It has been almost two months since I received the ok to cast the crutches to the curb.Two months since I re-entered the world of bipedalism after three long months with the sticks. And two months since the first person asked me “so, you’ll be racing [x] next weekend?”
I had gone from three months of no weight-bearing of any type, and I was constantly asked if I would be running [x] race the following weekend. I’m no doctor, but I’m fairly certain that’s not how rehab works.
Believe me – I wish it did. Life would be so much easier if the body and mind were in sync. Unfortunately, as any athlete who has ever gone through a major injury knows, that’s not how the game works.
I’ve had minor injuries in the past, but nothing like this that has knocked me out for such a long period of time, and certainly nothing that caused me to be non-weight bearing for this long. And what has become perfectly clear to me in all of this is that being laid up with injury is easy. It’s the rehab and the comeback that’s the hard part.
Because what no one talks about is how the comeback isn’t a linear process – it’s not as simple as “slowly introducing the body to impact and then slowly increasing mileage in a safe way.” It’s not the 10% rule. It’s a 2 steps forward, 1 step back, 3 steps forward, 5 steps back up-and-down kind of mess that causes endless frustration for an athlete. And especially for an athlete whose mind is SO ready to go (I mean, that’s all of us, though, right?)
And I told myself, over and over, that I would take it slow. That I wouldn’t push it. That I would cast aside any expectations of coming back for the OCR championship season – certainly, no one expected me to. I mean, I came off crutches almost exactly 8 weeks before the Spartan World Championships in Tahoe. After such a long break, going from taking my first walk around the block to racing in top form in two months was surely idiotic. To attempt to run a 24-hour a month later was even more far-fetched.
But in the back of my mind, a little voice whispered “what if…what IF you could do it Amelia? You’ve done some pretty ridiculous things before.”
I tried to reign those thoughts in, as I dutifully progressed on the elliptical and stair master according to “the plan.” As I started with simple single leg strengthening – lunges and squats and glute bridges for days on end. And as I slowly (or so I told myself) reintroduced impact.
But from that first run (if you can call it that), things weren’t feeling “right.” I told myself it was just my body readjusting to bipedalism. After all, my left side bore the brunt of all my weight for 3+ months. (if you think about it, crutching is really just hopping repeatedly on one leg….and it’s not like I “took it easy”). The amount of muscle atrophy I had experienced was substantial, but I was confident it’d come back. Besides, I felt fantastic – cross-training (hi ski erg!) had kept my cardiovascular condition up and I had energy to spare.
I continued with my rehab, and I continued with my return to run progression hoping the body would catch up to the lungs, despite never experiencing this whole supposed glorious “pain free running” thing. And I’d throw the kitchen sink at any thing that popped up, just trying, desperately, to get back to what I loved on an ever shortening, increasingly frantic, timeframe.
Unfortunately, sometimes the more you try and fix something, the worse you make it.
Well, guys – I tried. I really, really, fucking tried. I SO wanted to be that superhuman, to come back for Tahoe with that storybook return and CRUUUUUUUSH. To race OCR World Championships. To defend my title at World’s Toughest Mudder.
But even though my mind is willing, it kills me to say that my body isn’t yet. I simply didn’t give myself enough time to progress SLOWLY through the return to bipedalism. I got zealous in running before my musco-skeletal strength came back. Before my right leg caught up with my left. So I’ve kind of made a mess of all things (and I bought another ticket to the merry-go-round of self-flagellation and guilt). So on doctor’s recommendations and advice, I’m backing off the running for another bit. I can’t fix the imbalances I never corrected while simultaneously subjecting my body to that impact.
I’ve asked a lot from my body in these past 5 years, and, like a champ, it’s acquiesced. It’s stayed awake for 72+ hours while I carried 90+lbs up a mountain, sat in freezing rivers in January, and done thousands of burpees during multiple Death Races. It’s run for 24 hours through torn glute meds and broken tailbones. It’s carried me to four world championship titles and 50+ race wins and podiums. And somewhere along the way, through the multi-day races and the endless years of heavy training, I mistakenly started to believe that I could make my body do anything as long as the mind was willing. Like any athlete, I was VERY skilled at compensating and cheating my way through weaknesses in mechanics and form for years. And as I try to rebuild the “right” way, it’s clear that just because I parked the car in the garage for three months, it didn’t mean I fixed the transmission.
So, like my liberal use of them in all those years of junior golf (hi Grandma!!), I’m taking a mulligan. Asking for a “do-over.” (or, for those inclined to more forceful reference – ABORT! ABORT! ABANDON SHIP!!!) The first return to running didn’t go so well, so I’m going to take some time, and try to do it RIGHT the second go-round. None of this forced “rushing to get back for races that I had no business trying to get back for anyway.”
When I went down with the femur in late April, it was never in the realm of possibility that I could possibly miss an ENTIRE season. And ENTIRE year without an obstacle race. I did the math in my head – I’d be back for Palmerton. Ok, not Palmerton…hm, Breckenridge then definitely. And I’d laugh at you if you asked if I’d be there for Tahoe or for WTM. Yes, yes and yes. Duh. I heal quickly. It’s just a small fracture. Bones heal stronger, whatevs, I told myself.
It pains me to admit that I suffered from unrealistic rehab expectations. Anyone I talk to would tell me I had NO business thinking about racing Tahoe or WTM. Of course, I didn’t listen to those “mere mortals.” Ironically, those unrealistic expectations are probably responsible for some of my greatest victories in this sport. But these past few weeks I’ve had to come to terms with how those expectations have also worked to my detriment, and worked against me getting back to 100% healthy.
I didn’t want to have to learn this lesson twice. I swore up and down I’d do rehab the right way, and not be the asshole that bungles the return. But sometimes you have to go several rounds before the K.O. Before you learn your lesson. Sometimes, that lesson is just more patience and rest. And learning that, despite pressures I feel to get back as quickly as possible, if I want to be in this for the long haul (which I obviously do), I need to give my body the time it needs to mend fully and wholly.
Needless to say, this year has been one athletic disappointment after another. And though I wanted to smack everyone who said that there would be a silver lining, I absolutely know that it’s true. Injury has forced me to grow personally in ways I’ve never had to do before. When I can’t use my legs to do the talking, I have to use my voice. When I can’t run from my demons, I have to confront them head on. And when I can’t list podiums and accolades to prove my self-worth, I have to accept and realize that I’m worthy of love regardless of my race results. And, more importantly, worthy of loving and being kind and patient with myself.
I’ve focused so much on “coming back,” that perhaps I failed to see what I needed to do was use the time to redefine to the sport for me. As my incredible friend Caroline Burckle suggested, the opportunity to start new. Not go back to what “once was.”
So to 2017, we look. I’ll spend the last few months of this year, focusing on getting healthy and fixing mechanics without pressure or deadlines.* And while it may still eat at my soul while doing it, I’ll still be out there, cheering on. Because even though those racing shoes are taking a much longer break than I ever anticipated, racing and the community are still inextricable parts of who I am. And what I love. And I’m not letting anyone or anything take that away from me.
See you next year.
Get those Pop-Tarts ready.
(and this song is everything to me right now)
*And I have to do that stereotypical athlete things and give a HUGE thank you to the sponsors and supporters that have continued to stick with me through this – Reebok, Beet Elite, Rock Tape , Dr. Brink and the crew at Premiere Spine & Sport, the Spartan Pro Team for letting me be a diva on crutches, and Union Wine (even though they aren’t my sponsor) for making wine in a can. Because, wine in a can.