What if I can’t keep up? I wondered.
What if I slow people down or have to stop and walk?
Won’t there be expectations for how well I should be able to run since I started this group?
What will I do if I get part-way into the run and realize I’m still injured?
What if I get part-way into the run and realize I can’t keep going... that I don’t have my running legs back?
What will happen if I don’t enjoy running anymore... if it’s just too hard?
Will the new run leaders accept me and be nice to me even though I haven’t been around for such a long time?
These were some of the thoughts wriggling through my head when I considered running with FHR for the first time after nearly 20 weeks of swimming and biking as I recovered from a severe running-related injury.
The idea was far scarier than I’d like to admit, and when I think back to my concerns, I don’t think my reservations or fears or whatever one would like to call these considerations were any different from the ones others feel when they first consider joining a running group. In fact, I was so afraid that I would fail or look like an idiot or no longer fit in when I came out to run with the group after so much time off that I couldn’t even write this piece, which I’ve been ruminating on for months. And even though these sorts of considerations are critical when thinking about putting a running group together and recruiting people to join it because it’s good for their bodies, minds, and spirits, this was the first time I’d considered how hard it is to take the initiative to come out to run with a group for the first time - to take the leap of faith that you’ll get to the run and there will be people there who will be kind, who will appreciate your eccentricities, who will be friendly and patient with you, and who might actually be interested in being your friend.
It’s a lot harder than I imagined it would be and yet I’m glad I had the experience because it’s helped me hugely to see what it’s like for others who are taking that risk to try FHR for the first time.
Let me give you a little backstory to clarify things.
In March of 2012 I was running better than I’ve ever run in my entire life. I’d qualitfied for the Boston Marathon in the 2010 NYC Marathon, which I ran during my first year in medical school... and once I had a Boston Marathon qualifying time, I figured I had to run it... and what better time to run it than during my second year of medical school... right? All my injuries disappeared as the 2012 Boston Marathon training period approached and my base-training came together in a remarkable way by November of 2011. Then I was contacted by the Franklin Park Coalition, an awesome organization that does a huge amount of work to make Franklin Park more accessible to underserved populations in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain, and does a phenomenal job of improving the park for everyone. The coordinator of the Franklin Park Coalition Marathon Team, Julie Arrison, an inspiring woman who is now a friend, gave me the opportunity to run for them This absolutely made my year because running for such a great organization - running for something bigger than myself - gave me the extra incentive to push myself harder than ever before. Not only that, but I knew that working with the Franklin Park Coalition would help to spread the word about FHR and thus help FHR reach more people and help more people to be active and connect with others in their community.
Plus, I got to work with Mike Toomey, an awesome guy and one of the best coaches I’ve ever run under.
I trained hard. I ran hills. I ran a lot with runners from Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, many of whom I saw workout after workout wearing their FHR shirts with pride and some of whom just came out for one or two runs. I got faster than I’ve ever been, running PRs on some of the hardest courses of my life. I ran track workouts that Mike Toomey prepared for me and I ran long, fast runs on weekends. Then, three weeks before the marathon, on an easy tempo run around Leveritt Ponds, my back cramped up and I started limping... hobbling, actually... and when I tried to push the pace through the cramp, I crumpled to my knees with 60 out of 10 pain on a 1 to 10 pain scale - imagine a pitbull gnawing on your hipbone and cranking its neck back and forth to try to remove it from your body. (I have a great story about this if you’re interested in learning what advice you shouldn’t give to injured people you come upon while walking around the neighborhood).
I couldn’t walk for a week. I could barely shuffle. I skipped all my classes, was in too much pain to study, and went from doctor to doctor like a drug seeker because no one would tell me what was happening: I saw a family practice doc who wouldn’t refer me to an orthopedic surgeon because he said it was a muscle pull; went to a sports med doc who also told me it was a pulled muscle (“come back in two weeks if it isn’t better”); visited an endocrinologist who was worried about my electrolyte balance, vitamin D levels, and bone density; went to my chiropractor who believed my sacroiliac joint was inflamed; visited an acupuncturist for the first time in my life who was convinced I was having sciatic pain even though he did no physical exam and ended up using a combination of acupuncture, cupping, and Chinese herbs, which did nothing; and I called my brother-in-law, an internist who is one of the most brilliant and empathic people I’ve ever encountered, who told me it might take six months to recover.
Oh good, I said. But the problem remained: I had to run Boston in less than three weeks. And I think I would have tried to run it if they hadn’t offered deferment thanks to the heat advisory; would have tried to run even though I couldn’t run more than a mile without breaking down and crying like a 7-year old who’s just had his favorite stuffed animal lit on fire in front of his face.
It turned out that I’d broken my sacrum and even though there’s no telling this for sure, I think I fractured it completely - not just on a hairline level - when I tried to push through the cramp at the end of that run three weeks before the 2012 Boston Marathon.
When I finally admitted that I couldn’t run any longer and convinced my chiropractor to send me for a MRI since none of the other doctors would do so (“your pain would be way worse if you’d fractured something,” they would say when I said I thought it was broken, not knowing my pain tolerance isn’t quite natural), I started swimming and road biking to maintain some fitness.
And I liked it. It was fine. But it wasn’t running. And I missed running like salmon heading back to spawn miss the stream they were born in.
Slowly but surely, I improved. At ten weeks from the injury I would still sometimes cringe from pain on bike rides, still sometimes catch myself walking and tear up a little because the pain was so sharp, electric, and deep. 15 weeks out from the injury, I was still in pain at times, but it wasn’t so deep. It was surface - like a warning that I wasn’t ready and needed more time, more patience. Finally, 18 weeks out from the injury, I realized I was almost ready.
I couldn’t wait to run with FHR... and yet it was clear that I wasn’t in running shape. I consider myself a runner and would be considered by most people to be a competitive runner with the times that I’ve produced, but I hadn’t run in 18 weeks. I was out of shape.
So here I was wanting to run with FHR, the team I had helped found in April of 2011, and I was afraid to join the team for a run because I didn’t know if I could keep up. I didn’t know if I’d look like a fool, didn’t know if I’d like all the new people who were running with the team, didn’t know if I’d fit in, and didn’t want to hold people back.
This experience was humbling and wonderful because it made me realize how hard it is for people to make that leap of faith - to trust that showing up to run with FHR or to any community running group will be a good experience and not one more trying experience in an already difficult day in an already difficult, complicated life. Because sitting down in front of the television with a bowl of chips and some guac is way easier than walking out that door and heading to Stonybrook station.
But when I took that leap of faith and came out for my first run back with FHR, showing up to run with Jamie (who was leading the run even though I’d never met her before), Lisa, Rosemary, and Maura (who became a good friend through FHR runs in the past), I was reminded of how great it is to run with others, to connect with people who appreciate living an active life or want to try a more active lifestyle for the first time. I got to know people I’d never met before and, in the movement and flow of running, connected with them in a rewarding way that I wouldn’t have been able to do in any other way.
I was reminded of why I cared enough to start FHR in the first place.
It’s not because I want to be the fastest runner in Boston. It’s not because I want to impress people with how fast I am. It’s not because I even love running (though I do). It’s because I love being around other people who appreciate running: this simple, human activity that makes us better, as people, if we take the opportunity to do it on a consistent basis. I was reminded that FHR is about community first and running second and that if we all keep that in mind, we will become better people and better runners together.