This was me, ten years ago today:
Journey to the Operating Table
Although technically in Colorado, where I am now, rather than wrapping up a summer training stint in Boulder and gearing up for my senior year (junior cross-country season) at Rice, as I’d anticipated, instead I was immobilized in a Vail hospital bed, fresh out of hip surgery and still a little woozy from the drugs. (For extremely embellished tales of my behavior in that state, just ask my brother Matt or cousin Ry, who pitched a tent nearby so they’d be with me when I woke up.)
Behind me lay nearly half a year of frustration, misdiagnoses, false hope, and doubts about my mental toughness. Towards the end of that period, I finally got some concrete information to work with when the stars aligned and Colorado–the state I’d chosen to spend the summer in months prior–happened to be home not only to our stellar former Rice doctor Thomas Clanton, but his partner Dr. Marc Philippon, the global authority when it comes to hips. Their MRI revealed a torn hip labrum that was beyond repair by any natural means (which, believe me when I say, I’d tried it all).
Ahead of me lay an uncomfortable 14-hour drive back to Dallas (my mom is objectively the best), one unplanned night in the ER (I don’t recommend fainting a few days post-surgery), and 17 days of intense rehab, featuring a ribcage-to-kneecap brace, a pair of children’s crutches, foam boots tied together at night, and a Continuous Passive Motion machine that I laid in for several hours each day. Combined with regularly scheduled calf pumps, soft tissue mobilization administered by my parents, non-resistance bike spins, and puffs into a breathing contraption, for a while there rehabbing felt like a full-time job. It wasn’t fun by anyone’s definition, but I was so busy and exhausted that I didn’t have a ton of time to ruminate on my situation or really even see beyond the cozy pallet my mom made me in our playroom. (Pro tip: If you’re ever in a similar situation, get you a Suz Wade STAT.)
Back to Reality
And then, the real struggle began. Away went my brace and CPM machine, down went the amount of time I had to spend in crutches, in came the tedious rebuilding and cross-training program, and back I went to Rice, a place I’d only ever navigated as a mobile student-athlete.
I vividly remember the first time I saw my coach post-op. My brother Matt (bless him) had driven me from Dallas to Houston to help me settle into my apartment, and one of our first stops was the Rice athletic department. As soon as I entered Jim’s office, the tears started rolling. I felt ashamed of my crutches, unworthy of my scholarship, and guilty for letting my injury escalate to the point of needing major surgery. His compassion and optimism cleared my eye ducts right out.
The next few months were pretty turbulent. Much of the time, I stayed occupied by a rigorous class schedule, a few hours a day in the training room, pool, and gym, and lots of leaning on teammates, friends, coaches, professors, and trainers. On weekends my team traveled, I often drove to Dallas or Austin to spend time with family, and other times they came to me. I also got a taste of the true college experience that I’d previously avoided for the most part, and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it.
But there were plenty of other moments when I didn’t hold up so well. Some days I was so stuck in my own misery that I didn’t show up at the track to support my teammates (/closest friends), or I intentionally cross-trained during lunch so I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about feeling jealous of their race recaps and travel plans. It was impossible to predict what feelings would surface when, the only constant being that every day featured alternating waves of positivity and despair. Looking back, I think I was just biding my time until that stage of my life was over and running was returned to me in a tidy little package–an unrealistic expectation, and not a very fun way to live either.
Finding My (New) Stride
Little by little, I graduated from rehab and got started on a walking plan, which progressed to a walk-jog plan and eventually a running one. Jim and Jonathan, our team trainer, came out to the track for all of my “sessions,” and judging by our giddiness on some days, you’d have thought I was breaking records. But all of the hours I spent rehabbing and cross-training translated to running more seamlessly than any of us expected, and after just a few test sessions on land, I was cleared to race the tail end of the cross-country season: the NCAA Regional meet and, God willing, the National Championship.
All things considered, my body held up well in the first test, and our team edged out Arkansas and Baylor to secure our spot at NCAAs. We didn’t fare so well at the Big Dance–in fact, we were 31 out of 31 teams–but making it there for the third year in a row was an honor, and competing there myself was beyond my wildest dreams even a few weeks prior.
Obstacles Unplanned and Planned
If that sounds like a storybook ending, it was–for a few weeks in November. Some compensatory issues popped up soon after those races (we suspected it was due to the jarring nature of downhill running), and it was another full year before I was able to compete again. All in, that hip injury knocked me out of action for the better part of a year and a half, a stretch that, ten years later, I still consider the hardest part of my 25 or so years as an athlete.
I eventually did come out on the other side, the next year earning my first All-American honors in cross-country and qualifying for the Olympic Trials in two events the following spring. But it certainly wasn’t the smooth sailing it probably looked like from the outside: I had to spend 10 days on an underwater treadmill in the middle of that cross-country season, I barely ran a step for the 4 days leading up to my big 10K breakthrough on the track, and I had to work super hard to read and trust my body again after treating it like an enemy for so long.
Fortunately, 10 years later, some scars and a slight hitch in my stride aren’t the only leftovers from that ordeal. Several lessons have stuck with me, helping shape my approach to running today.
Here are 10 of the big ones, with some advice sprinkled in for those going through their own struggles with injury or otherwise:
- This is why it’s important to choose a school or city you’d be happy at were sport taken away from you. (Fortunately, with Rice I totally did.)
- This is also why it’s imperative to build meaningful relationships outside of sport, something that I admittedly did not do a great job of before my hip saga.
- That said, good teammates are a lifeline in times like these. Among so many sweet things they did for me while I was sidelined, one that still moves me to think about was this big stack of index cards Britany sent me right after surgery, one for each day of my expected healing process, each one containing an uplifting, flattering, or funny message.
- So, too, are supportive family members. I know we don’t get to choose them, but boy, am I thankful I got the parents and siblings I did. From being there during and after my surgery and lugging me and my serious baggage home from Colorado, to spending a night in the ER with me, chauffeuring me all over the place, and helping me out of cars and chairs and beds for a few weeks… there is no way I could have done it on my own. Zero.
- Going through an injury with a teammate/friend is so much easier than doing it alone. I’d go so far as to say that Halsey, my main cross-training partner during this one, and I had fun swimming laps, racing to and from campus on our bikes, and bemoaning our fragile bodies together (though obviously I wish she weren’t hurt either!).
- It’s okay–healthy, actually–to feel all the feels. Some days I was a super motivated cross-trainer and supportive teammate, and other days all I wanted to do was wallow in self-pity and avoid anything running-related. While too much negativity is corrosive, the continual suppression of emotions is, too.
- The tenacity and work ethic that make good runners also make good rehabbers. It helped me to treat my recovery as I would a running plan, mapping out all of the tasks I needed to accomplish each day and each week so I felt productive and anchored by goals of some kind.
- It’s possible to stay super fit by cross-training. (I only biked for the first several weeks post-op, then gradually added in lap swimming and water-jogging.) Just be sure, if you’re off your legs for long, to give them a chance to catch up to your aerobic capacity. Like I did, I think it’s pretty common for runners to come off an injury really well at first, only to experience other issues soon after because their bodies aren’t quite ready to handle the load.
- Journaling is one of the most therapeutic and constructive investments a person can make. Other than my training logs, I wasn’t a regular journaler before this injury. But grappling with my feelings and thoughts on paper every day was such a big help during those rough months that I’ve journaled off and on ever since. (I even wrote an Outside article on the benefits of journaling for athletes.)
- Nothing tests or reveals your love for a sport like a serious injury. I certainly wouldn’t have said so at the time, but looking back now, I’m grateful for my hip injury and the things it taught me about myself along the way. It’s pretty cool, when I think about it, to care about something so deeply that any obstacle, any amount of time away, any number of heartbreaks are worth enduring to get it back.