I’m one of those people who believes in luck. Although it’s always been more of a “if you believe you’re lucky then you will be” kind of belief, I believe in it nonetheless. Have positive, good intentions, and positive, good things will occur. While this might not be a scientifically proven theory, it’s worked out pretty well for me so far. However, life isn’t always perfect, and sometimes no matter how positive we will things to be, bad things happen. Things that are completely out of our control. Straight up bad luck.
It’s taken me a long time to write this blog post. I started it over a year ago, but just couldn’t get it out. There was a lot to write then, and there’s a lot more now. A forewarning – this post is long. I tried to keep it as short and sweet as possible, but I also wanted to be as open as possible in order to give a clear picture of what I’ve been up to, and what I’ve been going through (both physically and emotionally) the past year and a half. Before we talk about where I am now, we have to go back to where this all started…
Rewind to Payton Jordan 2015. 9:39.89 – my fastest opener, an Olympic and World Championship Qualifying time, and six seconds off my personal best and Canadian Record. While I was happy with the result, I was more excited about what was to come because I knew I was nowhere near peak fitness. It hadn’t been one of those races where I felt amazing, and everything felt effortless. My mental focus the last few laps was razor sharp, and I was proud of how hard I had fought the whole time to keep moving up, keep my hurdles smooth. I had a lot of room for improvement and the big goals I had set for myself were suddenly looking more achievable than ever.
When I had gotten out of my post-race daze I noticed a bit of pain in my foot. I remembered landing quite hard on my penultimate water jump and figured I had just jammed it a bit. A few treatment sessions and I would be back to normal. Later on, my coach, Wynn, would tell me that the first thing I said to him when I saw him after my race was that my foot hurt. Maybe I wasn’t quite out of my daze yet, because I don’t remember that. What I do recall is trying to cool down, and not being able to even walk without pain. I tried jogging and maybe made it five steps. If ever I’ve experienced adrenaline it was in the last lap and a half of that race. I had blocked everything out and was focusing on closing as hard as I could, repeating over and over in my head something a friend had told me earlier in the week– when it gets tough is when it counts the most.
Part of being an elite athlete is knowing your body well enough to recognize what type of pain is ok to push though, and what type of pain isn’t. I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at deciphering between the two over the past decade and a half that I’ve been running. I just have this one little problem: an exceptionally high pain threshold. I know most people reading this will be thinking “Yeah, you and every other elite athlete.” And I wouldn’t disagree with that if I was talking about a high pain tolerance– what allows someone to push through discomfort. I would venture to guess that most elite athletes have a high pain tolerance (it’s part of what makes them able to reach that elite level), but I would be surprised if the majority have the same pain threshold that I do- that is, the inability to feel pain normally, or only feeling it at lower levels. There are obvious advantages to having both a high pain tolerance and a high pain threshold, but there are also disadvantages. If I had to rate pain on a scale of one to ten, what most people would rate as an eight, I would only rate as a four or a five. By the time something actually hurts enough that I even notice it, it’s usually gone a bit further than I would have liked. It then takes more effort to correct the problem than if I had caught it earlier. Knowing this about myself, when I get a little flare up somewhere, I usually play it safer than I probably need to.
All of this is to say that if I thought for one second that there was even a possibility that this pain in my foot was a stress fracture I would have immediately been in the pool. I’ve had a stress fracture before, so I knew what that felt like, and this was completely different. The pain wasn’t localized, and it wasn’t really even pain. It felt more like tightness along the outside edge of my foot. It improved after treatment, the longer I ran the better it got, and I never felt anything outside of training. At no point did anyone I saw for treatment or an assessment think that this was a bone injury. So I kept running. It got better for a while, hit a plateau, and then suddenly got worse.
A CT scan showed a possible stress fracture, but because the symptoms I had didn’t really correlate with that diagnosis, I got a follow up MRI. When my teammate at school was diagnosed with a fracture in her heel, I remember my trainer telling me you didn’t need experience looking at medical images to see that she had one. Sitting with my doctor looking through the MRI images, I now knew exactly what he meant. It was easy to see a line partway through my calcaneus, and to know that that line was a fracture. I asked what it was anyways. Reading the MRI report and seeing the images wasn’t enough for me. I had to hear someone else with actual medical expertise say it. Confirm it.
To have a season ending injury is tough as it is, but to have it happen right when you feel you’re on the brink of being the best you’ve ever been– it’s devastating. After falling short of qualifying for major championships the past few years because of failing to run under the time standard during the qualifying period, to finally run what I needed, when I needed, only to become injured– it didn’t feel real. I had this feeling that I’d wake up one morning and just miraculously be fine and get right back into training where I left off. That if I could just be positive enough and channel all my energy into getting better, that I would heal faster. Of course, that’s not how it works, unfortunately.
It took me a long time to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to even attempt to achieve the goals I had set out for myself that season. Goals that were big, and exciting, and that seemed very realistic based on how I felt in my race at Payton Jordan. Not being able to line up in Edmonton to try to defend my national title was hard, but was nothing in comparison to not being able to represent Canada on home soil at the Pan Am Games, and in China at the World Championships.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. It was hard. Really hard. I think mostly because there was seemingly no explanation for why this happened. I tried to write a blog post, but I could never make it even five minutes without crying. I shed more tears in two months than I had in two years. I am generally a happy, optimistic person. This sadness that would appear out of nowhere was a foreign feeling to me, and I hated it. More than anything I just wanted to get over it, to not feel frustrated and upset anytime I thought about running. You can’t make yourself get over things, but you can lessen the amount of unhappiness you put yourself through. So I shelved the blog post knowing I’d come back to it when I felt ready.
As unlucky as the injury was, I was lucky for many more reasons. It wasn’t a career ending injury. I had run an Olympic Qualifying time within the qualifying window, but it wasn’t an Olympic year. I had time to recover, build back up, focus on training and putting out my best performances when it counted most- nationals and Rio, over a year away.
And so that’s what I did. I took three weeks off of all exercise, letting my body focus completely on healing, then another five weeks of relaxed, non-weight bearing cross training. I traveled to Victoria every few weeks to get treatment from Wynn to make sure that when I returned to running my foot would be mobilized and I’d be in the best state possible. My progression back was extremely conservative. It took me a month to get up to 30 minutes of continuous running. This slow build up also provided me with the perfect opportunity to work on my form. Only running for these short intervals of time made it easy to focus on every step. By the time I was back to full training, I was more efficient. Less bounce, more forward movement. Faster running with less wasted energy.
Fall training was significantly better than the previous two years. I had a better base, but was still conservative with my mileage. Workouts didn’t start until the middle of October, I barely doubled, and when I did, most of my second runs were on the alter-G. I’ve never been a high mileage person and so part of the plan Wynn and I had laid out after the fracture diagnosis was to supplement my training with alter-g running throughout the year. I’d have access to one in all our major training bases, and so this was an easy way to help prevent injury.
Fast forward to the middle of January, a week and a half into my first month of warm weather training. I was running workouts faster than I would normally run them in March. I wasn’t peaking too early, I was just generally fitter and stronger than I had been the past few seasons (the benefit of starting your build up in early August rather than the end of September). Out for an easy run after a strength session I felt some tightness in my right foot, a feeling similar to what I’d experienced in the spring. I tried not to panic, but I instantly knew something was off. I got treatment that afternoon and over the next few days, and stuck to pool running to see if staying off it would help it calm down. When it wasn’t feeling any different a week later, I made the decision to go back to Victoria a few weeks early. Wynn was heading back, and I didn’t want to be in Arizona without him, unable to have him assess how things were progressing. It was decided that I could afford to take a few weeks off of running completely, only sticking to the pool. Alter-g runs were introduced and progressed from easy runs to workouts. I had just added a couple of easy runs on the ground when the results of my SPECT scan came back- there was a hot spot in the same place as the previous summer’s fracture.
Between my calcaneus and navicular I have a fibrous coalition. The bones aren’t fused together, but there is fibrous tissue between them that shouldn’t be there and that doesn’t allow the two bones to move the way they naturally should. On impact, my navicular hits my calcaneus, and is what caused an anterior process fracture of my calcaneal head. This fibrous coalition is something that I was born with, and this fracture is not something that I could have prevented, no matter what I did. It has basically been a ticking time bomb, and in all honesty, it’s surprising that it took this long to happen.
There were no tears this time. It was almost the opposite of the previous summer. I felt no emotion, just determination. I wanted to know my options, pick one, and return to working towards my goal as soon as possible. After seeing multiple specialists, talking with Wynn and my national team doctor, as a team we came up with the best plan we could to get me back training and give me a shot at making the Olympics. We chose to use my high pain threshold to my advantage. I didn’t have time to take six weeks off and then build back up again, and even if I did, it wasn’t guaranteed that my foot wouldn’t fracture again. I had taken eight weeks off in the summer and it had still come back (or maybe never even healed). So we chose to keep training- doing the quality workouts on the ground, and everything else on the Alter-G. As long as everything was feeling ok, and nothing was getting worse, we would add in more on ground running as tolerated. I tried prolotherapy, I started using a bone-stimulating ultrasound machine, and I took a medication (Forteo) used by people with osteoporosis, all in the hopes that these things would help promote faster bone growth. I was getting physiotherapy, chiropractic treatment, or massage therapy on an almost daily basis. For a while, all of this seemed to be working. I was tolerating more and more on-ground workouts, and a second bone scan showed a slight improvement in the fracture.
One of the best parts about participating in sport is the people you meet, and the friendships you form. I’m very lucky to have a lot of amazing, and talented (and amazingly talented) friends, all of whom have had different experiences throughout their athletic careers. I got a lot of good advice from a lot of different people, but two things in particular stuck out to me, and helped me the most. The first came from a friend who has come through his fair share of injuries. When I asked him how he had dealt with the fear of re-injury his advice was, “Why worry about the bad things that could happen, when you could just focus on the fact that something amazing could happen?” I thought about that statement every time I had a little bit of doubt, and without fail it would always erase the negative thought from my mind. It reminded me of a similar strategy a university teammate and I had come up with years earlier during our senior cross country season- every time a negative thought came into our minds during a race or workout, we would immediately replace it with a positive one.
The second piece of advice came from someone with the exact opposite experience than the first- never having had a major injury. I was struggling with workouts, frustrated that they weren’t going as well as I knew they could be. They told me to “block out the part of my mind that told me I may feel pain during or after a workout.” That “pain is part of getting better, so long as it is not going to impact you in a negative way.” This might seem like a simple and obvious thing, but when you’ve woken up every day for almost an entire year wondering whether your foot will feel normal on your run that day, it becomes something you don’t even realize you’re doing. Realizing I could block out those thoughts, and then actually doing so- it was a huge breakthrough. I felt more present in workouts, the most like myself I had since first fracturing my foot back in 2015. I knew every workout there was a possibility I would feel some pain or tightness, but unless I actually felt that pain, and unless it was worse than it had been before, I wasn’t going to acknowledge it or let it limit me.
Throughout this whole ordeal I always believed that things would work out in the end. That I still had a chance, and that I was doing everything I could to give myself the best chance possible. I felt reinforced in my belief by my support team, all of whom shared the same positive outlook that I had. Of course, doubt occasionally slipped into the back of my mind, but I never let it come to the forefront. Part of that was my refusal to let it, another part was fear that if I lost my optimism for even a minute, that I was giving up hope on myself. The largest part however was my genuinely optimistic personality. This is the part I struggle with explaining the most, because describing these emotions verbally is difficult. Those moments of refusal and fear came intermittently, and while constantly pushing them out of my mind was probably more emotionally exhausting than I realized, I truly felt calm 99% of the time. I have never found that being pessimistic about a situation has helped it, and so I have always chosen positivity, and will always continue to do so.
In the end I simply ran out of time. I hadn’t been able to do as much training on the ground as I needed, and it showed in the last lap of each of my races. The workouts I did do were good, but I just wasn’t able to get enough in, and didn’t have the endurance to close as strong as I needed to be able to. Not achieving the goal I have worked towards for so long was devastating, but I found comfort in knowing that my support team and I did absolutely everything we possibly could have. If I could go back to last summer and do it all over again, there is not a single thing that I would change or do differently.
I thought that watching the Olympics this summer would be difficult. There were definitely moments where it was, but the greatest emotion I felt watching the games was happiness. I know that I am not alone in my struggles, that every athlete has a backstory, regardless of whether I know it or not. Each athlete had overcome some sort of obstacle, big or small, in order to make it to Rio. Having gone through what I went through gave me a new perspective, and watching my friends and teammates live out their Olympic dreams was all the more inspiring.
My Olympic dream did not come true this year, but I am not done yet. The road to Tokyo 2020 will be long, and it will not be smooth. Because of the fibrous coalition it is likely that my foot would just keep re-fracturing (or never fully heal) every time I hit a certain level of intensity in training, or half decent amount of mileage. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’d be lying if I said it was extremely difficult to decide to undergo surgery to fix this problem. I know that I am not ready to be done running competitively yet, and while it was the most drastic option, it was the best and only real option I saw working if I want to compete on the world stage. A few weeks ago I underwent surgery to hopefully prevent this fracture from ever coming back. The coalition was resected, my calcaneus and navicular were both shaved down, and I had two screws inserted- one to strengthen my calcaneus, and another to anchor a muscle. I won’t be able to run for close to six months, but that gives me plenty of time to focus on recovery and strengthening other areas. I have faced setback after setback in this sport, yet I continue to love it, more so than I think I ever have. I know that my best performances are still ahead of me and that I will achieve them not because I feel I have something to prove, but because I genuinely love running and competing.
Right before every race I think about all the people that support me- my family, my friends, my coach, my community. Amidst all the pre-race nerves, it brings me a sense of calm I have yet to find any other way. I am so fortunate to have unconditional support from so many people and have never felt that support more than I did this past year. As much as everyone would have loved for me to be an Olympian, they are more concerned with my overall and long term health, and for this I feel incredibly grateful. While I may have been dealt some bad luck with injuries, in the big scheme of the world I am incredibly lucky. I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words the gratitude I feel for all of the people that have supported me throughout my career thus far. All I can say is thank you. The saying “it takes a village” is so true, and I have the best village. The support and unwavering belief in me is a huge part of my success, and I appreciate it more than I could ever express.
A short thank you to the long list of people that make up that village:
My Family – I am so lucky to have the unconditional support of not just my immediate family, but also my extended family. There are also quite a few people who are not related to me by blood, but who I consider my family, and who fall into this category. I know not every athlete has a family that “gets it” and it makes me that much more thankful for mine, because they do. Knowing that they are there for me at all times, and that they believe in me just as much (if not more) than I believe in myself is beyond comforting. I will be forever grateful for all of the sacrifices they have made in order for me to be able to chase my dreams.
My teammates and friends – Track and field has introduced me to my best friends. Even though we are rarely in the same city, I always know they are just a phone call or text message away, and that they all have heaps of encouragement or advice. Over the past year I think most of the time they knew better than I did when I needed it most.
My community – My hometown, my province, my club (Excel Athletika), my provincial sport organizations (CSI Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Athletics), my national sport governing body (Athletics Canada), and so many other individuals that I know believe in me and root for me. I am incredibly proud to be a Canadian athlete, and am so thankful for all of the support I receive from a multitude of people across the country.
Everyone at PISE – Trevor, Brad, Simon, Danelle, Trent, Jennifer, Nathan, Sandeep, Wendy, Heather, Julianne. Some days this winter and spring it felt like I lived at PISE. Hours on hours were spent running on the alter-g, strength training in the gym, getting massage, physio or chiro treatment, attending recovery classes, this list could go on forever. There is no better place I could have been, and no better team I could have surrounded myself with. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to have access to such an amazing facility, with an even more amazing support team. I have never felt so well looked after by so many people- not only physically, but also emotionally.
My medical team- Dr. Paddy McCluskey, Dr. Boyer, Dr. Materek, Dr. Rohan. This group went above and beyond anything I could have imagined. They worked together to explore options I didn’t even know existed. Without their ingenuity into alternative methods to help the healing process, I highly doubt I would have made it to the start line of any races this spring.
Sheldan Gmitroski – Always willing to help, and to try anything and everything to make my orthotics better (which he did, multiple times). His work played a large part in improving my form last fall, and is a major reason I was even able to get into spikes this spring.
The Keeler-Young and Borner families – Knowing I have a familiar place to come back to each time I am in Victoria or Scottsdale is a huge stress reliever. Living the nomadic lifestyle that my training group lives is not easy, but is made much simpler when I have a place that feels like home in a city that is not my home.
Wynn – It is crazy to think that it was less than three years ago that we really began working together. There have been a lot of ups and downs during that time, a lot of adjustments made to training plans, and A LOT of physio treatments. I’ve never had a perfectly smooth year, and probably never will, but there is no person I could trust more with my training plan and physiotherapy than Wynn. From day one I have never once questioned any aspect of my training program. To find someone that you feel instant trust with is rare. For that person to be not only your coach, but also your main therapist, and add in the fact that he’s absolutely brilliant in both roles- it’s like winning the lottery. There are a lot of things that make Wynn the incredible coach he is, but the best part, and what a lot of people don’t see or hear about, is his concern for his athlete’s overall well being and long term health. It’s what makes me trust him and appreciate him most. I could have never known the knowledge he would give me or the impact he would have on me when he agreed to take me on as an athlete. I am so incredibly lucky and will be eternally grateful that he did.