Recently, Hillary Allen was featured in the North Face series, “Mentors,” sharing her thoughts on strength and identity following a life-threatening injury last year. In the episode, she talks about being restricted to one definition of strength in herself and the work it took to broaden that perspective. It’s a struggle I’ve been very familiar with over the last year, and as I watched this video, I felt Hillary speak my own story.
Running has been an integral part of my mental health for the past 7ish years. Before that, I was a swimmer, but when I quit my college team, I needed something that would feel better than just going to the gym every day. Running soon became something I looked forward to, and even craved. I’ve run for different reasons over the years – for fitness, for escape, for adventure, for joy. Mine has been a pretty typical running love story; running gave me a new identity when I cut ties with swimming.
Now, fast forward to the two most recent years in my life. These years have been ones of big change: a new state, a new school, a relationship lost, a new relationship grown. I struggled with questioning my choice of career path, if medicine was the right fit for me. It’s something I still struggle with. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting to go through so much change and uncertainty, but the one thing that remained consistent was running. I was a Runner.
Then I started having pain that wouldn’t go away, not with rest, ice, meds, cross training. I have patellofemoral syndrome – runner’s knee. It’s not glamorous, and there was no dramatic event that caused this pain, but it stopped me in my tracks. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve run since January.
Patellofemoral syndrome is something that’s supposed to have a pretty easy fix – you strengthen your glutes, you get better. But try as I have, my progress has been glacially slow. I’ve done exercises every day for months, gone to PT, communicated with my doctor hundreds of times. I’m getting stronger, sure, if you consider the qualitative measurements my PT has made to assess my glute strength. I tried returning to running at one point, but my pain returned with such vehemence that I was back to square one. I was so angry. How come Hillary Allen could break so many bones in her body at once (including her back!) and then win the Cortina Trail 48K less than a year later? And I’m over here with a stupid knee with something stupid that people fix with some stupid lunges in 6 stupid weeks, after months of putting in work? What the fuck?
We talk a lot about depression here. There are the people for whom running is the only thing that gets them through their depression. There is that annoying-and-intense, post-race depression that hits when our goals are realized and we don’t have anything to train for right away. Depression is so common in its many forms; it’s important to talk about it, because it’s both serious and stigmatized. So what happens when instead it’s the loss of running that’s what contributes to depression?
It turns out my body is just more flexible that others, and with flexibility comes instability. I have to work harder than a lot of folks to keep my butt strong and my knees from wiggling all over the place. It’s taken me a long time to accept that about myself. Before I did, I spent a ton of energy stubbornly keeping my foot cemented in the world of running, when I really needed to focus my energy on resting and rehabbing. Running had kept me sane as I pushed through schooling that made me miserable, and when I lost running without replacing it with anything else, I set myself up for a perfect storm. I felt I’d lost my only identity, that being injured made it so that I could no longer call myself a Runner. I’d failed at the one thing that was bringing me joy, and combined with my struggles in school, I descended into my current depression.
Logically, I know that none of that is true. I know that this is not forever, that I’m not a failure, that it’s unfair of me to compare myself to professional athletes who probably have more plentiful time and resources to recover (or to compare myself to anyone else, for that matter). I haven’t “lost” running – we’re just taking a temporary break. But depressive thoughts can compound, and they can feed into each other to the point of turning an optimistic woman toward a much darker mindset. I thought I had been taking care of myself; I’ve gone to a therapist for a long time for brain maintenance. I think I knew that I was moving in an unhealthy direction, but my fear of giving these feelings and moods a name was terrifying. I did not want to acknowledge what was happening. It took a great friend to turn me around to see all the folks in my bubble whom I could ask for help.
For now, I’ve had to take a break from my running community as I learn to deal with my mood and frustrations. I’ve started swimming again and cycling more, and I’m learning to appreciate the things my body can do. I’m taking antidepressants and changing how I do therapy. And through all of this, I’m learning to appreciate all of my strengths. I’m not just a Runner. I’m a Learner, an Athlete, a Goofball, an Ice-Cream Lover, a Cat Lady, a Friend. I am not limited to one identity, and my identities are not written in stone. We are all constantly adapting to unexpected experiences, and we are all growing within and alongside our strengths, sometimes despite our identities. Hillary Allen recognized how she viewed strength, saying “Strength is not what I thought it was…it’s not so one-dimensional, it’s not so simple. And I think I felt victim to that, too. It’s like, defining myself in one aspect – it’s too narrow.”
And she’s right. We can’t restrict ourselves to one identity. We’re human beings too beautiful and complex for that. So find your strengths, and reflect on them. Use them when you face a hardship. Be patient with yourself, and get the help you need to do that. Put in the hard work to get better – the people you see on social media who are dealing with injury aren’t just skipping back to health. It’s taken me a while to get to this place, and I know that I’ll keep learning this forever. But that’s what is going to keep getting me through my depression. That’s what’s going to get me back on my feet.