I have not ran in three weeks. That never happens.
I don’t have to begin this article with a dialogue about how running makes you feel. If you are reading about running, we are the same people. Running, especially trail running, is meditation, movement, nature, and solitude; four things that rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul. It has become such a fundamental part of who I am that I don’t know how to exist without it.
This is where this story begins, because I am now three weeks into existing without it.
Twenty days ago, I had an ACL reconstruction and meniscal repair surgery. After almost an entire year of weighing options and changing my mind, I finally committed. I can assure you that I am not exaggerating when I describe this choice as one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. There has been nothing in my life that will have a greater impact on my well-being, both physically and mentally, than voluntarily giving up running and my usual high volume of physical activity for up to twelve months. So why did I decide to do it?
In November 2020 I entered the Laugavegur Trail Ultramarathon lottery. This is 55 kilometers of trail running over Iceland’s famous Laugavegur trail, through the southeastern Icelandic highlands, with varied climate and terrain, including sideways snow and sub-zero temps. Getting one of the roughly 600 spots was an absolute dream. I immediately started making travel and training plans, and ran a celebratory 30k that weekend.
Not unlike many of us hard work and nature junkies, I also love to ski. I’m just as happy on my downhill skis as I am trudging through the backcountry with my husky on touring skis, both nordic and alpine. I live close to a ski hill, and I would be lying if I denied sliding out of the office on Friday afternoon powder days for a couple of runs. That’s what I did on 4 Feb 2022, already three months into training for the Laugavegur Trail ultra. I’d also be lying if I said I was a skilled powder skier. I am not.
Seven runs later, after a dramatic tumble, I recall sitting on the hill, waiting for a toboggan, and already knowing that I had done significant damage to my knee. I heard a pop and felt a burning tear. If you’ve been there, you know. Yet even in those first few moments my mind went immediately to counting the weeks to race day, and calculating whether I’d be healed enough to tackle the high altitude rugged terrain. I was 23 weeks out.
For two days I sat with my feet up, icing my knee and hydrating my body. I also spent most of that time being exceptionally hard on myself, because rest is for the weak. By Monday I still couldn’t walk so I finally went to the hospital. A week later an MRI confirmed a complete ACL tear, complex medial meniscus tear, lateral meniscus tear, and bone bruising on the tibial plateau.
I cried, of course. All I wanted was to go to Iceland. I asked the orthopedic surgeon about it. He looked at me like I had asked if I could walk to the moon; “You’re not going to Iceland.”
He wasn’t a runner though. He doesn’t know how stubborn we are.
The next day I was on the treadmill. Walking, slowly, with a slight limp, on an incline, for ten minutes. Then eventually twenty minutes, then thirty, and let’s be honest, walking uphill is a big part of trail ultrarunning. By 19 February I was back on cross-country skis, and lightly jogging on the treadmill. I still couldn’t walk without a limp, but I could run! I knew at that point that I would be crossing the Laugavegur finish line if I had to leopard crawl over it on my elbows and knees.
From there, both recovery and training went surprisingly well. I had settled into the mindset that this did not have to be my best race. I invested in a very good quality functional healing knee brace, I ran slowly, I walked, I took breaks, I weight trained, did yoga, ate well, and I was ready. On 16 July 2022 I crossed the finish line, with a completely torn ACL. A bucket list goal complete!
But boy did my knees suffer, both knees. I’ve been a consistent and high volume runner for about twenty years. So even my good knee is a bad knee. It has its own bumps and tears. Having spent six months compensating for my other knee, both of them were now not so quietly protesting my addiction. I knew my body wasn’t going to let me do this forever.
I sacrificed many other things to finish the Laugavegur ultra. I stopped downhill skiing. I gave up dance classes. Walking and hiking, surprisingly, hurt more than running. I avoided backpacking because uneven terrain with added weight made me nervous. I couldn’t ride a ski-doo, being on my bike scared me. I decided that I wanted all of that back. Fixing that knee that I couldn’t really trust was the only option.
Now the recovery begins. It’s already mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging. Unfortunately, my mind does not simply let me rest. Slowing down is not something that comes easily to me, and while I know it’s necessary, it feels very much like failure. I have to actively remind myself every day that it’s okay not to work so hard, it’s okay to heal, and the short term slow-down is vital to many more years of doing what I love
So how does a runner come to terms with not running? The same way we do everything; one step at a time. One foot in front of the other until we get to where we are supposed to be. Just keep going. I recently secured a spot on a charity team for the 2024 TSC London Marathon, and I cannot wait to give this new knee a test run!