Fifty miles is a long way to run. Even a marathon can be really hard on the body. But I’ve always been amazed at how well we can adapt to these types of stresses. I could barely walk after my first 50-mile race and spent the next several days limping around. But most of the ultras I have run since then (save Hardrock, maybe) have not injured me so badly. Usually I’m tired and achy, but I can walk just fine, and the next day I can usually go for a jog. Which is why I was so perplexed last April to find that I couldn’t run or even hardly walk for several days after the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Every muscle in my legs ached, and any movement was a struggle. Like a true professional, I decided to stretch a little and just sort of hope everything would work out. Bodies heal, right? Sure enough, the aches and pains slowly receded and I regained my normal range of movement. But though the soreness dissipated generally, my right hamstring did not get better. And with something as simple as soreness in my right leg, my 2017 running season was over.
I can hardly explain how frustrating that was. But obviously I’m going to try. In fact, it was very frustrating. I might even go so far as to say it was extremely frustrating. I had spent most of 2015 and part of 2016 with a stress fracture in my foot, but eventually I had healed. I was determined to use 2017 for the wild adventures and spectacular results that the public has come to expect of me. (Right? The public is clamoring for more Dakota, right?) But then, less than a year after getting over the foot issue, I was injured again. And not even with anything cool like a stress fracture, which is not exactly obvious but at least you can explain it as a broken bone. My new injury was even more elusive. Generally my conversations went something like this:
Friend: “Hey Dakota, how’s the running?”
Me: “Not good, man. I’m hurt. My hamstring.”
F: “Your hamstring? What happened?”
M: “I don’t know. It’s just tight.”
F: “Have you tried stretching?”
M (sighing audibly): “Yes, I’ve tried stretching. Apparently stretching might actually be doing it harm.”
F: “Well, those hamstring injuries can last a long time.”
M: “I’m noticing that.”
F: “But hey–you’re young. You’ll get over it soon.”
But the thing about being young is that it’s fleeting. Our whole freaking culture seems to hinge on this idea that you’re only young once. And there I was, being young and not doing anything about it. I was just sitting around because my stupid hamstring would tighten up every time I’d run longer than 10 minutes. After my foot injury I was told to stretch, and during this hamstring injury I was told not to stretch so much. Furthermore, how many people get to be all sponsored and ‘pro’ for their sport, like I was for running? What a cool opportunity that I was just wasting on the couch. Trying to maintain these sponsorships through my injury, I engaged in several ridiculous attempts at self-promotion that made me feel like I was completely full of it. Because it just feels wrong to make videos about running when you can’t run. I don’t make videos about playing guitar because I can’t play the guitar. Same deal.
These comprised some of the self-imposed stresses that I wallowed in while watching the summer sun slowly sink to the south and the season come to a close. I just felt bad a lot. And that sucks, because there’s really not much for me to complain about. I may not have been able to run, but I was otherwise quite healthy. I’ve never had to go hungry. I have a home and clothes and good friends and just about everything that comprises a happy life. But I wasn’t happy. And realizing this made me even less happy because I then felt ungrateful. Clearly something had to change.
So the point of this whole story is this: I decided that my hamstring injury must be a symptom of some kind of deeper problem that I was not addressing. And when I finally got fed up with being unhappy and decided to do something about it, I concluded that I was taking the wrong direction in life. Those stresses I talked about above–about savoring youth and stretching an amount and being sponsored–were examples of me using the problem to fight the problem. I got injured because I ran too much or too hard in pursuit of goals that only enriched one part of my life. But I’m interested in other things too, like the environment and working with kids, which is to say that I’m interested in… you know, not being selfish all the time. Being an athlete is supremely selfish. It doesn’t have to be too selfish, necessarily; there’s a spectrum of most to least selfish that I had weighted far too much in the wrong direction. I decided that I was spending too much time trying to make myself a little bit faster and not enough time trying to give back. How could I be unhappy about not running when millions of people around the world–even in this country!–don’t have the daily comforts and amusements that I enjoy almost without thought?
I decided that my body was rebelling against me spending all my time and energy on self-aggrandizement. And this was a decision, because I never had some kind of epiphany about it. There was no moment of enlightenment. I simply decided I didn’t want to be unhappy any more and I needed to change something. To that end I have lately taken steps to become more involved with my community, to create projects for kids, and to repeatedly berate iRunFar readers about environmental stewardship. This doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice being a competitive runner. In fact, quite the opposite: I find that I can have a unique impact as a runner that isn’t available to everyone. The more I have reached out in these ways, the more I’ve realized how much I don’t know. I spend a lot of time trying to learn things lately.
In August I saw a doctor who recommended a cortisone shot in my hamstring. He told me that these shots have mixed results, but it was worth a shot (LOL) anyway. After that I did something almost completely novel to me. I waited. I came back slowly from the shot: no activity for a week, and very little for two to three weeks afterward. Slowly I started running again, but only for 20 minutes at a time, with walk breaks every other minute. Simultaneously I stayed consistent with a revised routine of more physical-therapy exercises mixed in with light stretching. By October I could run five or six miles without tightness, but I was unwilling to go much farther. Only around Thanksgiving did I finally feel that I was becoming a runner again, and not until now–early January–am I finally considering training again. I consider the recovery process to be the time between the cortisone shot and now. The time before that was the time for enough frustration to build that it forced me to reconsider my life as a whole. I’m such a physical person that it’s easy to forget the power of the mind.
I’m not smart enough to know whether my hamstring healed because of the science of recovery or because of my pseudo-spiritual life shift. But it doesn’t matter much anyway. I feel grateful that I was able to channel the anger and frustration I felt into something that feels productive. I certainly am not able to do that with every frustration in my life. But all my problems really aren’t anything more than frustrations anyway. I don’t have real problems.
So now that I’ve re-evaluated my life’s direction and healed my body, I’m happily running again. You should be glad for me. I’m certainly glad, especially now that I don’t have to do all that selfless stuff anymore. Helping other people was a great way for me to heal, but now that I’m back to running I’m excited to put all that behind me and pursue running full time again. I’m going to be super fast this year. So next time you get injured, I suggest you pay lip service to something greater than yourself while you heal. It worked for me!
Seriously though, running can be a powerful tool for good.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- How connected do you think your mind and your body are?
- Have you ever experienced a physical injury that you thought was connected to your mind somehow as well?