If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.
“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.”
Why I thought a taxicab was an appropriate place to unwind and let the tension go, I will never know. But maybe you can’t choose the exact setting for the moments of your lowest low—they happen where they fall. When the car door shut behind me, my face hidden by my sweatshirt’s hood, everything began to pour out. The stress of being injured was beating me. When a doctor tells you that the months you have taken off from running, along with the first procedure meant to heal your injury did not quite do the trick, it’s tough to feel optimistic. But it’s easy to feel helpless.
It happened suddenly, during the last half mile of a typical run on the roads near my family’s home on Long Island. One inch. If I would have taken a step one inch longer, shorter, or to either side, things would have been different. Instead, my path on that seven-mile run led me directly into the broken neck of a glass bottle. I didn’t see it appear under my trainer until it was too late. I jumped in the air, yelled out a few words that were so bad my mother would be upset at the fact I even knew they existed, and pulled the shard out. Somehow, it found a way to wiggle between a weak spot in my shoe, ending up snug in the middle of my flexor tendon. I limped home, spoke to my coach and in my running-log described the run as a “disaster,” but more notably, “a game changer.” Looking back, I was underestimating the true gravity of the situation.
Fate has never been a concept that I believed in. I’m a skeptic. This injury was not something that I could figure out considering the workings of providence, destiny or the rationalization that, “everything happens for a reason.” I wasn’t left in an existential crisis, wondering, “why me?” and counting my karma points from the sidelines. I couldn’t explain it, except for the fact that somewhere well beyond a thousand other healthy steps on a standard afternoon run, I mistook just one. And like that, I lost my junior year at Columbia to a freak accident. Instead of running with my teammates, I was being challenged in a different way than I ever could have imagined, but I was doing it alone. Instead of looking for a reason or for a meaning, I would focus my energy towards learning from the experience; and find a way to get back to running as quickly as possible.
At first, I believed the foot needed a week, to heal the laceration and allow the swelling to go down. But I figured it was safe to get an MRI and have a podiatrist confirm my amateur diagnosis. After receiving good news that I did not cause internal or long-term damage, I was confident that I would be back running cross-country with my team by pre-season [a week away]. But one week quickly turned into two, and although I was now off crutches, my foot still ached every walking step. It was improving, but much too slowly. A different doctor prescribed me a new anti-inflammatory and suggested that the pain would just need to be run through in order to break up the scar tissue. Coach Wood and I decided to trust this assessment; especially since any hope of a successful return that season would entail running immediately. For four weeks, I pounded out miles, and a few workouts, but without any hope. The pain became too great. One season down.
I am a miler. I can run cross-country, but my true motivation in the fall is team driven. That was the toughest part about my time away—having to watch my teammates instead of running with them. Holding a stopwatch doesn’t quite get the heart rate and adrenaline up like I crave. At this point, I stopped everything, too defeated to cross-train, and waited for my injury to repair itself. Friends would generally describe me as imperturbable; my moods are constant and my general outlook on life is overwhelmingly positive. But when you’re injured, things change. I’d say running is responsible for the usually steady aspect of my personality. But when that constant that I was so highly dependent on was stripped from me, the foundation crumbled. I don’t remember fall happening that year; the leaves didn’t change, and I never got to enjoy the crisp air on a morning run.
After multiple doctors failed to give me answers, and the waiting game was bringing about no results, I finally found the solution. My newest doctor not only enlightened me about the misdiagnosis I received, [that I was indeed dealing with a partially torn flexor tendon] but he had my remedy. There was a procedure known as Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections, and using a concentration of your own white blood cells, it creates an accelerated, but natural path to recovery. The first round placed me in a boot for a few weeks, and now I was the black sheep hobbling around campus, but at least I felt proactive. Finally, a couple months later, I made another attempt at running, but after a few runs I knew things weren’t right. Then there was that cab ride–I needed another set of injections.
My emotions undulated through each day, and in between the moments of hope, there were periods of doubt. I questioned my life without running, and what I would do to fill the void; and who I would be without the ability to tag myself as, “Kyle The Runner.” I was confronted by a couple friends who could no longer stand by and see this despondent apparition of the person I used to be. I didn’t project my sadness and it wasn’t an issue every moment of every day for month after month, but it was present. I did not take up any destructive habits, continued to get good sleep, and ate well (I actually lost 6 lbs.). I cross-trained an hour or so daily. But I was missing my enthusiasm for normal day-to-day activities, and the positive energy that I’d like to think I could be proud of for usually maintaining.
The day after talking with my teammates, I woke up a new man. I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself, and move on. I could only control how I reacted to the adversity. But back in those times of doubt, I discovered some things about myself that were outside of the ‘runner’ label. I found parts of me I forgot were there. The influence I could have on the lives of those around me extended beyond my ability to run; there was more to me than the times I ran. The hobbies I developed and the perspective I gained contributed to my depth as an individual. And for that discovery, I am better off today both as a runner and a person.
Round 2. I had to go through the motions of the procedure and recovery once again. The lack of a timeline is what makes an indefinite injury so difficult to cope with. Everyday I would wake up, and before rolling out of bed and placing my foot on the ground, I thought that there was a chance that the pain had disappeared in that night’s sleep. Although I dealt with the disappointment daily, it kept me going. I bid my time patiently, and finally in March I was able to go for a jog in my space suit on the alter-g. Within a couple weeks, I jogged a mile outside on the turf. Did I feel my foot? Very much. But this time it was not pain, just soreness. Of all the miles I had ever raced or run, no other compared to the happiness that one-mile brought me. Because I ran, again.
Unfortunately injuries occur. Sometimes it is because you over train, maybe you are running in the wrong shoes, or maybe because you get unlucky. It is a part of our sport, and it just happens. But at the end of the day, as runners, there are certain things we can eventually take out of our experiences in the sport. Whether that is the value of hard work, or achieving and setting goals–one day our time as competitive runners will end. But in those races we lose, and the hours of solitude biking in an empty gym, or in the despair of a lonely cab ride; we grow. During those dark instances of uncertainty and pain, it is the reminder that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that will bring you there. An injury can break you, or it can be an opportunity to come back stronger. It is your choice.