Within a few weeks of moving to Tacoma in August of 2014, a new colleague, Ingrid, invited me to join her for a Sunday run on the trails at our beautiful city park, Point Defiance. The group, organized by a great runner named Jim, meets weekly for a 5-6 mile recovery run on the trails. I was nervous about keeping up, not having run much since May, but the group kept a conversational pace and took short breaks for socializing every mile or two. The trails here are simply stunning, and we weaved through the lush emerald forest on a broad fire road and narrow single-track deer trails, with the occasional view of South Puget Sound. I was smitten. These runs became the highlight of my week and solidified my preference for the trails over the road. It’s a meditative experience, and galloping down technical hills and sloshing through mud are just plain fun. I was slower on the trails, clocking my first trail half marathon a full hour longer than my first road half, but I didn’t care. My competitiveness gave way to the sheer delight of gliding through the natural world, soaking in its beauty. Plus, trail runners are a breed apart from road runners. There’s a sense of community and comaraderie unique to this world, and it felt like I had found my home.

First Sunday Trail Run

My first Sunday Trail Run at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma. I believe the photo credit goes to a passing stranger since Jim is pictured here. September 2014.

Of course, I kept up with the road runs, too, and found myself training for a full marathon in the winter of 2015. I had reached a point where I felt like I could run a half marathon in my sleep and wanted a new challenge. During my first 18 mile training run, I reached that zen-like zone I had heard of, and knew that longer distances were for me.

Fast forward to mid-April. Two weeks out from my goal race, the Tacoma City Marathon, when I should have been tapering, I wanted to get in a few extra miles on Sunday, so I decided to show up for the 8:20 trail run. This run precedes the recovery run and covers 3 miles at a steady pace. This was the first time I joined the early group. Heading down the hill from Fort Nisqually, we were bunched up a bit, and I didn’t have a good view of the footing ahead. About a half mile out, a sleeper root grabbed my foot and sent me flying.

You hear about these things happening in slow motion, and this moment was no exception. I heard the snap as my right foot caught on the root. Overcompensating, I leaped into the air, and then hopped about 5 steps on my left leg, unable and unwilling to put weight on the right one. Hops morphed to a forward plunge to the ground. I heard someone yell, “runner down!” It was humiliating. I motioned for the group to continue on, and Alexander stayed with me. I burst into tears. Not because of the pain, but because I knew something was broken and that I wouldn’t be running my first marathon. Denial kicked in with shock, and I hobbled out on both legs, using Alexander as a support. Unable to see out of one eye, I thought a contact had popped out, and I spent a few minutes in an absurd attempt to locate a tiny, clear piece of glass in a forest. Giving up, we trekked back toward to car to the sound of hammers. The hammers turned out to be two Pileated woodpeckers, and we stopped to admire them at their work, a moment of beauty in an otherwise ugly situation.

A couple hours of RICEing and the swelling around my ankle only grew worse. It was time to visit urgent care. I explained the situation to the doctor and was relieved when she said she thought it was only a sprain and that, after some rest, I would be good to run that first marathon. The x-ray results said otherwise. I will never forget the way that doctor walked into the room, x-rays in hand, and asked in a voice that promised only good news, “Well, are you ready to know the results?!” “Yes!” I replied, sure now that it was only a sprain. “You broke it! You won’t be running that marathon!” I realize that it can be difficult to convey tone through writing, but please imagine these words being delivered in the most enthusiastic manner, as if she was actually telling me that, not only did I not break my ankle, but I in fact strengthened in and would surely run the fastest marathon in recorded history. This doctor clearly skipped her course on bedside manners. Cue the tears and unbearable self pity.

goodbye, marathon

Self portrait of self pity. April 2015

I had worked hard, and in one second had ruined everything. I was a miserable, pathetic mess. I was furious–madness maddened. Then things got worse.

Later that week, as the tech wrapped my broken leg (distal fracture in the right fibula, to be exact) in sky blue plaster tape, my phone rang. Seeing it was our veterinarian, I handed it to Alexander to answer. I had taken in my cat Dexter the week before for lab work to diagnose some trouble he was having with breathing. As the tech spoke with me and wrapped and wrapped, Alexander became silent. I new something was wrong but refrained from even looking at him until we pulled out of the parking lot. He informed me that Dexter had renal lymphoma, and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

Everything shattered.

Dexter and I set up camp on the couch. He went to chemo, I rested. We started the healing process together. I forgot to feel sorry for myself and focused instead on enjoying each moment with him. Talk about perspective. His strength inspired me, but my immobility was incredibly frustrating. Four weeks in a cast. Eight weeks in a boot. The most basic of tasks were impossible, and I felt incredibly helpless. Dexter handled his chemo treatments with grace, so I sucked it up and dealt with my own recovery. Already the injury seemed like a blessing of sorts, as it gave me a perfectly valid excuse to spend most of the day hanging with the Big Guy. I knew that I would give up running forever if it meant I had just one extra day with him. I was fortunate to have one extra year.

Laying on a couch with your leg propped up makes you restless. To occupy my mind, I frantically read online about others with the same injury, trying to determine how long it would take me to get back to running and, more importantly, if I would ever regain my speed. The internet being what it is, I found so many disparate views that I threw up my arms in defeat. A chance encounter with my physical therapist, Chad, in June brought the answer I so needed. Seeing me on crutches, he asked, “so what is it?” When I explained the fractured fibula, he simply nodded and nonchalantly replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. We’ll get it fixed, no problem.” He walked away, and I had to refrain from bursting into tears of absolute joy. It was the reassurance I so desperately needed, and his casual reply gave me an incredible lift in spirits.

I started my physical therapy in mid-August. It was an incredibly slow process, and it frustrated me to no end, but I was in good hands. Long walks along my former running routes became part of my routine, and I worked up to incorporating the 30th St. hill. Reaching a faster pace with each walk instilled a sense of hope and kept me moving forward. My first runs were on an anti-gravity treadmill; if only I could run in the real world carrying 40% of my body weight! Graduating to a 1/4 mile on the track mid-September was both a humbling and thrilling experience. I quickly built up my mileage, and, equipped with a new stride, I finally learned to run without limping. Not only did I stop favoring the right leg, but my stride was stronger and more efficient than it had ever been. By October, I was back at the gym, building up the strength I had lost and replacing those atrophied muscles with a stronger self inside and out.

By late November, I was ready for my first half marathon, where I missed a PR by a matter of seconds. It felt incredible to be back and poised to be faster and stronger than ever. Two weeks later, I secured a half marathon PR. During the early stages of recovery, I had registered for a slew of races, anxious to make up for lost time. Between running these two particular half marathons, I had registered for three marathons and a grueling 50 mile trail race. I had unfinished business and a new drive to live up to my full potential.

I think signing up for the White River 50 Mile Endurance Race before I had ever even run a marathon encapsulates my new mindset and push. Call it FOMO or what have you, I knew that I could never again take for granted having the use of my two legs. I wanted to push myself to my physical limits, and challenge myself to move beyond them. I had a new perspective on life, a new appreciation for my good fortune, and a new work ethic to bring it all to fruition.

A facebook post that I wrote a few months ago sums this all up much more succinctly:

I have been thinking recently that breaking my ankle was, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. Not being able to walk for 3 months was incredibly frustrating and humbling, but I have come back faster and stronger, more determined to reach my full potential. This photo was taken 2 1/2 months after I started running again (and I started back by running only 1/4 mile, limping the whole way.) This injury taught me to appreciate mobility. It drove me to push myself and to work harder than I ever have before. This photo was taken about 10 seconds before I ran my fastest half marathon to date. Next month I will run my first full marathon. By the end of July, I will have run 4 marathons, a 50K, and a 50 miler. I probably wouldn’t have done any of this had I not been injured.

Ellen Runs Tacoma 2015

Running toward a PR at Santa Runs Tacoma Half Marathon, December 2015. Photo credit On the Run Events Photography.

I guess this is one of those, “when life gives you lemons” posts. I was very depressed about my injury when I was stuck on the couch, but I feel that I have a new lease on life as a result. In a weird way, I am almost glad that it happened. I don’t want to experience that ever again, but I can see now how it has changed me for the better. Thanks to those of you who inspired, encouraged, and pushed me along this journey.

Two and a half months later, I would feel compelled to throw my hat into the ring for the Barkley Fall Classic. While White River would certainly be challenge enough in itself, there was something about the BFC that called to me as offering the greatest test of my mental and physical limits. It will give me a means for finding out just what I’m made of. I don’t know that I would have ever even pondered the question of what I’m made of if I hadn’t first learned how fleeting and beautiful our mobility truly is. So, thank you, sleeper tree root, for giving me what is perhaps the most valuable lesson of my life. And thank you, Dexter, for being a model of true grit and grace.