“Now I feel free, and hope is creeping back. Maybe because I’m paying attention to what I have rather than what’s missing.”
I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about comparisons, and how most people struggle with constantly comparing themselves to others. In this day and age, I guess it’s not hard to understand. With social media platforms so easily being used to display our personal highlight reels, it’d be easy to think that the grass is always greener in someone else’s yard.
Realizing this, I consider myself lucky that I have never had a tendency towards jealousy or outwardly comparing myself to others. My toxic trait has always been in comparing myself to where I want to be or, since becoming injured and struggling to recover from spinal fractures and surgery, where I used to be. Both, of which, are pointless. Neither serves the greater good of my physical or mental wellbeing.
The truth is, the grass is greenest where you water it. And, totally playing off song lyrics and memes here, but – I’m too busy watering my own grass to wonder if yours is any greener.
Perhaps this is the “secret” to my success? Or at least my steady progress.
Instead of wasting time and energy worrying about what everyone else is doing, I choose to go my own way. Sure, I post on social media frequently – but I don’t just post about the beautiful moments, the successful moments, the moments of joy and celebration. I openly display the struggle, the day to day work, and the most minuscule progress. Because I believe that THIS is the most beautiful part. Not the moments when we win – but the moments when we LEARN. We learn that it’s better to show up every day and try, to do whatever it is that we’re personally capable of doing today. We learn that not every day is going to be a good day. That it’s about progress, not perfection – and even the most “perfect” performances are achieved through steady, daily progress. All the times you got knocked down, but chose to stand back up – that’s how you make things happen… and THAT’s the most beautiful part. When you’re no longer interested in looking back to where you used to be and what you used to do. When you’re no longer fixated on the future, on where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish there. The most beautiful part, believe it or not, is not in the destination or the crossing of that Finish line – but rather, in these day to day moments of struggle, taking one small step closer to the goal, celebrating each and every milestone you cross, and seeing it as a tremendous gift and a testament to your character. And in those moments of day to day, all along the way, the most beautiful part is when your mind slowly makes the transition from uncertainty, not knowing if you can… to absolute clarity, and knowing that you will.
“Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
I was reminded, once again, this morning of how important it is not to judge any one, single moment. It’s been seven and a half months since my spinal surgery, and the ups and downs have continued to roll on. I was feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself recently, as the discomfort in my back flirted heavily on the verge of actual pain again. Because of this, I had decided not to make an attempt to run – opting, instead, for an evening of “NetFlix and Chill”, lying supine on the couch with ice packs and pillows strategically placed beneath my back.
They always say that it takes an entire year to recover fully from a surgery such as this… and thinking in terms of the surgeries that I have had to repair my arm/wrist, I wholeheartedly agree. But the one thing they never really seem to tell you is that, even though an injury can be “repaired”, your body will never quite be the same again.
I continue to realize this difficult fact, time and time again – even after all this time and despite all the progress I have already made. Recovering from a significant spinal injury isn’t like flipping a switch. The body recovers in a haphazard way. Some days, my muscles respond. Other days, they just don’t. I experience this in the gym, on the treadmill, in the bathroom, as well as the bedroom. It is what it is, and I am incredibly lucky that it hasn’t been much worse. But it’s frustrating, nonetheless. I draw comfort from the similarities in my experiences and that of our very own Pittsburgh Steeler, Ryan Shazier, as I read about how hard he has had to fight to recover and come back from his own devastating injury.
“Fight through it, Ryan. You got this. Fight through it.”
In the past, that’s what I’d say to myself during two-a-day workouts in the hot sun, when I couldn’t see because of the buckets of sweat cascading down my face off my forehead, when every breath felt like it was the last I had to give. Now, I was saying it while walking on a treadmill.
That’s the funny part: it actually took more fight and will and stamina to walk on a treadmill in the six months after my injury than it ever did to leave it all on the practice field as an NFL player. That’s because, on the treadmill, I was fighting my own body. My muscles, which had gradually awakened in the first three months after the injury, now had a short shelf life. I’d have to push them to exhaustion and then beyond. I had to work them into shape before even thinking about the process of recovering their lost memory.”
Ryan Shazier, “Walking Miracle”
This is where I, too, find myself today. Fighting my own body, which inevitably craves the path of least resistance. Pushing my muscles to activate and move through workouts, yet being very careful so as not to reinjure my spine. Re-wiring my brain to remember what running looks like for me now is also a daily, diligent task. Because everything has changed. And no matter how hard we work, nor how much progress we make, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will simply never be the same. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be good… because, back to the original start of this blog: “I was reminded, once again, this morning of how important it is not to judge any one, single moment”.
Within hours of yesterday’s gym workout, which was heavy on hamstrings, core, and the engagement of my lower back muscles, I was quite sore. Yet, after icing and stretching and a full night of restful sleep, I woke up feeling practically brand new.
The body is often tired, achy and sore, yet movement is often the remedy. Which is a prime example of why we should never judge the moment that we’re in. If I were to base my decisions on how I feel in the hours after my workouts, I’d wipe my training calendar clean and never run again. Instead, I choose to give myself some grace, as well as adequate rest, and it is finally beginning to pay off immensely. When we started this journey, back in November, I could only run for a few minutes out of a total 17-minute workout. Today, I ran for 100 minutes, out of a 120-minute workout!!!
We are just 50 days away from running the Pittsburgh Marathon, and this race means more to me now than it ever has. More than the first time I ran it, unsure if I even had what it takes to complete such a distance. More than the last time I ran it in full, and PR’d the course by nearly 10 minutes. Even more than last year, when I ran the half with a friend – my spine wrapped tightly inside a brace, stabilizing multiple fractures, immersing myself in gratitude for the simple sake of my ability to run, and the sights and sounds of our incredibly supportive city.
Anyone who has ever known me knows that my will has always had a way of showing up on race day. But some things just go far beyond the power of your will. Like the physical limits of the human body – especially one patched back together with scar tissue and bone cement. I know I still have a long way to go in order to truly be ready… but my faith has most certainly been restored.
“There will be times when the long miles make zero sense and, other times, all the sense in the world.”
Recently, it’s been occurring to me, more and more, exactly how much my life has evolved in the past five years. Beginning with the much needed change in career paths – from full-time Paramedic to part-time Chiropractic Assistant. To the drastic reduction in hours worked – from 60+ down to approximately 20 hours per week. And the changing of faces amongst my social circle, as well as, the important roles that each and every one of them play in my life – and I in theirs.
I’ve done a complete 360 in how I venture through this Life. I used to be overcome by “Monday morning dread” and worked only for the weekend or whatever set days I had off from work or had requested for vacation. Whereas now, I enter each day with ease – looking forward to whatever adventure or challenge may lie ahead, at work or at play, and the camaraderie that can be found in the “little” moments that so few people even take the time to notice or appreciate.
With the help of my therapist, I have taken a deeper look into my self – who I am at my very core, as well as all the people, experiences, conversations and events that have come to shape the way I think, feel, act and, ultimately, believe about myself and the world around me.
It’s not easy to interrupt the thought patterns and processes of an adult, let alone alter them so completely. At this stage of our lives, the majority of us are quite stubborn and set in our ways. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that the tragedy surrounding the deaths of my parents caused me to question everything I have ever known or believed in? Changing the way I think, feel, and act has never been easy, and the end result (the current state of my life) is something that I never, in my wildest dreams, would ever have imagined was possible. But, obviously, it is!
“Back in the day”, I used to say that the only “good” thing in my life was running. That no matter what happened, or how stressed I would become, running was the one thing that could make everything alright again. So long as I could run, I could expend all that anxious, angry, depression infused energy and return to my family, friends, and job much more balanced and capable of performing. The truth is, I wasn’t actually “balanced” at all… I was tired.
I was tired of working long hours at a job I no longer enjoyed. I was tired of regretting the past and so many of the decisions that I had made, which led me to where I found myself in those days. I was tired of questioning why people are the way they are, and why we do the things we do. I was tired of assuming responsibility and blame for anything that didn’t go quite right, as well as, everything that went so terribly wrong. I was tired of feeling down, worthless, and so depressed that I assumed the responsibility of doing my best to make sure nobody else I knew or loved would ever feel the same. I became so tired of fighting my own darkness that I allowed it to envelop me. I welcomed it in, embraced it, and became much like it. I laughed in spite of it. I wore it like a badge of honor and made it my friend. I stared so hard into that proverbial abyss that, over time, I literally began to feel it looking back into me. I am no longer ashamed to admit that it almost consumed me… because I am standing here today, writing this, as living proof that it doesn’t ever have to be that way.
As the great storyteller, himself, said:
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side. Or you don’t.”
I’ve made many sacrifices to get to where I am today. Nothing has ever just been handed to me. From the structure of paying off my debts, to the discipline of not incurring any more, I have minimized my needs and eliminated practically all of my wants. I have limited time spent with friends in order to focus on my marriage and, as a result, have created the once in a lifetime love story that the two of us have always dreamed of living out.
When it comes to running, however, my forward progress has been hitting a wall. My ability to endure in distance and pace has decreased so significantly since becoming injured that, some days, it just seems easier (and physically better) for me to simply let it go.
With just two months left until race day, it really is imperative for my training to be on point. I don’t know anyone who believes it’s a good idea to go out and run a marathon on significantly sub-par training. But this is where I am. Pushing for more, early on after my release, ultimately resulted in taking “one step forward, TEN steps back”, sidelining me for several weeks with a lower hamstring injury that has continued to linger on.
I’m no stranger to pain. Pushing through pain is something that we runners are notorious for. Choosing to tolerate what most people would consider intolerable is the down side of having developed high endurance. It’s not what caused the condition that I’m in, but it has certainly hindered my body’s ability to heal and, in the months prior to my spinal surgery, deteriorated my injuries further.
In the face of pain that would cause the average person to stop running and seek help, I simply chose to hunker down, push through that physical pain cave, and rely on my mental strength to continually see me through. In the year that followed my skydiving accident, however, at a time when I should have been bouncing back, my life seemed to be spiraling completely out of control. It was a disorienting chaos marked only by an increase in pain, decrease in performance, and my dizzying inability to push my way through any of it at all.
I’ve had to reconcile the fact that I am not invincible. Broken bones may heal, but they will never be quite the same again. This realization has been both debilitating, as well as liberating. Many months of recovery have taught me, in no uncertain terms, how to take care of my body – and also my mind.
I’m a different person now than I was before – a different runner, as well. I no longer have all that anxiety, anger, sadness or fear within me. I no longer carry a cloud of darkness over my own head, which I then feel the need to outrun. I no longer need (nor do I want) hours upon hours of endless miles and continuous exertion in order to expend negative energy or escape the responsibilities in my life. I finally love my life and the person that I’ve become. I love being present with my husband, our family, and the people whose lives intertwine with mine. There are books to read, concepts to explore, pages to write, places to see, and pictures to take. There are people to meet and conversations to be had; adventures to plan, and experiences to share. There are so many things I’d much rather be doing than running “all the miles”. Don’t get me wrong, I do still love to run – but I no longer desire any one single thing to consume all of my thoughts, energy, time, or life.
Right now, more than anything, I’m just doing my best to figure out what works for me in order to keep progressing. I am currently seven months post-spinal surgery and, while I am doing much better, I am still (quite literally) learning how to run again. I’m creating my own way forward, and am looking to do so in a way that creates a healthy, longterm balance. The fact that I am ultimately losing my love of marathon running in this process of healing is neither triumph nor tragedy. The way I see it, it’s just another part of my journey. I’ve already overcome so much – from repairing and rehabbing broken bones, to restoring the initial loss of bodily functions and reducing the level of neuropathic pain.
In the past two years, I’ve undergone 3 surgeries, 4 months of daily disc regeneration treatments, 6 months of physical therapy, continued corrective care chiropractic adjustments, as well as 3+ months of one-on-one personal training, twice a week, in order to recover as fully as possible and to prepare my body for this upcoming race.
While the thought of not running this particular event has never crossed my mind, when it comes to the marathon distance, I can’t help but feel like all I’m really doing it setting myself up to endure yet another “thing” that I will have to recover from. And for what? To be able to say that I did it? To have another race medal, collecting dust, as it hangs upon my wall? It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. With that in mind, it’s up to me to redefine exactly what running means to me – and, moving forward, decide exactly how I intend to make it last.
It’s March 3rd 2023, and today marks the first day of some very big changes.
I’ve known this day was coming. We’ve been preparing for it for awhile. As time moved on and this day quickly approached, I’ve been thinking about my journey over the course of the past several years. All the problems that I have faced, the issues that I’ve worked hard to overcome, and the realizations I’ve had along the way. The choices set before me, to change or remain the same, and the decisions that I have made… each and every little thing that I have done has led me to where I am today.
I met with my therapist this past week and, as we sat down, got comfortable and took our very first breath together, he asked me: “Where would you like to begin?”
My mind filled with “all the things”, but as I looked up and out the window to his left, at the beautiful blue sky above us, I took another deep breath, felt my pulse slow inside my chest, and replied: “I really just want to say THANK YOU.”
His eyes flickered for a moment, and then he said: “And without even knowing why, I’m simply going to say: YOU’RE WELCOME.”
I could go on to write out all the details of all the things that have lead me to this moment, but I no longer feel the need to.
I’m not trying to brag about where I am, or instruct any of you, who are reading this, on how to do the same. I do not have all the answers, nor do I know some great big secret. The truth is, I’m still learning and growing – making mistakes, sometimes reverting to hold habits and ways of thinking, then relearning the same lessons, implementing the same general wisdom, and growing all over again. I simply make the decision, each and every day, to show up for myself and choose what’s best and most congruent for me.
Life can be such a crazy ride… a delicate balancing act of highs and lows, coupled with the knowledge that no single moment, feeling, or emotion (nor any person, place, or thing) will ever last forever. My experience has been no different. As I sit here, looking back to reflect, I find it absolutely incredible now to see the difference in myself – my thoughts, my feelings, the ability to process through the deepest of emotions. My actions and insights on the very meaning of this life. My family, my friends, and our ability to love and honor the relationships that we choose to surround ourselves with. From the simplicity that I’ve implemented in my personal life, to the depths and far reaching effects that I have found in my professional work, literally everything has changed… and all in just the last five years. When it comes right down to it, I am just so grateful for the people in my life who have been here with me, through and through, throughout it all.