Starting Lines

The road back from the surgery I had a few months ago for a Haglund’s deformity has been trying. Yeah, let’s just go with that.

First there were days of lying around. Then there were days of doing core work and arm biking. After that was the introduction of the stationary bike, and then the outdoor bike. There was also limping, walking, hiking, and now, finally, small bits of running. I try to keep my cool about it, to keep my head down and not freak out, but to be honest it often feels like a roller coaster.

Zach Miller - runner stretching

Zach Miller rehabilitating after surgery. Photo: Matt Lipsey

A few weeks ago when I was hiking, I had a moment where the idea of running felt nearly impossible. I was walking around a lake where I often train, watching other people run, and realizing how intimidating that seemed—I could hardly imagine doing it.

That was such a weird feeling. I have run almost all my life. While there have been times when it has felt better or worse, I have almost always felt capable of running. Recently, however, running has felt like an immense obstacle. I watch people run and think to myself, How do they do that?

In a way, it felt like I was starting from scratch. And yet, I am finding my way. It began with shuffling small downhill segments, with gravity doing a lot of the work. In time, the shuffling turned into actual running strides that, instead of stopping at the bottom, continued into the flats, and eventually, up the next rise. A few yards turned into several hundred, then a half a mile, and eventually a full mile.

As I write this, I have a ways to go before I reach the finish line of recovering from my injury. In fact, crossing that line is anything but guaranteed. I could still run out of steam, veer off course, or come up lame. To be honest, this fact—that running isn’t guaranteed—terrifies me. But I have not let intimidation keep me from starting.

When standing on a starting line, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by what lies ahead. If there were ever a time to bail, the start line would be it. You might even be able to turn tail and run without anyone noticing. Your name won’t be marked with a dreaded DNF or a finishing time that you can’t bear to look at.

Once you take the first step off the starting line, you are faced with a choice. You can choose to zone out and be mindless in an attempt to click off as many miles as possible without thinking about them. Or, you can choose to be mindful, fully engaging yourself in the task at hand. Recently someone asked me about the dynamic of mindlessness and mindfulness as it relates to my running. I explained that when it comes to racing, I don’t find them to be mutually exclusive. For me, racing involves both.

Zach Miller biking

Zach biking while recovering from injury. Photo: Matt Lipsey

If I choose to be completely mindless, I run the risk of zoning out so much that I don’t prepare myself for what is to come later in the race. Mile 99 can be jeopardized by mile one if I run it too hard because I’ve mindlessly ignored the big picture. On the contrary, a sole focus on being mindful opens me up to overthinking things and psyching myself out. Mile one can feel overwhelming if I run it while thinking about the 99 that are to come. For me, it is not a matter of being one or the other, but a balance of the two.

The same applies to my recovery process. If all I do is walk around the lake watching people run and thinking about how impossible it seems, I’ll wallow in fear. On the other hand, if I ignore the state of my healing and leap mindlessly back into training, I’ll drown in my own ambition. Instead, I have to be mindful of where I am at and focus on taking the next appropriate step. It is really easy to look ahead and realize that I am not where I want to be. But the fact that I am not where I want to be does not mean that I’m not making progress right where I am. It is by focusing on the steps that are needed in the mile that I am in that gets me to ones that lie ahead.

So, whether you are training for a goal race, coming back from an injury, tackling a big project, or trying to navigate a global pandemic, step up to the start line. Take a good look at where you are at, focus on where you want to be, and get going. Don’t obsess over what isn’t, and don’t ignore what is, because forward progress is now.

Call for Comments

What literal or proverbial start lines do you face in life or running right now? And what is the finish you’d like to reach? Share your thoughts on your own start and finish lines.

Zach Miller running

Zach starting to run again after surgery. Photo courtesy of Zach Miller.

Zach Miller

is a mountain runner and full time caretaker at Barr Camp in Colorado. As caretaker, he lives year round in an off-the-grid cabin halfway up Pikes Peak. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.

There are 9 comments

  1. MG

    I really take heart in this post and the writer’s reflections about the space in between healing and the return to running. Last year I ran myself into injury and have had to put running on pause. Ultimately I couldn’t keep running in pain – it was neither fun nor did it help my long-term health. I was at the wrong start line, I suppose.

    Zach puts it so well at the end of his piece and I hadn’t considered recovering and running in quite this way. The challenge is to stay in the moment with what’s going on in the body and act accordingly. I lost sight of that and continued for a time in the wrong direction. Thanks again for this post!

  2. Rodger Smith

    Good luck, Zach. You have time on your side. I, at 75, am facing hip replacement after a fall and may not be able to run again. May try an injection first. Will be hard to give up after 40+ years.

  3. AT

    Zach, like many other ultrarunners, I am intrigued and inspired for the spirit you all carry. I’ve always identified as a runner, but as I’ve grown, I identify more with the ultra spirit than say the track, to where a lot of our origins began. My 3 year son was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia last summer. While obviously terrifying, I fell back on my endurance background, and my belief that, in order to cross that metaphorical 100 mile finish line, we need to step to the line, fearless but acknowledging the task at hand, and believing, we will be victorious. Some aspects of the run may flow more smoothly than others, but whatever tactic we have to implement to keep going, we do just that. You all inspire more than you could imagine. You got this!

  4. Adam Leadbetter

    Zach – as always thank you for you thoughtful article.

    I’m a week and a half post ankle surgery for a loose body, and while the prognosis is good long-term it’s been nearly a year getting to this point and another couple of months to go before there’s any running at all.

    Thinking of you as you continue to persevere in your own journey to recovery and thank you for continuing to inspire even while you’re not smashing out the results on the race course.

  5. Darrell Gammon

    Great words, Zach. I’m 68, been ultra running for 7 years and love it but October 2020, clearing brush, I fell on my right shoulder and tore multiple tendons and ligaments. Surgery in November, rehab started 2nd week in December. The post-surgery pain was the worst I’ve experienced from all other surgeries. I literally thought I’d lose my mind. After 3 months physical therapy, Dr. re,eased me to resume on my own PT, but I want to run, which the doctor OK’ed but the jolting makes it ache that I walk/run only 3 miles. I’ve had to defer 2 ultra races till next year since I’m still recovering. I’ve gotten angry cause I can’t do what I love, trail running, or roads even. Dr. said it could take 6-12 months for full recovery but I feel down seeing others happily running trails. So, I do what I can for now, with a goal of 5k run this summer and build on that, baby steps. I’ve been injured before but only had to not run for 7 weeks, not months. I feel for you and anyone who runs that gets injured and has to take many months off.

  6. Josh Nichols

    Zach, I haven’t read everything you have written, but I have to say this is the best one yet. We miss you on Barr Trail!

  7. Thomas Boehmer

    Zach,
    this really went straight to my heart. I am a german Runner and Coach, just having turned 70, with quite a history of ultrarunning in the eighties and nineties, but afterwards only doing coaching work and just running without racing. Some months ago I rediscovered my passion for running longer and I started training for one of my favorite races at the alps, Swiss Alpine Marathon (68km). All started well, I came to know “I run far”, read most of your posts, “The rise of the Ultrarunners” and watched Videos about you on YouTube etc. 2 weeks ago I started to have Plantarfasciitis and all dreams are gone for the present. And when you are 70, there is not so much time to perform.
    But reading your lines gave me back some confidence and inspire not to give in. I wish you all the best for recovery!!!

  8. Joe G

    In 2020, I had surgery to remove a Haglund’s Deformity and debride the Achilles tendon of degenerated tissue (as the deformity was tearing the tendon from the inside out). I was one of the lucky ones for approximately ten days later, “the nation shut down” and all voluntary surgeries were put on hold. Prior, I thought about all I was going to miss: the racing, the training with friends or alone on the trails, but everyone missed on on that. Rehabilitation was a lot on my own in the beginning and eventually, was cleared to take on formal physical therapy. I saw the progress, albeit it was slow. I wondered when I was sliding my butt down the stairs in my home, when would I be able to run again? Six or seven months later, I started to feel amazing. Physical therapy had progressed and I had graduated from sliding my butt down the stairs to walking around the neighborhood, to walking on dirt to hiking locally to running – and when I could run, it was thrilling. So thrilling that I got a little overzealous and upped my mileage quickly and combined with the aggressive physical therapy, combined for another foot injury: an impingement. It might as well have been another Haglunds. The mental impact to me was significant. I took off 2 1/2 months from running and took up swimming and riding a bike on an indoor trainer. It took awhile to feel a difference, but when I did, it was so encouraging. I started running again, this time more cognizant of the pattern in which I increased my mileage. I was building the right way. Now, 400+ days post surgery, I am packing my gear with the intention of running a marathon tomorrow. To say I am excited is an understatement. I dont care that the weather will be hot or that I will be slow…I’m just excited to be running, to feeling the freedom and joy I feel when running.

    Continued good luck Zach in your recovery from Haglund’s Deformity surgery. The road back is tough but it’s worth it to not feel the pain anymore.

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