By Sarah Curiel
“Be strong, never stop” is a quote written across one of my favorite sports bras, and also pretty much sums up how I like to live my life.
When Kathy asked me to write another piece for WeRunWithYou about my second marathon experience (way back in early 2019, sorry Kathy!) I had a vague idea of continuing the first piece; something about how working hard pays off and finding motivation from other people’s inspiring successes and overcomings. While both of those are great (still looking at you Wendy Vallejos!) after my experience with that particular race, and the craziness of the rest of that year, I’ve learned about a different kind of strength. About the difference between giving it all you’ve got when you’re at the top of your game versus when you’re at the bottom. And I think that lesson is much more fitting for a community dedicated to awesome marathon running brain aneurysm survivors, like Kathy and Wendy, who had to get their whole life back in the game after losing almost everything.
My 2018 LA Marathon training and race day all went pretty perfectly. It was definitely hard, but I put in the work, and the sweat, and the hours, and it all paid off. I smiled my way through (most of) the race, ended the last mile with my fastest pace, and beat my 4-hour time goal. So when I signed up to run the 2019 LA Marathon as part of celebrating Wendy’s “comeback year”, I was again incredibly inspired by her, but figured I knew what to expect on my end. I’d do the same general idea as the first year, but train even harder and faster to do even better. And the beginning of my training started out great! But during what should have been my peak weeks I got bronchitis and had to take 2 full weeks off from any running. Cue an extra long, slow taper leading up to the race instead of the ideal training peak I was looking for. Definitely not great, but not the end of the world.
Then, one month before the race I found out the chronic right ankle pain and locking I’d been having since undergrad was actually from a large bone lesion, and to correct it I needed to get a major reconstructive bone, cartilage, and ligament surgery. True to classic gymnast and marathon runner form, when my doctor told me I’d need the surgery whether I ran this marathon or not, dropping out wasn’t even a question.
But it was hard. Training in a brace was hard. Rebuilding my cardio was hard. Knowing I would be getting surgery after the race was hard. And so unsurprisingly to everyone else (yet somehow still a surprise to me) the race was hard. The longest training run I’d done was only 16 miles and it showed. I found the “wall” that people talk about hitting for the first time in my life, especially during the last few miles. I had to stop to walk or stretch multiple times, and it didn’t matter how mentally tough I was trying to be, because I physically had no more to give. Even when I could see the finish line, I still had to stop once because one more stride and my legs, or abs, or muscles I didn’t even know I used for running, felt like they were all going to cramp. For someone who prides themselves on always “sprinting the end” no matter what, it was incredibly frustrating. I didn’t start sprinting this time until I was sure that even if everything somehow gave out at once my momentum would still throw me across that finish line.
But I finished! In one of the hardest 4 hours, 12 minutes, and 57 seconds of my life. Even though I didn’t PR, and didn’t get my time goal, and I had to stop more times that I can count in those last few miles, I was still proud of myself. And proud to finish alongside some of the most badass aneurysm survivors. It took me a few days to put things in perspective and consciously choose to be happy with my race as a whole, but I managed to end feeling satisfied. And I thought I’d learned how to be proud of trying my best even when it wasn’t meeting the standards I was looking for.
Fast forward 3 months later to ankle surgery. Throughout my 10-year gymnastics career I had chronic ankle pain and injuries, but I’d always found a quick “fix” and pushed through it. I’d never had to actually put in enough recovery time to let it completely heal. For me it was so much easier to be mentally and physically “tough” and push through any symptoms than to take time off, and modify activities, and in general just be patient with my body. So the 2 months of total non-weight bearing after my surgery was eye opening to a different kind of mental toughness. Then there was another month and a half in a walking boot. And even when I finally made it out of the walking boot I wasn’t allowed to do any “exercise”. So I was definitely going a bit crazy. My progress was going great, and I hadn’t had any setbacks (I should have known real progress can’t stay linear) but I was still so impatient for more, more, more.
So at my 4 month post-op appointment when my surgeon told me I had to go back in the walking boot for 6 more weeks, I was completely devastated. I made it out to my car before I started crying. I had been doing everything I was supposed to, and my ankle was still healing well, but to me it felt like none of that mattered and everything I’d been working for was suddenly falling apart around me. It felt like I was going backwards. That was the hardest week for me during the whole recovery process; trying to come to terms with the fact that sometimes recovery isn’t about doing more, and working harder, and pushing through it. Sometimes it’s about listening to your body, and listening to your healthcare team, and doing less if that’s what you need at that moment. I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am for my friends and family who helped me stay sane and smiling through all of this. Even when I found out I had an even bigger lesion in my other ankle. And I’d be going through the same surgery and recovery process again after the first ankle healed.
Needless to say, 2019 was a crazy year, and 2020 is looking like it will be full of emotional highs and lows as well. Luckily, right now is definitely a high point. I’m just now getting back to the active lifestyle I love: running, rock climbing, backflips, and snowboarding. This week was the first time I’ve been able to run a mile without stopping in over 7 months! I haven’t thought of a mile as a “long run” in over 10 years, but that one mile made me so incredibly happy. I finally feel like I’m almost back to where I was before. And the idea of going through it all again is discouraging, and frustrating, and scary. I know that it’s going to be hard mentally, physically, and emotionally, and even though I just went through it, I’m going to feel like it will never end. But I’m learning how to accept that it’s okay to feel that way. Just because your best isn’t what you want right now, it doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. And most importantly, it doesn’t mean you can’t still choose to be happy with your victories, even if they’re only small ones for now. So even though going through this whole process again is going to be one of the hardest things I’ll have ever done, at least I also know that I’m going to come back. Again. With super ankles.
So Kathy, I’m sorry that it took me almost a year to write this. But this crazy year has really given me a new appreciation of when you say your running is “a celebration of life”. And the biggest lesson I’d like to take away from all of this is remembering to actively choose to be happy and celebrate life, no matter what kind of strength is required, and never ever stop.
Sarah is a pediatric physical therapist currently living in sunny Southern California. She first got introduced to marathons during an ICU clinical rotation while she was a student in USC’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program. A very special patient somehow convinced her that she could be a marathon runner too, and she’s so happy that last year #RunningForWendy finally became #RunningWithWendy. When Sarah isn’t running or playing around at work, she’s probably either flipping, climbing, reading, or playing around at the beach. And she’s definitely smiling.