Injury storytime

Thanks to friend, runner, and now injury-blogger Jenny DeSouchet, I wrote this piece on a long injury I had while running at Princeton. Here’s how I handled it and what I learned through the process. I will follow this up with a more recent account of what I’ve learned in the past year after transitioning to ultras and how my attitude towards injury has changed, and how it hasn’t.

HOW MYSTERIOUS KNEE PAIN CHANGED MY LIFE

I was in my sophomore cross country season at Princeton, fitter than I’d ever been, gunning to be a scorer, top 5, for our team by the end of the season. Then during one Sunday long run , I was chatting away with my teammates, including steeplechase phenom Ashley Higginson, who I remember lost a necklace pendant on the run (we all stopped and scoured the tow path to look for it), when my left knee audibly clicked and I felt a sharp, persistent pain that wouldn’t go away. As injuries often go, we were seven miles away from Princeton’s campus. I did high knees and butt kicks all of the way back to deal with the stabbing pain. The clicking stopped, but the pain wouldn’t stop. Little did I know that this would be a ten-month ordeal until I felt relief and could run again.

At first, my trainer diagnosed it as Runner’s Knee: the common, and painful, ailment from overuse and weak thigh muscles, especially a weak VMO (vastus medialis oblique). I definitely had a weaker VMO on my left side, but after an entire winter of strengthening exercises and too many hours spent in Princeton’s archaic rec center pool, I had no improvement. If anything, the pain was worse. I couldn’t walk down stairs without grimacing. The Runner’s Knee/patellafemoral syndrome tape job didn’t help either. I was so hopeful it would help that I tried a ten-minute run the day my trainer applied tape. We’ve all been there. “Maybe this tiny piece of tape will miraculously heal me and I’ll be running 60 miles next week, racing in three weeks!” But of course, that’s not how it works. This is called the ‘denial of injury phase.’ It can last weeks to years. Mine lasted about three months until I had enough and moved onto phase two.

After indoor track came and went, I stopped showing up to the beginning of practice—most injured members of the team would do this to keep some semblance of routine and normalcy to a life without running. But I was already spending so much time in the training room, doing stupid little squats, getting e-stim (electronic stimulation) on my VMO, and swimming, that I couldn’t bear to spend another moment watching my teammates getting ready to run. How simple the life of a non-injured runner seemed: run for an hour, talk with friends, have fun, sweat, shower, and be done. I missed the ease, efficiency, and stress-release of being a healthy runner unlike anything I’d missed before in my life.

I masked my depression by hanging out with new, non-runner friends who valued substances over sleep. I wallowed in my inability to run and subsequently found myself partying harder than ever. I drank more liquid calories of alcohol than I ate in whole foods. I started dating a senior, a wonderful guy, but he was as far removed from the running scene as I was immersed in it, at least at my core. Almost every night was marked with outrageous parties, mainly with second-semester seniors who were done with their theses. Never mind I was a sophomore. Somehow, I was able to get through classes like a breeze. I attribute it to not being tired from training, and from a lot of caffeine. I stopped swimming altogether. I saw no point in keeping my fitness at bay, especially because I could stay thin by not eating. I created a life that seemed to be based around fun, efficiency, and anti-running. I went to the important outdoor track meets, like HEPS, the Ivy League Meet, which gave me the credibility of still supporting my team because it meant missing a giant day party at Princeton, called Lawn Parities. But deep down, I was beginning to despise running. It ruined my sense of normal. Not running was changing me, for the worse.

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Trying to forget about my inability to run. 

Not many of my running teammates, my true best friends, knew what I was up to. They cared about me, but also knew that I needed space from running in order to get through this mysterious knee injury. In my reluctance to acknowledge that running was even a thing, never mind an activity that I loved more than anything else—this is called the ‘denial of passion phase’—I applied for a summer internship in Bermuda. A non-runner friend encouraged me. “Who cares if you can’t train there? You need to look out for your future life, which isn’t all about running.” Had I been healthy, I would’ve never applied to an internship in Bermuda to study coral. I knew the summer would be spent mainly underwater, and Bermuda is a tiny island, so training would be very difficult. But as the spring sped by, in a blur of sleepless nights, I questioned if I’d ever run again. I got the internship, and as life would have it, this catapulted my passion for coral reefs and allowed me to spend the following summer in Palau, eventually publishing a journal paper on reef ecology in Palau.

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Summer internship in Bermuda, studying the effects of ocean acidification on coral larvae.

But, as far as my injury was concerned, I was still at ground zero. I saw five different doctors by the time the school year ended in June, which elucidated nothing. Two cortisone shots later, the second one administered right before leaving for Bermuda, and my knee pain was worse than ever. I avoided stairs at all costs.

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Even getting in and out of the boat to go SCUBA diving wasn’t great for my knee. BUT I got to SCUBA dive! 

In Bermuda, I was distracted by the magnificent, and ever-changing marine world. I became scientific-SCUBA certified, and performed the diving and lab work for an eventually published project on ocean acidification on baby corals. The natural world had never felt so infinitely fascinating, and troubled. It was here where I saw the effects of climate change on our oceans firsthand. It was also in Bermuda where I continued to party hard. Running was so far past my potential, even though I was still working to fix my injury. I solicited the help of a nutritionist who thought maybe I was allergic to nightshade vegetables, somehow related being a celiac. She said eating them could cause intense inflammation. But after a month of not eating nightshade vegetables and of drinking a very expensive box full of anti-inflammation powder drinks air-mailed by my unflappable, loving and supportive parents, my knee was the same. I gained weight, welcomingly, as I stopped looking in a mirror. I began to swim again in a jaw-dropping beautiful channel in front of the scientific research campus I lived at. I tried running a few times during the anti-nightshade vegetable phase, only to be disappointed when the pain would worsen within an hour after a ten-minute run.

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Friends and swimming can make not running more tolerable. 

Feeling newly alive with coral reef stoke, by the end of the summer, my party-hard mentality simmered down. I was swimming and contemplating a life of scientific research, exploration and travel, sans running. Bermuda gave me the perspective I needed. But it was far from a done deal.

Fall came and I was still not running. My teammates, fitter than ever, as all cross country seasons commence, were still supportive, but more aloof towards me. That’s what happens when a teammate is injured for multiple consecutive seasons: she or he is forgotten about. For some, that can be debilitating and alienating to an extreme. I used it to my advantage, hanging out with non-runners once again. Skipping practices and meetings to go to a music festival during pre-season. But deep down, my passion for running was back, stronger than ever. I needed a solution. At last, I got an MRI. I should’ve gotten an MRI the previous winter, but the diagnosis of Runner’s Knee didn’t justify an MRI. My MRI result: I was missing a 5mm chunk of cartilage underneath my kneecap, which would explain the sharp pain: nerve pain from bone on bone rubbing. The term for this is chondromalacia, which is also often called Runner’s Knee. Knee injuries are so common and yet complex that many diagnoses get muddled together. It takes an MRI to plan an effective course of treatment.

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Starting my junior year with a knee brace.

Against the advice of all of the Princeton sports doctors, I decided to get a PRP injection (platelet rich plasma) in my kneecap. I’d read it helped runners with symptoms similar to my own. My other options were: continue to wait or get my knee scoped. Against surgery at all costs, PRP was my only choice. My PRP experience was sketchy. I went through an acupuncturist, who somehow was able to take my insurance by categorizing the shot as yet another cortisone injection. PRP is usually an out-of-pocket expense, since it’s not widely used yet, that costs anywhere from $500 – over $1,000. My injection took place in a random strip mall office in suburban Trenton. How it works is: a nurse or doctor draws blood from your arm, puts your blood in a centrifuge to spin it down, which separates the platelet rich plasma from the other components. Platelets and the liquid plasma of the blood contain lots of factors that are essential for cell recruitment, multiplication and specialization required for healing. When injected to an injured area of bone or soft tissue, it spurs a healing event with few side effects because it is your own blood. My injection worked LIKE A CHARM. I was numb in my left leg for a day, but the local numbing eventually wore off. After wearing a full leg brace for three days, on day four, I tried to run. No pain. It is the closest feeling I’ve ever had to magic. Within a month, I was back to 50-mile weeks of running. I competed in my junior indoor track season and outdoor track seasons. I had my best cross country season my senior fall, after spending a summer doing coral research in the island nation of Palau, which is even smaller than Bermuda. I made training work and fearlessly didn’t let running dictate my academic and travel life. To this day, though, those ten months have left a mark. I realize that I’m happiest while not partying, and that almost any ailment, from a broken heart to a bum knee can be treated by the wondrous natural world we live in. I also learned to never throw in the towel, even if you’ve let it sit by itself for a period of time.

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Racing healthy: steeplechase my junior track season. 

This fight is worth it

Unsurprisingly, there is still no debate that fossil fuels are devastating our Earth, that we are seriously messing this up, this being our planet’s future. What does this mean? It means that we, humans, are halting biodiversity in its tracks. This era we live in has been coined the Anthropocene, which is marked by significant man-made impacts on the climate and the environment.

Species are disappearing at alarming rates–think about the dying Great Barrier Reef—and this isn’t just from climate change. It’s from deforestation of primary rainforests–think about those orangutang orphanages in Borneo–in order to clear land for for agricultural crops and plantations, especially palm oil; it’s from overfishing, pollution, and wildlife and exotic species trades, to name a few. But above all, human greenhouse gas emissions are still the most frightening and consequential impact to Earth.

In a monumental stance for the U.S., President Obama formally entered America into the Paris Climate Agreement last fall. This means that the U.S. is buying into the concept of halting man-made climate change by committing to reduce our emissions in the next few decades in order to prevent a global temperature rise above 2 degrees C.

One of Trump’s campaign promises was to pull out of the Paris Agreement. However, the tables are turning, as key advisors to Trump suggest this is a bad decision.  There are no pragmatic reasons to pull out of the agreement. We must stay in it.

There are myriad examples of why this is the case. A poignant and rather paradoxical one is the recent news about the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum. In early April, it decided to switch to solar power in order to save money. You heard that. A coal mining museum realized that the future is in renewable energy and it’s already cheaper to switch its energy source to solar because it will “save at least eight to ten thousand dollars, off the energy costs on this building alone.”

On a similar note, jobs in the U.S. solar energy industry have increased so much in the past decade, they now outnumber the number of employees at Apple, Google, and Facebook, combined, according to the The Solar Foundation. The stats are clear, but we have to continue to fight fight fight in order to make Trump accept these facts.

So even though Trump has big plans to dismantle all of the climate progress our country has made, there’s a strong reason to believe we, the believers in facts and the believers in an Earth with biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, have the upper hand. Choose hybrids and electric vehicles for your next car. Or just don’t support buying a new standard gasoline-fueled car. Watch how your state representatives, governors, and city-council members vote on local emission reduction plans. Then vote for them accordingly. Even though the climate change fight is universal, it can be won locally, without the asinine executive decisions of our current President.

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We may be small, but we are mighty! Photo credit: Grayson Schaffer, Talweg Creative 

 

 

 

Running will save us from a lot of things, but not running will not kill us.

With uncertainty about health, in a non-morbid, running-related sense, comes solitude, depression, free time, and a whole lot of positivity. That is, if you let the positivity slide through the pores of uncertainty, which are usually tighter than a drum. Friends, we must trust ourselves, we know it’s what we have to do when we think we may have a sidelining injury: relax. We must try to stay positive. Do something else with our lives than worry. God forbid, clean our rooms! Write a poem. Send a postcard. Bake cookies. Stop evaluating every second that passes like it’s another second to death. Running will save us from a lot of things, but not running will not kill us.

As I wait to know whether I can go full steam ahead with training for Western States 100, I’m trying to practice what I preach. Unlike when I was in college, now, I have perspective to know that my happiness cannot rely on whether I get eight miles in every day. No, no, no, no, no. That’s the ultimate recipe for disaster. My happiness relies on my relationships, my passions, which are more than just running, and my ability to realize that nothing is the end of the world. Maybe except for climate change. We are small fish in a practically infinite ocean. There’s always something way worse than our uncertainties. Not to diminish their importance, but, actually to diminish their importance.

We decide how big and negative our problems or bad luck are; it’s all relative. Thus, I vow that I will loosen my uncertainty pores and let positivity oooooooooze through. I hope that when uncertainty, or certain calamity strikes you, you can do the same.

 

 

Quote of the week: “Be an Activist, But Only Part-Time”

Some words for your mind to munch on.

This Edward Abbey quote was the foundation for my talk in Mammoth Lakes last week. I split it into two parts: 1) When you feel paralyzed that what you’re doing is just a tiny drop in a giant ocean, remember that you’re not the only environmentalist out there. Even if you have just a drop, you should still contribute that drop to the world, to saving our public lands, to signing that Nature Conservancy Public Lands pledge. Be a part-time martyr for your mission. But don’t burn yourself out, because you have to walk the talk, first and foremost. See 2.

2) Do you justify reasons for not pursuing your passion?  “I’m just way too busy.” “No way can I fit in my run today.” “I have to deposit a check!” “My job is taking precedence now.” “I’ll get back to skiing another season.” Well, as Abbey says: this is ridiculous. You must pursue your  passion, get outside, forget the superfluous crap of modern society and get back to the basics. If you love to run, run as often as possible. Ski? Get on the slopes! Read? GET A BOOK! We can only be part-time crusaders, but we can be full-time passionate about our passions. Stay hungry, people.

Be an Activist, But Only Part-Time

“Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.” 

—Edward Abbey (American author and essayist, known for his opinions on environmental advocacy and criticism of public land policies) B&WTenpeaks.jpg

Mark your calendars: Shambhala Mountain Retreat June 9-11

Like to trail run? And/or meditate? Join me at the Shambhala Mountain Center for a three-day running and meditation retreat June 9-11. Just outside, Boulder, we’ll run on gorgeous trails and have meditation instruction from well-practiced experts. Get ready to chill out and find your zen! Spots are already filling, so register sooner rather than later.

Highlights of the weekend will include self-reflection over why you are good enough and why focusing on failure and stress isn’t productive. Instead, let’s mediate inwardly and focus on why we are thriving and all of the people, relationships, passions, and things we’re grateful for. And of course, let’s run!

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https://www.shambhalamountain.org/program/rwl617-running-legends-running-meditation-yoga-retreat/?form=1

What’s the best running advice I’ve received (Extended Version)

A few weeks ago, former Trail Runner Magazine editor, and now freelance writer, Paul Cuno-Booth, asked about the best running advice I’ve ever received. This inconsequential inquiry made me think long and hard, and has since piqued my spark to practice what I’ve been preached. He included a snippet of my thoughts in this article featuring numerous elite trail runners (all of whom I revere!).

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Here’s an extension of my thoughts on the best running advice I’ve ever received.

The best advice I’ve received is to ‘take it easy.’ And 100 variations of the platitude. Since I don’t struggle with motivation to train or to compete, my biggest demons are overtraining and overuse injuries. Taking it easy means a lot of things: prioritizing rest days, getting ample sleep, refueling adequately, resting at the smallest sign of injury, and the most important of all: don’t take yourself too seriously. This last piece was more curated from misplaced, unsolicited advice. For example, after I won Leadville, hordes of people miraculously became experts, giving advice that doesn’t have any place in a three-minute superficial conversation without proper context. Things like: don’t race more than three times per year. Don’t run with people slower than you. Run more mountains. Run more trail. Run more road. Take two tablespoons of coconut oil before every meal. Eat more meat. Don’t eat any meat. All of this advice tells me, “Clare, you cannot turn into these crazy people. You shouldn’t inflict your beliefs into every poor soul you meet, especially when you don’t have a real conversation contextualizing the advice.” In summary, the best advice I’ve ever received is: chill the F out and have fun. I shouldn’t be running if it becomes a chore. And I should run less in general. 

The context and timing of advice is fascinating. Before wining Leadville, most people didn’t offer as much advice because I was marked as a former college runner. Somehow the latter is more knowledgable than a 24 year old winning a 100 mile race, never mind that person is also a former college runner. Additionally, it’s paradoxical how winning something solicits more advice than getting 2nd or top 10. Had I gotten 2nd in Leadville, I likely wouldn’t even have been interviewed by Cuno-Booth for his article. The veneer of an impressionable runner with a smidgen of promise somehow acts as an inviting basin to advice givers. If I lose that veneer, and gain an air of ‘experienced trail runner,’ maybe the advice will wane. Regardless, I’m always open to advice, good or bad. Interestingly, David Roche also interviewed me for Trail Runner Magazine right after Leadville, subtly providing very pointed and appropriate ‘take it easy’ advice. He was never pedantic and always backed his advice with reasons. It stuck with me throughout the next four months and I ended up asking him for more training advice for the remainder of 2016. He’s now my coach. 

At the end of the day, I know I’d be nothing without advice, espeically the unsolicited type. Cuno-Booth’s inquiry reminded me of how much I respect ‘taking it easy.’ I’m trying to take Coach Roche’s instruction more seriously, i.e. maybe that extra 5am ski tour might not be the best thing in the long run.

Please, friends, keep the advice coming!

Refugees Are a Constant. So Is Our Global Responsibility to Help Them

I wrote this before leaving for Cuba, but a lack of WiFi prevented me from posting it. The message still stands, as Trump’s ban is set to return this week.

Doesn’t America have a responsibility to accept people fleeing war and conflict?

The S.S. St. Louis cruise liner carried 900 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. They hoped to reach Cuba, as all passengers had procured Cuban visas; most eventually planned to settle in America. Hitler’s wrath had begun and these Jews sought to save their lives.

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Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis. Photo in the public domain. 

Cuba had accepted full families of Jews on other cruise liners. One family happened to be that of the woman I live with, Marion Kreith. She was a young teenager at the time and took refuge in Havana working in a diamond-polishing factory, with many other Jews, before immigrating to the U.S. after the war. Marion’s daughter Judy Kreith has since made a documentary on her mother’s story.

Yet tragically, the S.S. St. Louis, wasn’t as fortunate as the other ships. Under the rule of the dictator Batista, Cuba turned away this ship of refugees. The S.S. St. Louis turned to the U.S., but was also refused. The ship had no other option but to return to Europe. Over 250 of the passengers ended up perishing in the Holocaust over the next five years.

Why is this story relevant?

Look at what’s happening today in the U.S.. Trump’s ban on accepting refugees from seven particularly war-torn, Muslim countries is not too dissimilar. Is it as bad as the plight of the S.S. St. Louis? Well, looking back to 1939, the situation in Europe surely didn’t appear as bad as it actually was. Yet, the Holocaust happened.

Thus today, even with better reporting, social media and photojournalism, we still aren’t privy to the atrocities that these refugees are fleeing from in Syria, Libya, Sudan and the other banned countries. We can’t imagine a thing as deplorable as the Holocaust happening today.

Oh, but wait. We are are privy to it. Mass civilian bombings, mass hangings, kidnappings, rape, and executions—all inescapable parts of life for many of the refugees seeking safety in America. All from Muslim countries. So is turning away individual families, which tallies to thousands of people, just as deplorable as turning away Jewish refugees during WWII? In my opinion, yes. Surely there are many intricate nuances and complexities to this topic that I don’t mention here and deserve recognition in a political discussion, but the general premise stands.

I hope that “Never Again” is not an empty platitude hung only in museums.

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Syrian civilians after an air strike hit a hospital in Aleppo. Photo: BBC, AFP

Cuba, I’m Coming For You

Just in time for a 100k race in Arizona in two weeks, I’m going to Cuba! My time away from sticky jungle has been too long, and more importantly it’s time to give back and explore internationally once again. This trip feels like a mini-version of my time living and teaching in Thailand because service is at its core.

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Rock and me washing shoes that are in good enough condition to give. 

 

I’m going with One World Running, an organization that’s been going to Cuba, Haiti, Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Cameroon for years, all in the name of running shoes.

One World Running was started by the brilliant journalist, world-class runner and witty eccentric Mike Sandrock, “Rock” as his runner friends call him. He was racing a marathon in Cameroon in 1986 and noticed a local runner racing in a pair of broken sandals. And the local runner beat him! Moved by the palpable privilege gap, after the race, Rock gave his fellow competitor his shoes. An idea brewed.

Rock knew there was too much passion and love and need in the sport of running to not do something about the global need for running shoes. Fast forward a few decades and add Ana Weir, a travel, Spanish and everything-in-between expert, and One World Running has donated thousands and thousands of shoes to people around the world.

This trip to Cuba is unique in that we are giving shoes to elite Cuban runners (think sub 2:30 marathoners). The other trips have a broader focus, giving thousands of shoes to large high schools.

It’s also unique in that we put on a race for the elite Cuban field of runners, comprised of teams from each province. The race takes place on the infamously steep road called “La Farola” in the ecological beauty of a city, Baracoa. This is in the province of Guantanamo, just north of Guantanamo Bay that’s infamous for other reasons.

Before the Cuban Revolution (1953-59), the only access to Baracoa was by sea. Then in the 1960s, the 120km La Farola road was built from Guantanamo to Baracoa, through the winding mountains. It’s now seen as a showcase of the strength of the revolution. I hear it’s really steep…

To get a better feel for this adventure, read a piece on last year’s version of the trip, with Hoka elite ultrarunner Mike Wardian, in Competitor

And say tuned for another pre-departure update, and/or Cuban history factsheet. Learning is fun!

In the meantime, running 25 miles tomorrow and skiing 20 miles on Sunday. Gotta get it all in before the world implodes.

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To anyone who’s ever given shoes to Boulder Running Company, Flatirons, Fleet Feet, thank you, because One World Running collects them! And to people who’ve shipped shoes to Boulder, major thank you!