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It’s no secret I’ve been dealing with some achilles stuff for quite a while. Over two years to be exact. About six weeks ago I had a breakthrough. A very high resolution MRI read by Dr. Amol Saxena found that my heel bone is oddly shaped, with a hook-like piece on it that pokes into my achilles when my calf is stretched. Because of this, a lot of the things I was doing to make it better were actually making it worse. It’s not so much a spur, but more of one of those “that’s just the way you’re built” kind of things, like the shape of one’s nose. For whatever reason (age, 20 years of left turns, etc), it finally decided to cause me trouble, so I can either get major surgery to shave it down (4-6 month recovery), or create a work-around (orthotic and change of approach).  Surgery would take Rio Olympics completely off the table, so work-around it is! The doctor is very optimistic.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 10.37.36 AMIt’s a bit scary because it’s either going to work, or it won’t. I’ll know within a month or two. I’ve had to be very intentional with creating my approach for the next year since I only have one more real crack at this particular type of running: Olympic track and field, which has the highest demands on my heel of all the kinds of running I could be doing. If it doesn’t work out, I can get surgery and go from there. Or not. The thing is, there are plenty of other approaches to the sport that can work within my limits, and “worst case scenario” I can think about the next chapter of sport/life as a coach of professional athletes, and ambassador.

That transition doesn’t scare me at all. I’m 33, prepared, excited for the future, and can appreciate how much simpler life will be on the other side for my family and friendships. But as those of you who follow my career know, I may be in a bit of a competitive free fall at the moment, but I’m not ready to pull the parachute cord yet.

There are those in the competitive running world who find hangers-on in the sport to be un-desireable: the “Why are they still doing this?” questions come out when someone is older, facing obstacles, and/or could possibly be over the bell curve of their peak performances. “Why not retire at the top of their game?” I’ve heard people say, and have even said myself when I was 22. When you are younger and on fire, it is hard to imagine finding satisfaction in anything but upward momentum. I remember feeling a bit sorry for what I saw as 30-somethings frantically waving a magic wand over their top hats. I completely missed the point. In my weaker moments of the past two years, awareness of that critical perspective has occasionally made me feel like I have no right to keep doing this. But then I remember that running is mine.

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In the end, this is what I love most about running.

Running is, and has always been, a personal life journey. It is done within a larger context of the sport as a whole, which is it’s own living, breathing, evolving organism. Being in the spotlight and competing on the biggest stages in the world, you become subject to an institutional, external definition of “success” or “failure” and if you aren’t careful, it can completely supplant your own. If running your best is justified only by international success, what is running without it?

When it comes to my personal journey, I just happen to be good enough at running, and capable of working hard enough for it to have landed me near the front of the pack, but that’s not why I do it. USA Championships, finishing 7th at Worlds, those were side-shows, not the main event. The main event has no podium. I just want to see what I’m capable of, just like I did when I was 13, and what I hope to do into my 60’s, in a way that feels good to me.

We have a tendency in pro track and field to worship child stars, obsess over records and medals, not celebrate our history (outside of what is sold to us by corporate interests) and then thrash the veterans on message boards so badly that by the time they retire, most shut the door completely behind them and never look back. In a sport that desperately needs fans, volunteers, officials, and active alums, we find instead a pretty massive void. Doesn’t take a genius to see that it is in our sport’s interest to smooth out that transition from competitor to fan. It is my intent to kick some ass now, make that transition happily, and take notes along the way.

So back to kicking ass. This intentional approach I’m taking now? Specific strength work, soundwave therapy, shoes being developed to my specifications by Roka, an orthotic, a very gradual, measured build, a nutritional approach that optimizes tendon health and recovery…I feel good about it. Some days I freak out, but I’m taking it day-by-day, and looking at the next 18 months as an adventure with very little to lose. So long as I don’t lose my love of the sport, or my passion to stick around and improve it, I’ve won.