Injury, Identity, and The Athlete

June 9, 2021

Amelia Boone is a full-time corporate attorney, obstacle racer, and ultrarunner. Dubbed “The Queen of Pain,” Coach Amelia is a 4x world champion and one of the most decorated obstacle racers in history. Over her career, she’s amassed more than 50 podiums and 30 victories in obstacle racing. When Amelia's not out on an obstacle course, you'll find her nurturing a budding ultra running obsession, working as a full-time attorney, or watching wrestling pay-per-views. Most likely with a box of Pop-Tarts or a bag of ketchup chips in hand.

Yesterday, I decided to clean out the trunk of my car. It’s long overdue. As I surveyed the contents, I took notes (and yes, I realize this is disgusting): 9 pairs of trail shoes. 3 pairs of road shoes. 3 headlamps. 4 pairs of Injinjis, and one random mateless sock. 4 long sleeve running tops. 2 tanks. 2 buffs. One running visor. 2 rolls of RockTape. A bag of emergency gels and blocks. Scattered packets of BeetElite. A crumbly pack of Maple Bacon Pop-Tarts. And 3 handheld water bottles.

I took a step (or, crutched a step) back. I stared at the contents.

And I started crying.

“Goddamit, Amelia,” I told myself, “I thought you had moved past this stage.” That, being the all-too-familiar stages of grief, mostly associated with the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. But for an athlete, nothing brings out those stages of grief like an injury.

Because, for an athlete – whether you are an Olympic gold medalist or a new runner training to run your first 5k – an injury is so much more than a physical ailment. Hell, the physical is the easy part. Muscles heal. Bones grow. It’s the mental part of injury that haunts us – that keeps us awake at night. It’s the demons and the voices in the head – the fear that we’ll “never get back” to where we once were, or we “threw away all that hard work and training” or that we were in the “best shape of our lives” and now can only sit by as first-row spectators to watch as we lose our muscle, our endurance, our speed, our V02Max, and, at the core of it, our sense of self and our self-confidence.

And, if you really, truly, love your sport, what eats at you – day and night – is the overwhelming sense of losing a part of yourself. You mourn those missed opportunities. Toeing that start line. The joy of a hard training session and the feeling of accomplished soreness. You feel…lost. A ship without an anchor. Or fries without ketchup.

My typical morning view from the trails at Rancho. This, I miss the most.

I consider myself a rational human being. I’m fairly smart, decently logical (or, I’d like to think those traits got me through law school at least). And I can sit here and tell myself, as I’m sure every athlete can, “you are not defined by your sport. You are not defined by your physical prowess and your race wins and your PRs and your podium pictures.” I can tell myself I’m so much more than that as a person, and that being an athlete is NOT my entire identity. That I’m a generally likable human being with other things to offer to the world. That people enjoy my company (or, at least, fake it). That I can engage in intelligent conversation and I’m a worthy friend, sister, and daughter. And I’ve consoled many of injured athlete friends with the same line of “racing is not who you ARE” and accompanied that with a hug and well-wishes for a speedy recovery.

But honestly, I’m starting to think that line is a load of horseshit. And I’m tired of hearing it.

Because, for better or worse, as humans, we seek to define ourselves. We seek meaning, and we seek joy. And for athletes, racing and competing in their chosen sport IS that joy. You build your identity around things you love, around the happiness you feel. You build your community with like-minded individuals, and the sport becomes your purpose in life.  And, frankly, I fail to see anything wrong with that.

This feeling

I’ve spent the last few weeks chastising myself over being so upset, over the random fits of crying. “You should be stronger than this,” I tell myself, “You’ve been injured before.” Sure, I have. But the longest I’ve ever been separated from running has been less than a month. Even post-knee-surgery, I was back to running within 3 weeks. When I compare that to the 4+ month-fate laid out in front of me, I can’t fathom that expanse of time. I tell myself that I should use this time to find new hobbies, to expand my horizons, to focus on recovery and what little cross-training I’m able to do (eff you, swimming with a pull buoy). But nothing piques my interest like the trails that beckon to me from my office window.

So I’ve gotten into a vicious cycle of berating myself for being upset, which then compounds how awful and weak I already feel:  I’ve pretty much secured a 24-hour pass to the merry-go-round of self-flagellation. The could-haves, the would -haves, the should-haves. The overwhelming sense of guilt and stigma associated with an overuse injury, especially a stress fracture (“didn’t you feel it coming on?” “who runs enough to break their femur?”). The sheepishness in explaining it to people, especially other athletes whom you fear might be judging you for your foolish mistakes that landed you there. And, overarching all of this, the (what I call) “there are children starving in Africa” phenomenon – I feel ashamed that I’m crying and being a bag of shit over a tiny crack in a bone given how “blessed I am” compared to so many people in the world. The inner monologue that goes: “it’s JUST running. Stop being so dramatic and emotional, Amelia. It’s not like you’re dying. Or will never run again.” (I’m sure many of you reading this would like to slap me and tell me the same thing right now).

Amelia Boone at Spartan Race
That feeling

The last stage of grief is acceptance. I’m not there yet. But what I am going to accept is that running/racing is a HUGE part of my identity, and I’m not going to apologize for that. And I’m not going to change it, nor do I want to change that, just because conventional wisdom says that’s a “healthy” thing to do. Nor do I think that I (or, ANY athlete) should try to replace it with, say, underwater basket weaving, for the next 4+ months. If anything, this injury has shown me where my true passions lie, and the last thing I’m going to do is give up that part of myself right now.

Yesterday, I stood there for several minutes, staring at the open trunk of my car. Maybe it’d be easier to remove all running-related gear while I’m injured, to remove the constant reminder that I’m missing out on what I love to do (or, you know – to make room for groceries or other things that typically go in the trunk of your car). But in the end, I closed the trunk, and crutched away – contents left undisturbed. Because, even though I’m not able to train/run right now, it doesn’t erase that part of me. That messy trunk, full of mud and shoes and sweat, is a reminder of who I am. Of where I’ve come from and, eventually, where I’ll be again.

— Amelia Boone

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