Dear runners and fitness enthusiasts:
I am happy for you that you were able to set and finish goals. I enjoy seeing your ecstatic finish line photos. I even enjoy seeing the pictures of the fabulous places you have trained. But I am begging you to please stop shaming people for not being as physically or emotionally able as you currently appear to be. For the love of God, please stop with the #noexcuses and #nolimits crap. It is damaging and harmful and unfair in ways you may not have ever considered.
Running Saved My Life, but I am no Badass
The last two years (really five, but particularly these last two) have been very rough. In 2016, I ran Run Rabbit Run 100. Despite injury, I finished the race hours under the official cutoff time. Oh, the year before that, I ran the Bryce 100 (second female-2015). In 2013, I ran the Vermont 100 (10th female). I was sidetracked from November 2013 until June 2014 for pancreatic cancer surgery and treatment. Through all of the cancer treatment stuff, I kept running. I even ran and finished a 25k with my husband. I was not fast, but I pushed myself so hard I thought I might pass out. In the fall of that year, just 3.5 months after finishing chemo, I finished the Bear Chase 50 mile race.
I was never a badass. Running was never about impressing others. I ran because it was what was in my soul. Running was what connected me to myself. More than once running helped lift me out of a significant depression. I have said many times, “Running has saved my life, both physically and emotionally.” I chased ‘the high’ because it was the natural way of keeping me out of the darkest depths of the lows.
The Reality I Cannot Fully Face
After 21+ years as a runner, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, it may all be coming to an end. I am fighting it, but I am on my way to becoming an ex-runner. Psychologically, I am not quite there yet. I keep hoping I will not have to officially hang it up.
When I find myself looking at race photos or reading a friend’s race report, I often catch myself thinking, “I could totally do that ultra!” I get momentarily excited and then I remember where I am physically. Currently I am lucky if I can string together two flat miles of ‘jogging’ once or twice per week. Some days I am able to walk/jog a bit around the neighborhood. When I go to the mountains, I am now more of a hiker with MAYBE a tiny bit of running thrown in here or there. It is in no way related to a lack of trying, grit, or determination.
None of this has happened by choice. I am not making ‘excuses’. I spent 2016 recovering from injury and then had hip labrum repair surgery in 2017. The surgery went well. I rehabbed just as I was told to do. I started running again. I even hiked/ran in the mountains and was thinking I was totally on the way to a full recovery.
A weird thing happened along the way, however. Just prior to the surgery, I was sick for months. I had fevers and a severe cough that would not go away. I had many days where I could walk my dogs around the neighborhood for a mile or two but then I had to go home and go back to bed.
Following my surgery, other problems cropped up. I could not sleep. I was diagnosed with a neurologically-based sleep disorder. I had no energy. I became dizzy and uncoordinated. I took several bad falls.
I even fell on the sidewalk in the neighborhood, breaking my wrist. My occasional migraines turned into an every day occurrence. I experienced excruciating Occipital Neuralgia.
Pain consumed my body. I had a minor foot injury that became disabling. Then the neck and shoulder pain started. I have pain on the ischial tuberosity on the ‘good’ side of my pelvis. There is wrist pain from the wrist break that will not heal. I have spent a great deal of time and money over the last several months at neurologists and orthopedics doctors. I have a sleep disorder, neurological problems which are not entirely clear and inflammatory arthritis. I am still in the process of trying to get some of this all figured out. But I live with physical pain every single day.
I am grieving with the loss of my ability to run even very short distances consistently. Running was never about the glory of a race. It was certainly not about winning anything, because if it was, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. I never needed pats on the back or kudos from anyone. I did it because I needed it. I needed running to make me feel alive and to keep myself from diving into the depths of depression. Running was the part of me which made me believe in myself. I learned I could do things I never thought possible when I laced up my shoes and hit the trails.
For 21-plus years I ran through everything. I ran through pregnancy. I got up at the crack of dawn to run when my kids were babies. I pushed baby joggers for 10+ miles at times. I spent months on end running indoors, bored out of my mind, on a treadmill when that was my only option. I ran with migraines. I ran through cancer and chemotherapy. I ran through divorce and the aftermath of losing and regaining my sense of self. When I met Steve and we started dating, we fell in love as we ran together.
For most of my running life, I ran every single day, rain or shine, whether I felt wonderful or whether I felt like death. I did not make excuses. I pushed myself outside, figuring if I did not feel better after 20 minutes, I could pack it in and go home. But, no matter how badly things were going, I made an attempt to at least start because I knew that often whatever ailed me would disappear after I started.
Then constant, intractable pain entered my life.
Pain changes everything. It changes who you are as a person and how you interact with the world around you. It changes how you see and think about yourself. Intense, long-term chronic pain forces you to alter your life in ways that you never could have previously imagined. Chronic pain literally changes the wiring in your brain. The effects of chronic pain should never be underestimated or dismissed.
#Noexcuses Philosophy does Harm
Since I was always the person who thought I could just mentally tough out anything and work through it, I thought I could just tough my out of my current physical issues. I looked at social media posts of other runners and the #noexcuses or #nolimits people and wondered if I had gotten soft or weak. I thought if I just got out and did it, my pain would fade away and I would be back doing ultras in no time.
I quickly learned I was doing more harm than good to my body. I have never thought of myself as weak or wimpy or a whiner. But the fact that I could not mentally force myself to do things that were now excruciatingly painful sent me even further into an emotional and mental tailspin. I thought I was weak and a failure. If everybody else can get out there and do this, why can’t I?
Sadly, I had to repeat this cycle in my head several times. In fact, I am pretty sure I am STILL somewhat stuck in this cycle.
Shame, Isolation and Loneliness
I cannot meet with my running friends most days. I get very stressed when I make plans because I never know how I will feel when I wake up in the morning. Some days I could probably go for a short jog, but other days, I will struggle to make it 1.5 miles around my neighborhood just so my dog can go to the bathroom.
I warn people, “I am really, really slow” and even though they say that is OK, I watch them disappear up the trail ahead of me. So I rarely meet anyone anymore. It’s too hard for me and I hate holding people back. The irony in all of this is that even when I was young and relatively fast, I ALWAYS went the pace of the slowest person I was with. ALWAYS. I never left anyone behind and I am really glad that I was instinctively that person. #NoRegrets on that one.
I have isolated myself. I miss hitting the trails with people I love but I cannot trust my body to do what it once did. It’s embarrassing and difficult on every level, but I know I have to just do what I can right now. Some days it might be a 12 mile hike. Some days it is a short walk with my dogs. But it is simply too stressful to try to keep up with people who are faster when I simply am unable to go their pace. And, really, I have found all of this too difficult to explain to people. I am not really sure what to say or how to explain things because I do not fully understand it all myself.
I would love to find an alternative activity that could help me chase the endurance high and feel better about myself. However, swimming and rock climbing are out. Biking is out….I am not sure what could be ‘in’. Nevertheless, I am still tough. I am getting out and doing something, no matter how small, every day. I would love nothing more than to be able to get out and run long, but I do not yet know if that will be a possibility ever again.
Celebrate Yourself while having Empathy for Others
So, dear runners, please know how happy I am for you as I watch your successes and your joy. I used to BE you. I used to be a runner who relished running in the mountains for 6, 10, 12 or even 31 hours and several minutes. It was amazing. I have so many wonderful and fabulous memories from all of the good times and I truly love seeing your happiness.
But, please understand that at some point your body may fail, too. It could end in an instant or it could be slow decline from injury, illness, aging or all three. The #noexcuses line discounts the very real experiences of so many people. Maybe someone would like to train for a 100 but their job and family circumstances leave them with very little time and energy at the moment. Those aren’t excuses. Those are priorities. Maybe the time will be right at some point for those people, but maybe it won’t ever happen. That’s perfectly OK. I have never looked at people who prioritize other things over running ultras or exercising at the gym as failures, wimps or lacking in discipline or whatever.
Or consider this…maybe someone does not zero body fat and amazing abs because they are sick or pregnant. Or maybe that person is recovering from an eating disorder and they have finally started allowing themselves to enjoy food again. In my opinion, being able to find balance with food is healthier than living with a lifelong obsession over ever morsel that goes into your mouth (speaking as someone who lived with an eating disorder for years).
My concern for and dislike of the #noexcuses mentality is that it is full of judgement without understanding all of the facts or without extending empathy to others. It pushes people to do things they might not be ready for physically or emotionally (I cant tell you how many, “I just finished a 5k and am signing up for a 100 miler” posts I have seen on FB.) #Noexcuses preys upon people’s insecurities. The message is “I am a badass and you are a weak person with no self-control”. We need to redefine what ‘success’ and ‘badass’ mean.
What does success look like? Maybe it is the guy who quit smoking and just walked a 5k. Maybe it is the woman who has been starving herself for 25 years but has now put on three pounds and stopped weighing herself multiple times per day. Maybe it is the exhausted parent of young children out pushing the double stroller while walking the dog. Maybe it is the person who has always been extremely hard on herself finally giving in to the need to allow herself time to rest and recover and eat a donut.
While I miss the long training runs and the reward of being able to run ultras after months and months of training, that is not the most difficult part in this journey. The hardest thing in the world is thinking I may not be able to get out to see the beautiful wilderness at all at some point. For now, my wish would be to simply hike five miles without pain.
So maybe, eventually, success can be found in the ex-ultrarunner who is very sad at losing her running identity and her place in the running community but who is doing her absolute best every single day to keep moving forward ever so slowly. Hopefully she can accept herself as she is some day, though I doubt the sense of loss and longing will ever be completely gone.