answers. And I wish I had the confidence to tell you “hot damn you know I’ll be back out there crushing it.” Sure, I’ll say that, but as the months tick by, the voice in the back of my head has ripped out every shred of confidence I have as an athlete.
People always talk about the physical part of injury. The physical part is easy. It’s the mental part that will eat you alive. Wondering if every ache and pain is a new catastrophic injury, or a massive setback from the prior. Worrying that your body is going to betray you…forever. And trying to have the patience and trust to weather the painfully slow rebuilding process.
I’ve only started this process in 2016, and at this point, I don’t have answers or certainty. But I trudge forward, with the blind faith that the confidence can be found, the athlete is still there, just waiting for her time to re-emerge.
(7) When you’ve hit rock bottom, you find your true support system
When you are on top of the world, everyone wants to be your friend. Sponsors line up, awards are piled on, and praise is non-stop. Those are the easy times. But when you can’t compete, when you aren’t on TV crushing races, you become acutely aware of how easy it is to be “forgotten.” How quickly people move onto the “next thing.” And how fickle of a mistress “fame” can be.
But the upside of the fickleness is that you suddenly are able to realize who really DOES matter in your life. You see that some “friendships” are nothing more than folks being “fans” when you are dominating, but are quick to forget you when you are no longer at the top. So I spent this past year reprioritizing relationships, and focusing on those that have been with me through thick and thin, or who may have come into my life only recently, but have taught me so much about life, resilience, and what really matters. Such as my high school girlfriends (hi Angelfish!) who could give two shits if I run through mud or not – they love me as the orange-haired, frozen-yogurt scooping show choir nerd who would happily let them trash the back of my ’86 Volvo. Or my “OG” racing friends from back in the World’s Toughest Mudder Jersey days – we started as a small, strange little family, and to this day, we still are. And of course, my sister and parents and extended family who will be there for me, always, regardless. It’s tough for me to accept support from people, as I’ve always preached that you need to rely on yourself (ha – as I told Tim Ferriss on his podcast: “No one owes you anything.”) But it is certainly nice when folks do let you lean on them.
And of course, I’m grateful and thankful for having sponsors that stuck with me and believed in me even when I couldn’t represent them in races – Reebok, BeetElite, RockTape, Premiere Spine & Sport, Spartan – thank you for continuing to believe in me as a person and as an athlete.
(8) It’s ok to admit you aren’t ok (or that you need help)
I’m not exactly the most warm and fuzzy person. And for me, admitting that I need help has always been a sign of weakness, of failure. I’ll never forgot the first time I was confronted with talking out the garbage while on crutches – being the stubborn asshole that I am, instead of asking a neighbor to help me, I attempted to do it myself, and ended up falling and landing awkwardly on the broken femur. Well-done, Amelia. Bravo.
So I slowly started to learn how to ask for help. And to swallow my pride and recognize that physically, I wasn’t capable of certain things. What was harder was admitting that, emotionally, I was wasn’t capable of certain things either. For so long, I’ve used my accomplishments to do the talking for me. The podium pictures to show that things are alright. My legs to run me away from my problems on a daily basis. But when you are stripped of your legs and your athletic accomplishments, the only thing left you can use is your voice, which is what I should have been using all along.
It’s ok to ask for help. It’s ok to not be ok. And by admitting you aren’t ok, you are on the path to being whole again.
(9) Do the hard things. Those are the things that change you as a person.
In a year where I didn’t compete in a single obstacle race, I still attended almost as many as if I had been running. I went to every single NBC-series Spartan Race, the Spartan World Championships, OCR World Championships, and World’s Toughest Mudder. I crewed for the amazing Devon Yanko at Western States, which was supposed to be my 100-mile debut.
People commented on how “great” I was for still coming out and smiling and cheering folks on. Honestly? I wish I could say it was easy. At times, and especially in the beginning, being at races and staying involved in the community ate my soul. At the first NBC Spartan Race in Montana, I barely made it through the weekend. I smiled, cheered people on, and went back to my hotel room and broke down in fits of sobs. Fellow athletes told me I didn’t HAVE to put myself through that torture – that it was ok to disengage if it was easier.
I, however, do not believe in the easy way.
And, sure enough, a funny thing happened – like so many other parts of injury, it got easier as the months wore on. Somewhere along the way, the faked smiles and cheers became genuine. The crying fits became fewer and further between (though I will admit that Spartan World Championships and World’s Toughest Mudder were especially rocky). I no longer dreaded standing on the sidelines. I no longer feared not standing on top of the podium. And I started to really appreciate that no growth happens when you hide your head in the sand.
(10) You live
2016 didn’t go as planned, to say the least. From laying out my most ambitious and exciting race schedule ever a year ago, to not even competing in a single obstacle race. From logging my highest mileage months ever, to not running a step for 9 months. From feeling the strongest I ever have as an athlete, to feeling the absolute weakest. Yes, 2016 was a doozy.
But you know what? It has been, by far, my most personally fulfilling year ever. Maybe being unable to physically run from my problems forced me to confront them, and do the deep work that is so easy to abandon when times are good. Maybe I had to be physically weak and broken to become emotionally strong. And while I don’t have it all figured out, maybe life put a “pause” button in front of me to allow me to do so.
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. And I certainly don’t believe injury happens for a reason. But I do know that this past year has taught me that, even when your passions and loves are stripped from you, you can still find happy. You can still be complete. You adjust, you reassess, you struggle through the bad times, you celebrate the little victories. And, at the end of the day, you live.
Thank you, 2016, for teaching me how to live.
Here’s to 2017.