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Dark Night of the Soul
by Chistine Hinton

"Dark night of the soul" is what Dr. George Sheehan referred to as the runner's experience when he was unable to run. Running is a way of life. Not running creates an empty space and takes away something with which we identify ourselves, or even define ourselves by. You know this to be true if you ever said, "I am a runner." I have found a new person emerge in my long stretch of not running, due to an injury. I have become a person who is grieving, longing to run again, yet learning to cope with the changes that occur when one's body stops doing something it has been doing for years. Perhaps surprisingly, I believe the experience is making me a better athlete and person.

I've had injuries in the past, but nothing that a couple days off generally didn't take care of. I did take some time off during my pregnancy, but my focus was such that the payoff was worth it. Now an injury has emerged that has struck me down. The past seven weeks have been a mixed ride of ups and downs, of increasing my knowledge and of pure frustration.

Injuries are inevitable, for most runners who have been running long enough. When an injury occurs that threatens the runner's ability to train, denial often sets in. Dr. Tim Noakes, author of The Lore of Running, describes this denial as "the athletes refusal to accept that they are injured. They simply deny the possibility of injury". Nine months ago I started to experience some pain in my hamstrings. As runners, we are often put in the situation to decide if the pain or ache we feel warrants time off or if it is something that we can train through. I was in the middle of my racing season and running PRs left and right. I wasn't going to let this little ache mess things up for me! I had been training hard, and in hindsight, too hard. I would be strong. Yes, I would be a warrior and suck up the pain in the name of road racing! This I did, and my hamstrings got worse. I was denying what was going on with my body. I wasn't listening.

A couple months later, I crashed. My body rebelled since I rejected its pleas for a break. For three days I could hardly move. I kept thinking to myself, "I need to train. I need to get back out there before I lose all my fitness." These little voices were urging me to give into my cravings to run. I painfully got back out there and new areas started to hurt. My denial was giving way. I was relenting that indeed something serious was going on that I could no longer shove to the side.

No longer denying my pain, I became angry. Why was my body failing me? Where did I go wrong? My anger prompted me into an obsession of finding out what was wrong with me and how to fix it, as soon as possible. When dealing with injury Sheehan relates, "When illness strikes, I suddenly develop an immediate and urgent need to learn. Disease, then, is one of those bad experiences that turns information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom". I sought out the best coach, the best physical therapist, the best chiropractor, the best orthopedic specialist, and the best nutritionist. The key to my "team" is an excellent coach who could objectively guide me as I was seeing red. Team members changed, but Coach Roy Benson is a constant.

I read everything, no kidding (ask my husband). I developed a knowledge base that impressed even the doctors. Just when we thought we might know what the problem is, it turned out to not be the problem. So, I am in a game of elimination. All I can do is swim and aqua jog. I miss running so badly that it hurts. I ache for it from the core of my being. I internally hiss at other runners I see on the street. Do they appreciate being out there?

After about four weeks of dealing with doctor visits, my own intense medical research, and daily prayers for a miracle, I started to cry. Yes, cry. I am feeling depressed. I can hardly muster a "have a nice run," as my husband heads out the door. I am jealous when he returns panting and wet from his effort. My legs are losing muscle. I feel soft and powerless. My motivation to do much of anything is zapped. Where is the energetic person I was a couple of months back? Running was my private place to think, to de-stress and have fun. Now I felt lost.

Just as in grieving any loss, acceptance is the last psychological response runners arrive at when dealing with their injuries and subsequent lay off from running. Noakes explains, "The athletes learn to accept their injuries and to modify their ambitions to accommodate the inadequacies of the mortal body. When this occurs, the athletes are likely to be over the injuries". A personal growth occurs. Acceptance, patience and humility have been learned. You appreciate your running, your health, and your life at a deeper level.

During the normal course of denial, anger, depression and acceptance, much is learned about the body, running and about ourselves. Noakes relates, "Understanding the psychology of injury helps us understand why we respond to injuries in our own peculiar ways. By understanding why we respond as we do, we gain better insights into our psychological makeup and the types of medical approach that will be most likely to get our minds over the injuries".

I am learning that when an injury has you sidelined, it doesn't mean you have to become a recluse or let the injury get the better of you. You are still a runner. Stay in touch with your running friends. Become the cheerleader at races or volunteer. Keep up with the latest running news and local standings. I am constantly in contact my running partners, seeing how they and their running are doing and encouraging them join me occasionally in the pool.

Make sure that you keep clear in your mind that your primary objective is to heal. I know you think you'll go crazy if you don't run. I did too, but so far they haven't locked me away! The hardest thing I have had to learn (and still struggle with) is that pure rest is best. The more activity I do that uses my injury site, the longer it will take for me to run again. That means doing nothing on some days. No cross training, weight lifting, whatever. You have to be disciplined. Use that same drive you possess for running and redirect your energies on getting better.

I have had to start to rethink and reorganize my goals. That spring marathon I had targeted is out. I won't be healthy soon enough. Be realistic and change your goals to be in alignment with where your body is at the time. Shoot low for now. By doing so, you'll feel even better when you surpass your goal. You want to make sure you get this recovery thing right the first time so you won't be revisiting anytime soon.

Being positive can be a challenge when you pity yourself. I know my whining is driving my husband crazy. Don't drive your loved ones up a wall with your poor attitude. The bottom line is that this really stinks. Still, we need to keep our mindset in the positive zone, which will actually translate, in a faster recovery. Don't spend your energy being disgruntled. Relax and know that you will be back to running eventually.

One thing I have also enjoyed doing is documenting equivalent miles in my running log. My running log has been my faithful companion and confidant for many years. I missed it. I am now logging my swimming and aqua jogging by converting the time and mileage spent in these activities to running time and mileage. It makes me feel better to see some "miles" totaled at the end of the week. I also use my log to track the status of my injury, noting any progress or relapses along with charting all my doctor's visits. I can't tell you how many times I've looked back into my log for information. I even bring it with me on my appointments with doctors or other specialists.

"If you learn from your injury, and this helps prevent a similar injury in the future, then you have benefited from the experience," says Pete Pfitzinger, coach and former Olympic runner. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. I am still waiting to see mine, but I know it is there. As I wait for the light, I am recognizing the value of this journey and realizing all I am learning. As Coach Benson told me, "Hang in there. Hang in there. Now repeat after me: "I will hang in there."

About Christine Hinton
Christine Hinton has been running for over 20 years. She has competed at the high school and college level. Currently Christine competes locally in the Charlotte, NC Grand Prix Series, representing Charlotte Running Company. Christine is also a Life and Fitness Coach. She helps people of all fitness levels, to create success with one's physical self as well as in other areas of their life. A balanced life is a healthy life. All coaching is done via the telephone and email. For a free, no obligation, phone consultation, call Christine at 704-540-3072 or email her at: Hinton3@bellsouth.net

Thanks Christine for providing a great article!

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