Some of the most memorable experiences of my running career have come to me while I was lying on the ground.
“Can you get up?”
I was looking up at my high school P.E. teacher, who was crouching over me. One by one the heads of my classmates slowly came into the periphery of my view. “I can’t move my arm…” I said back to him.
That moment in the autumn of 2013 is when my fraught relationship with my right shoulder began. In a hard-fought game of flag-football, I had taken a tumble and dislocated my right shoulder (I didn’t even catch the flag). Soon after, I would learn that a dislocated shoulder is like a bad penny and will always turn up once you’ve got it. The ligaments and tendons in your shoulder will stretch, but never really cinch back up afterwards. The lucky side-effect is that the more times you dislocate a shoulder, the easier it becomes to do it again.
“You can have it surgically corrected” the doctor told me a few hours later as I considered my options. “One dislocation, you might be fine. If it comes out again, you’ll probably need to have it pinned in place.” Two years and somewhere between 7 and 10 dislocations later, it seemed I was forced into the tough choice to get it fixed surgically. “It’s typically as good, or even better than new afterwards”, he continued, “pending another very traumatic blow to it.”
It was during these same years that I’d become fascinated with ultra-running. 15K was the farthest I’d ever run, and here were these people going miles on end over mountains! Some great stories passed me by in that time. One that I’d never forget was about how ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek had set the course record at the 2007 Hardrock 100-mile Endurance Run—a race through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with more vertical ascent than the height of Mount Everest-- 48 hours after spraining his ankle. A completely unimaginable human feat.
Two years after my shoulder repair, I saw another chilling story; this time from the 2017 Hardrock 100. Reigning champion Kílian Jornet had dislocated his left shoulder a mere 13 miles into the race, but had unfathomably continued on to run 86 more miles with his arm in a sling, and had won for the fourth year in a row. I wasn’t ready for the crazy races or warrior-like mentality ultra-running seemed to entail, but still I liked to dabble in some shorter-distance adventures.
Enter the Dirt Cheap Stage Race: a weekend-long event consisting of three trail races. A 3-mile night-run on Friday, a 5-mile jaunt Saturday morning, culminating in a 12-mile finale Sunday morning.
We had a group of 15 runners or so from our college club team who had decided to launch into this epic. It was a frigid November night in Rochester, NY; the temperature was in the low teens, Fahrenheit. We huddled together for warmth and some of us danced in place to try and stay warm until the starting gun. Finally, the time came and I plunged into the dark forest. I was taking this run more conservatively, concerned about overrunning the beam of a headlamp that was long past needing a battery change.
By Saturday morning I felt fresh, and ready go after it hard in the remaining stages. With a loud “POP” from the gun, I surged forward under a beautiful blue sky. I fell into a good position and a comfortable rhythm, just tailing one of my teammates. We sat in the latter half of the top-10. The course became progressively hillier as we moved through Mile 2 into the middle part of the race. I felt strong still and began to overtake some tiring runners who went out a bit harder. I was getting excited, starting to see the possibility of a top-5 finish for the day, and kicked it up a gear.
I ground up another short climb and came to a 90-degree turn and a steep, fast downhill. Now I was ready to charge. A few 10s of feet down the pitch the world suddenly spun around me, and I was looking up the hill from my back as runners charged over the top of me. Still lying in the middle of the trail, I took a few seconds to determine what had just happened. I had started to descend and immediately rolled my left ankle, fallen on my outstretched right arm, and somersaulted up and over that arm to where I now rested.
I squirmed my way off the side of the trail and attempted to stand up, quickly realizing I couldn’t move my right arm. My shoulder was still separated and I needed to roll it back into place before I’d have any use of it. With a clunk, my arm was secure again and some function had been restored. Now I winced as I attempted to weight my left ankle and begin my painful limp downhill. I still needed to find a volunteer to inform them that I’d have to drop from the race.
After a minute or two of this, I was suddenly reminded of Kílian’s feat from only a few months ago. “This will be my Hardrock”, I decided!
If Kílian could run 86 miles with a broken wing, then by God I was going to run these last 2.5 miles of my race. The pain in my ankle faded away as I re-focused on the finish line. I broke into the slowest of jogs, holding my right arm across my chest to stabilize it. Descending further the course entered a marsh that rose up over the top of my shoes. My ankle was twisted this way and that as I did my best to bull-doze through the worst section of the trail.
25 minutes later, I was greeted by my team, which had been waiting and wondering what had happened to me. I crossed the line, excited to have toughed it out until the end. I hadn’t finished in my goal time or place, but I was more satisfied with my unexpected accomplishment: ascending to the same ranks of mental toughness as Kílian Jornet and Scott Jurek.
Most of us aren’t ever going to race and win at the level of Kílian or Scott, but there are still a lot of ways we can achieve the success of our idols. We can train as consistently, we can balance our diet, and we can dream just as big. When the going gets tough we can keep moving forward by whatever means we have. We all have it in us to be as awesome as Kílian.