I felt 6 years old again, after a bad day at school, telling myself to wait until I got home to cry.
I walked straight to the back seat and sat down. One by one the other professional athletes filled the seats in their colorful uniforms, laughing and chatting, the weight of the race over and lifted. No one noticed me, and I was glad for it. The bus rumbled to life and swayed forward, back toward our Manhattan hotel.
A few rows ahead of me, David Monti, the elite athlete coordinator of the NYC Half, sat with his back turned. I don’t know what caused him to, but ten minutes into the bus ride, he turned around, and through the gap in the seat, our eyes met.
David walked to the back and sat down next to me. He didn’t ask what was wrong. He just waited. I looked into his eyes and couldn’t hold back the tears. I cried as I quietly told him of the past 4 months of struggle, the worsening pain deep in my hip that allowed me to run slowly but prevented me from driving my knee high enough to run anything faster than seven-minute mile pace without intense pain.
I told him about the last 5 miles of the race and how I had to grip my hip with my hand, digging my fingers deep into the muscles to alleviate the pain, awkwardly lumbering through the final few miles a minute per mile slower than I had hoped. I told him about the phone call I had placed to my coach just moments before getting on the bus and the hopeless feeling when Pete and I decided that the Boston Marathon was no longer an option, that I had to shut the season down and heal.
It felt good to say the words out loud. It was a relief to finally admit to someone else just how broken my body truly was instead of burying the truth beneath crudely plastered layers of optimism and denial.
I expected David to comfort me. He didn’t.
He told me the truth. He told me that I was making the decision not to run Boston based on emotion and that was never a wise thing to do. He explained how a marathon build up becomes more than training to an athlete, it becomes an intimate relationship between a runner and their goal, and how injury during this time seems like an utter betrayal of the body against the mind. I promised him I would consider what he said and a few hours later I phoned Pete.
“I need a few days, please just give me a few days to figure this out”, I pleaded. He consented under the condition that I give myself the next week to back down from hard running, logging only low, easy miles. I had 27 days until Boston and I reached out for help.
Immediately, I called Scott Greenapple, the most brilliant source I know regarding running and injuries. He kept my husband’s legs moving for three years through countless injuries when he was tormenting his body with insane speed workouts that took him to the well twice each week.
Over the phone, Scott had me run through a range of diagnostic tests and gave me his best guess. He believed that the original hip flexor strain that occurred in December had healed during the two weeks of rest in January, but it hadn’t healed properly. He was certain that somewhere within that set of muscles, a mass of scar tissue was preventing smooth gliding of the muscles in my hip, allowing for easy running but jamming the gears when faster running called for a higher knee drive and more engagement. Scott lived six hours away and recommended that I find someone to work on me closer to where I lived. Michael and I did some research and found Kentucky Sports Chiropractic.
24 days before Boston I walked into Dr. Kyle Bowling’s office and was greeted with a warm handshake. He was young and energetic with sandy, blond hair and a ready smile. I liked him immediately. I sat on the table and let my story fall out in pieces. At the end I asked apprehensively, “So, do you think I’ll be able to run Boston?”. Without hesitating he answered “Yes”. I chose to believe him.
Fifteen minutes later I found myself laying on my back, staring at the ceiling as Dr. Bowling swabbed my hip with alcohol and prepared several 3-inch needles for a procedure called “dry needling”. I looked away as he placed the tube against my skin and flicked. Hard.
I glanced down at my hip, sure I’d see that nearly the entire needle had vanished into my skin, but to my horror, only about a half an inch of the needle was in. After the initial flicking of the needle into the skin, Dr. Bowling tapped the top of it, driving it deeper and deeper into my body, stopping at intervals when I was overcome with the pain of muscle contraction and nerve sensation. Repeat 4-5 times per needle. Repeat for 5-10 needles.
Every few days I would drive the hour-fifteen to Louisville and go through it again, leaving his office with red marks on my palms from digging my fingernails in when the needles caused painful spasms and contractions. Once, a needle placed at my hip caused the far end of my knee to twitch and jerk and more than once I verbally lashed out. After a few visits, I’m sure Dr. Bowling braced himself as he held up the tube and flicked the needle into my hip because he knew a loud, “DARN IT KYLE!! WHY?!” was soon to follow.
I felt time sliding by and Boston growing larger on the horizon. 14 days out, Pete and I were still unsure of the decision to run it. The pain was starting to improve but workouts were hit or miss. I struggled through sessions that would have been a joke before Chicago, sometimes unable to break 6 minute pace while feeling I was giving a 5:30 pace effort, but the pain in my hip that before would have registered at an 8-9 on a scale of 10 was now only a 4 or 5.
11 days before Boston I finally had a workout that went flawlessly, 15 X 1k cutting down from 5:50 to 5:10 pace with no hip pain. That was the first time, just a week and 4 days before the marathon, that I began to feel hope take over.
I remember the three easy miles I ran after that workout, taking a small deer trail into the woods and stopping to sit in the grass and just breathe a prayer of thanks. A promise that if I was able to get through the marathon healthy, I wouldn’t take one step for granted.
10 days later, Dr. Bowling and I met up in Boston for one more session. One more round of needles and two strips of KT Tape, one activating the left psoas, the other deactivating the right for the race. We wished each other luck for Monday.
At around 10:15 on Monday morning, something happened that I will remember until the day I die. I was leading the Boston marathon. Despite the warmth of the day, I felt chills race down my body and back up again. It was surreal to see a wide open road flanked by screaming crowds on both sides with the knowledge that behind me sat a tidal wave of Ethiopian and Kenyan talent, an Olympic Gold Medalist and 13 women who had broken 2:25.
American Neely Spence Gracey and I ran shoulder to shoulder at the front of the group, jogging a pedestrian 6 minute pace.
“What on earth is going on?” She asked me.
I shrugged, “I have no idea, just enjoy it. You’re going to want to remember this moment, it’s not very often you get to lead the Boston Marathon.”
The inevitable happened and the pack surged, leaving Neely and I alone for the middle miles. We alternated the lead and got through the Newton hills together before Neely took off on a downhill mile and I found myself again with nothing but open road ahead of me.
I knew my time would be slow. I knew I wouldn’t be the first American, but running under a quiet bridge at mile 25, all I felt was gratitude. I remembered my promise in the woods. My hip had silently absorbed miles of downhill running and smoothly powered me up and over the hills.
Yes, I was in pain, but it was the good kind of pain, the pain that comes with a physical exertion so great that for the final miles it is as though the fingers of human experience outgrow the glove of flesh. At the end of a marathon you are pushing in such a way that neither body nor mind have the desire to continue which allows your spirit to take over.
It’s like you are fasting from comfort, denying yourself the most basic human need of painlessness to find a greater reward. That reward is the knowledge of what you are able to withstand. People who don’t run, who don’t engage in this feeling, are ships that have never left the harbor. We have weathered the storm, been tossed about by the waves, feared that the end would never come and are better for it.
I turned right on Hereford and left on Boylston, lifted my hand in thanks to the best crowd I’ve ever experienced and crossed the finish line. I ran 2:37. Even typing that makes me wince, but honestly, I can throw out the time and take it for what it was, a 26.2-mile race with a healthy hip. It was what I needed.
Each mile of Boston, I thought about a different person who supported me along the way. Here are a few I want to thank now.
Pete Rea. When I guide my boat from the harbor, you are the wind in my sails. You patiently guide me through this storm called running and tolerate my foolish tantrums along the way. I can imagine no other coach willing to invest so wholeheartedly in my training and racing. I know the best is yet to come.
Michael. We’ve grown to understand that we are very different runners. Thank you for fortifying my weaknesses with your strengths and allowing me to do the same for you. I love you.
Georgia. Your excitement and love of running is infectious. Because of the novelty of racing in your life, you’ve brought back beginner’s joy into mine. I love looking at running through your eyes. Your talent will carry you far in this sport, but your love of it will get you through the rough patches. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Tina Muir. You have such a heart for the ones you love. I hope that in years to come, when I look back on my training during this time I don’t remember the injury, but that I remember what it felt like to cruise through hard miles as though we were one machine. I am so proud of what you did at London. I believe it was fate that clocked our finishing times just one second apart. I can’t wait for the training ahead.
Kyle Bowling. You were worth the drive. There really isn’t any way to tell you how grateful I am for what you did. I just hope that bottle of Bourbon says it for me. Congrats on your PR in Boston, this is just the beginning for you.
Stan Beecham. You told me not to be a victim. Not to view this injury as something that was happening to me but just as something I needed to refuse to acknowledge on the path to my goal. You were right. Thank you for your tough love. I needed to hear it.
Finally, David Monti. You didn’t have to sit down next to me that day. I wouldn’t have run Boston if you hadn’t. Thank you.