The pain was almost unbearable. Every time my right foot struck the ground, an electric shock reverberated across my heel and up my Achilles, as though I were hitting my funny bone with a sledgehammer charged by a live wire. Over and over and over again. Every step of every mile of every run.
When the pain started several months before, I figured my Achilles tendon was simply acting up. (My Achilles has a history of being uncooperative.) I plunged it in buckets of ice and consoled it with Advil, but even after dozens of icy baptisms, the pain was not only still there, but getting worse. Sometimes I had to cut my mileage short. Sometimes I couldn’t run at all. I realized I was no longer in the Kansas of Achilles insurgency. This was something more serious.
I realized it, mind you, but I refused to do anything about it.
I’ll get it looked at after my marathon, I lied to myself, trying to rationalize my determination to keep running. It’s not like I can do anything about it now anyway. I’ll get it checked out the day after the marathon. I just need to get through the race...
Of course, it was all a grand deception. I did not “get it checked out” the day after the marathon. Or the week after the marathon. Or the month after the marathon. No, I did not get it checked out until I was forced to, five months after the marathon, when I pulled up lame on the side of a lone country road, unable to take another step.
I felt betrayed. My foot had sabotaged me. Sure, I had stretched the truth about the whole “calling the doctor” thing, but my intentions had been good. I mean, it’s not like I had been complaining about the pain. In fact, I had told very few people about it at all. (And that only out of necessity, like when I was doubled over in pain behind the Visitor’s Center in Forest Park, and my running buddy posed the not-easily-evaded question, “Why are you doubled over in pain?”) I was training for a marathon. A little discomfort is par for the course, right? And aren’t runners supposed to be tough? Aren’t we supposed to gut things out? Isn’t the pain supposed to just go away after awhile? Doesn’t time heal all wounds?
As it turns out, no. No, time does not heal all wounds.
You see, upon finally visiting a doctor, metaphorically kicking and screaming (that is until I started literally kicking and screaming when he asked the choreographed question, “Does it hurt when I do THIS?”), I discovered that the injury to my right foot stemmed from an injury to my hip. And the injury to my hip stemmed from an injury to my left ankle. Which I had sprained. Four years ago. Yes, I was a walking domino effect of injury: the ankle to the hip and the hip to the foot.
And the green grass grows all around, all around. And the green grass grows all around.
But the problem wasn’t simply that I had sprained my ankle. The problem was that I had sprained it and had then kept running—without ever letting my ankle heal. My body tried to compensate with a tweaked stride, which basically involved twisting my hips to shift as much weight as possible from my left side to my right. The twist in my hips, which had nothing to do with the actual Twist as sung by Chubby Checker, altered the way my right foot struck the ground. Each time it struck the ground. Day after day. For a bazillion miles.
Voila. Injury to the right foot. (I would go into greater medical detail, but I’m pretty sure I’d have to sign a HIPPA release form or something.)
Yes, I had gone to the doctor because of the excruciating pain in my right foot, but the truth was I had been living with a whole body of pain for the past several years. I did a fair job of keeping it under wraps, but finally, the pain had become so severe I couldn’t run anymore. Only then did I realize the damage the original injury had caused. Because I had never dealt with the pain in the first place. Because I had tried to move forward too soon.
Because I had never let it heal.
We hear a lot about “moving on.” But while we shouldn’t wallow in wanton pity, sometimes I wonder if the pressure to move forward isn’t doing an injustice to those who are hurting. Pain is a complicated business. Suffering can run very deep. There is a difference between something that stings and something that wounds. In the former case, we can usually keep running. In the latter, the pain forces us to stop, lame on the side of the road, unable to take another step. In that case, it takes much more than a slap on the back and a perky slogan to heal the damage done.
There is a lot of hurt in this world. Much of it we can’t even see. I think if we were ever given emotional X-ray vision, we would be shocked by the images before us. We would see unspoken injuries tucked away within strong bodies, hidden within close friends, and concealed in strangers. We would see unspoken injuries camouflaged by great accomplishments and buried in daily activities. We would see unspoken injuries masked by ideal lives and genuine smiles. We would see unspoken injuries in some of the most confident people we know. We would see unspoken injuries pushed down and ignored and handed over to the auspices of time, but never truly healed.
It is a difficult, frustrating, and—at times—uncomfortable feeling to see someone in pain and to be unable to do anything about it. But sometimes simply the fact that we can see their pain, that we are not afraid to acknowledge it, is enough.
When I was doubled over in agony behind the Visitor’s Center in Forest Park… and in the middle of Dogtown… and on the sidewalk along McCausland… nothing my running buddies could have said or done would have made my injury any better. Nothing could have lessened the pain. In fact, it was probably a rather uncomfortable situation for them—I writhing in pain along some of St. Louis’s busiest thoroughfares, and they simply standing there next to me. But that’s just where I needed them to be.
No, they couldn’t heal my right foot. No, they had no idea that the pain was a chain reaction of injuries traveling across my body and over several years. But they saw my pain, and they were there. They stopped when I stopped. They walked when I walked. They ran when I ran… and then they offered to run back to the car to pick me up when I had to stop again.
Instead of saying I should keep running—instead of exhorting me to move on, which at the time I couldn’t—they simply offered to be strong for me.
Pain is real, and far from being a sign of weakness, it is a sign of an injury sustained, of a wound that needs attention. Yes, we want to be strong. Yes, we want to keep running. But sometimes we have to stop before we can move on. We have to acknowledge that we are hurting. We have to allow not just time, but deliberate, attentive time—a time during which we can talk, during which we can cry, during which we can be comforted. It is a momentary pause, and it can be frightening, but it is a necessary one.
For sometimes the only way we can truly move forward is to take time for healing.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.