“5:57!” Ms. DeGregorgio, the girls’ long-distance coach yells, hovering over the chain-link fence with her stopwatch in her hand, as I cross the painted white finish line of the Great Valley High School track.
I can’t feel my legs, but I’m not sure if that’s due to muscle soreness or excitement, because I just ran my fastest mile time ever.
For the past 18 years, I’ve turned to brightly lit gyms and the clunk of free weights hitting the floor, the sound of sneakers striking the ground on a paved path or a bumpy sidewalk, and the smooth, wood-paneled floors of yoga studios for the greatest form of stress relief.
Discovering the Real Competition
I’ve always been an athlete, though it took me years of playing team sports to discover that solitary sports, the ones where you’re not passing a ball back and forth or wearing a glove and trying to catch a ball mid-air while running, are more of my forte.
In high school, I joined the cross-country team sophomore year, after struggling as a midfielder on the junior varsity girls soccer team, and finally realizing that I liked the running part of the sport, not the part where I had to quickly decide who to pass the ball to and then had to battle it out with someone on the opposing team if I waited too long.
When I was running, the pressure was on me to move faster. If I didn’t, I was the only one to blame. The competition was with myself, and that felt comfortable. When I had to make quick decisions on how to interact with my teammates, while running faster, the competition was with them, and with the opposing team.
I joined the winter and spring track teams, and soon I was running year-round, accompanied by weightlifting and the occasional yoga class.
Though I was part of a team, I kept competing with myself, trying to run a faster 5K or a faster mile time, or trying to run more miles and more often. I set the bar high.
My senior year, I set a goal to run a mile time of under 6 minutes, though I’d just started competing in the event in track meets and had never run anything faster than 6:30.
During the first meet of the spring track season, I crossed the finish line with 6:28 on the clock.
Only 28 seconds to go, I told myself.
In each meet, I worked to take seconds off of my time, shaving off 5 or 10 seconds in a single race, and sometimes 15.
And in that final spring track meet, I ran a 5:57.
Victory was sweet.
A New Competitor
I kept running on my own after high school, but parties, hangouts, and school campus events eventually took precedence in college, and with the exception of a brief stint of body pump classes at the fitness center, exercise was not part of my daily routine.
After college, I returned to exercise, missing that feeling of competing with myself. I started running again, and I also started taking hot yoga and vinyasa yoga classes weekly. I liked the challenge of running a faster time, and of holding a yoga pose longer, than the day, week, and month before.
That high of competing with myself was back. But it came with a price.
I was older, nearly 15 years older than my high school track self, and that meant I was more susceptible to injury.
The Worst Kind of Penalty
I joined a local running club in April 2015, and soon I was competing in half marathons with club members who had become good friends. Whether with a wave when we saw each other during the tough uphill, or while standing along the race route with a neon sign that read “Embrace the suck” or “1 mile to go,” we motivated each other to push ourselves, to compete for a personal best.
And this motivated me to keep achieving a personal best, injury or not.
In yoga classes, during training runs, and in races, I stopped listening to my body when it told me that something hurt and that I should back off or slow down. I took hot yoga classes when I was tired and did all of the poses, even when they hurt my shoulders. I completed training runs, and a half marathon, with a searing pain in my quad.
This spring, I sprained my ankle during a half marathon. I completed another half marathon just weeks after spraining that ankle.
Injury returned, and this time, it was in the form of a stress fracture in my right foot. A stress fracture is the dreaded diagnosis of professional and amateur athletes, arguably as much as a torn ACL, or a broken bone, because the only way to heal is to take weeks, and often months, off from exercise.
A New Game
With no ability to compete with myself, I had to turn to activities that weren’t a competition, like reading a book. And writing more often. And dinners with friends. And phone conversations with family members I’d often text because I was rushing to a yoga class or a group run.
Not a bad way to spend a few weeks, right?
It was tough, this lack of competition. I wish I could say that these activities replaced my need for competition, that finishing a good book a week faster than the one I’d read before was a sweet victory, but it wasn’t.
What was different was my return to exercise. After 4 weeks of no running and no yoga classes, the muscles in my foot were weak. When I ran faster than a 11-minute mile, the top of my foot, the site where the stress fracture was, hurt. I knew that if I ran through that pain, the way that I had in so many training runs and races, I’d be back to not exercising at all.
I decided that any exercise, even a mile that felt slower than I’d ever run before, was better than nothing.
I was forced to remove the competition.
In a way, just simply running, and being able to run without pain, produces a feeling of accomplishment, the same way running that 5:57 mile at Great Valley High School did.