confessions of a ragdoll athlete

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

The sad thing is, my season was over before it ever really began. It all started with that stupid hamstring injury I got while doing off-season training on my own in Europe last summer — born out of my enthusiasm to begin something new and my unquenchable desire to be good at it. The story about how I ran myself through Central Europe with starry-eyed dreams of coming home ready to take my place as a cross country champion, or at least a contender, has been told before. But the story doesn’t end with me sitting alone on a hillside in Southern California after the season’s final race, shouldering the immense disappointment of unsalvageable failure.

In fact, if I had known then how much farther my quest for success would take me, and who it would turn me into, I would have taken a much deeper breath that afternoon and braced myself for the longest, most grueling seven months of my entire life.

Coach was the first one to suggest I consider track in the spring. He kept saying, “With those long legs of yours, maybe I’ll stick you in the steeplechase.” At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t planning on doing track. Real life beckoned.

But I’m nothing if not extremely competitive and, as I’ve said a thousand times, I compete to win. So when I realized that these silly injuries had robbed me of a proper competitive season in cross country, I decided that perhaps a season of track would be good for me. I needed to do it. I just didn’t feel like I had finished yet.

So, all Christmas I trained with Coach and a handful of dedicated athletes who, like me, were determined to begin the season with one foot already in the blocks. And, just like the summer, I found my holiday season disappearing into a rigorous practice schedule. The day before Christmas Eve and the morning after Christmas itself, I was out on the field with Coach and the gang. (Christmas Eve I spent stuck on the couch because the lactic acid build-up in my thighs was so intense I literally couldn’t move).

And the practices weren’t easy. I’d run myself stiff on the field and then walk over to the weight room, nauseous and weak, and begin lifting. Deadlifts, hang cleans, and other various forms of addictive torture became a regular part of life, as did protein shakes, balanced meals and 64 ounces of water daily(ish).

IMG_20170310_145402When the season officially began in January, I was ready to go. A 59.59 quarter mile, making State Championships — my goals were set, as usual, unachievably high. But I wasn’t worried, because now I was used to pain. I knew I could push past that barrier in my head that said it was too hard. I had mastered the little voice that says it’s okay to quit. I was ready to put in whatever was needed and there was nothing standing between me and that medal podium.

And then it all unraveled.

It started out innocently enough. The deltoid muscle in my ankle tightened one day during the second week of school while I was practicing 650 meter repeats with the distance kids. I couldn’t finish the last few laps and the distance coach sent me to the trainers. During that all-too familiar walk across the parking lot from an uncompleted practice to the trainers, I prayed, God, please don’t let this be like last semester. Please don’t let me spend a whole season injured and on the bench again. I worked so hard all of Christmas break and I really want a chance to win this time.

Screenshot_2017-03-04-23-28-52A few days after the deltoid, I pulled my quad. It only kept me out of practice for a week or so, but I had to wear a sleeve and now I was spending extra time at the trainers before practice to get my ankle wrapped and do rehab on my leg. Moreover, the quad injury forced me to switch lead legs going over the hurdles. It was a death sentence for my season, I just didn’t know it yet.

“Back again?” Dennis and Stacey would ask every time I hobbled in on weak legs with a weak smile. “You’re just a regular humpty-dumpty, aren’t you? We’re just going to have to tape you together entirely one of these days.”

When we began practicing at the Olympic Training Center on a real track, I found myself jumping real hurdles and all the excitement was just a little too much for my right shin, which began a regular habit of lapsing into splintering pain midway through each warm-up. Once the quad injury forced me to lead with the right leg, I found myself careening over hurdles and thudding to the ground on a splintering shin.

So now my stunts at the trainers included taking care of my shins and popping 800 milligrams of ibuprofen before practice to curb the pain and inflammation.

None of this I minded — I loved spending time at the trainers because they are kind, interesting people with super cool, space-agey gadgets that do the most incredible things to help the human body. No, the problem was that I finished work at noon and practice started at one o’clock, which meant I had only an hour to get to school, change for practice and still get a substantive workout at the trainers. So, I was usually late for practice.

But I also had class at three every day, which meant, either I lost time at the front and back end of practice or I was late for class as well.

My level of respect for student athletes has multiplied a hundredfold in the last year. That needs to be said. What these kids are able to balance is amazing.

IMG_20170202_162406I was doing a decent enough job managing the stress of trying to be in four places at once, all things considered. But, even though my times were getting better little by little, I was frustrated that I seemed to be missing out on getting a full practice in. As the realities of being an injured student-athlete who also has to pay bills began to sink in, so did the nagging spirits of doubt. Maybe it’s not true that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Maybe sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or your body just physically does not have what it takes, or the window of possibility has closed already. The more time I spent on a table at the trainers, knowing I was missing warm-ups again, the more keenly I felt my chances at State slipping away. And with our first meet a week away and my quad still wrapped in a sleeve and mounds of tape wound around my ankle, the fear that this season might actually be just as frustrating as the last one tightened its grip.

So then, my prayer changed — God, please just let me compete this year. Even if I don’t win anything, please just let me compete.

And, for reasons that I would question for the next nine weeks, God said, “No.”

Halfway through our second meet of the season, immediately following my 400 meter race — a nerve-wracking thrill of an experience in which I distinctly placed dead last — my shins began their usual song of shrilly-sung misery.

“It’s really bad,” I told a teammate as we laced up for our next event — hurdles.

“Everyone gets shin splints,” she said. “You’ve just got to muscle through it.”

And it’s true. Most of the athletes on the team have complained about shin splints at some point this season. So I put my spikes on and I finished my last race of the day.

Fullscreen capture 5112017 103335 PM.bmpI wish I had known then that it would be my last hurdle race of the season. I wish I could have savored the feeling of soaring into the air, moving forward with purpose and poise, and the rush of my heart as we careened around the track. But I didn’t. I was too busy trying not to come in last place, worrying about whether Coach would be disappointed if I got a bad time.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. On Monday the trainers told me to get my shin x-rayed and I spent a week doing my workouts in a pool so I wouldn’t be putting weight on my leg. I limped around campus until Friday when the doctor saw me and immediately put me in a boot.

“We’ll check on it again in about two weeks,” he said, giving me the number for a physical therapy place to call. The prescription said, “Twice a week, five weeks.”

Five weeks put us into April and dangerously close to the end of our season.

When I told Coach, he folded his arms and sighed. I think he knew then what he never once said to me: my season was finished.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

I was quiet for a minute. What did I want to do? I wanted to rewind to the first week of January when I was still hurdling pain-free. I wanted to go back to sprint workouts in December, the heaving and hurting and harried breath. I wanted to run.

“The doctor said I can do javelin if it doesn’t irritate the leg.”

Coach just nodded. “OK,” he said. “But I want you to keep doing your pool workouts.”

I promised I would.

So that was that. Now, I began my mornings extra early, heading to the gym to practice sprints in the pool before work, then hurrying to the trainers before javelin practice, and hitting the gym again in the evenings after class to get an upper body workout in to supplement the javelin routine. And, somehow, I still managed to squeeze in those physical therapy appointments twice a week (my therapist informed me that my shin splints were a reaction to the hamstring injury I had gotten over the summer, which never really healed. Each following injury was, to some extent, a domino effect from that first pulled muscle). My day was planned down to the minute. Heaven forbid I forget to pack a lunch or leave a book at home. I basically lived out of my car. My gym bag was a veritable zombie-apocalypse survival kit.

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Every day was more frustrating than the one before. At first I had hoped that, with the alternative workouts, maybe I’d be able to keep up with everyone else and still have a shot at qualifying for SoCal Championships (I had all but given up on State, even in the unrealistic version of my dreams). I was even practicing static hurdle drills at home, using an intricate jimmy-rigging of my livingroom furniture.

Yes, I understood that the chances of being able to get out of the boot in time for one last race was almost non-existent, but as soon as that thought crept into the back of my tired mind, I pushed it away. I didn’t have the strength to think about the odds. I just needed something to hope for. I needed a reason to not give up. So I hoped for one final, magnificent race.

But as the weeks dragged out miserably and my leg showed little improvement, I stopped hoping for a quality race and just started hoping for a race, any race.

Oh, the conversations I had with God this semester… Questioning, accusing, pleading. All I’ve wanted to do all year was run. Why would He keep refusing such a simple request? Such a little thing in the grand view of the eternal cosmos, wanting to run. Why would He deny me that when I’ve worked so hard? I was hurt, confused, and discouraged. I would drift into the trainers and try to match the cheery smiles of Dennis and Stacey, but by mid-April, my spirits were failing. It didn’t help that the javelin workouts had begun a whole new set of sore, bruised or strained muscles.

“What are we going to do with you?” Stacey would ask with her fix-everything smile.

“I don’t know,” was all I could manage. “I think I’m just unraveling.”

IMG_20170216_145151That was me, emotionally and mentally thread-bare and physically unraveling at the seams. And all the while, I felt like I was drifting away from the team and my teammates. I rarely saw anyone anymore.

I still drove up to meets on the weekends to support everyone. I’d see them in the trainers after a practice. But it wasn’t the same. Even fondly being known as “the girl who’s always injured” by my fellow athletes on campus didn’t make up for the fact that I was missing a second season — my last season.

But every time I was tempted to give up, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the madness, the hopelessness of it all, I would tell myself, “This is just the last curve in the track. This is the 300 meter mark and after this is a straight sprint home. You just gotta keep going.”

So I did.

The week we were preparing for the Conference Championship, Coach asked the throwers to practice with the sprinters at the local high school (it still felt weird, being a thrower and not a runner). I was in and out of the boot that week. My movements were limited, but I could walk and trot as needed. One of the interns at the trainers had taped up my ankle a little too tightly and as I limped onto the track, I knew it was going to be a problem.

I hobbled around for a few minutes before resigning myself to the fact that the tape was just going to have to come off. A teammate tossed me my keys and I sat down on the twenty-yard line and tried to cut the tape away from my ankle with the jagged edge of the metal.

“Mary, what are you doing?” Coach asked from the side of the track where he was surveying the team.

“The tape is too tight,” I answered, trying to keep the frustrated tears from my eyes, gingerly wrestling with my ankle as I watched another practice slip away. Coach does not believe in crying, so I try not to do it in front of him.

Walking over with lanky strides, his large, friendly gait silhouetted in the bright sunshine of the hot spring afternoon, Coach took up a spot on the turf next to me. He spread his legs out into a ‘V’ like a big, twelve-year-old boy and pulled my ankle up onto his knee.

“Here, give me that key,” he said. The gentle lull of his voice was coated in his usual chuckle, amused at my propensity for getting into scrapes, like a cat that always finds itself up a tree.

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning,” I said. “I’ll find out then if I’m cleared to run.”

“Wednesday,” he said. “That’s the day of Conference Semifinals.”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, “But they were all booked up this week — it was the soonest I could see him. And it will be before the races start. It’s a morning appointment.”

Coach didn’t say anything, but I knew I was cutting it close.

For the next few minutes, as Coach tore at the thick fibers of the tape, the world seemed to take a deep breath and I felt the relief. Around us, my teammates were still sprinting in their lanes in flashes of maroon and black. Janet and the hurdlers were racing around the track, bathed in sweat and sunshine, and a part of me yearned to be out there with them. But strangely, part of me was content to just be here, injured as a I was, simply resting in a moment’s pause from my usual hurry of commitments. And what a coach, I thought as I watched him slice away at the ankle wrap, to take the time to sit here and help me with such a menial thing. It was small, but it mattered so much. It made such a difference to me that day to know I wasn’t forgotten.

Whatever emotional respite those few minutes gave me were all that sustained me through the last big trial of my long, long season.

Friday afternoon’s team meeting was moved from 1:20 to eleven o’clock. I rushed over as soon as I got off work, but they were already finished and filing out of the parking lot when I arrived. I found one of the throwers and asked her what I missed.

“Just assignments for conference,” she said. “Coach put you in javelin.”

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, looking a little confused. “I mean, you’re not cleared yet so he can’t.”

I don’t remember if I said ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to her. I think I may have just drifted away. I meandered over to the school’s track field where my cross country season began nearly a year ago. Looking out over the lonely grass where I learned how to be a runner, heart aching, I burst into tears.

Weeks and weeks of pool sprints and physical therapy and driving myself crazy trying to keep up with everything, all for nothing. My season was over. My last race had been run.

July’s dreams of being a cross country champion, the early hopes of December and January all seemed ridiculous, vain. All my efforts washed away with one, unforgiving blow — a blow that happened months before I even knew what a hurdle was. Like the invisible gears of a broken clock, closed behind little golden doors, the muscles and bones of my body continued grinding out of place until something finally snapped, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again. At least not in time for my last race.

Sobbing into my hands in the middle of that empty field, I asked one more time, God, why? Why would you bring me into this only to know from the start that you were going to take it all away?

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

I had a few days to calm down before I saw Coach again. He didn’t say anything about my season, so neither did I.

The doctor did clear me to run on Wednesday morning. “Probably not hurdles, but if you were to run a 400, if it was just one race, that would be okay. It might set you back a week or two in the healing process, but I can understand why you would want to, seeing as this is your last season.”

It didn’t make any difference, of course, even with the little slip of paper, all signed and pretty — registrations closed for conference a week ago. But I told Coach anyway when I showed up at conference semifinals that afternoon, and then I got ready to throw javelin at finals on Saturday. By that point, I was just happy to still be in a uniform. Happy that the championships were close enough to home that my parents could finally see me compete. Happy to be out of the boot and walking around on my own two feet. You don’t wish you could win races when you can’t even walk — you just wish you could get up stairs.

The fierce winds that had kept my sails blowing all year had finally died down to a whisper. It was calmer. Quieter. I felt empty, but at least I was at peace.

I threw my final round of javelin and it was decent enough. Nothing special, but I hadn’t been hoping for greatness.

“How’d it go?” Coach asked me as I rounded the corner by the triple jump, a flurry of school colors and officials’ whistles in the backdrop.

“It was okay,” I said. “I got a new PR, but I didn’t make the final round. So that’s it. It’s been a good season.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “Your season may not be over. We need someone to fill in a leg of the 4×400 relay. Were you serious about wanting one last race?”

My heart stopped.

“Coach, are you serious?” I asked, barely enough energy left to even hope for it. “Yes, yes, I’d do anything!”

“I know you would,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Go talk it over with the girls, they’re warming up now.”

The bounce in my step as I rushed over to the relay girls gave away my enthusiasm.

“You are way too excited for this,” said Jessica as I bounded over to their circle next to the sand pits. The girls were sprawled on the grass in their warm-up suits with their spikes laying next to them.

“This is my last race,” I tried to explain, attempting to contain the smile that had etched across my face. “I’m getting my last race!”

“Have you even done a relay before?” Jessica asked skeptically with a knowing smile. I shook my head.

“Alright, go warm up and then I’ll show you the hand-off,” she ordered, flipping a long braid over her shoulder and giving me a catty grin. I did as she told me to — no one says ‘no’ to Jessica.

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My warm-up was short, we didn’t have a lot of time. Just jogging around the empty baseball field next to the stadium felt amazing. My legs, so long dormant, were delighted to have blood pumping through them again.

Had it really only been eight weeks since the last time I ran? It felt like years.

Jessica and Jennifer showed me how to do the hand-off — that was the part I was really worried about — and then Janet came over with orders from Coach. I was fourth leg, I was the anchor.

“Coach wants us to give her a good lead,” said Janet. The girls all nodded. We haven’t been competitive in the relay all season. In fact, I don’t think we beat a single team all year, so it didn’t really matter who ran which leg, we were going to come in last anyway. Hypothetically.

But Coach had a plan, so we went with it. And I didn’t really care where we placed anymore. I was over the moon just to have spikes on my feet again.

We took our places at the starting line, Janet in her blocks, Jessica waiting behind her at the mark, and Jennifer and I on the sidelines.

The gunshot sounded and Janet took off like a rocket. Janet is fast. She ate that first lap like a piece of cake. Jessica successfully took the baton and widened the lead, which was quite a feat considering she’s a short sprinter normally. Jennifer was still issuing me instructions when she took her place on the starting line, seconds before grasping the metal rod from Jessica’s steady fingers and making the loop herself. Jennifer is a 400 runner, so the sizeable lead we had grew into something magnificent and suddenly I found myself standing at the starting line of my first race in eight weeks with a tiny possibility of actually winning.

But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about the fifty-meter lead the girls had just earned us. I wasn’t even thinking about how painful running this race usually is. In fact, all my nerves were gone. I was cool and calm and ready. As soon as Jennifer slid that metallic-red baton into my hand and I felt it firmly beneath my grip, the world slipped away.

My feet took off beneath me, fierce golden breezes beat down on my back like wings, and I was flying. For the first time in two months, I was racing down a track again, hugging the bend and plunging into the straightaway.

I laughed out loud — mid-race, I actually laughed out loud, it felt so good to run again. Joy and adrenaline shot through my body as I dove into the 200 meter stretch. I could hear Coach from the sidelines telling me to breathe, the same thing he’s been saying to me since September.

Everything else was clockwork. Like riding a bike, it just all came back. Dorsiflex, open stride, shoulders down, elbows at ninety degrees.

Even headed into that dreaded 300 meter mark, I felt good. If there was pain, it didn’t register. My mind was too full of stars and sunshine and freedom.

Somewhere in the stands, I could hear Corey shouting that the girl behind me was catching up, and as I turned the last curve and headed into the final stretch home, the roar from the stands told me my place was in contention.

My opponent, quickly closing on me, had won the open four earlier in the day. She was a bullet, and now she was shooting past me. Seventy-five meters from the finish, I felt my legs start to cramp. I still had air in my lungs and energy in my body, but eight weeks of not practicing on a track finally caught up to me. Every step was like running waist-deep in mud, until finally, fifty yards from the finish line, my legs locked beneath me and I toppled to the ground.

The bullet-girl whizzed past and I could feel my muscles seizing. For a minute, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be able to stand up again.

Lucky for me, I have had an entire year of practice when it comes to falling down, so I know first hand that you can always find a way back up.

Heaving myself back onto my feet, I shot a quick look over my shoulder to see where the third runner was. She was nowhere in my peripherals, but I wasn’t taking any chances. With every last ounce of stamina I possessed, I pulled myself across that finish line and into the arms of my teammates before sinking to the ground once more as my legs gave out beneath me.

Within seconds, half the team had filed onto the field to help lift me up and carry me off the track. All these kids I hadn’t seen in weeks were there hugging me and congratulating me on what they considered to be quite the finish.

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“I’m sorry for losing the lead,” I kept saying, but Jessica would shush me.

“But you got back up! You finished!”

Janet made me lay down so she could stretch the butt-lock out of my glutes and one of the guys brought my shoes over so I could change out of my spikes. I tried standing but felt the overwhelming urge to puke, so I stayed bent at the waist for several minutes, trying to let my body calm down. My elbow burned from where the track had shaved off several layers of skin during my spill.

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The next thing I knew, amid the blur of congratulations and the ever-present urge to vomit, I was being pulled onto a medal podium.

“What’s this for?” I asked, head still spinning slightly.

“We got second place,” Jennifer told me as they put medals around our necks.

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They took our picture and I had to use most of my remaining concentration to not fall off the podium. It wasn’t until we were back on the grass that I looked at the medal.

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer excitedly, her big, beautiful smile dressing her face with glee. “You get that for running. We got second place, Mary!”

That’s when I lost it. After all that, after my expectations and aspirations of winning had long been put to rest, here was the long-awaited medal in my hand.

All year long, God has closed every single door I’ve tried to walk through. From that first hamstring fiasco in July that cut my off-season workouts short, to each of the subsequent injuries that prevented me from practicing or competing, every time I thought I found a way to do it on my own, God said, ‘no.’

It wasn’t until I had been humbled to the point of surrender, stripped of my pride and steadied in the contentment of His will that he finally said, ‘yes.’ And then I understood that this medal and this race were His and not mine.

Suddenly, something much greater clicked into place. A point of doctrine that I learned as a little girl in Sunday school, a functioning of my faith that I have always understood technically but never before had context to: that we obey God because we love him. As Christians, God calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience, in big ways and in small. It is a long, difficult race to run, but there is no fear of failure because we already know that a victor’s crown awaits us at the end — not because of our good works, but because of His. And so the race we run as Christians is not one of dread and misery, it is a race in which we set forth with joy and perseverence. Joy, because we know our pardon is sealed and the race is already won — perseverence, because we want to live up to the high calling given to us by our God. 

And so too, my hopes for track were no longer those of personal ambition. I was running a race I knew was a gift to me, a race I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in. Coach had given me the chance to run one last time, so I ran not just with delight for the privilege to participate, but also with determination to redeem the honor Coach had won for me in hopes that he would be delighted too. And those 70 seconds might just be forever emblazoned in my heart, like words of promise in stone. 

We could have come in last place. I could have tripped every three meters of that track and I still would have been happy at the finish line. How much my attitude has changed since November. How humbling this season has been for me, to learn that everything I am able to do, each moment of my day and effort of my life is a gift from God. 

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Suddenly, on that golden field, surrounded by people I love — people whose love I’m not sure I even deserve — all those closed doors made sense. God had not forgotten me. How amazing that, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, he would take the time to carefully walk me through this year — not just shutting doors, but providing people to help me bear up beneath the weight of discouragement and despair. Friends who took time out of their practices to teach me how to throw, trainers who patiently and cheerfully treated my every injury, a Coach who never, not once gave up on me.

If this year as a college athlete has taught me anything, it is, firstly, the peace and fulfillment which comes from embarking on life’s grand journey with steadfast joy. Secondly, it has reaffirmed the absolute certainty of God’s loving hand in my life. Like a toymaker carefully stitching together a doll, not leaving out a single button or seam, or a busy coach who takes time to tend to the very least of his athletes, He will not forget me.

 

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3 thoughts on “confessions of a ragdoll athlete

  1. Bravo Mary, bravo. Like you, God has unveiled many wonder life lessons in his quiet and loving way to me also. And like you, I have learned the true message in life and in sport, is not the victory but the struggle, and it is not the winning effort but to have just taken part. Love you, and you’re right, I will never forget you. – Coach

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