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What It Takes To Make A Comeback- Megan Brown

I think what attracts me to distance running is how similar it is to life. I once heard a quote that said, “Running is like life – 10% of it is exciting and 90% is grimy and tough”. There is a lot of truth to this quote! When you think about it, a very minimal part of both distance running and life is effortless. The majority of it requires passion, toughness, tenacity and a will to endure its unending physical, mental and emotional demands. However like life, no matter how hard the 90% gets, something inside tells you to keep on running because that 10% – the victory, the achievement, the sense of satisfaction and peace – just feels so good!

In the last year and a half, I have faced a tremendous amount of adversity, which at times had me questioning my future in this sport. It all began in January of 2008 as I prepared for my first professional indoor track circuit. After six months of strenuous base work, I was in the shape of my life and prepared for the breakout season that every runner dreams about. It was perfect timing as the Olympic Trials were only six months away. This was going to be my year – I knew it – or so I thought. What began as a terrible flu, progressed into an illness that was later diagnosed as Lymes Disease. Within weeks of the diagnosis, it was evident that my goal of competing at the Olympic Trials and vying of a sport on the Olympic team were not going to be realized. Instead, I would have to come face to face with the illness’ effect on my body and spend the next few months resting and recovering.

As with any setback, whether an injury or illness, there is always an initial stage of denial. We have a tendency to convince ourselves that ‘It’s not that bad’ – that the best scenario is the most probable – when in fact most signs are indicating otherwise. We don’t want to face the reality that we won’t be able to train or race. However, after spending time in a state of denial, there comes an acknowledgment of the present setback. Of course, with this realization comes a whole array of emotions – disappointment, frustration, anger, sadness, and fear. On a conscious and subconscious level, we are processing these emotions and dealing with the fact that we are unable to do what we love and in some cases, unable to achieve our planned goals.

In my case, I had to deal with the disappointment of missing one of the biggest seasons of my career thus far. I also had a great deal of frustration and grief regarding my highly fatigued physical state. I spend a lot of time suffering from the ‘why me’ syndrome that continued for days on end. But what I realized through my illness is that the most important part of any setback, whether in sport or life, is ACCEPTANCE. The sooner you process the emotions associated with the let down, the sooner you can move to acceptance of your present state. This allows you to direct your energy towards doing all the proper things (cross training, rest, rehab, nutrition, and different therapies) to get your body back on track. Also with this acceptance comes a restructuring of goals and therefore a new avenue to direct your energy.

No matter who you are or what level of sport you are involved in – there will be setbacks. It doesn’t matter whether it’s an eight week lay off with a stress fracture, a three month lay-off with an Achilles tear or in my case, a four month lay off with illness, the same process usually occur. In all cases, acceptance of your circumstance, an analysis of the injuries causes, restructuring of goals and a positive attitude towards rehabilitation are required for proper healing and psychological health throughout the setback.

After the chunk of rehabilitation is done comes the progressive return to specific training and racing. In some cases, the transition back to training is easy – the injury is healed, the progression goes smoothly and before you know it you are back at full tilt. But for many athletes, the comeback is filled with its own challenges. In some cases, the injury isn’t fully healed, so there is the battle of doing just enough, but not so much that you are back at square one. There are also the compensatory injuries that begin to flare up; in favoring the site of injury, other parts of the body begin to hurt. Similarly, there are also the physical symptoms associated with load – after much time off the body struggles to return to previous workloads. You are sore, tired, and lethargic and wondering when your body will begin to feel like its old self. This is a draining process. You want to train hard, push the body and reclaim the fitness you lost, but have to listen to your body’s limitations, which in itself can be a challenge for any motivating athlete.

For me, my comeback to high level training and racing was a drawn out process, with many challenges along the way. Unfortunately, my healing wasn’t presented in absolute terms and instead was something that would continue for many more months after my return to training. My body was still healing and reclaiming energy while at the same time, I was eager to train and race at a high level again. I felt as if I was in a constant battle with my body. My mind wanted to push, but my body wasn’t ready to handle my previous levels of intensity and load. I know of many athletes who have dealt with this same battle when coming back from injuries. The mind is ready to be aggressive and the motivation is there, but our body limits us. And this is one of the most frustrating and helpless situations that you will face as athlete. All you want to do is train and compete, but the body just won’t let you.

I unfortunately learned my lesson the hard way, which was that “The body always wins!” As endurance athletes, we know pain; we know perseverance; we know tenacity. But we have trouble with patience. At times, honoring the body’s limitation can seem like an impossible task, but one that is required for a healthy return from any setback.

Therefore, If ACCEPTANCE is the key for dealing with an injury, PATIENCE is the virtue needed for the comeback. We need to be patient and kind to our bodies and work within its limits, knowing all the while that we will return to a completely healthy state, and if we progress properly, there will be a time when we let loose again! Along with being patient, we have to stay positive. Even on the lowest days, when you feel like you will never be back to 100%, it’s important to keep the faith. You will be back! This is the best time to lean on your support system. Let those supporters who love and believe in you, bring you hope and reassurance during the difficult times!

I am happy to report that after another intensive, restful break, my body is feeling as good as new and I am ready to begin a new chapter in my career; one which is based on principle that I will ‘train smarter and not harder’. I have learned through my setback and comeback that the key to success in endurance sport is CONSISTENCY. And the best way to achieve consistency is through smart training – which involves listening to your body, honoring its needs, and recovering as hard as you train. Success isn’t made in a day – it’s made in many weeks and months and years, which demands a continually healthy body. I believe that the mind has the capability of taking the body to new levels and defying past limitations, but I also know now that this is only possible if we work with our body rather than against it.

Despite a year and a half of adversity, I am as motivated as ever and excited to get out there, train smart, push my body and achieve things on the track and roads that I never thought possible. Throughout this whole process, I have learned that being an elite endurance athlete is all about riding the peaks and the valleys that inevitably come with our sport. And like I said in the introduction of this article, that’s what I love most about the sport – It’s challenging and its tough, but the gratification you get from overcoming adversity and achieving your goals, most definitely outweighs the challenges.

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