Running Injury, the Grieving Process, and Finding Joy Among It All

Guest author Vincent Behe compares recovering from injury to the grieving process.

By on November 10, 2021 | Comments

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is written by Vincent Behe. He is a recent product of Lehigh University’s graduate program in Environmental Policy, and possesses an all-encompassing passion for the outdoors. In addition to his running pursuits, Behe keeps busy with his full-time work as a planner and grant writer for a local nonprofit. Behe resides in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and credits Billy Joel for anyone knowing where that is. You can contact him through his email address: [email protected]]

Runners are used to moving forward. So when pain shot through my right foot on a Sunday long run in mid-April, I had a lot of thoughts — some of them of the four-letter variety. Not one of them involved quitting my run. My injury history is a bingo board, crisscrossed with the typical suspects – Achilles and patellar tendonitis, mystery hip pain, and bumps and scrapes in every place you can think of, each one of them frustrating in their own way.

On that gorgeous, mild spring morning, it seemed to be more of the same. Great, I thought, mentally throwing up my hands, another one. I was coming back from a bout of patellar tendonitis in mid-December, and had just begun to work my way back up to standard mileage, which for me is about 35 to 40 miles a week.

So I gave my foot the good ol’ RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) treatment. I’m not the patient type (we runners never are), but I waited a full week before testing out my foot again. More of the same. Pain in the right arch. This went back and forth for the better part of a month. RICE, run, RICE, run. Eventually, I headed to the podiatrist as a formality, looking for her stamp of approval that said go ahead, keep running as long as the pain is manageable.

A Real Injury

She peered at the X-ray, tracing a dark, almost imperceptible line that crept through the white of my bone. “See that? Your foot is fractured.” The navicular bone. A bone I couldn’t even recall for my 11th-grade anatomy final, let alone in an exam room 10 years later.

“Oh. Yeah.” I flashed a lame smile. I said to a buddy of mine at one point that runners probably know lower-body anatomy better than half the doctors out there. I was only half-joking.

Vincent Behe - In a walking boot

Vincent contemplating life in his walking boot. All photos: Vincent Behe

At that moment, my world flipped. This wasn’t tendonitis. It couldn’t be RICE’d away. Later that day, I sat petrified at my computer, scrolling through doomsday scenarios of repeat injuries, failed recoveries, and factoids proclaiming the navicular as a “high-risk” fracture with a greater likelihood of complications during recovery.

Everything I had come to recognize in myself as an asset while running — stubbornness, competitiveness, and maybe a slight obsession with time and Strava segments — was now an itch in my brain that became impossible to scratch as I sat on the couch, day after day, inching closer to insanity (slight hyperbole, but it sometimes doesn’t feel that way).

I’m a bad news first kind of guy. I process problems by attacking them, and I suspect many runners are the same way. Tree in your path? Scramble over it. Stream? Splash through it. Ten degrees outside? Layer up. Get it done, no matter the circumstances. Well, turns out that only applies when there is something to be done. And let me tell you, waiting does not feel like doing something, but that’s the prescribed treatment for a fracture.

It feels as though I am out to sea, treading water, staring out at the horizon waiting for a lifeboat to arrive. I’ve been promised over the radio that help is coming, but how can you not feel hopeless when all you see is a blue expanse stretching endlessly in every direction? As you wait, your body is freezing, and the sharks — self-doubt, frustration, and despair — begin to circle.

Dealing With Grief

The fact is, dealing with injury for an extended period of time is eerily similar to the grieving process. A profound sense of loss sets in. A gaping hole that, try as you might, can’t be filled with Instagram or another Oreo. It feels as though, overnight and without warning, an old friend just up and left you, with no note and no indication of when they might return.

Just like you might fritter away the time watching the clock, counting the seconds, and waiting for your friend’s return, you circle your next doctor’s visit on the calendar, counting down, hoping that they will give you your life back.

Vincent Behe - Injury Location

The location where Vincent’s injury occurred.

No one should be this obsessed with any one thing, you might think. No one should rely on something so much for happiness. And yeah, I guess you could say that, and I’d probably agree. It’s certainly not a point of pride. But I know there are many others out there who experience the same thing (maybe we should form an injured runners support group). Regardless, the grieving process continues.

Conventional wisdom teaches that there are five steps to the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is rarely that straightforward. I’ve felt each one of these at some point in recent months, often experiencing multiple at a time (depression and anger is a doozy of a combo — just ask my roommates) or cycling through all five in the same day.

There are periods of regression, dramatic backsliding where whatever silver lining you’d managed to glimpse quickly gives way to the same gray skies. These often occur when I experience a “trigger” — something that reminds me of that which I no longer have.

A beautiful day, paradoxically, can be like a slap in the face when all you want to do is spend it out on the trails, but you’re forced to stare at the outdoors through your bedroom window. Remaining focused on what it is that you can’t do in this way, rather than what you can, is a recipe for prolonged self-torture.

Regaining Focus and Looking Forward

These articles typically end with a solution or a healthy dose of optimism. I can’t offer those things, because that’s not my reality at the moment. But I will say this: Joy is not invalidated by sadness. Your journey through the grieving process may look more like a five-year-old’s doodle of a roller coaster than a straight line from one stage to the next, just as mine has. It’s not a fun one to ride.

But you can choose to focus on what you are still capable of. Enjoying a beer with friends. Listening to your favorite album. Taking a drive through the countryside. These things are worth just as much to an injured person as a healthy one. You may wake up the next morning and feel that nagging ache or pain once more when you get out of bed and feel yourself sliding back a few squares to anger or depression.

When you do, try and practice gratitude; remind yourself that what happened, happened, regardless of the way you feel right now. Remain focused and optimistic for your return, but don’t let that blind you to the joy you may find on your journey back.

There’s a quote from John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Injuries happen, and they suck. Life happens, too, and a lot of the time, it doesn’t suck. That’s running. That’s life.

Call for Comments

  • How do you emotionally work through a frustrating injury?
  • Do you feel like you’ve gone through the cycle of grieving, having to give up something you love, albeit temporarily?
Vincent Behe - Rehab

Vincent working through his injury at rehab.

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