Fear. I’ve spent the better part of the past year advocating embracing fear – running towards fear, instead of running away from it. That (to butcher the words of Cheryl Strayed) an overwhelming sense of fear shows that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing.
What do I fear more than anything right now?
Returning to racing.
I fear my own return to racing.
Since the day I went down with a case of the femurs last April, I’ve been asked on a daily basis “when will you be back?” At first the answer was easy – 8 weeks. Maybe 12. As we became aware of just how BAD the case of the femurs really was, that number grew. Weeks became months. And when I effectively (well, LITERALLY) broke my back trying to “get back” to racing for the 2016 championship season, I threw in the towel. 2017, I said. 2017 was going to be the year – MY year.
So here it is, 2017. Not even early 2017 – April, actually. Almost a year exactly since the initial injury. Ironically, the Seattle Super Spartan, the race where everyone wants to see the “epic return” (newsflash: not going to be…not quite yet. Patience, they tell me) is the one-year anniversary of the ill-fated 25 mile run and 10 mile hobble back to the car. The last run, pre-femur. The last run before I spiraled into what seems like a never-ending battle with my own body, and my ability to trust the body that has carried me through so much since the beginnings of my racing days.
In theory, rehab and recovery from an injury seems easy. Do your time sitting on the sidelines, bones heal, rebuild, and you are back at it. But it doesn’t account for niggles and new injuries (or random freak injuries from encounters with dogs…) that pop up when you start running again from a base of…nothing. And what it REALLY doesn’t account for is the mental side of injury. The utter fear that every ache and pain has set you back to square one. The nights lying awake obsessing over whether that’s an angry glute max attachment or another sacral stress fracture. The entire inability to trust your body. And the worry that you will NEVER get back to competing – get back to the athlete you once were.
So don’t call it a fucking comeback.
Because though I would love an “epic comeback,” I know the realities of my current status. I know that I’m rusty. I know that, unlike a pure running race, an OCR course is difficult to replicate and therefore much harder to “practice.” I know that I’ve lost so much strength as a result of not being able to run for 9 months – not being able to doing anything involving my back (which is…everything) for 4+ months. I know that I’m still crippled with the mental fear that every ache and pain is something catastrophic.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve spent so long obsessing over, or just waiting, to “get back” to the athlete I was. That once I “got back” to racing, everything would be right. Life would make sense again. There would be a season, and a structure, and goals and races to work towards. I spent night after night in tears, convinced that getting back to racing again would cure everything.
So what is it, exactly, that I fear about my own return to racing?
I fear that I won’t be able to get back to the athlete I once was. The pre-femur Amelia.
(I’ve hesitated to write this because it may come across as “woe the poor competitive athlete – she’s afraid she can’t wiiiiiin anymore. Boo-f*ckin-Hoo.” Some of you may be thinking that, and – well – fair enough – I can’t change that. But regardless of your competitive level, we all experience times of overwhelming self-doubt in our lives, both in sport and beyond. We’ve all had times where we fret over an ability to live up to expectations, whether real or created by the constructs of our own minds)
I’ve danced with this devil of overwhelming self-doubt and lack of confidence for the past few months, and it took my ever-wise and amazing friend Caroline Burckle to set me straight.
“Amelia,” she said, “Stop trying to “get back” to the athlete you once were. You aren’t going to – it shouldn’t be the goal. And you will drive yourself nuts in the process.”
And these past few months have been a process of realizing, and accepting, that I’m not going to “get back.” And I shouldn’t want to. Because we change – we grow. Our goal should never be to return to the athletes that we once were. It should be to chart a new course. To build a new identity. To define our own terms.
We can let the past inform our future, but clinging to an idea of returning to an old self only limits what we could be. The constant comparisons to versions of our old selves only sets us up for disappoints and regrets. Instead, maybe we should entertain the idea that there’s the possibility of being something better.
And this isn’t unique just to athletics. I spent several years in a relationship vowing to my significant other that I would “get back” to the girl he fell in love with – the one before the racing, before the podiums, before the “fame”. And I swore up and down that I would. That I was working on it. That the girl was still there, inside, and I could return to her. I wanted so badly to “get back” to her: but the harder I tried, the more I lost her.
It took me three plus years to admit that I was never going to be that “girl he fell in love with” again. But more importantly – to give myself permission to stop trying to return to that girl. It was ok that I may have changed. Because, like an athlete trying to “get back” to her former athletic form, there’s no sense in trying to be an old version of oneself.
The harder you try to reclaim that person, to reclaim that identity as an athlete, the more it slips away from you.
So this is me, paying my respects to the old Amelia. To the athlete she was (she was a pretty decent one, I’d say)
But more importantly, this is me embracing the athlete I currently am, and the athlete I will be.
And I’m scared as f*ck.
But I’m only scared because I’ve let (what I perceive) as other people’s expectations drive my timeline. Drive my athletic career. I swore up and down I wouldn’t push, that I’d respect my body and race again when I was ready, not when other people wanted me to be ready.
But it’s hard to not let the question of “when will you be back?” build pressure and push that timeline. It’s difficult to tune out the well-meaning cheers of folks who “can’t wait for your epic comeback!” It’s stressful to feel like you are not fulfilling obligations of sponsors because you are not on top of a podium (shout-out to my rockstar quad-fecta of Reebok, HumanN, Spartan, and RockTape that love me regardless). Because you fear that you will let them down. But more importantly, you fear that you will let yourself down.
So I’m vowing to change the way I talk to myself. Vowing to be kind to myself, to smile at the well-meaning cheers, but to, above all else, to remember why I started racing and competing in the first place – for myself, and myself alone. Because it was the unknown, and it was a new challenge. And I thrived on that.
So you know what else is a new challenge? And you know what else is full of unknowns?
Racing again for the first time after 18+ months. Accepting the reality that it’s not going to be “epic” (it will more likely be akin to watching a baby giraffe on ice skates) and that the only one who should really #fearthereturn is…myself.
But, as I’ve preached over and over this past year, I’m not going to run away from that fear. Instead, I’m running towards it.
I respect what I’ve accomplished, and no one can take that away from me. Because I’m no longer afraid of whether I’ll “get back” to the athlete I was. Or “get back” to podiums and world championships.
Because I’m not “getting back” – I’m starting over.
And I’m going in with a love and a gratitude to even be out there in the first place. There’s a time and place for confidence and bravado. And there’s a time and place for humility and honesty.
I fear my own return, but I embrace the challenge of starting over. And I look forward to the opportunity to create a new path.
For me, that’s the healthiest place to be.