I cried no fewer than nine times while watching athletes cross the finish line at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. First, there was the second-place finisher, pro athlete Tim O’Donnell, who was greeted at the finish line by his pro athlete wife, Mirinda Carfrae, and their two-year-old daughter. Seeing him celebrate with his kid started the waterworks. Then there was the man who, according to the announcer, was running in honor of his mother who had passed recently from ALS. Once again, cue the tears. Then there was the 24-year-old son and 58-year-old father who crossed the finish line together, the woman who finished and immediately jumped into her partner’s arms and sobbed in relief/joy/I can only imagine what else, the two athletes who were double amputees, and the multiple 80-something-year-olds who were dubbed Ironmen and bent forward to get a grass lei around their necks.
These people had just swum 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and then run a marathon, and I was so overwhelmed with emotion for them and, oddly enough, for myself.
I know it’s a cliché to call a race inspiring, but I’ve always felt a fire light inside me watching people—yes, including complete strangers—perform athletic feats. I’ve watched my fair share of marathons, and every time my heart swells and I feel so proud of the finishers and more amped about running than I had the day before. But this time was different. This time, thanks to some recent events in my own life, watching Ironman finishers made me feel a new and complicated flood of emotions: happiness, sadness, embarrassment, hope.
You see, in the fall of 2018, I was training to run my first marathon. Less than three weeks before the race, I got hit by a car while I was crossing the street and it left me with a fractured leg. Just like that, my training was over, and I was forced to drop out of the race. I haven’t been able to motivate myself to run since.
I’ve considered myself a runner since 2012, when my brother signed me up for my first half-marathon and said, “Now you have to run it with me—I already paid!” (Brothers, am I right?!) While I hated every moment of training for that race, I quickly realized that running was something I could improve at consistently over time if I put in the effort. And as I improved, I got to enjoy it more and more—running really stops feeling terrible and starts feeling good if you do it enough that your body adapts. There are few things in life that you can fully see the result of your hard work play out in such concrete and measurable ways. I loved that about running, and I kept at it for the next six years. I ran eight half-marathons and then, finally, decided I was ready to tackle a full one. Working in New York City and having previously witnessed the buzzing energy of NYC Marathon race day as a spectator, it felt right to make that my first 26.2. I was lucky to get a spot on the media team with title sponsor TCS, and I started training in July 2018, which also happened to be two months before my wedding.
For three months I diligently followed my training schedule while also planning my wedding and working full-time. I felt amazing. I was going to do this thing! I kept reminding myself that 2018 was my year; I was going to get married, run a marathon, feel on top of the world, and then, at long last, there’d be time to relax. It was all going to be so worth it.
Except things didn’t go as planned. On October 8, a week after my wedding and a little less than one month before race day, I was on my way to catch the bus to work and was hit by a car as I crossed the street. The impact threw me up onto the windshield, and then I flipped through the air before landing on my side on the pavement. I didn’t think I was badly hurt at first, but once the adrenaline wore off and the EMTs showed up, I started to feel a sharp pain in my left leg, the one that had taken the hit. Shit, shit, shit, the marathon, I thought. Then, Okay, it doesn’t hurt that badly—maybe it’s just bruised. Maybe I’m fine! I remember sitting in the back of the ambulance with my husband, where I pointed out what hurt, and we just stared at each other knowingly. Neither of us wanted to say it, because then maybe it wouldn’t be true.
Reader: My leg was not fine. After a full day in the E.R., I learned my fibula, the outer and smaller bone in the calf, was fractured. Luckily, the crack was clean and small and would heal just fine, the orthopedist told me a week later. Not so luckily, it was going to take at least six to eight weeks. The marathon was, at that point, in less than three.
Anyone who’s been injured knows how hard it is to accept not being able to keep up with your normal activities. I’ve had stress fractures from running, but this was different. I was in the best shape of my life, more trained than ever, but for some reason the universe stepped in and said, “Not this marathon! Deal with it!” I didn’t drop out of the race because I overdid it and ended up with an overuse injury. That would have been easier to accept: Not only would I have been responsible for it in some way, but also because it’s not that uncommon to accidentally overdo it when you’re ramping up your running volume, especially when it’s your first marathon. While it would have sucked to drop out for any reason, a running-related injury wouldn’t have been a total shock.
Fast-forward three months, and I was all finished with my prescribed physical therapy. My physical therapist said I was cleared to go back to my regular workouts, including running. And instead of being eager and excited to jump back into it, I was terrified. What if it still hurt? What if I had lasting damage and could never run distances again? My knee felt a little achy the few times I jogged during my sessions—what if something else was wrong? My physical therapist told me not to worry; I should start slowly and pay attention to how I feel. If I was having any pain, I could come back and be reevaluated so we could sort it out. While it was a completely well-intentioned thing to say, it wasn’t exactly reassuring. I left physical therapy with this nagging doubt about my health, feeling less than confident that I could just jump back into things and be okay.
Immediately I went back to the group fitness classes I used to take. It felt amazing, and my strength came back quickly. But motivating myself to run didn’t come so easily. Every time I tried I felt like I was starting from square one, and to be honest, it was hard and not fun. Running no longer felt exhilarating; it felt like a chore, both physically and mentally. I felt like I was gasping for air the entire time and couldn’t enjoy the sights around me. I didn’t feel invigorated; I felt exhausted and unprepared (which I was, because I was quite deconditioned from not running for a long time), and so I could only think about how awful I felt. I started to question why I even cared about doing it.
As time went on, though, I missed running. Like, really missed it. The weather got warmer, and every time I saw a runner, I felt this deep ache in my chest. I remembered how good it felt to run, to feel my body getting warm and my breathing labored at first but eventually evening out as I coasted over a few miles, enjoying the view of the river and concentrating on keeping my breath steady and putting one foot in front of the other. I decided to try again, and I felt pretty good after slogging through three very slow miles. That was in May, and then I didn’t run a single mile the rest of the summer.
But every time I was reminded of running—which happens a lot when you’re a fitness editor and have friends and colleagues who post their runs on their Instagram stories—I got really sad. I watched the movie Brittany Runs a Marathon this summer, and I cried. Like a deep, hard cry for 15 seconds. I was flooded with emotions watching her on that screen running the NYC Marathon, a race I should know what it feels like to finish. Instead, I was struggling to even get myself to go run two miles. I felt sad but I also felt even more beaten down when I thought too much about it.
I’m someone who is typically very good at getting myself to do things I don’t really want to because I know I should, so it was weird that I couldn’t get myself to go run when I so clearly wanted to do it. I was mad at myself for not being able to self-motivate, and I was also just still mad in general that I was in this position. And then when I thought about how mad I was, I started to feel stupid and guilty for being mad. I was okay! I could run if I really wanted to! This accident could have ended a lot worse, and I should just be grateful for my full recovery, not moping around because I wasn’t feeling motivated.
The truth, though, is that what happened to me was traumatic and unexpected. It took away my sense of control and turned my world upside down. Not only did it leave me injured and terrified to cross the street (I don’t anticipate that part will go away anytime soon), but it also stripped me of a goal I had been working so hard for. Within a second my well-laid plans didn’t matter. Maybe running a marathon wasn’t in the cards for me at all. Why should I go through all that trouble of running again and training for a race when so much was out of my control and clearly I could do everything right and still get taken out by a car and break my leg when I least expected it?
I started to think that maybe I could just forget about running when I moved out of NYC at the end of this summer. My internal conflict of wanting to run so badly but not having the motivation to do so was completely paralyzing. I wanted to move forward, but had no idea how to—I just felt stuck. In my mind it seemed like the easiest way to stop torturing myself would be to turn my focus onto other things. Forget about running entirely.
And that worked for a while. Since August my husband and I have been traveling around the western U.S., and our primary form of exercise is hiking. We hike almost every day. Some days we hike all day long. Hiking has begun to replace running for me—it makes me feel similarly alive and accomplished—and when I’m doing it, I can stop dwelling on what I can’t do and focus instead on what I can do.
But then I went to Hawaii to watch the Ironman World Championships (I was invited to go with Hoka One One, the official shoe sponsor of the race). As I was standing at the finish line in Kona, all my sadness and desire for running came flooding back. As I watched one person after another cross the line and get that look of elation and relief on their face—a mix of emotions I know very well from running races myself—I felt a deep sense of longing.
There’s really nothing like crossing a finish line after pushing yourself both physically and mentally to get there. You’ve won this battle with yourself; you’ve proved to yourself that even during times of real doubt, even when you thought you couldn’t possibly run one more meter, you have it in you to finish. You prepared for this, and you are capable, and you’re going to get there. It’s a special moment that teaches you to persist and to trust what you’re made of. It’s something you take away from the race course and into real life.
As I watched people finish the Ironman, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t help but see the parallels in my own life. The accident didn’t just fracture my leg and take me out of the race; it made me doubt myself and forget about all that grit and persistence that I coaxed out of myself at mile 11 of a half-marathon, or mile 16 of a marathon training run. For me, not running and not racing made me forget that I could push through tough spots and would, indeed, finish the race if I leaned into my own strength and motivation.
I’d like to say I came home from Hawaii and immediately laced up my sneakers for a run. I didn’t. But I did frantically text my brother, saying that I wanted to sign up for a race, because I know that once I’m committed and that entry fee is paid, I’ll start training. And once I start training, I know I’ll slowly feel it all coming back to me. Once I give myself a chance, I’ll feel myself getting a little more comfortable and a little faster and I’ll fall in love with running all over again. And maybe this time it’ll help when I think about those Ironman athletes and how grueling their race was. Without comparing my battle with theirs, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the impact watching them had on me. They were such real reminders that humans (including me) are resilient, that the battle is both physical and mental for all of us, and that, ultimately, the motivation to push has to come from within—but when you’re having trouble finding it, looking to your fellow athletes for inspiration can be a pretty good place to start.