Let down and betrayed but still hopeful
Editor's Note: NYC native Tim Rossi lives and breathes running. You'll catch him logging huge miles week on week and racing anything he can on the east coast, always repping his crew, Lostboys.
When he's not running, he's writing about running for TEMPO as our first regular columnist.
Fall in love as many times as it takes.
Full transparency: I did not come up with that. John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) said it in a commencement speech and it caused me to essentially rewrite this entire piece.
This piece is something I have wanted to avoid writing for a while. Not because I don’t like what I am writing about, but because I didn’t necessarily want to need to discuss being hurt. But, this is where we are. 4 times in the last 3 years I’ve needed to take an extended period of time off running due to injury. I’ve rambled endlessly about my bone injuries before, and now this IT Band issue has kept me from being able to train for 10ish weeks (so far).
In other words, I’ve fallen in love with running over and over again, only to have it break my heart when my body has betrayed me.
Tim the Broken - great nickname (Game of Thrones reference, which I’ve watched from start to end on the stationary bike these last 8 weeks…)
But I am not here to talk about injuries themselves.
I am writing right now because every time I have gotten hurt I find myself thinking about the same damn things over and over – will I be able to run again? Will I be able to reach my goals? Maybe I’m not made for this?
And then ultimately, one question rises to the top: Why do I do this?
Do I want to fall in love with running again?
Every time I’ve climbed onto the stationary bike I’ve thought this, and I’ve spent a shit ton of time on the bike so I’ve spent a shit ton of time thinking about that.
About the question.
Why. Why do I keep banging my head against a wall? Why do I want to do this? Is it worth it?
Do I want to throw myself into running knowing full well that it may break me again? I mean, it’s happened 4 times now, why won’t it happen again in the future?
If I didn’t care so much about running, maybe it wouldn’t break my heart in the same way?
And yet, here I am, trying to come back once more.
Simply put, for me to feel like myself I need to be running. And there are very specific running moments where I have felt most alive.
Every time I have gotten hurt I find myself thinking about the same damn things over and over – will I be able to run again? Will I be able to reach my goals? Maybe I’m not made for this?
Though this identity piece takes us back to 2012.
Prior to 2012 running was something that I did, but it wasn’t part of me. I started running to lose weight, plain and simple. I wanted to be fit. That was it. And while I absolutely started to improve, it wasn’t an addiction. I ran or played pickup basketball or went to the gym. It was part of my “get fit” regiment, but it wasn’t part of me.
But then in 2012, something changed.
Thanksgiving is a big thing in America, and one of the odd traditions that we have are things called “Turkey Trots.” Essentially, it is a race that most cities and towns around the country host on Thanksgiving morning. I hypothesize that it is simply a way to work up an appetite for the evening feast, but I digress.
I had run this specific Turkey Trot the two previous years, but I had simply done it to do it, not to compete (i.e. I did it to earn my Thanksgiving feast. Also, Halloween Food is definitely better than Thanksgiving food).
In 2012, things changed. I was fit, I had been running a little bit more, and I wanted to run fast. I don’t remember thinking I could win, but 2 miles into the 3-mile race I was at the front. I pushed hard up a hill and vividly remember separating from the other runners I was with. I dug deep, creating a bigger gap, and won!
An aside: The race is a small 3 and 6 miler, with the 6 milers running the same loop twice. I’ll gloss over the fact that 2 of the 6-milers were ahead of me when I finished the 3 miler.
But this moment, 2012 Montauk Turkey Trot Champ (17:05, 5:42 pace, essentially my current marathon pace), opened my eyes to the idea that I was actually pretty good at running.
Please note this race was tiny and I absolutely thought I was way better of a runner than I actually was at the time, But it also made me realize that, with the little extra work I had put in, I had gotten tangibly better: I’d literally ran faster due to the added training.
This moment, both realizing I was ok at running and also realizing that the amount you train directly leads to tangible improvement, was THE moment for me in my running journey.
And from then on, for better or worse, running became an extremely important piece of my identity.
I like going back to this glass jar analogy: in short, if you take a glass jar you can only fill it with so many big rocks before it gets full. After that you can add smaller rocks, you can add sand, you can add water, but there is a limited amount of space for these big rocks.
Well, running became one of those big rocks. It was an extremely important piece of me.
I also hypothesize that this had to do with the mental clarity I feel when running. I’ve said it before, but running helps me with my mental health more than anything.
I feel like I can think through any sort of issue occurring in my life when running. It keeps the arrow of my life pointed forward, not just within running but in life generally.
Another moment I continuously come back to: in 2017 I was training for the Boston Marathon and, as part of that preparation, I was racing the NYC Half. 3 days before the race, my dad had a heart attack, and the day before the race he had quadruple bypass surgery.
My mom and I sat in the waiting room during his 8-hour surgery, waiting for word.
I think I only told one of my friends what was happening because I knew no one could truly help me through what was happening. But there was never a question of whether or not I wanted to run the race – I knew that running would help.
The mental clarity that running gives me is second to none - I can run hard enough so that I can escape for a little, I can think, I can unwind, whatever. Running literally fixes my mind.
Thankfully we got word that my dad’s surgery was successful. That didn’t mean he was out of the woods, but it meant that one major step was done.
Still, the stress lingered.
So, the next morning, I hammered. I floated through the race, all the stress that I had been feeling sitting by my dads bedside while he was still sedated melted away and for 1:14:37 I was able to escape and feel like myself, to feel normal.
And even after that, heading back up to the hospital and giving my dad the medal (which he then wore, telling all the doctors he had had surgery and then ran the race himself), I could tell it had given us something normal to focus on during an extremely intense time.
That mental clarity and escape, it is real.
This happens all the time – a much less extreme example would be the NYC Half this year (2019). 2 days before I received a letter in the mail from a friend that truly threw me down a well. I didn’t have answers, didn’t know what to do, couldn’t think.
So, I went out and hammered 10 miles the next day.
And the day after that, I raced 13.1 miles. For 1:11:16 (and however long the 10- miler had taken the day before), I got away from everything. I ran hard enough to numb myself, immune to whatever outside feelings I was experiencing.
Different year, same experience (also this weird connection between the NYC Half and large life issues is not lost on me, may never run this race again, it’s bad luck).
In both of those races, I felt like me even when my life outside of running was blah.
That clarity, plus the identity piece, is why getting hurt is so traumatic.
It feels like a vortex: when running gets taken away from me I don’t feel like myself. And because I don’t have running to cope with this, I spiral deeper and deeper into a vortex. It’s a vicious-cycle, and truthfully there isn’t a great way around it that I’ve found.
What I do know is I have dealt with it before.
I know I will be ok, because no matter how much it sucks I know I’ve made it out the other side previously.
And that is why this internal drive around identity will continue to exist. I don’t need to replace it. But, this also doesn’t necessarily explain why I continue to strive to improve as a runner.
The identity piece and the mental clarity could be achieved by taking a more casual approach to running. I could simply run when I feel like it or when I need it, but I don’t necessarily need to continue to pursue ambitious goals to achieve those results.
That part of the question requires a different answer, one that is absolutely intertwined but nonetheless separate.
Simply, it is the pursuit of potential.
When running gets taken away from me I don’t feel like myself. And because I don’t have running to cope with this, I spiral deeper and deeper into a vortex.
I consider myself a very average athletic individual: I don’t think I have any sort of special genetic makeup, no secret, no magic pill. I simply want to be as good as I can be.
And here is where I feel running parallels an idealized version of life: if you work hard, you will get better.
And “work hard” doesn’t necessarily actually mean hard work or “more,” I think it just means less compromise: It means committing yourself more fully, no half-assing (full-ass instead, or full send, whatever).
Commit yourself fully, no matter how many times it takes. Put yourself, and your heart into it.
Running personifies this idea of hard work leading to improvement.
I went into the 2018 NYC Marathon as a 2:46 marathoner, there is no way to finesse that. I had stated my goal was to break 2:30, and people had told me I was an idiot.
But I knew how hard I had worked, I knew what I was capable of, I believed.
I ran 2:31:19.
To this date that is still my proudest running achievement, though not necessarily because it was such a massive PR.
I had got hurt 3 times and battled back. I had worked smart. Yes, all that was awesome, but it was special because I had done the work and believed enough in the moment to go for it.
I didn’t compromise, I didn’t scale my goals back, I believed in what I knew I was capable of.
And as soon as that race ended I found myself wondering: how good can I be?
I still feel that I have only scratched the surface, and chasing that pinnacle version of myself is something worth pursuing.
I’ll continue to put my whole heart into it.
And part of giving your heart fully to something is being willing to have your heart broken.
But if you never take that leap, you’ll never know what could have been.
And that is why I will come back to running. Why I will fall in love with running all over again knowing full well it might, it will, break my heart again.
It is why I am trying to take this approach to other important things in my life. If I am worried about what the worst-case scenario is then I may never know what the best case-scenario could have been.
Living life in fear is silly.
So here I am, taking another leap of faith knowing full well I may fall again.
I’m falling in love with running again, because it is worth it.
“Being Brave means not giving up on the things that make me feel alive.” – Gabe Grunewald.