Bones, Betty, and Me

I’m not sure when Saturday morning runs became highlights of my week. I don’t know how long it took before I felt like I knew several people and could even call them friends. I don’t even remember precisely when I started going to more runs, on Wednesdays and Fridays, then Thursdays and most Sundays. How much time elapsed before I knew I could text someone, or many someones, and instantly have other people to run with. When exactly it became true that I never ran alone.

It happened gradually, over the course of two years.

In that time, I became so close to some of my running friends that I gained a new definition of friendship. I got up at 4am on a regular basis for our weird reverse version of happy hour: 6-13 miles followed by coffee at our janky Starbucks before the sun was even a smear on the sky.

In the company of a tribe that was my kind of out there, I trained for and ran my first marathon with a Boston qualifying time (technically), a pursuit that gifted me my first experience with the absolute emptiness and tear-stained elation that braid themselves together over 26.2 miles, roping around my body so that I felt both completely numb and every emotion in the history of the world times ten. I have amassed a medal collection that clanks loudly when I brush past it with a vacuum cleaner, or when my favorite Hood to Coast sweatshirt catches on one as I leave my room. My drying rack is perpetually draped with athletic clothing and my drawers filled almost exclusively it. I own exactly one pair of “going-out” pants (loosely defined), which is all I feel I need. I am part of the most magical group message of all time, the archives of which should really be published.

I am still racked with anxiety on a daily basis, like I was before I started running, but there are so many things I’m not afraid of anymore: sharing my whole self with people, trusting my friends, being unsure about whether I can actually run a certain distance or pace. I’ve proven my abilities to myself in so many ways through running. I try hard and it feels like personal triumph, teamwork, and family time all at once.

Or, it did until I landed in Injury Land.

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I would rather say that I had been in a terrible accident, like Betty Robinson in 1931 when she and her cousin were in a plane crash that left her Olympic gold-medaled body shattered and nearly dead, than face the uncertain truth that I brought a stress fracture on myself through overuse and lack of effective cross-training.

Betty Robinson had a brother-in-law who took her across the street to the park after she got home from the hospital and was in constant pain, almost unable to move, let alone walk. He would show up at her apartment and walk into her thick fog of sadness and loss and agony, and coax her to the bench in the park, no matter how long it took them to get there. They would sit, and then go home, and the next day he would be there again.

Every day, they crossed the street.

Eventually, they walked a little farther than the bench. Then even farther. Betty walked, and then jogged, just a few steps on legs that were now different lengths. She jogged and then ran. Then she ran faster. Soon- or, depending on your perspective, not soon- her brother-in-law could not keep up.

Betty medaled at the 1936 Olympics, in a relay where she could not be the starting runner because of her inability to crouch on her skewed legs.

Her body, which had earned her the very first Olympic gold medal for a woman in the 100 meters in 1928, had literally shattered, bringing her so close to death that she was erroneously taken to a morgue. But she ended up back on the track five years later with another medal around her neck anyway.

I think about Betty a lot these days, when I feel scared and broken. The tiny stress fracture I suffered six months ago not only snaked through my bone, but my brain. I felt betrayed, not by my body per se, but by myself. I was overwhelmed with self-doubt that now tacked itself firmly to the one realm in which I had been relatively free of it: my sport.

Running was teaching me to trust my own power, but with one hairline crack, my world shattered around me. I pictured my skeleton riddled with fractures, like miniscule rivers in an eroding landscape. I became fearful, mistrusting, of my own body and of my athletic ambition. By extension, whatever trust I had in my abilities in general grew thin. Brittle. Unable to bear weight.

Betty Robinson’s story is a talisman I hold onto. She broke and was never the same, but she built a new self, growing like a tree around an injury -- slowly buffering herself with more rings until, a little misshapen but solid as wood, she gripped her strength in her fist and ran like hell. She took her legs, her lungs, her heart back to the place she loved: the surface and curves of the track, shoes laced up, legs propelling her forward to a new, unexpected, but beautiful freedom. She proved to herself that she could push through crushing pain and doubt, and that on the other side of that slogging swamp, she would realize her power was not gone, only changed. 

I too have a family who have walked me until I found my running legs again. They didn't accept my cloak of sadness as a permanent state of being; they are my Robinson brother-in-law. Now I am in the middle place: not walking, but not yet healed. 

I still don’t know what my power will look like on the other side of my injury swamp. I don’t know how close I am to my own moment of freedom, when I am no longer mired in rivers of doubt and pain, but flying – sneakers laced up, road underneath me, muscles firing me to a finish line where I will put a medal around my own strong neck, relish the sticky tears on my cheeks as they leave salt tracks in salt sweat, feel everything and nothing. Only a small misshapen part of myself left, healed over with acceptance and strength. I can’t wait for that day, the day when I will have proven to myself that a shattering cannot undo me.

The story of Betty Robinson is retold here based on the book Fire on the Track by Roseanne Montillo, which is a super fascinating read that I highly recommend.