Sunday, November 18, 2007


As featured in www.

Jennifer ToomeyI have been thinking about pain a lot lately. Maybe it's that killer hill workout that I just finished this morning. Maybe it's all the news and commercials about miracle cures for back aches, foot pain, hip pain, and joint pain. I've been a serious athlete for 8 years. I run twice a day, I weight train, I see a massage therapist once per week and chiropractor every other week. I eat well. I sleep at least 9 hours a night and typically nap during the day. Yet, sometimes I still hurt. I don't mind the workout "lungs burning-rubbery legs-get me a barrel" kind of pain. No, I've grown to secretly crave this feeling because I know the biggest gains physically come with these two-time-aweek barn burning sessions.

The worst type of pain, by far, is that pain that prevents us (athletes) from working out. I just read an interesting article by Jane Brody about living with pain and how debilitating it can become. Back in 2004, I had first hand experience with one of those debilitating injuries. I was on a real roll early 2004. Training was going great, racing was going great. 2004 seemed like my year. I won my first national title, and then won another one in a different event. I broke an American record that was formerly held by the most notorious drug cheat in the sport and I was on my way to the World Champs. It was the most surreal experience of my life. That dream that so many people have of making an Olympic team suddenly seemed possible.

I ended up placing 4th at the World Champs, not bad for a girl who quit running as a freshman in high school and didn't return to it for more than a decade! Unfortunately, in one of the early rounds, I was tripped by a competitor and smashed my knee. I was very good at ignoring pain then, so I didn't even think about it in the next rounds or in the next couple of weeks. It wasn't until my knee became so swollen and painful that I couldn't walk up or down stairs that I was forced to stop running. I iced it so much that at one point the skin turned black from frostbite. I suppose the universe decided to punish me for quitting so early in my life and at a time when I was starting to love it the most. What a cruel lesson.

After 3 months of time off, I finally got a reluctant ok to start which was one month before the Olympic Trials. It wasn't the kind of running that gives one a lot of confidence…it was run 15-20 minutes and ice. As long as it didn't swell, I was allowed to run. I pushed the envelope. Sometimes I would run 3 times a day at what had to be close to my 5k race pace. 3 weeks before the trials I hopped into my first track race since the worlds. It didn't go well. I ran my slowest time in years for an 800m and I walked away from the track unable to hold back my tears of frustration. Time was not an ally and I soon found myself at the Olympic Trials. In my best event, the 800m, the event where months before I had been one of the best, I didn't even make it past the first round. I remember some kids coming up to me right after to ask for my autograph.I was so embarrassed from my lame performance that I asked them if they were sure they still wanted it.

I did better in the 1500 at the end of the week. I came in 2nd, running a personal best, which, as good as it seemed, wasn't good enough to go to the Olympics that year (because of rule changes for that particular year, I didn't make the team. The same set of circumstances in any other Olympic year, including the upcoming Olympic year would have placed me on the team).

The problem with injuries and chronic pain is that they seep into so many facets of our lives. That one little spot of injured tissue can set off events in the body that can cause systemic and chronic pain for weeks, months and even years. They change our whole being, For years I couldn't let my injury go. That's who I was -- Injured girl. Maybe because I couldn't let it go, I kept getting hurt over and over again in the most bizarre ways: bone spurs, stress fractures, hot spots, muscle tears, adrenal fatigue. I was completely breaking down. From what I know now about stress hormones, this isn't so surprising. I spent 3 years searching for a cure. I moved cross country, left my coach, changed my life. What I didn't realize then is that the cure wasn't 3000 miles away.

One night, depressed, unable to even run 1 mile without extreme fatigue, I called my old coach to tell him I was quitting. Instead, he convinced me to come home and give it another try, no pressure, just one step at a time. And I did. What I didn't realize in all that time was that the cure was to take some time to heal, to stay around positive people, to forgive myself for not doing well and move on. That was a couple of months ago, and now I'm running better than ever and looking forward to those 2008 Olympic Trials.

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