In the fall of 2013, Austin-American Statesman journalist Pam LeBlanc wrote a story about my injury and creation of Injured Athlete’s Toolbox.
Shortly after the article’s publication, I hosted one of my regular seminars for injured athletes. We answer each other’s questions; we help each other navigate the injury quagmire; and sometimes we make gimp jokes–acceptable only in the company of other injured athletes.
That evening, I met Dr. Laurence Becker. In his late 70s and probably more fit than his grandchildren, he shared wisdom that gave athletes fifty years his junior pause.
Laurence seems to know everybody.
After the seminar, I received an email from William Greer. Laurence told him to reach out. A few days later I visited William at his office. Tall and energetic with a contagious smile, I could have talked with him all day. His quick wit had me howling (see the photo below for a small example).I learned William is a long distance runner, having completed the 2013 Boston Marathon six months prior. He also established a running team called Lightening Laces. Their mission: demonstrating that people of all abilities and disabilities can participate in fitness activities.
William founded the Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival, a public awareness and fundraising event he created for the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities–where he works–in 2004. He helps select films, contacts guest speakers, manages publicity for the event, and runs a short film competition with entries from all over the world. Talk about an impressive juggling act with a purpose.
He and I kept in touch regularly. In 2014, one month before the Boston Marathon and one month after running his fastest marathon time ever in the Austin Marathon, William sent me an email–his disappointment palpable. The diagnosis: a third metatarsal stress fracture. If you’re a runner, your heart probably just skipped a beat. Not just anybody can run Boston; you have to qualify, and it isn’t easy.
Many of you have probably been in a similar situation. You have your sights set on a big event; you’ve diligently trained; the event nears, and, unfortunately, you get injured.
Naturally, you feel betrayed by your own body and frustrated. Do you try to push through the pain just to finish the race? Do you withdraw? Do you defer your entry?
In William’s case, the Boston Athletic Association wouldn’t allow deferment, so he wisely chose to withdraw.In March 2014 for 6 weeks William sported one of those annoying immobilizing boots. Despite obvious frustration, he forged on, keeping his mind in check, obeying restrictions, and easing back into running only after his fracture fully healed. He ultimately returned to race the Dallas marathon in December 2014.
In 13 years of working with injured athletes, I’ve met 2 injured runners who truly understand how to be patient. Given their rarity, I wanted to learn more about how William managed to not come unglued from impatience, and what advice he has to share with other injured athletes. While the story here is about running, the message is universal.
In the beginning: the challenge of not running
William started running as a hobby, only to discover it helped him relax and focus more at work.
Most athletes move to de-stress and better connect with themselves. No movement leads to frustration and anger. The only relief is returning to sport, often before the injury has healed. That leads to a merciless cycle of injury.
Following his diagnosis, William started where virtually all injured athletes can be found–in a pit of exasperation and disappointment. Despite feeling like a caged animal, he managed to maintain a level head. There were no attempts to run bleachers at an empty stadium in his immobilizing boot.
He may be mostly-superhuman (more on that in a minute), but William expressed one universal emotional pain when he said, “Boredom on the weekends was quite a challenge. I am used to taking long runs on Saturday mornings and then traveling around the city. I needed to stay off my feet as much as possible, so I spent a lot of time sitting down on Saturday and Sunday.”
So what can you do when you find yourself injured, bored, and frustrated?
1) First and foremost, you must find a creative outlet. You spent hours and hours training your body when you were well; now it’s time to train your brain.
Why bother? Why not sit on the sofa and binge watch your favorite series or movie? Practicing creativity allows you to exercise dormant parts of your brain that will lead to increased patience (YES! It’s possible.), decreased pain, and acceptance of your injury.
You know how your mind quiets and you feel like you can take on life’s stresses after you’ve had a good physical workout? Doing something creative will lead to the same feeling–maybe not the first or second time, but stick with it and notice how you feel when you’ve just finished doing something creative.
Where can you start? I’ve written two blogs (here and here) about how to get started exercising your creativity muscle. Don’t worry, as I define it, creativity doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to Michael’s and suffering through the noxious craft store smell.
Remember I mentioned William is mostly-superhuman? He has a suggestion for getting started with your creative endeavors. William loves cooking–an excellent creative outlet. He’s so good at cooking that his wife asks him to prepare dinner most of the time.
That doesn’t seem so unusual until one learns his perspective is different than most of ours. William is legally blind, leaving most people surprised that someone who is blind or visually impaired can cook. I’m still waiting for him to invite me over for dinner.
2) Write. Either write notes to people you love and care about or write in journals–yes, that’s plural intentionally. Keep one progress journal, writing in what you’ve been able to do physically. Injured athletes often fall into the I’m-not-getting-any-better trap. If you have a progress journal, you can look back and realize over time that you are getting better, no matter how glacially slow it may feel. Remember: setbacks are inevitable and progress is not linear. You can read more about how to handle setbacks here. Keep a second journal of people, places, and things that make you smile. Keep a third journal of all the negative thoughts swirling around in your head. Set a timer for 5 minutes each day and write it all out–then shred the page or throw it away. I call this taking the mental trash out.
Slowing down to speed up
To get better at your sport, doing whatever it takes means pushing yourself to go faster, harder, and longer. As challenging as that is, it’s often an easier pill to swallow than the restraint William had to employ during his run-less months.
Most runners would rather chew on tacks than stop running, but William diligently followed restrictions then gradually returned to running, ensuring he wouldn’t re-injure himself.
William embraced a key concept: your body is going to take as long as it needs to heal. If you fail to adopt patience and cultivate new interests during you down time, you’re likely to make a common and fatal error–returning to your sport before you’re healed and reinjuring yourself.
William kept himself in the game mentally by setting goals while he was injured. Mind you, William’s body is accustomed to marathon-length races, so your goals may be drastically different. William said, “I had my eye on two marathons, Dallas (in December 2014) and Austin (in February 2015). Now I have my eye on the 2016 Austin Marathon and an ultra marathon in either San Antonio or Fort Worth. I set a goal, in other words, to complete a marathon in the future.” The goals William chose were big, but they were intentionally planned with enough time for him to return to running without pushing himself.
Why did William treat his body with respect allowing it to fully heal? He knew if he didn’t slow down and rest, his future goals wouldn’t come to fruition.
Like most of us returning to sport after an injury, William was ready to put his injury behind him. Instead of resuming his running program where he abruptly stopped upon injury, he gradually rebuilt his strength and endurance.
Connecting with your tribe
William had the experience of a lifetime in 2013 running the Boston Marathon with NPRs Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’s host, Peter Sagal. Frankly, if I’d been with Peter I don’t think I could have finished: the laughing would have finished me off.
As much as injured athletes resist volunteering at events they’d be part of were it not for injury, plugging into your community will surprisingly have the opposite effect you think. Instead of feeling jealous, you’ll feel energized and fulfilled. Plus you’ll get to talk with and cheer on your friends.
We all get injured. Today you may be cheering, but remember in the future your friends may be cheering for you. Be gracious and get out there!
William has been where you are. Here’s his experience: “I felt a great deal of sadness about missing the 2014 Boston Marathon. My injury did not heal until several weeks after this marathon, and I was very upset about not being able to run it. I wanted to finish the 2014 Boston Marathon with a faster time than I did in 2013. I had to be a spectator instead, however. I was very glad to be there lending my support to the runners.”
The upside of injury
If you allow it, injury can connect you more deeply with both your sport and with fellow athletes.
William has learned to appreciate running in a new way, regularly checking his form to ensure he’s maintaining a proper gait. He said, “I have a better attitude about running. I feel stronger and more committed to it. I ran my third best time in my first post accident marathon (the Dallas Marathon) because I learned to relax and concentrate on a stride that keeps my body comfortable.”
He’s also noticed a connection with other runners he didn’t have pre-injury. He said, “I am now able to joke with other runners about running injuries. Accidents and injuries happen to everyone. Talking, and joking, about these injuries is both enjoyable and supportive. My injury showed me an additional way to communicate with fellow runners.”
Your injury can be your own personal Yoda…if you allow
I asked William to share the most impactful thing he learned from his injury. Whatever sport you love, note William’s wisdom.
He said, “My injury reminded me how important it is to listen to my body. That advice is not as simple as it sounds. There are frequently moments where there is a slight feeling of pain, or moments of discomfort, while running. I, or any other athlete, can ignore these momentary feelings of pain because they do not last too long.
My injury was a very dramatic demonstration that pain is a warning signal sent by the body. When you feel pain, you need to stop doing what causes the pain. This means, for a runner, that you might need to alter your stride, slow down or speed up your pace. This can also mean that you might need to spend more time stretching. The first thing you need to do, however, is learn what is causing the pain.”
Wondering how William is doing now? He said, “I went to an ankle and foot specialist after the Dallas marathon just to have it looked over. He reassured me that my foot looks strong and healthy. My goal is to complete 20 marathons in the next 5 years.”
I’ll close with William’s most important piece of advice from one injured athlete to another: “Remember, your injury is only a temporary setback. Your injury will not stop you from being an athlete, you only have to wait for it to heal before returning to your athletic pursuits.”