Safety Pins – or what does my pocket have in common with Amelia Boone’s car?

In late April I put on a hoodie I hadn’t worn in several months. The temperature was swinging about wildly and that one seemed perfect for the day’s mix of sun and clouds. I stuck my hands in the pockets, as one does, and felt a small bundle of something, small, hard, a little cold to the touch. I pulled it out to look – four safety pins clipped together. My heart sank.

Runners end up with this little token of our “hobby” all over the place. I have four safety pins in the cup holder in my car, in my purse, in a drawer in the kitchen, on the table in the laundry room, on my bedroom dresser. We use the pins to pin our bibs on when we race. I haven’t needed safety pins since December. It’s looking like it’s going to be awhile before I need them again.

What do my safety pins have in common with Amelia Boone’s car? Amelia Boone is a top obstacle course racer. She’s amazing. My gym is full of obstacle course fanatics and there are a bunch in Sub30 as well so even though this isn’t my particular event, I sure know who Amelia Boone is. Plus, she started doing pure running events, just really, really long ones like the Georgia Death Race. I know she’s fast and strong and that she’s also a lawyer, so, someone with a day job. In short, I know she’s incredible. She got hurt, spring 2016, and she’s only recently returning to competition. In addition to being fabulous at obstacle course racing and ultra-running, she turns out to be a mighty fine writer as well, especially when writing about her injury. Yeah, maybe I have a little Amelia fan-girl thing going on.

The day before finding those safety pins, I had happened to re-read an essay Amelia wrote a year ago about her efforts to clean out her car. Her trunk was filled with detritus from racing: shoes, gels, water bottles, socks. Probably safety pins. She took all that stuff out and looked at it and thought about putting it away so she’d have room for groceries. Then she put it back in the car. Because that’s not just gear. That stuff is a symbol of her identity. It’s a piece of her life. A part of her. I can imagine it’s a sign of hope and a stab in the heart at the same time. Like my safety pins.

My own car is surely as messy as Amelia’s and probably messier. I drive a navy blue Honda Odyssey, after all. It’s a mobile symbol of motherhood. Without even looking, I can tell you I am driving around at least two pairs of dance shoes that no longer fit my daughter. I have an outgrown car seat in the back (you never know when we might need to transport a younger friend…) and some not-yet-delivered thin mints and a bag of Easter dresses we borrowed to see if any would fit. My son’s school play had a running joke about Dr. Pepper so there’s an empty can in the passenger side door. There’s also an embarrassing number of Quest bar wrappers. I can be kind of a slob, but I’m a slob who eats plenty of protein.

The Mom-Mobile covered in spring blossoms.

 

Blue books, dance shoes, coffee and a Quest bar wrapper. Pretty much my life.

 

Clear evidence that The Aliens Are Coming! The Aliens Are Coming! Or at least proof that middle school students know how to mix art and life.

 

What, you don’t have a tiny dinosaur in your car? How did this even get there???

 

There is a single shoe on the passenger seat. Because I had to take the boot off to drive so I kept my “driving shoe” ready to go.

My driving shoe. That I used to run in.

Amelia writes a lot about the mental side of injury. About what she calls the “24-hour pass to the merry-go-round of self-flagellation”. How injured athletes manage to simultaneously berate ourselves for everything we did wrong to cause our injuries while also feeling incredibly guilty that we are so upset about something that doesn’t involve family illness, or anyone dying, or even, for most of us, financial loss. I’ve certainly done plenty of that. I’ve even spent a good deal of time wondering if I feel bad enough about stupidly running in worn out shoes last summer. Like maybe only an adequate amount of remorse will help my foot heal.

My favorite part of Amelia’s essay is when she writes that she is tired of being reminded that being an athlete is not her entire identity. Well-meaning friends and family have told her racing and competition and podium pictures (she wins a lot….) are not the only things that define who she is. But those well-intentioned reminders miss the point.

“Because, for better or worse, as humans, we seek to define ourselves. We seek meaning, and we seek joy. And for athletes, racing and competing in their chosen sport IS that joy. You build your identity around things you love, around the happiness you feel. You build your community with like-minded individuals, and the sport becomes your purpose in life.  And, frankly, I fail to see anything wrong with that.” – Amelia Boone

So much yes, Amelia. It would be SO convenient if fixing up my house could be my joy, because it certainly needs someone to fix it up. It would also be so much easier if swimming or biking could be my joy, since I can still do those things. It just so happens that running is my joy. I didn’t choose this. I am at least as surprised by this development as anyone else. My family is my life and I would do anything for them. But running is a huge source of my joy and my joy has been seriously absent since October.

Running is not the source of all my joy. I can still delight in my daughter’s soft cheeks when I wake her up every day. My heart skips a beat when I see my son dance or watch him discover a passion for archery. My husband smiles at me when I come home at the end of the day and I smile back. Hell, I can get pretty excited about the morning’s first cup of coffee. But running is still a source of great joy to me, almost all the time, yes, almost every run, yes, even the “bad” ones. I didn’t mean to love it this much. I really, really want it back. I have been quite often, quite sad in the last few months. I am not going to apologize for that. We have a right to sadness when we lose something we care about. I drive around my town and think, these are my streets. I should be running here. I am fine and not so fine, depending on the day.

When elites like Amelia Boone get injured, some of them worry about losing their identity. They don’t know who they are if they can’t practice their sport. When amateurs like me get injured, we worry about losing our identities too, but in a different way. Especially for us adult-onset athletes, the ability to identify as a runner, an athlete even, can feel tenuous and fragile. The injured adult-onset athlete doesn’t lose her whole identity. We go back to being professors, accountants, teachers, secretaries, civil servants, moms. But we risk losing something that has somehow made us whole.

I may have lost running in these last few months, but I have found some things as well. I have found that I am willing and able to train alone without my friends which was a huge surprise. I have found that my friends are willing to swim with me and that laughing in the locker room at 5:30am is almost as good as laughing in a cold dark parking lot at 5:30am. I have found the ability to reach out and ask for help when I need it and I have needed it a lot. I discovered I am willing to go ride a stationary bike in a hot hotel basement gym and that I can do a pull-up.

Mostly I have found that this identity shift to runner and athlete has taken on more permanence than I knew. A runner is someone who I am, even when I am not running. I don’t really want a new hobby so I fill my spare (not-running) time with running podcasts and running books. I go cheer at races, which hurts a lot, but is so much better than not going. All the crazy cross-training I am doing – it is not only what I “should do” in order to return to running as strong as possible. It is what I want to do because the “whole project,” as I sometimes call it, has become a part of who I am. Apparently a long term injury is not going to change any of that. Knock wood that I didn’t just jinx myself by saying that and somehow make it even longer.

My daughter’s dance bag tore a little at the dress rehearsal last month. Fortunately, I had safety pins in my purse. At first I thought using my safety pins to fix her bag meant my mom-identity had finally triumphed over my runner-identity. No more running or racing for me, only dance-mom-ing and professor-ing. But that was a mistake. I had those safety pins and could fix her bag because I am a runner and an athlete. An injury can’t change that. I can’t run well, or more importantly live well, trying to be someone I am not. But I am learning to bring these strands of identity together to be the person and the runner I want to be.

So, c’mon foot. Heal up, and let’s run!

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