Courage is about not giving up

Courage isn’t always about putting on a brave face 24/7.

Sometimes it’s about standing up after falling. And again. And again.

Even those we look up to have their down moments.

  • Oregon sprint star Hannah Cunliffe cried all the way from the track through the media zone when she pulled up with a hamstring issue in the NCAA semifinal. She’s since clawed her way back to become a national champion and a NCAA record holder (60mi).
  • U.S. steeplechaser Leah O’Connor ran a monster PR of 9:18 at the Pre Classic, the 3rd fastest U.S. time in the event, but her torn plantar fascia prevented her from making the 2016 Olympic team. She’s back in racing shape and has a piece on how her pain has a purpose.

I’m surrounded by so many stories of how professional athletes thought their world was crashing down on them after being stricken by injury, but they somehow launch a massive comeback within a few months and perform better than ever.

My personal breakthrough is still a work in progress. I try not to compare myself to others, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

How do they do it?

And then I hear stories of how some run through their injury and still manage to do well.

…what’s wrong with me?

I have a lot of internal conversations with myself, but this is the summary of my dark moments:

Yet, I bristle at this mentality. My competitive streak has been directed to my schoolwork (sadly), but it still itches to show itself in another fashion.

I wanna be proud to say I’m working on it, but the journey has been…a little tough.

Let’s revisit the timeline:

  • Dec 2014: I fractured my left fibula in a steeplechase race. I got confined to crutches and a boot for 2 months.
  • Mar 2015: Learnt about the existence of aqua jogging and how boring it can get.
  • June 2015: Hit the road for the first time post-fracture, but a numbing sensation constantly bugs me on my runs to the point where it’s unbearable. I basically ran when I thought I could, which wasn’t very often.
  • July 2016: Diagnosed with compartment syndrome, which explained the constant numbness in my lower legs. Declined surgery and went to a physio to correct my running mechanics as an alternative.
  • Oct 2016: Resumed regular running while still managing the occasional numbness.

I was out for almost 2 years. Whatever little endurance I had tried to build through cross training wasn’t working out as terrific as the stories I’d gathered from the professional runners.

I first resumed regular running with 20-minute “long” runs while plodding along at 9:30mins/mile.

I’ve since progressed beyond 9mins/mile, but my long runs last a grand total of 40 minutes, which is peanuts compared to what I’d previously accomplished.

A few days ago, I completed a time trial that indicated I probably wouldn’t complete the 1,500m within 6 minutes. I’ll pluck that thought out of your head and put it here. That’s downright embarrassing.

I felt like a part of me was gone. High school me was 16 seconds away from breaking the 5-min barrier, but I’d somehow managed to get even further from it.

Meanwhile, I’m lost in a sea of runners for whom running 4:30 in the 1,500 is considered slow. Again, the comparison monster and the green monster of jealousy nip at my heels as I wallow in self-pity.

Comparison, in healthy doses, can motivate you to improve, but an overdose can lower your self-esteem. But that’s what makes us human.

And then there are stories that strike the core of my humanity like Gabriele Grunewald’s.

Instead of posting a picture of me fake smiling, ugly crying, or an inspirational quote that right now feels hollow, I thought I’d just share the real deal. The above picture was drawn yesterday by my surgical oncologist (enhanced by me & snapchat) and explains the situation with my liver, which is experiencing infiltration by a large tumor (13x15cm) — a metastatic recurrence of adenoid cystic carcinoma that I was first diagnosed with and recovered from in 2009. When you’re a cancer survivor, denial is not a river in Africa. It is a place you must live in order to keep going with your life: positively, optimistically believing that it will never come back and that you’ll live a healthy, long, uninterrupted life. But it did come back, and it sucks. Getting rid of it and becoming a 3x cancer survivor is the new reality I am now embracing. Outside of the biopsy revealing that the growth is indeed cancer, I have been extremely blessed in other ways. Feeling loved and supported by friends and family is #1. But the other lucky breaks involve the nature of this tumor itself and the 100% health that I’m expected to return to after surgery. I’m lucky there is just one solitary mass that’s resectable. I’m lucky we discovered this cancer before it fully overtook my liver or interfered with the function of other organs. I’m lucky I have health insurance and live in a place where excellent healthcare is available. I’m lucky the liver is a resilient and regenerative body part, and even though they will remove up to 60% of it during surgery, the left side will take over the space previously occupied by the affected right lobe and grow a normal sized, functioning liver within ~3 weeks. I’m lucky I’m expected to fully recover and get on with life within 1-2 months. So yes, I have cancer. But yes, I am also very lucky. My surgical oncologist is a busy guy so I’m going to get this unwelcome guest removed ASAP, but that might not be for a couple weeks — I will keep you guys posted when I know more. Thank you in advance for the love and encouragement. There’s nothing more I’d like than to get on with the surgery, recover, and hit the track harder than ever in 2017. Love, Gabe.

A post shared by gabriele (anderson) grunewald (@gigrunewald) on

By comparison, I’m a privileged, whiny a**.

The silver lining from that time trial is that my mediocre speed hadn’t completely abandoned me like my aerobic capacity had. I felt light on my feet as I (kinda) flew along the bends of the track, my spikes grinding into rubber to provide traction and supplying energy back to my legs.

It then dawned on me in the shower – because that’s where all good ideas are born, obviously – that maybe it was time to reevaluate my goals.

Heck, I changed my career goals each year of school. I wanted to be a big-time Hollywood producer. Then it was a documentary producer. Then sports writer.

Someday, “rolling with the punch” will become a legitimate resumé skill.

Anything above the 1,500m may not be my current cup of tea, but right now, I’m just rolling with the cards life has dealt me.

Who knows, I might just come up with a winning hand.

Meanwhile, I’m finding the courage to not give up on this journey, even though success is far from guaranteed.

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. -Ralph Waldo Emerson


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