On Saturday mornings, when I was living in Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer, I often sipped tea from the stoop of my hut made of thatch and brick and dreamed about the life I would have when I returned to the States. It involved long runs on the weekends, a job that allowed me to write but didn’t take over my life, living in a city with a population greater than that of South Dakota’s, nights with friends in trendy locals sipping craft beer, a young man that made me smile uncontrollably, and the occasional jaunt across the ocean.
Two years later, in the summer of 2015, the fantasy life I concocted came pretty close to fruition. My friend K and I had recently returned from two weeks in New Zealand, I was training for the Chicago Marathon, working at Peace Corps’ recruitment office in Chicago, drinking pint after pint of Zombie Dust and Anti-Hero, and I had just started dating E. It was everything I had wanted.
A piece of me hoped that I could recreate that summer when I registered for the 2017 Chicago Marathon. Something had been off in 2016; I felt unsure in many of my friendships, I questioned my professional ambitions and strongly considered a career switch, and I scolded myself each time I drank more than just one beer. I tried to refocus on that dream life I had in Lesotho, and the only thing I could clearly grasp was running. In those daydreams, I was running ultra marathons through the mountains, running every Saturday morning with a treasured running group, and crossing off a different race each Spring and Fall. Despite lingering knee issues and a new, shaper pain in my right hip, I signed up for the marathon as an attempt to recenter myself. I hadn’t been running much at the time, mostly focused on finishing the second draft of my fiction novel, but I figured that I would do as much writing as I could and then ease back and let running become more of a focus.
The pain in my right hip worsened. After an eight-mile run on a scary-warm day in February, I couldn’t get up from a seated position without wincing in pain. My primary care physician referred me to a sports medicine doctor, who put me on a four-prong path to recovery. Along the way, I kept asking her if it was possible for me to run the October marathon, and she seemed optimistic. If we could get an answer by late May or early June, I told myself, I’d be able to pick up a training plan and run through the summer to get to the start line in the fall.
Physical therapy helped for a couple of weeks, until the pain came right back like nothing had changed. The next step was an MRI, which revealed a hip impingement and labral tear. “So, I should just give up my goal of running the marathon?” I asked my doctor. She shook her head and said not necessarily. Runners must be awful patients, because most doctors I’ve seen are hesitant to give me an definitive yes or no, as if they are worried I’d lash out them if they didn’t give me the answer I wanted. My doctor prescribed a cortisone shot and said that, while it wouldn’t fix the tear, it could ease the pain enough for me to train and run the marathon. And, that became my plan: shoot my hip full of steroids, obtain my finisher’s medal, and then consider surgery to fix the tear.
At this point, it was spring. I had run some, but not a ton. I was consumed with finishing the draft of my book. I woke up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and worked for at least an hour. Instead of running on Saturdays, I sat at my kitchen table and typed fast enough to beat out all the doubt in my head.
The cortisone shot didn’t relieve the pain but added to it. The night I got the shot, I had to lean on E as we walked a few blocks to a restaurant. The steroids were not going to ease the pain and the only way to truly fix my hip would to be have surgery. Two weeks later, I scheduled the surgery for October, three days before the Chicago Marathon.
Waves of acceptance have hit me over the last few months. The first was recognizing that I wasn’t in the physical shape to train for a marathon, and not just because of a bum hip. My knee pain has mostly vanished, but I have not put in the miles to build an acceptable and safe base on which to begin training. By June, when I got the cortisone shot, I wasn’t even up to 20 miles a week, and that was partly because of the hip pain but also because I was spending a good deal of time writing. I could do greater harm to my body by trying to force into marathon mode, so I resigned to letting it heal.
The second lesson in acceptance came when I let go of my dream of running marathons and ultra marathons and filling my free time with running. It’s not a goal I have to completely abandon, but for now it’s not possible. There is a high chance I could return to running post surgery, but my marathon days may be over. I can’t know until after the procedure and I’ve started to run again, so I won’t worry about it now.
This week, I accepted something bigger, something I didn’t think I could fully admit to myself or to the handful of people who read this blog: I don’t want run a marathon. I love running and it brings me absolute joy, but right now I have got to put my writing and healing my hip first. I will carry regret in the pit of my stomach for the rest of my life if I don’t try to put my writing in the world. And, because I have a full-time job, a social life, and volunteer with two non-profits, I don’t have the energy and time for a marathon. It’s taken me a long time to say this, but that’s OK.
When I was in middle school, I went out for the cross country team because most people thought running was too hard, and I loved that I was the only female in my grade to run four years of high school cross country. I wanted to be the person that could do things others couldn’t. I chose to run the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon over the half because I didn’t want to be consider as someone who choses the easiest option (half marathons, by the way, are not at all easy). Marathons are grueling and they aren’t for everyone, and I wanted to be a marathoner because I wanted to prove to other people and myself that I am different from the masses.
On a running podcast, I heard woman say that she only runs to get something out of it, that she is at a point in her life where running needs to give her more than she gives it. That’s how I feel, too. I do run now, with the approval from both my sports medicine doctor and surgeon, but only three or four miles a couple times of week. I monitor my pain, and when it hurts, I don’t go. A big goal of mine this year was to be able to call myself a writer. I write every day, therefore, I am a writer. No other qualifiers matter. The same goes with running. I don’t need to be marathoner (and technically, I am because I have run marathons) to be a runner. I do run, so I am runner. Again, no other qualifiers matter.
As the wonderful Cheryl Strayed says, dreams change and we hurt ourselves by chasing ambitions we no longer have for the sole reason that they once they met something to us. I wanted to spend my weekends running 20 miles and drinking beer, and I do neither now. I have other goals, and maybe less defined as the detailed dream life, but I owe it to myself to move in that direction. Doing so means letting go of other things, but it also means the possibility of discovering opportunities I didn’t know to exist before.
I am not running the 2017 Chicago Marathon, I’ve accepted that, and even though I had to turn a corner, there is still wonder to this path. I don’t know what it is, but I believe it is coming.