by Shelby Sayre
Running hasn’t always been a part of my life. Or, I guess I should say that it hasn’t always been a welcome part of my life. My teammates from UAlbany would tell you that running sprints for errors on the volleyball court were not exactly my forte. Like most athletes, I viewed running as a punishment, or a painful part of off-season conditioning. After my 15 minutes of college fame faded, I started my career in education, married my college boyfriend, and welcomed two beautiful children into our family. I had everything I ever wanted, but something felt like it was missing. Pushed beneath the diaper changes and documenting everything my precious children did was an athlete without a sport. I missed setting audacious goals, being a little scared by them, and then chasing them anyway. I wondered if that part of my life was over. Was it mom jeans and playdates from here on out? A close friend of mine was going through a personal tragedy and mentioned to me that she thought she would try to run a half marathon. I instantly felt those little butterflies of nervousness and anticipation that I remembered all too well from my days of being an athlete.
As a self-proclaimed slowpoke and cardio avoider, I wasn’t sure that I had what it took to physically cover 13.1 miles, but I wanted to be there for my friend, and selfishly I needed the kick in the butt. I paid the money. I signed up for the race.
Yes, my first race was a half marathon. I loved almost every second of it. I ran way too fast. I didn’t have any water or nutrition. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was hooked, and I wanted more. That first half marathon led to a few more, some shorter and speedier races, two marathons, some pacing gigs and then a herniated disc. To be fair, running wasn’t completely to blame, but I do tend to indulge a bit too much in my athletic pursuits, and I was primed for an injury. Attempting to sneak in a strength session while sidestepping Legos, my favorite fitness trainer asked me for a standing long jump. I obliged. I felt a pull in my low back akin to a muscular injury. It took my breath away. I tried to brush it off, and like the champ I believed myself to be, I powered through the workout, only to find myself minutes later stuck to the floor in all my “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up" glory. I am the queen of denial and refused to believe that it was anything serious. I am the woman who showed up at the hospital 9 months pregnant and 10 centimeters dilated and was not convinced I was in labor until the doctor was telling me to push. I can handle pain, and I wasn’t going to let this literal pain in the ass stand in my way. I was teaching high school full time, instructing indoor cycling at a local studio, mothering two energetic kids and holding down the fort at home while my husband tackled shift work as a police officer. There was no time to be injured. This was November 2017.
Cut to May 2019. Countless visits to massage therapists, chiropractors, back specialists, pharmacists, and three cortisone shots later, I was at the end of my rope. I was a horrible patient. Taking it easy meant only teaching four cycling classes a week. I chased and caught a PR at the Mohawk Hudson Marathon in 2018 only weeks after a third cortisone shot. About a week after I crossed that last finish line my pain hit a new level. I was sleeping only a few hours each night, often waking my husband with my sobbing as I tried to roll over to find some relief. Getting out of bed and to an upright position was a thirty-minute ordeal as I strained desperately to straighten my crumpled form. It was time to take drastic action. My patient surgeon assured me that as far as spinal surgeries went, my discectomy would be a walk in the park and should alleviate my nagging low back pain and crippling sciatic nerve pain almost immediately. He assured me I would recover in time to kayak on my family vacation in July. It was all I needed to hear after 18 months of pain, and on May 30, 2019 I went in for surgery.
Recovery was harder mentally than physically. Running quiets my mind, gives me a feeling of freedom and achievement. It exhausts my body in a delicious way that allows me to coast on the fumes of endorphins all day long. Without running I suffered emotionally. Instructions were to avoid bending over for 6 to 8 weeks. No running or heavy lifting. I continued to have pain for eight weeks post op, and I began to think that my attempt to heal my injury for good would just be another failed attempt to be pain free. I was tired. I was sad, and my jeans were getting tight. The longer I was away from running, the more I began to believe that I probably wouldn’t return to it. Absence made my heart forget. My memories of running were clouded by all of those months of agony.
After the standard follow up, and deep into my post surgery doldrums, my doctor told me I could slowly return to my normal routine. After being restricted to brisk walking for what seemed like forever, I did what any self-respecting athlete would do and put fitness back in the center of my life. Teaching cycling classes gave me a good excuse. It was my job, after all, and I had been away for so long. Eventually peer pressure got the best of me. One of my cycling clients turned good friend is a very accomplished runner, and she suggested that we start back to our pre-surgery routine of running a few miles before my 6 a.m. classes. After weeks of putting her off, and ticking off slow treadmill miles on my own, I eventually caved and said I would give it a try. Going on that first run was like slipping into that perfect pair of jeans, which were starting to fit better, by the way. I quickly remembered that running was not just a form of exercise, but a therapy session with my running buddy, a date with my favorite podcaster, or an adventure down a new road. I had been fooling myself all summer when I thought I wouldn’t get back to running. I was back, but I was not ready to race. Maybe it was the painful memories of my last training cycle, or the desire to stay in this new honeymoon phase of my return to the roads, but I was perfectly content to run miles before my classes, or bop along to the newest trashy reality show on a treadmill early in the morning hours. My weekly miles were starting to creep up into the 30s, but I was also enjoying lifting heavy and riding with my classes. I was proud that I was diversifying my training, and despite a couple of heart stopping twinges of pain in my back when I attempted to squat a bit more than usual, at the start of 2020, I had my fitness routine solidly in check, and I was feeling more and more like my old self.
And then the world shut down. COVID-19 struck. I lost my coveted treadmill time at the gym, and I couldn’t teach cycling. I had just found my way back to my body and my competitive spirit, and suddenly all of those trusty routines I had set in place for myself were gone. Surely this would be temporary. I would head back to my free weights, avoid the heck out of those standing long jumps, and hope for a quick return to normal life. There were other ways to cope. Turns out honey mustard pretzel bites, cake, and supporting local restaurants because it was the right thing to do wasn’t cutting it. I returned to the road. Almost by accident I started to up my mileage. 50 mile weeks began to turn into 70 mile weeks, and then while listening to one of my go to podcasts, I enjoyed the stories of a few women who were not letting the pandemic dull their shine. One woman ran a 50k in loops around her driveway. Another took on the Backyard Ultra Challenge and set up an aid station in her garage. I had always daydreamed about being one of those tough, rugged, and dusty ultra runners, but these women were taking matters into their own hands and making it happen. Something clicked. I could use this global pandemic to chase another audacious goal. Welcome back butterflies. Within a week I was steadfast. I signed up for a virtual 50k that could be run anytime in 2020, and I set out on my lack of training plan. I began running as much as felt good. Careful not to up my mileage too quickly, I inched up a week at a time and incorporated strength training and weekly sweat fests on my basement stairs. There was definite fear that taking on this distance would set me back or maybe even bring on a new injury that would put me back in the pain cave, but this new adventure felt too good to slow down. Before I knew it I had run an 86 mile week. An unfathomable weekly tally for me. The further I went, the further I wanted to go. Armed with my running vest, all the water I could carry, caffeinated GU and a strong line up of running and true crime podcasts, I set out each Saturday morning for a longer long run. Rounding the corner for home, my family would greet me at the door, and I would celebrate by suggesting a trip to our favorite take out spot for breakfast or a jumbo ice cream treat later in the day. Each week presented a new challenge.
As I started to look at the calendar to plan out a weekend to take the 50k plunge, I noticed a familiar date on the calendar. May 30 happened to fall on a Saturday, and coincidentally, according to my Jun 13 ultra date, the last weekend I would plan for a super long run. How great would it be to commemorate one year out from back surgery by tackling 28 miles, a distance further than I had ever covered before? I was ready, and I went for it. Like any long run there were ups and downs along the way, but I loved being out there. I loved it even more knowing that just the year before I was nervously waiting to go under the knife with a glimmer of hope that my pain would end, and I could eventually return to my normal life. While life is anything but normal right now, I like to think that through this whole experience, I have found a way to show up for myself and to honor what my body is capable of doing. While I don’t know what 31 miles on June 13 will bring, I do know that I can do hard things, and I am so thankful that I am lucky enough to keep chasing big goals.
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