Your headlamp illuminates the black pavement in front of you. The only sound is your feet hitting the asphalt with each stride. Thump. Thump. Thump. You feel like the only person alive, moving through the darkness before the day breaks and the rest of the world emerges. You are alone with your thoughts and your labored breaths. Your legs burn as your phone finally says, “Mile 12.” You exhale in relief. Just one more mile to go. One more mile and you will have covered 33 miles for the week.
You have never run so far. You have never attempted 13 miles without the aid of a half-marathon course, but your doctor told you it was necessary. You don’t want to tense up at the race and have that excruciating pain resurface. You have to push through. You have to prove it to yourself. You have to make it across the finish line. The 2015 Baltimore Running Festival is all that matters to you.
After an entire summer of stretching, strength training, foam rolling and crying, you realized your IT band would not heal on its own. You didn’t even know what an IT band was until it was injured. Until you felt a sharp pull on the outside of your knee. Until it hurt to walk up the stairs. Until each extension of your leg made you wince. Until running–your passion, your escape from the world, the very definition of who you were–became the most dreaded activity. Until your body’s weakness had beaten you down to the point where you were crying in your boyfriend’s arms.
But now, you’re running again. And it hurts; it hurts like hell.
Realigning your pelvis is worse than it sounds. Your hip flexors bear the brunt of your newly aligned torso. Luckily, after about 3 miles, they tend to go numb. Then, the only challenge is beating your brain. Convincing yourself that it’s worth getting up at 5 a.m. to run before class. Convincing yourself that somehow you’ll able to walk around campus and stand for hours at work. Convincing yourself that running 73 miles in three weeks is not insane. Convincing yourself that you’re stronger than you know.
You think back to that first day in the doctor’s office. “You have to stop running,” he said.
“For how long?” you asked.
“For a month, maybe more. Your lower body needs a complete rest. Enjoy the weekend because on Monday you’re doing things my way.”
You remember that dreaded first week without cardio. It was also the first week of classes. All of the semester’s assignments were neatly listed out on the syllabi, and your head was spinning with an overload of information. All you wanted to do was slip on your shoes and run away from the stress, but you couldn’t. You couldn’t even go for a walk. Instead, you curled up on the cold bathroom floor, head in hands, and sobbed.
You remember conceding to the doctor’s suggestion that you swim. You could barely swim one lap, stopping at each end of the pool to catch your breath. However, you felt something in those moments. Was it hope? You knew it was better than crying on the floor.
You remember the appointments twice a week, squeezed in between classes, your commute and work. You were stretched and pulled in the worst ways. You tried not to cry in front of the doctor. You kept telling yourself that this is what it took to be an athlete.
You remember hating the physical therapy exercises.
“I can’t do these exercises three times through every day. It takes over two hours! I don’t have that kind of time,” you said to the doctor.
“Do your best. Get through as many as you can. You want to run the half-marathon, don’t you?” he said.
You did your best. You gave the exercises 30 minutes every day. You forced yourself to do them in the small amount of time you had after class and before work. You forced yourself to write the alphabet out with your big toe. You forced yourself to pick up a paper towel with your foot over and over again. You forced yourself to become a masochist, pushing your legs into the most foreign, pretzel-like positions until you could no longer take the pain. You hated knowing the exercises were working because you just wanted to be done with them.
You remember the blister the size of a small country that formed on the bottom your foot. You punctured it with a needle and watched clear liquid ooze. You bandaged up your foot and doubled up on socks to prevent future nations from forming. Your hip flexors, calves and foot were screaming up at you, but you looked ahead and kept running.
You remember when the race was a month out. The doctor told you to run again. The first week it was 2, 4 and 6 miles–not too bad. The next week it was 6, 8 and 9 miles–that was harder. The final week it was 9, 11 and now 13 miles–you want to die.
It’s the week of the race. The excitement and fear keep you up at night. You run 5 miles midweek per the doctor’s orders. Your knees and hips beg for mercy. Your IT band blooms blueish-purple bruises up the side of your thigh. You consider dropping out of the race. You picture yourself sitting at home on race day. Could you take that defeat? You decide no, you can’t.
It’s race day. You don your white Nike hat, your baby-blue Under Armour shirt from the race expo, and your favorite black capris. You picture yourself wearing the medal soon.
You stand in the crowd of runners. Your hopes for a great finish time when you registered last year have you in the first start wave. You feel like a fake. You’re too injured to run with the fastest of them, but then, the horn signals the start.
Tears spring into your eyes as you cross the start line. All of your hard work has paid off. You’re here. You made it to the race. You realize that making it to the finish line was never the goal.
As your feet find their familiar rhythm, you decide to go for the full-marathon next year. After all, you’re a runner. It’s your sport. It’s who you are. You can run any distance if you just keep pushing.