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.