Am I Still A Runner If I Can’t Run?

Years ago, a man at a bus stop eyed me and said, “You look like a runner.” It was a catcall; just an entry to comment on my body, I knew. Yet, I was secretly proud that my identity as an athlete was obvious to a stranger, however lecherous. 

For nearly two years, however, I haven’t been able to run, and I’ve been forced to wonder if I still deserve the credentials, which triggers a larger identity crisis: if I’m not a runner anymore, who am I?

When my “injury” (a mysterious onset of unrelenting nerve pain in the back of my thigh) was fresh, I didn’t hesitate to refer to myself as a runner; I was simply injured. But as more time passes without recovery, I fear that I’ve surpassed the statue of limitations, an adult living off the thrills of a long-dead high school sports career.

Running the Cougar Mountain trail series  – the last race before I got injured

My failure to run again isn’t due to a lack of effort. I’ve been passed between three doctors, two chiropractors and four physical therapists. I’ve received massages, dry needling, nerve blocks, even a procedure to ply the irritated nerve from between the offending, sticky glute tissue. I’ve spent a significant chunk of my income on treatment and maxed out my insurance coverage, and my “workouts” now consist of more physical therapy than they do real exercise. I’ve even begun to venture into the realm of alternative medicine, dirty words in the minds of a scientist like myself. Desperation has weakened my aversion to dubiously evidence-based practices, leading me to receive acupuncture and massages with the types of doubt its practitioners warn negate results, just as not believing in Santa Claus assures he skips your house and not believing in God assures your damnation. But I dutifully attend my appointments, even if the NIH’s cautions of organ failure and contamination have left me nervous about my prescribed Chinese herbs.

If this were any other sport besides running, I’d have sacrificed it by now. But I’ve never questioned if rehabbing my running is worthwhile, even though losing the ability to run isn’t life-threatening, or even necessarily unhealthy; my career doesn’t depend on mileage.

Post-trail race with my childhood friends and long-time running partners Mariah and Leslie

So why can’t I let go of something that’s causing me literal pain and draining my time and finances? The answer is that running is at the center of my life; everything branches out from it. Through running, I’ve met and maintained many of my friends. More than a social activity, it’s given me a framework for effort and persistence and suffering and results and has honed in me a tough mindset, mental tools that apply to almost everything I encounter. Running is a habit, one that I still haven’t unlearned, even though it’s long been forced out of my daily routine; like the pang of a phantom limb, the urge to run is always there. Through every stage of life my life, running has been the most consistent presence and the best antidote for my anxiety, and I’ve yet to fill that void with something else, as many others joys as there are in life. Running, distilled to its purest form, is a metaphor for everything. It’s a character gauge, a personality, a guidebook for goal-setting and follow-through, a screen for friends and lovers and a community.

In my defeated moments, I worry that my body just wasn’t made to withstand the repetitions of running, that the muscles and nerves are weaved in a pattern inconsistent with the movement. But I just can’t concede that, at least not yet. When you’re young, you feel like you’re owed your health. But this injury is a humbling reminder that we’re not guaranteed anything, because there is no guarantor; no crook to blame for the theft of my athleticism. I’m aware that it’s only from a privileged vantage that I lament an isolated injury: I can walk and dress myself and work. But health and ability are relative quantities, and a demotion to a lower level requires a painful and intentional adjustment. I wish I could say I’m the kind of person who always appreciate that a two-year – or maybe even a permanent – running hiatus is a small price to pay for an overall healthy and happy existence, but it’s been tough.

Determined to do my PT, even in the middle of the desert

Although I’m optimistic that this issue will eventually resolve, I’ve become acutely aware of something that I’ve always known but never understood: there may come a time when I definitively cannot run, or worse, be active at all. To pad the potential blows of the future, I’m realizing my identity can’t hinge on how many miles I run or how many mountains I climb. This mental shift is difficult to execute because I’ve crafted my image, and much of my self worth, around fitness. But that’s just it. We are in charge of our own identities, and I need to adapt mine. And I’ve made the decision to do the work, not just on my injuries, but on my mind as well. I’m attempting to internalize what a teacher and coach told me ten years ago: you do what you can with what you have. So I’m remembering what I have, and what else I am: a scientist, an environmentalist, a friend, a partner, a lover of novels and jazz and a writer, and I’m devoting more space to these activities that normally fall second to running; rediscovering walking as a valid form of movement. And I’m finding that gratitude is the cure for all, because I will always have more than has been taken, and that makes life a wondrous and exciting gift. Despite these new and broader perspectives, I still don’t prefer my injured state over a healthy one. Perhaps the most valuable insight I’ve gained is that not all has to be well for you to be well.

I’m still determined to return to the trails, and channeling my adjusted mindset to aid the recovery. Perhaps imprudently, I still feel that need to identify as a runner, but unlike that time at the bus stop, I’m not sure anymore that the outsides match the insides. But I’m learning that they don’t need to, and my current situation can’t negate the past: the identity that shaped the identity I’m now adjusting.  I hope I’ll be running again soon, but even if I don’t, I’ll always be a runner, because running got me here.

I’m a scientist, environmental activist, and mountain athlete pursuing a PhD in Seattle. As a long-time runner who is currently unable to run due to injury, I’m documenting my ongoing rehab to correct hip impingement and journey to get back on the trails.

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3 comments

  1. I’m hoping you can make a return to the sport you love, but if you don’t, it sounds like you are on the right track to a positive shift in perspective. I’m practicing more gratitude myself!

    1. It seems like I am improving, but I definitely had to adjust my mindset so that my happiness doesn’t completely depend on my mobility! It’s a hard shift when you’ve been incredibly active for your entire life.