The Cost of Doing More

I’m injured again.

The human body is a beautiful, capable, complex machine. Sometimes, it can also be fickle. I figure that’s why I can run a half marathon blindfolded without getting hurt, as I did four years ago this month, yet roll my ankle reaching for a shirt in my closet, like I did last week.

I turned 35 this year, meaning I’m only five years from racing in the masters division. I’m not exactly old (except to maybe the Gen Z babies who work with me), but I’m more prone to injury and slow to heal than when I was young. And lately, these frustrating setbacks feel like my own mortality, bearing down on me.

I’ve always loved running. A quarter-century and a lifetime ago, I won the 50-yard dash at my elementary school field days. In the summers, long after the sun set and the salty air turned cool, Dad and I sometimes snuck out of my grandparents’ waterfront condo to ride the elevator down to the ocean. About half a mile from our building, floodlights bathed a hundred-yard stretch of beach. We’d kick off our sandals and draw two lines in the sand with our toes and sprint from line to line as fast as we could. My father ran high school track and had a good 20 inches on me. I was wiry and driven. Sometimes, I won.

But when I ran my first road race, I was closer to 30 than 20. I was still playing soccer, the sport I loved even though it’d chewed me up and spit me out. In hindsight, distance running might not have been the smartest replacement for soccer, a game I reluctantly quit after breaking my nose for a fourth time.

I slashed nearly an hour from my half marathon PR over the next five years, but speed came at a cost. My heart could run forever, but my shredded joints kept breaking down. From 2011-16, I tore my Achilles, sprained my ankles, suffered a stress fracture in my foot and dealt with a chronic condition called tibialis posterior tendonitis. Women have more knee problems than men, but sometimes I think my knees might be the only things keeping me upright.

Maybe I should have switched to swimming. But instead, I decided to run a race in all 50 states to support the fight against Batten disease. The results have been mostly good…scattered top-three age group finishes and lots of great media coverage for Taylor’s Tale, the charity I co-founded in my sister’s honor.

Missoula Marathon finish

But just when I thought I was in the best shape of my life, poised to break 1:40 at Montana’s Missoula Half Marathon in July, my body broke down again. My ankle ligaments are like old, brittle rubber bands, prone to quitting at any time. My posterior tibial tendon is angry and inflamed. Every day, I think about what could happen if I push things too far with that cord of tissue, which holds up my arch and supports my foot when I walk. This weekend, I struggled to walk up and down my stairs and wondered why, last year, my husband and I built a three-story house instead of a ranch.

This morning, I got teary-eyed watching fellow Tar Heel Shalane Flanagan, 36, become the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years. A little later, 42-year-old Meb Keflezighi collapsed at the finish line in the last pro race of his career.

Shalane and Meb are my running heroes. Only one made the podium today, yet their performances showcased the best of the sport and our great country. Meanwhile, I have friends who ran New York for the first time today. Though they weren’t part of the elite field, they accomplished something amazing, too. And as I watched the race from my sofa, I selfishly thought about how much I want to run a full marathon – any full marathon – knowing that unless I replace my body’s wasted axles and suspension, that’ll never happen.

sprained ankle

I could repeat the strategy I adopted as a high school senior – tape my ankles three times and pop ibuprofen and play every minute of double overtime soccer games (and go to school on crutches the next day). I could will my way to finish lines, like I did in Fargo, North Dakota, in 2015, when my friend Heidi and a walking boot got my broken foot and me through 3.1 miles.

Fargo 5K

But at what cost?

I love hiking. Ask me about the 10 best days of my life – easily half of them happened on a trail. The day I can’t walk beyond a crowded park overlook, I’ll feel like I lost a piece of my soul. And (I think) I want to have kids. What if I can’t chase them across the park or kick a soccer ball with them in the backyard?

Yellowstone NP

Such is the reality of mortality. And this latest setback makes me want to cry and scream and go back in time to the spring of 2000, so I can knock some sense into my 18-year-old self. I hate that I can’t give my best right now, especially since I run to honor my sister, who always gave her best. I hate that I may not be able to give my best tomorrow, because I don’t know when or if I’ll come back all the way. I hate that while my running has done good things for the fight against Batten disease, it won’t save Taylor.

But then I remember that a broken down version of me isn’t what my sister would want. That she doesn’t care if I finish the race first or last. That while I’m always capable of doing more, “more” might not always mean more miles. And that if I break down before I get to the finish line in a race or this life, I won’t be much good to anyone at all.

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