Setbacks into stepping stones

Recently, a surgeon vaporized some veins in my legs that had stopped doing their job of returning blood to my heart. Four days after the surgery, I was scheduled to run a half-marathon in Long Island. Obviously the timing was not optimal. But the threat of blood clots and the torture of a limited workout life until the veins were ablated, made the quick turnaround seem my best option.

Happily the surgeon placed no concrete post-op restrictions on me. When I asked about running the half-marathon, he told me to go ahead because, “the pain will be self-limiting.” So I leapt to the assumption that all would be well and packed for the trip.

Two days after the surgery (or two days before the race) I got a taste of the previously mentioned “self-limiting” pain. When he said that phrase, it sounded almost friendly. But this Technicolor deep-fat fish fry in my leg and accompanying vertigo in my brain was anything but friendly. Though it was definitely self-limiting. 

I had been confident – likely overconfident – that I would race. Now that certainty was threatened. When you feel as if you’re going to lose your balance merely walking, how do you expect to run 13.1 miles without biting pavement?

To tell you the truth, the pain made me afraid. It made me realize that this was new territory where my stubbornness might get me into trouble. I was afraid of hurting myself if I fought the pain and ran. I was also afraid I would let myself down if I didn’t. 

I knew it would take a minor miracle to convince me not to run or to make me stop once I had started. I also knew that both of those options could result in a serious injury. This time, I decided to check my little Ms. Independent baggage at the curb and ask – as well as truly listen to – the opinions of some race-seasoned pals.

By late in the day Saturday, most of the dizziness and pain had cleared. After a long walk and deep consideration of my situation, my communal plan of action was decided. I would attempt the run if all systems were a-okay in the morning. I would traverse the distance without painkillers that might mask warnings to stop. I would not tempt fate by pushing my pace for a time drop. I would batten down the surgical site, protecting it from the repeated shocks of the asphalt pounding. And, if I began to feel bad or lagged behind the required course pace, I would stop. I would stop and choose to enjoy the party atmosphere of a race with over 4,000 women running rather than throw a pity party for one. After all, it was only one race.

I have a friend who says that every setback is an opportunity. When he first used that phrase – after I had been barred from running for a minimum of six months due plantar fasciitis – I had difficulty seeing his point of view. To tell you the truth I had difficulty not backhanding him. I mean…there was no upside. I was not running! It was not clear whether my feet would ever heal enough to really run again. What kind of opportunity was that?

Determined not to lose conditioning throughout my prescribed jogging hiatus, I liberally added cardio and strength training to my workout sessions. When I returned to running eight months later, the fasciitis was not in evidence and my per mile running pace had dropped by over a minute. After a break in training for two-thirds of a year, my running ability had actually improved. The strength training had paid off in a more efficient and intentional stride and the cardio training had powered a faster leg turnover rate. 

At that moment, I finally fully appreciated my friend’s insight. The setback of heel pain had given me the opportunity to become a better runner. It also made me a person less likely to get injured and more capable of focusing on the bright side of the next obstacle I encountered. Without the setback of plantar fasciitis, my running would not have improved as it did and I wouldn’t have learned the significance of a balanced fitness plan. 

The challenge of running a half-marathon four days after laser surgery also had its upside. It improved my hearing. Instead of going internal and gutting it out, this setback opened my ears to the thoughts of more experienced racers. Their thoughts protected me from senseless injury and the feeling of going it alone.

Most importantly, every setback offers us the opportunity to choose active participation over victimhood in deciding our future health and happiness.

When confronted with a setback, it is often difficult to be grateful for the growth that will come in its own sweet time. However, with every opportunity experienced after setback endured, it is easier to remain calm and hopeful when the next one arrives. Don’t get me wrong. I am not going in search of more setbacks. But it is good to know that the next time one interrupts my regularly scheduled training, I will come out the other side of the ordeal a more confident, knowledgeable athlete and a better friend. 


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