Hey, Struggling Runner —

I’m writing this for the person who feels as though they’ve been swinging at their goals for a while and coming up short. I’m writing this to encourage the frustrated runner, the anxious runner, the hurting runner, or any runner who feels irritated with themselves, like they might want to throw in the towel on their dreams. We all have our own unique experiences, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that nobody has to be alone in their struggle.

I’m a professional runner for adidas. I’m back up on my feet training now, but I have battled with my health for a couple of years as a professional athlete. My entire career up until 2015–2016 was marked by steady gains and big personal bests. I was a two time NCAA champion, I was told I was expected to make world class teams and race all over the world out of college. So when my body started breaking down and not bouncing back well, I remember how fearful it made me. I had worked hard to maintain my reputation as the sturdy, intuitive athlete… but now, there were times I couldn’t run at all. Which meant I couldn’t do my job.

If I couldn’t run, I wasn’t improving. If I wasn’t improving, I was at risk of losing things I had worked so hard to attain. Injury wasn’t just injury, injury was a threat to my ability to dream and achieve.

Every time I’d work to get back to full speed, only to experience another setback, I viewed those 6–8 weeks of recovery like a burden I just had to put my head down and barrel through. I didn’t want to be experiencing lows and I definitely didn’t think people would be interested in hearing about my lows. I wanted to be seen as tough, smart, capable, and strong. Deep down, I was ashamed of being broken.

The Setback Cycle

Because I was eager to get back to competing and winning, I would train through things I probably should have rested, and push when I should have paused. Looking back, I can see times where it would have been wise to grant my body more time and ask more questions, but I continued to press, because I felt like bouncing back quickly was the ultimate job of a committed athlete.

As a runner, you are encouraged to push your body to its limits and be tough. For a time I believed that also meant remaining outwardly stoic and tough, even through bouts of intense fatigue and stress.

Seeing results and examples of other runners training and achieving their goals reaffirmed that all I had to do in order to put my setbacks and fears behind me was get back out on the racing scene.

I had my plans and I was committed to work until I reemerged a stronger athlete, but despite my best efforts, I continued to battle with my health.

I’ve broken two bones in my feet, ruptured my plantar fascia, broken my shin, had to get an injection in my hip for a frayed labrum, broken my pubic bone, and battled through anemia.

I know the sting of having months of hard work ripped out of your hands with another random overuse injury. I can empathize with the frustration of working passionately for months on end, only to walk away with little to show for yourself because your body broke down, again.

I could peg the sound of the Velcro ripping off a walking boot from a mile away. I’ve taken naps in MRI machines. I have pushed through crowded public spaces on a pair of crutches, I know what that does to your armpits.

Weeks of isolation in a gym, pouring sweat over elliptical machines and stationary bikes, battling with elderly women at the YMCA for a lane in the pool so you can aqua jog… that stuff takes a toll on your heart and brain. If for some reason, heaven forbid, your cross training accumulates to another disappointment (say you get injured again right after coming back from an injury), your grief and stress can build.

At its most intense, injury and illness left me feeling alone, weak, and totally out of sync with my own body. Sometimes I felt like I was cross training into the abyss. Injuries suuuuuck.

All that being said, I am also well acquainted with the sound of the small voice in your mind that wants to continue trying, because you know you’re capable of more.

Marching Forward

Some of my biggest breakthroughs in the midst of my lows came after having conversations with other runners who took time to share their weaknesses, struggles, fears and setbacks. They didn’t just share their successes, they shared stories of times they didn’t know if they had what it was going to take to stand up, regroup, and try again. They shared the ugly stuff.

Professional runners, Olympians, and people who experience high levels of success also put themselves in positions where they’ll potentially experience high levels of disappointment. That’s part of the gig. Consequently, a lot of them have some great war stories.

Opening myself up to hear how they managed, having other people in the sport take off their masks long enough to admit that they also had to learn how to navigate fear, uncertainty, change, and bouts of depression/anxiety in the midst of managing injury was relief for my soul. It was good, at least, to know I wasn’t alone.

Keep Going

Friend... if you’re reading this and you’re scared that you’re broken beyond repair, that your body hurts too much, or that it’s not worth trying anymore, don’t let fear of failure bully you into giving up. If you’re losing hope and letting dreams slip away because you’re afraid that getting up and trying again could prove to be too painful, please don’t quit on yourself — not if you love what you’re doing.

Everyone has to deal with their own series of doubts and pain (admittedly, some more than others) and everyone has to find tools to manage fear when things get hard. Most people who persist and grow doing anything don’t get there because they had it easy, they got there because they worked until they found a recipe that worked for them and adapted. Even if you can’t see a successful person’s struggle (because they don’t post it on Instagram or talk about it in interviews) I’m almost certain if you stopped to talk with them, they could tell you how they’ve battled through their own times of trouble.

Please don’t give up on your gifts and your dreams just because they’re not falling into place the way you’d imagined they would. If God has preserved your will to fight for something you’re passionate about, I firmly believe there’s something left for you to learn and achieve in that area. Don’t hide in fear, considering all of the things that could potentially go wrong, stand up, be brave, and search for solutions and positive ways forward, even if that means your first step is asking for more help.

Grab a Spoon

I’ve heard it said that the best way to move a mountain is by digging up one spoonful at a time.

I was in the middle of a hard training block after a lot of down time. I was feeling like poop on every run, gained some weight, and I felt super yucky. Getting back in shape felt like Mt. Everest, so I wrote myself a note in my phone:

“One spoonful at a time.”

That’s all it said. Sometimes reading that note still slows me down just enough to take care of the here and now.

Maybe what you’re trying to conquer feels like a really big mountain, so do yourself a favor and start handing spoons to other people who can help you dig, (a physical therapist, a coach, a chiropractor, a doctor, a loved one) allow them to walk through your injury and mental hurdles with you. The terrifying parts of working through health struggles need to be met with bravery, compassion and teamwork. If you really want to stand up tall and feel good, make that your commitment. Allow other (trustworthy and educated) people to move that mountain with you. Nothing, and I mean nothing, should take precedence over caring for your health, vitality, and well-being.

I Know You Care, A Lot

I’m so grateful I’ve been able to see this sport from both ends of the spectrum (prolonged health and chronic injury/illness) because it’s changed the way I view people who persist through seasons of lows.

Coasting through college without managing any major setbacks, I used to view people who got injured all the time as people who maybe just didn’t feel passionate enough about the sport to do the things it took to stay healthy.

I realize now, it’s not that simple. I want to kick my old clueless, judgmental self a little bit.

I’ve learned that long-term careers and health in this sport have less to do with passion and grit, plenty of distance runners have already adopted those qualities — I’d argue that those qualities are a prerequisite to experience even a little bit of success in running.

No, maintaining health in running isn’t just a reflection of someone’s passion for the sport or mental toughness, maintaining health is the result of the right blend of support, genetics, environment and (most of all, in my opinion) being nurtured well. That includes nurturing yourself. It’s about asking the right questions, getting proper direction and body care, and having a support system of people who will love you and be there to care for you when the going gets rough, because it’s going to get rough at some point. Running is hard, guys.

Good from Gunk

I’m not going to say I enjoy the fact that I’ve been sidelined so often, but the time down has really put my love for this sport to the test. It’s forced me to ask “Why the friggg am I even doing this?” more times than I can count. But more than anything, it’s changed the way I relate to myself, and it’s broken my heart open for other people navigating rough seasons of life or jarring disappointments.

I never really wanted to cement injury as the narrative of the beginning of my professional career, so I hesitated writing about it. But, on the other hand, there were so many times I felt isolated and in over my head when I was low, so if sharing my experiences makes one less person feel that way… that’s making pretty good use of my own gunk.

Chronic injury/pain and repeated proverbial punches to the gut can take a toll on a person, physically and mentally. In a sport where it sometimes feels like your value can be directly linked to a place in a race or a time on a clock, not being able to compete can represent a real threat to your identity and worth.

What You Do Is Not Who You Are

Say it with me:

“My worth as a human being is not based on how I perform.”

The belief that your worth and lovability can be measured on a sliding scale, that your value coincides with your current resume, is absolutely exhausting and draining. Buying into the mindset that you’re only as good as your latest outward achievement can make your heart heavy.

Without establishing your worth, coming back from injury can feel like a rat race. The pressure to prove yourself can put you in constant competition with the people around you, stress you out so much it is hard to sleep, and really bring you low when things don’t go according to plan on the comeback train.

Um, also, feeling like you’re only as “good” as your latest achievement is a big fat lie.

When you’re feeling low, remember — if running, or whatever else you’re choosing to do with your life were to somehow be taken away from you, you would still be you. You would still have the capacity to love, serve others, be kind, and potentially work hard at something else. You don’t have to define yourself by that one title.

You aren’t going to be any less of a person if you struggle physically and miss your biggest current goals, but you also aren’t going to be any more of a person if you win an Olympic medal. When it’s time to take steps forward during a physical or emotional low, show up even when you feel gunky or far away from where you want to be. That’s only a starting point.

“Our only task is to follow our path, no matter how crooked the course.”

Allowing myself to take serious time to rest after being sick and injured, I settled on some core-beliefs that pushed me to continue training:

1) Setbacks and painful experiences aren’t necessarily a sign that you should quit or that you’re never going to be able to experience high levels of success again, setbacks are teachers. I’ll admit, sometimes they’re mean teachers. But when you get knocked on your butt, take your time and learn from what happened. Ask wise questions.

2) What matters more than anything is the moment you’re working with now, utilize your ability to be joyful in this moment and to search for the good and opportunities. Use what you have, do what you can. That’s more than enough for today.

3) Maybe your story isn’t going to write itself exactly the way you would have expected, but maybe that’s the point. Loosen your grip, be flexible and cherish little victories.

4) I firmly believe that we were created with our own set of gifts and a capacity to care for ourselves and others with unique amounts of love, joy, and compassion… as long as we’re charging through life focused on stubbornly trying to reach standards and drowning in self-pity if we don’t hit them, we’re going to miss a lot of action and pass right by opportunities for silliness, connection, and belonging.

5) Things don’t have to be going swimmingly, but dude… just be kind. Be kind to other people, be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself and forgive other people. Don’t talk about other people negatively, don’t assume negative things about other people. Don’t talk to yourself negatively, don’t assume negative things about yourself. Forgive others and forgive yourself quickly. Spend your time meditating on the good in the world (there is a lot of good happening) and be someone who pushes for good.

6) Surround yourself with the right people and work with a team of people who operate with respectable values, you’re going to become like them whether you like it or not.

7) You are a whole person. Your body and your mind are interconnected. You have to take time to rest, play and nourish yourself.

8) Slow down, take your time. Help someone else.

Sometimes it feels like nothing good could possibly come from injury and suffering through disappointments, but you do have the choice to let your struggle teach you.

Maintain a long-term perspective, remember that your only real responsibility is to be honest, kind, and loving. You only really get the chance to try your best right now.

Your worth is not fluid. Your pain isn’t a sign that you’re failing or that bad things are just going to keep happening. Your dreams and passions aren’t an accident and they are worth fighting for, keep going.

If you ever need someone to talk to, shoot me an email.

Leahkayo@gmail.com

Your friend,

L.O.