Back in June at World Championships, I was an hour into the race when I hurdled over a short rock wall, typical in the Austrian Alps, and when my foot reached the ground, my body went backwards, smacking into a large boulder that was part of the wall. Stunned, I got up and felt my my lower back, the area with just bone, muscle and skin, right where I'd fallen. “Fuck!” I screamed. Then I just said it again and again quieter, to myself, as dozens of runners flew past me. I walked for about a half mile, at least a hundred runners passed me. We were starting to descend. People were flying. I slowly crept forward, trying to jog.
Eventually my Canadian buddy Anne-Marie Madden appeared and we descended to the first aid station together. Needing to regroup at the aid, I didn’t see Anne-Marie again for the rest of the race. Ultimately, I finished. Barely. I think I was one of the final runners to make the final cutoff. It was one of the strangest races of my life. I felt guilt and shame for not representing my country better. I felt ashamed for wanting to drop. But crossing the finish line with an entire cadre of my teammates, dad, and brother, at 9pm near my Ukrainian friend Oksana and new Australian friend Claire and aided by my Latvian friend Linda during the middle parts of the race — that was a feeling I will cherish for the rest of my life. There was so much to celebrate. The men won 2nd place (in the long trail race). Drew, Zach and Eric all in the top ten. Alison and Emily were also in the top ten; Sarah scored for us even after pushing through a hard day herself. Martina, my dear Italian friend, got 4th after overcoming a terrifying climbing accident just months prior. Grayson became a world champion in the sprint distance. The list goes on.
Why I’m sharing this experience is this strange little fall ended up creating the most challenging injury I’ve ever endured. I ran through July, but couldn’t get my back to settle down. I had no power in my left leg. Even after PT and acupuncture, which would give temporary relief, it felt like my back was becoming more unstable. I developed a hitch in my step. I stopped running, pulled out of UTMB, got MRIs of my lumbar spine and sacrum, hoping to get some answers. Everything was within a realm of normal. I saw an orthopedic PA, my sports doc PCP, a sports PT — they disagreed on what was wrong. I saw another sports MD who seemed to agree with the ortho PA: SI joint dysfunction. But unlike the PA, the MD thought a PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection in my SI would be better than a cortisone shot. In order to be conservative and hold off on the PRP, I started aggressive PT, which flared my back and SI up so much I spent all of September in chronic pain. I’d never experienced chronic pain before. I hope you never do.
Getting out of bed every morning reminded me why I didn’t want to wake up. Subtle movements, mostly transitional, like standing up after sitting down for awhile, or sitting on the toilet, or lying down, they all gave me a gnawing ping, “I am not okay.” Going to school became a monumental effort. Exercise was completely out of the question. But after a few weeks of nothingness, I tried to walk outside more, 15-min tops, usually crying beneath my dark sunglasses. My partner, Jimmy, became my rock. He had a 4-year stint with a shattered femur that healed an inch short, followed by elective limb lengthening surgery in which his femur was broken and he had a bone stimulator in his thigh for almost a year, evening the leg discrepancy. Needless to say, he could sympathize. He is healthier, stronger and faster than ever before. I felt embarrassed I was struggling so much when it had only been a few months for me. And I'd spent a year injured in college and I didn’t get close to this level of desperation. It was the chronic nature of my SI joint problem that was so hard. I felt like I was going insane. I wondered if I was making it up. A friend suggested I see a psychiatrist. I stuck with my gut and just continued to see my therapist. I leaned into plant medicine. Kimber, a fellow Worlds teammate going through a wildly complex back injury also with chonric pain, gave me the best core exercises out there. We, along with teammate Ani, checked in on each other, providing that support group that you hear about in AARP commercials.
Towards the end of Sept, the sports doc who seemed to have the best grasp on my injury and the field in general gave me a PRP shot (Dr. Rudolph at Boulder Biologics). Her empathy and medical knowledge gave me hope in modern medicine, when I had lost it in many other medical professionals. Ginna, my friend and acupuncturist (Boulderacusport), gave me relief throughout it all. It’d last for a glorious 24-48 hours before the dysfunction, essentially the joint getting out of place, occurred again. In healing from the PRP, which provides stability to the joint over the course of its 2 month healing process, I saw Dr. Larry Frieder, a chiro with a rescue English bulldog named Beauty Queen and a recuse Pomeranian named Monkey, who has sealed the deal on my healing process. He’s aligning my joints so that I can fully heal from the PRP. Seeing him and Ginna regularly is getting me back to movement. I’m even jogging a little bit.
What I learned through all of this is that moving outside gives me fervor for life. I don’t need to be running. Even hobbling or walking or biking to school (even when it causes a flareup), these are all worthy. Even watering my garden, admiring the cosmos and zinnias and bumble bees and grasshoppers. Even walking to the grocery store along a sidewalk adorned in lavender. Even walking in the dirt paths of CU South with a bowl of popcorn, my dark sunglasses, and my partner in tow, I’ve learned to treasure any and all movement. But especially pain-free movement. My friend Anna has been going through a similar injury for over a year. She told me, "Clare, you gotta embrace walking. You won't want to. But you have to." My therapist said the same thing. Once I embraced this slower form of movement, I felt like a more full version of myself. All movement is worthy.
I’ve stayed distant from the trail and ultrarunning race world, save for watching UTMB and Courtney’s historic win. It’s not that I’m apathetic. In an experiment of one, I’ve examined what it is about running that I miss when I cannot. It’s no longer the racing or the throngs of people on remote mountain passes that I miss the most. It’s the intimate moments with a best friend on a weekday run. It’s the physical joy of one foot flying past another, again and again and again. Covering dirt and distance with my body. Smelling the seasons. Feeling sweat build on my forehead and buttcrack. Seeing the morning alpenglow on the Flatirons before the sun crests the Eastern horizon. Becoming a part of the environment that I so often forget that I always am a part of. We always are. Whether inside on our couch or at a desk or at a bar or on a trail, we’re in our environment.
I’ll get back to that cadre of teammates and racing one day. But for now, I’m content. Content with the rawest version of myself. Content with the prolonged color in the leaves this fall and the prolonged summer temperatures. Content with new beginnings and refreshed gratitude. Content with slowing down, dancing more, and learning so much more than I would have had I been running fast through it all this fall.