By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton
Being Injured Sucks. Period.
The final nail in the coffin happened with about a mile left to go in the run. Flying down the mountain, not paying complete attention to what was under my feet, I landed with my already inflamed foot on a sharp rock. The first couple of steps after that landing sent a shooting pain throughout my heel and Achilles. It felt as though someone had stabbed me with a dagger. I was faltering, hopping, trying to find some kind of stride and rhythm to get me to the finish line. I finished and finished strong, but the truth—and the pain—was swift and conclusive. Something awful happened to my foot and it didn’t want me to run. It wouldn’t be wanting me to run for any time in the near future. I was injured. Suddenly my trip to Maui, where I’d have the opportunity to defend my XTERRA World Title, was almost certainly a “no go.”
I overdid it somehow. Something went wrong because I pushed my body past its limit—I unknowingly overextended, overexerted, overtaxed, overworked it. Nothing about this is all that serious. While my injury might seem traumatic to me, it’s not really traumatic in the medical sense. Also, I’m not a professional athlete. No money will be lost, no career will be damaged, no sponsorship deal will be affected. Nor is the injury terribly bad in the grand scheme of things. My foot will eventually heal and I will run again. And maybe one day I might even be a better runner for having had this experience. I do not expect or deserve sympathy. But I do want to talk about what being an injured triathlete is like, at least for me, and I suspect others, and how missing the biggest race of the season - the XTERRA World Championship in Maui - is always heart-wrenching.
I had been in denial about my foot for quite some time. I’m accustomed to aches and pains that come and go and I usually dismiss most of them. But I knew going into the XTERRA Pan Am Championship in Utah that I was not 100 percent. In fact, I hadn’t been all summer long. The only times I allowed myself to run were during races. All the other days I was busy popping anti-inflammatories, getting cortisone injections and pretending my foot would get better if I just stuck to swimming and biking. I knew pills and shots were giving me a false notion that I was safe to race. Furthermore, these treatments were undoubtedly worsening my situation while prolonging my recovery time. Hindsight is 20/20 of course and knowing what I know now, I would have rested in July so that I could be racing in October. But I’m stubborn, bull-headed, impatient and I don’t like to listen to others. Since my idea of “resting to see if I get better” is two days max, here I am in mid-October feeling sorry for myself that I won’t be toeing the line on October 28th. Lesson learned.
If you’re taking the time to read this article you likely understand what I mean when I say running and triathlon aren’t just hobbies; they’re a huge part of my identity. These sports are how I play and how I manage my stress. When you are truly committed, regardless of ability, off-road triathlon can start to define you. You don’t necessarily mean for it to happen, but as you continue to improve in all three sports, meeting the new challenges you face on the dirt gives you a lift. A lot of the time you spend away from home or work is based around training. I plan my life, my work, even some of my vacations around races. It’s a tough adjustment to operate with this chunk of my life missing. These sports provide me with a continual source of positive reinforcement and feedback. Furthermore, the outside recognition of accomplishments by friends, family, and competitors stoke the fires of self-esteem so that they burn even brighter within me.
All of this is fine when you’re kicking butt, but take triathlon away suddenly and you can find yourself feeling adrift. Add to that the fact that running injuries are mostly internal things with no visible wounds, so you can’t see the healing process. This adds to the unknown quality of being injured because you never really know how long it will take.
Now my sense of invincibility is gone and my confidence has taken a major hit. I also have a bad case of FOMO: I’m convinced everyone is getting fitter and faster and better while I’m becoming a worthless sloth. It’s easy to become plagued with self-doubt. And it hurts to think about all my friends arriving on Maui, fit and ready to take on the XTERRA World Championship race. I’m definitely hit with a jolt of wildly irrational envy.
I’ve been given orders to do nothing but swim. While I enjoy swimming (sort of), it’s not the same as running and biking. Let’s just say I’m experiencing a major dip in endorphins right now. So not only is my brain producing less of these feel-good chemicals, all these negative emotions surrounding my injury and missing Maui become pretty hard to manage. I’m also realizing now how much running through the woods helped clear my head and keep me sane. There are days when I even feel listless and apathetic.
With all that said, I've decided it's time to move on. I’m done being sad and mad at myself and I’ve swept up the last of the black confetti from my pity party. Rather than think about what I can't do, I need to refocus my energy towards healing and getting myself back to the starting line, pain-free. My physical therapist is right. The process of healing is one long, painful exercise in delayed gratification. However, by staying off my injured foot, eating an impeccably nutritious diet (which, by the way, includes beer and cookies) and following the orders of my doctor and physical therapist, I have a solid chance of running pain and injury free next season. And more importantly, I have a real shot at being able to keep at this crazy sport for the long haul if I play this smart.
Stressing about any kind of injury is a major deal-breaker when it comes to the healing process. The more you stress, the harder it is to heal, because stress hormones interfere with the removal of damaged tissue and impair the movement of healing immune cells to the site of the injury. Not to mention, stress can cause sleep disturbances and further impair your recovery. I’m also learning about relaxation techniques to help me focus and to lessen my sense of feeling frazzled (hold your laughter please). Perhaps most importantly, I'm learning to listen to others and trust that they just might know what's better for me than I do.
I’m still a triathlete. That hasn’t changed. But my goal now is not crossing the finish line first. Now, it's about getting back to the starting line. I hope to come back from this injury both physically and mentally stronger. Almost every athlete I know has been in this situation before and I know I’m not alone. And so while you will not see me battling the waves at DT Fleming beach and coursing through the pineapple fields this time around, you’ll see me out there soon. And I’m willing to bet you’ll see me out there for many years to come.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.