Growing Through the Cracks

The morning that my pelvis first started hurting, I accidentally dropped my phone on the tile floor. I was rushing to get out the door and wasn’t being careful and it just slipped. I had dropped it many times before, from higher up and onto hard surfaces, and it had always been fine after, so when I picked it up and turned it over, my heart sank. It was broken. It wasn’t a bad break, just one single, relatively small crack in the bottom right corner. The protective cover held the pieces together. It still worked fine. In the right light and at the right angle, it was barely even noticeable. But it was there. Whether I could see it or not, whether I wanted to see it or not, it was there.

And so is the stress reaction in my pelvis.

I talk a lot about the universe giving me signs. I usually say it in jest as I attempt to make sense of ironic situations that take place at pivotal moments in my life, but the truth is, I don’t really know who or what I’m referring to. Maybe it’s God or some alternate higher being. Maybe it’s The Fates. I just don’t know. My faith and my beliefs have always been something I’ve struggled with. In a world full of so many different people and ideas and ways of life, a world that’s always changing and evolving, it’s hard to know what to believe.

But throughout my life, throughout the chaos and confusion and never ending series of ups and downs I’ve experienced, there is one thing I have always strongly believed – everything happens for a reason. I believe that there are no coincidences in life. Everything that happens to a person, the good and the bad, the gained and missed opportunities, the closed doors and opened windows, happens to propel them further along their path. The movements may not always be forward, the majority of them may seem to be leading astray or in circles, but I firmly believe that each and every one takes a person closer to where they are ultimately meant to be.

I truly believe, with all my heart, that I was meant to get this injury at this precise point in my life, and that it is an absolutely crucial step for me in my journey.

This past spring I had a lot of big realizations and made a lot of major life changes. I stopped being so tightly wound and putting so much pressure on myself. I started listening to my body and resting when I was tired. I started being silly again and spontaneous and enjoying my life. Those changes I made were essential to my growth as a runner and person, and will, without a doubt, continue to have positive effects on my life for years to come, but they were not enough. As important as it was for me to face my demons and admit to and accept the issues I’ve dealt with in the past, it unfortunately didn’t free me of their consequences.

For years I pushed myself to my absolute limits. I bulldozed through health issues, both physical and mental, rather than fixed them. I wasn’t taking care of myself properly. I wasn’t resting enough or fully recovering from my training. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. My hormones were completely out of whack. My GI system was compromised as a result, causing my IBS to worsen to an unbearable level. My mood was erratic – I would find myself getting irrationally angry and overwhelmed over the smallest of issues. I was stressed and unhappy and even depressed at times. I was out of balance. I was putting entirely too much stress on my body and mind in order to achieve the unbelievably high goals I set for myself.

But in my head, I always found reasons to justify pushing through. You’re so close to that next level. It’s for the team. Every elite runner deals with these sorts of things. I promised myself, and those who cared about me, over and over again that I would take a break and rest and fix things soon. Next season, next summer, next year. After I graduate. After I settle into my job. After the Olympic Trials. But ultimately those were all just excuses. I didn’t want to take, what I perceived to be, steps backward. I didn’t want to waste time or miss out on opportunities. I didn’t want to change, because change was terrifying

I was able to carry on like that and still be successful for a truly remarkable amount of time. The fact that I made it 3 years relatively unscathed is something that I am both incredibly thankful for and strangely disappointed by. I am thankful because staying “healthy” allowed me to do a lot of really wonderful things during my collegiate career. It allowed me to reach a level I never thought possible. It allowed me to achieve goals I never even dreamed would be realistic to set in the first place. It gave me a glimmer of my true potential in this sport and ignited my competitive flame.

But looking back now at everything that has happened up to this point, I can’t help but feel like not getting injured was, in the long run, a huge detriment to me. It was my biggest excuse of all. It made what I was doing seem OK. It gave me the biggest justification that I could continue pushing through everything without consequence. I could keep hammering runs and forcing myself through workouts and not getting enough sleep. I could keep managing my GI problems and hormone imbalances instead of truly solving them. I could tell myself, If I’m not getting injured, then there’s no reason for me to change what I’m doing.

It is only now, post-MRI diagnosis, that I fully realize just how flawed my logic was. Just because I was not suffering any acute injuries didn’t mean that I wasn’t still injuring myself. In reality, I was causing myself even greater damage, the kind that can have devastating and potentially lasting effects when they finally surface.

When I was getting my masters in mechanical engineering, I actually studied the effects of repetitive, cyclic loading on bones, such as that caused by long distance running. Microdamage it’s called; millions and millions of nanoscale cracks scattered throughout the skeleton. Everyone has them, runners and non-runners alike, and for the majority of people they aren’t a problem. The skeleton is in a constant state of flux; old damaged, crack-filled bone is replaced by new healthy bone which eventually breaksdown over time, only to be replaced once more. It truly is an exquisite process, one that demonstrates the human body’s incredible ability to repair itself.

But sometimes that ability is compromised. When bone is broken down faster than it is replaced, the cycle becomes unbalanced. The cracks begin to accumulate and coalesce and grow. Eventually they grow so large that they cause pain to the individual and become a stress reaction. If left untreated, those large cracks come together in one final and devastating act, a full-blown stress fracture through the bone.

I was unbalanced for a very long time, and now I have the cracks to prove it.

My appointment this morning with the sports medicine doctor only confirmed what I knew in my heart to be true. All the signs and symptoms pointed to a stress injury. I also actually looked at my scans on my own last week and saw the fuzzy white region on the area of my pubic bone that had been hurting – the location where the large cracks had developed. Regardless of how well I had prepared myself for the diagnosis, I was still a little nervous to hear it definitively spoken out loud. But, the moment she said the words “stress reaction”, my first emotion was actually not sadness or frustration or anger. It was hope.

This stress reaction developed for a reason. It is the catalyst I need to make the changes that have frightened me for years. It has given me purpose and motivation. It has forced me to stop and think. It has given me time to evaluate my life and my priorities. It has made me realize that I don’t want to simply push through any longer; I want to fix things and get back control of my body and my life. I am no longer going to let arbitrary deadlines and timelines set by seasons and meets or anything else be an excuse to put things off and jeopardize my physical and mental health.

And so, as I move forward with my recovery, I will take my quest for balance even further. There will be short term, and potentially long term, reductions in my volume and intensity of training. There will be changes in the runner mindset and lifestyle I have become so accustomed to and dependent on. There will be changes in my body, and, more importantly, changes in my perception of my body. There will be a staying of the expectations and goals I set for myself. There will, once again, be a redefinition of success.

I know the road ahead will be challenging. There will be days of doubt and confusion. There will be times when I question what I am doing and if I can really do it. There will be moments where I will want to slip back into the old ways of pushing things aside.

But I am confident that I will be able to get through this. And I can honestly say that I believe from this experience, I will grow to be a stronger, healthier, better person.