Last year I ran the TCS New York City marathon with a group of 45 amazing everyday athletes.
It was an incredible experience. It felt like half of New York showed up on the day to help get us over the line. Yet, for me, getting there was definitely not a smooth journey.
My training was interrupted majorly back in June when I fractured my foot- a left second metatarsal fracture. It’s something as practitioners we don’t talk enough about, but yes, we also get injured.
The healing process was slow going. I hobbled around on it for 2 weeks in denial, even though I KNEW it was broken. Talk about human nature at it’s finest. Eventually I admitted I had to face the fact and get an x-ray, which confirmed my suspicion.
The moon boot felt incredibly restrictive, particularly for someone like myself who spends the majority of my time in a no drop, minimal sole lift, flexible barefoot shoe. There was definitely a lesson in there on the effects of a functional long leg on the rest of the body (yes, those extra few centimetres on one side of the body can give you low back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain).
Even in the boot, it was painful for another 3-4 weeks and being on my feet all day meant that it was probably getting way more loading than it should have. After one month I decided that it wasn’t healing as fast as it should, and so I regressed onto crutches when not at work. Two weeks of that and it finally felt like it was beginning to make progress.
All in all, it took over 9 weeks to get out of the boot. I would play in and out of my barefoot shoes, even though at the end of a long day my foot would be painful. It infuriated me- I was the barefoot guy, I had to wear barefoot shoes! I didn’t want to drive more compensation into the system by wearing regular shoes aka foot coffins. I didn’t “identify” with them anymore. It took 9 weeks to let go of my barefoot shoes for a time and move into something with a bit more cushioning. They felt more comfortable (read: I felt less vulnerable) in them, and that was as good a reason as any.
It took me 10 weeks to ask for help. To let go of my ego enough to admit that I couldn’t do this on my own, that I needed someone to keep me accountable. I felt like I could go for a run, but I also knew I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t earnt the right to return to running just yet. I had my shit to work on.
Seeking help was a HUGE turning point in my recovery, both physiologically and psychologically. I was able to begin loading it again. It finally felt like I was making progress, that New York was back on track.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. There was the rehab, the daily exercises, working on my breathing, my pelvic control, my hip control, my foot control. And then the gradual reloading of the foot and ankle. I had only four long runs before New York and the furthest I’d ran was 26km. I boarded that plane not really knowing 100% how I would fare on the day. Yet I did it. And not only did I finish, but I ran a 20 minute personal best.
I have learnt a lot about myself on this journey. Not just about the training errors that I made, but more so throughout the process of rehabilitation.
Firstly, healing is not served by the ego: it is hindered by it. My healing was massively slowed down by my ego. My ego that denied I was injured in the first place. My ego that I didn’t need to ask anyone for help. My ego that I only wore minimalist shoes, even when I could FEEL they weren’t appropriate at that time (thankfully, I’m back in them now!). My ego that I’m a runner, always been a runner, and running a marathon is a piece of cake.
I remember experiencing this weird dichotomy between practitioner me and patient me. It was so easy to objectify my injury and my experience, to turn it into just another clinical scenario. Talking with colleagues, that is exactly what it would become: we would discuss healing time frames, bone remodeling, loading rates, biomechanics and nutritional supplementation. On one hand, this was extremely helpful, as it allowed me to get spaciousness from my injuries and know that they were only temporary, that there was a natural healing progression that would occur.
Yet, on the other hand, on some level, it fell short. It didn’t capture how angry I felt that I was injured. I was pissed!
But I think there was a lesson in that I needed to learn: caring too much is not a problem. It’s a sign of your aliveness. You ARE supposed to care A LOT when you have an injury. It’s about caring A LOT, but not drowning in it. If I could say one thing to people who are looking for a health practitioner to help them on their journey, it would be to choose one that isn’t afraid to speak clinical truths but who can do that from a place of compassion and empathy that does not dismiss your experience. I for one am extremely grateful to be surrounded by such intelligent and caring healthcare practitioners.
People get obsessed with a particular movement practice. On one hand, that’s great, but when you have an injury, you realize that a movement practice is also only human (by the way, so is programming; the perfect training program doesn’t exist- it needs to be adaptable to the athlete). No singular practice is the answer to all your problems forevermore. When you’re injured, you either realize that or you go crazy with pent up energy you do not have alternate means to expel.
We are born to run. It is innate to all of us and for that it is as human as it gets. On one hand, it is the perfect movement practice, on the other, it is as flawed as all of us. It was a powerful acceptance for me that running wasn’t the answer to all my problems. I had shit to work on- places to explore physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Most importantly, I had to realize that I needed to slow myself down and give myself permission to heal. I had to let go of the rigidity that I wore as a sort of dysfunctional, brittle armour and soften; let go of Yang and rediscover Yin. Everyone just sees the glory of crossing the finish line, but that is not the home of healing and repair. Healing originates from a place of stillness, quiet and isolation.
It’s even trickier training with a group. For me, the training FOMO became very real, and it began to feel like I was falling behind the others in the progress I was making. It was important for me to remember everyone was on their own journey. I was putting so much pressure on myself to just get better as quickly as possible without fully accepting my current situation. There was a lot of anxiety. Yet, I realized, my job was actually quite simple: all I had to do was to ask myself, every single day, what it was I could do for my body in that moment to maximize its capacity to heal. In my opinion, I don’t believe most people slow down enough, even when they’re injured, to fully realize their healing potential. It’s about acceptance of the situation whilst rejecting notions of helplessness and permanency.
I always thought that the idea was to end suffering as quickly as possible. Now, I realize, any injury is an opportunity, a lesson. It’s there to teach you something about your self. I do not promote pointless suffering (usually the suffering that we layer on top of the suffering because of our conditioning- the “Everyone will be so disappointed in me if I am not performing at my peak”; “I’m a failure because I have this injury”; “There must be something deeply wrong with me because no one else seems to be struggling with their training” kind of self-talk) but at the very least I encourage people to explore it enough, walk up stream with it enough, to investigate from where its flow originates. . At the very least, it’s a lesson in getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. That, to me, is the role of a healthcare practitioner: not to take your suffering away, but to help you navigate through it.
People who do TED talks make it sound like they were broken but now they’re fixed- that they’re fully realized and that they have the answer. What a load of crap. I’ve injured so many things. But in many ways, each one has taught me something that has made me a better practitioner and a more empathetic human. They are part of the process. When it comes to health, there is no ‘end point’, no magic finish line. The patients who get the most out of care are the ones who realize that it’s an ongoing exploration. Injuries will come and go and with each day you are a different person to the person you were the day before based on the choices you’ve made up to that point.
Everyone is on their own journey, myself included. All I can do is love each and everyone for the journey that they are on; love them as subjects of their OWN lives. And they don’t need to be on board with any kind of agenda, including the ones I set for them. There’s not much more really I can offer than to walk with them as little or as much as they want me to. To wear my mistakes and give them hope that we can all still kick ass not in spite of but BECAUSE of these messes.
I’m not the same runner I was 6 months ago. But I now know why it is I run: that feeling of flight. I just need to remember to come ground myself occasionally too.