In a lot of ways, this past year has been the hardest year of my life. Two years ago, I was deeply entrenched in a career as a runner and a lifestyle that revolved so much around running. At that point, I had been running at least 90% of the days in the previous five years, and was regularly racing around the country and world with the support of great sponsors, friends, and family. I was winning the majority of races I ran, and the whole thing seemed like a dream come true. Everyone aspires to have a job that they love, that they are really good at, and that constantly offers them new and exciting experiences and opportunities. I had all of that, and I took great satisfaction in the lifestyle that I had created around this. I was very aware that this wasn’t something that I wanted to do or would be able to do forever, but this made it even more satisfying and seemingly more worthy of enjoying as much as possible in the moment. I had decided a few years previous that I really wanted to put all of my energy into creating a life molded around my running, and I had done so almost seamlessly and was loving nearly every minute of it.
As most who have followed my running career know, this all came crashing down really quickly over the past couple years. I went almost overnight from being what you could call ‘on top of the ultrarunning world’ to wondering if I would ever run again. Gradually, though, over the past 16 months, I have made slow improvement to the point where I am able to legitimately think of myself as a runner once again. My health has improved to the point where I can even think about the possibility of someday maybe even having a life that is structured to a very large degree around my running, at least to whatever degree I might ever want that. I still have no idea if I will ever try to race seriously again, but eight or 10 months ago I was still wondering if I would even live through whatever was going on in my body. There are no words that can describe how fortunate I feel to be able to take going out for a run more or less for granted once again. I’m still not running very far or very often, but to be able to simply go out for a run anytime I feel like going out for a run has become such an emotional and uplifting feeling to have.
Now that I have moved through some of the more serious and morbid aspects of my health over the past 16 months, I have finally moved into a place of being able to examine some of the things that I feel I have learned and gained from this whole ‘life turned upside down’ experience that has been my life these last two years. This is to say I have begun to be able to examine the ‘silver linings’ of my personal experiences as a runner dealing with chronic health issues.
By far, the thing that comes up for me the most when I think about these silver linings is the amount of support I have received from so many people in my life. I have made so many new friends and strengthened so many existing relationships in my life in this time.
Throughout this whole experience I have chosen to remain as immersed in the running community as I’ve felt like I could handle at any given time. Certainly there were (and still are) times when I struggled with this, and felt like I was no longer valid or credible. I regularly thought about simply turning my back on the whole thing. No more writing about running; no more hosting running camps; no more going out to races unless I could run myself; in short, no more living the lifestyle of a runner so long as I wasn’t actually able to run. Stronger than these desires, though, has been the desire to remain active in the community that has done so much to support and encourage me over the years. Maybe I can’t offer as much inspiration and example for others to follow in sickness as I can in health, but I think the trail running community in general is a very vibrant, happy, generous, healthy, and satisfying community to be a part of. It is for these reasons that I have chosen to remain a part of this community, and the degree to which I have been supported by so many people around the world to do so has been so encouraging and uplifting to me.
I’m not going to name specific names, but many of you will know who you are. In many cases, there are just too many people to touch on specific examples because there are literally tens of thousands of people around the world who I feel like have given me support and generosity over these past 16-plus months. From the readers of this website who have respectfully and intelligently engaged with me via reading and discussing my running-related ramblings every two weeks, to my running and racing friends who have called and emailed every few weeks or months to see how I’m getting along with everything. In many cases I’m talking about people whose ‘job’ of trying to go out and win big races has been made ever so slightly easier by my absence from these races. People who easily could have been happy to see one less runner potentially blocking their path to what they want to achieve. Thankfully not many ultrarunners seem to think this way.
I’ve also seen support in the form of my amazing wife who has helped me constantly through this process in which I’ve gone through all of the mood swings and emotional rough patches that you might expect from someone who has had their life, their career, their most passionate hobby, and their deepest spiritual practice all greatly threatened at once. I’ve seen it also in the form of friends who have done things like offer me personal (and free) restorative yoga and massage sessions in the midst of my most severe ill health, when it often felt like I couldn’t make it through another day without this kind of support. I’ve had another friend who has gone through many of the same, inexplicable symptoms and ill health as I have. I hardly knew her before we made this connection last year, but she has now become a close friend, and has offered me several subtle (but amazingly applicable) tips about her experience and how she has dealt with all the challenges that come up when trying to deal with this kind of thing.
Furthermore, I’ve had sponsors, most notably Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Clif Bar, and Drymax, who have stood by me in the midst of the uncertainty of if or when I’ll ever be able to race at any kind of high level again. A large part of this support has been based in the reality that I’ve chosen to remain active and involved in the running community, but I’m quite certain some of this support has been based in these companies and the great people I have worked with at these companies choosing to support me because they are good people who work for companies who are loyal to their athletes (and their customers).
I hosted a couple sessions of Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp this past summer, and the support I felt from all the amazing runners who attended was incredible. Going into the summer I wasn’t totally sure I would have the energy (both physically and mentally) to direct these sessions. I was pretty sure I could get through them, but I was concerned that it might take every ounce of energy I could muster, and that I would be exhausted for weeks after. Instead, the experience was so nourishing and so supported by all the great people that attended that I finished each session feeling more energetic and more nourished than I was when they started.
Another thing that happened this past year that gave me so much support was the way that I was treated by the Juneau running community when I returned to town from my annual, school-year stint in Colorado. I’ve always felt more accepted by the Juneau running community than nearly any group of people I’ve ever interacted with, but the way they have treated me since I’ve been ‘sick’ has driven this feeling home even more. Not once have I felt that anyone in this unique and amazing community of runners has treated me any differently than they ever did when I was winning several races a year. First and foremost, this is a group of interesting and quirky people who like to get out in the mountains and run, but more importantly it’s a group of people who treat you like family whether you’re currently able to get out in the mountains and run with them or not.
I had decided several months ago that I wasn’t going to spend any more time, money, or energy on seeking out medical opinions on my ongoing health issues. I’ve been down so many paths in this regard that I felt like it was time to simply draw the line and stop looking for answers to something that had eluded dozens of medical professionals. I decided to shift my focus away from diagnosis and toward healing. Shortly after I made this mental shift, though, I reluctantly agreed to meet with a doctor who is very immersed in the ultrarunning community, and who is also very generous. So much so that he approached me and offered to meet with me simply from hearing of my situation from fellow runners. He went on to give me about eight hours of direct attention (at no cost) over the next few months, as well as numerous follow ups via email. He turned out to be the doctor that I think has understood my situation more than any, and is the only one I will likely work closely with going forward. I am without a doubt in a better place today because of his generosity and support
I could go on and on with many more examples, but I’m sure you get the point. My life has been turned completely upside down in the past 16 months, and it would have been so easy for many of these people and groups of people I mention to give up on me, or to simply forget about me. In many cases, I think this would be a perfectly understandable and logical response. I think I have even assumed this was or would be the case, and yet, time and time again, I have found people at every turn who seem to do the opposite.
I know we have a holiday that is specifically about giving thanks for everything we are grateful for, and I’m about five weeks late to that party. But in some ways, I feel like this is what most holidays often become, so on this New Year’s Day I conclude by simply saying thanks to everyone who has done anything to support me these past 16 months. The level to which so many people have gone to has been incredible, and has been without question the biggest thing that has gotten me back on my feet after such a tough several months. I still have a long ways to go to be as strong of a runner as I ever was, and I almost certainly never will be as fast as I once was (I’m not getting any younger), but all these great people in my life have done so much to make me a better person, and slowly but surely pushed me along the path of being a more complete and more insightful runner than I ever would have been without going through all of this. Thank You. Hopefully you all know who you are, and how much I appreciate your support.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Geoff has managed to write for iRunFar all through his illness, and we are grateful for this. For what among Geoff’s writings are you most thankful for?
It’s New Year’s Day; for what do you feel gratitude in this new year?