Back from Injury, Better than Ever
Editor’s Note: This feature is brought to you by New Balance and their new Fresh Foam 880v12. Sarah says that “I wear 880s for everything, from long runs to warm-ups and cool downs. I like them because they’re lightweight yet still offer a good amount of support for a neutral shoe. They’re just a great all-rounder.”
It has become a familiar story in running, as in many careers over the past couple of years.
Sarah Billings had a great 2019 season, racing in Europe and looking set to make the jump from challenger to genuine contender in Australia’s 800m and 1,500m circles. But the next two years were literally uneventful for Billings, though not because of the pandemic.
Rather, it was a string of injuries, one after another, which limited her to just four races over the two-year period of 2020–2021. For comparison, Billings raced 18 times in 2019, across Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden.
“It started in July 2020 with bursitis in my right foot, I had a couple of weeks off for that and a cortisone injection. It eventually settled down but then in mid-August I was experiencing a new pain in the same foot, which turned out to be a stress fracture in my third metatarsal. I had six or so weeks off for that.
“Then, in February 2021, I got a stress reaction in my femoral neck. I managed to get in one race, but I was running on an injured hip and could barely walk the morning of the race – I was still in denial. I had about six to eight weeks off for that; then in July 2021 I got a stress reaction in my femoral shaft.
“Then I had a rib issue at the end of 2021 brought on by the cross training, which prevented me from doing strenuous running.”
“I learnt so much about my body and myself. Lessons that most people will have to wait their entire running career to learn, and I’ve learnt them in two years.”
Almost cruelly, between each injury Billings was able to train enough to see some base fitness return before again succumbing. Many athletes would attest that the ‘getting fit’ stage is the hardest and most frustrating part of being a runner. As Billings worked through the getting fit period over the summer of ’20–21, injury reared its head again, making her second guess her decision to go all in on running.
“The injury to my femoral neck back in February 2021 took a really big toll on me and was by far the hardest injury I’ve had to get through. The two weeks after that injury was diagnosed I felt totally numb. I didn’t care about anything or anyone. I had just left my graduate role to focus on running and now I couldn’t even walk without crutches. I felt like a total failure, completely empty.”
Having already been through so much, Billings again went through the routine of starting to run and establishing some base fitness – before being struck by July’s femoral shaft stress reaction. It’s enough to test the resolve of any athlete, especially an athlete who just graduated university with a double degree in architecture and construction management. It would have been so easy for Billings to walk away and turn her attention to a promising career outside of running.
“I definitely had a lot of fears and doubts going through my head. How could I be injured again when I was doing everything right? Who’s to say this won’t happen again in three months? I had left no stone unturned with my previous injury. I had addressed every possible cause. I checked everything; you name it, I checked it. At that point I had lost pretty much all trust in my body and doubted every decision I made in regards to my rehab and recovery. I saw so many specialists I didn’t know who to listen to or whose advice to follow. This made me second guess everything even more.”
Of course, we know Sarah Billings did overcome her injury and make it back to top level competition. In the recent domestic season, Billings PR’d in both the 800m (2:03.28) and the 1,500m (4:09.73), showing she is on track for a strong year ahead.
Looking back at such a trying period, Billings reflects on what she gained from the lost years.
“I’m not glad it all happened but I am happy I was able to learn everything that I did. I learnt so much about my body and myself. Lessons that most people will have to wait their entire running career to learn, and I’ve learnt them in two years.”
Whether it’s a bad race or an injury, it’s typical of an athlete to look for the positive in a bad situation. An athlete has to be an optimist, for most will lose more races than they’ll win, and all will suffer setbacks along the journey. But the best athletes know that no effort is ever wasted and that lessons, much like career-best fitness, are not only hard earned but also tough to capture. Mixing good science and bad luck, successfully harnessing that combination of hard work and painful insight can be as rare as catching lightning in a bottle.
Coming into 2022 fit and healthy, and now with fresh PRs on the board, Billings is optimistic about what’s to come, and knows that success is a long game.
“This year is all about staying healthy to achieve consistency. As my coach Nic [Bideau] always says, consistency is the goal, everything else will take care of itself. I want to go into next season with a whole year of training under my belt, not just six weeks’. If I can do that, 2022 will have been a successful year for me.”
To hear an athlete such as Billings already talking about getting in the best possible position for next season says something about the margins of error at the top of the sport. To be at the front of races, where hundredths of a second can be the difference between being selected for a team and missing out, takes years of training and months upon months of stacked fitness.
It feels silly to mention that as an elite athlete you have to love what you do. Silly because it’s obvious: athletics careers are the ultimate speculative investment. Most offer little return in terms of financial rewards or global achievements, with the added cost of enormous physical toll on the body. But it’s not obvious, is it? I’m sure many people reading this aren’t doing what they love; we’ve all had periods in life where we are going through the motions, and I think that’s a trap a lot of athletes fall into as well. Billings, however, is one athlete who is completely in love with the sport that has already given – and taken – so much.
“Running is something I do every day and it’s my favourite way to start the day. I get excited the morning of a session … I get a lot out of testing my limits and pushing myself. It’s what makes me tick. I think that’s why getting injured is so dramatic for me.
“I’ve met some of my best friends through running, including my boyfriend, Jordy. My training group, Melbourne Track Club, plays a big role in my life. It includes some of the funniest people I know, and we enjoy spending time with each other on and off the track. I love being able to laugh through the whole warm up and switch into grind mode as soon as the first rep starts. We work together to complete sessions and I really thrive off that.”
I don’t know how this story ends; I don’t even know what genre I would file it under. Sarah’s relationship with running is a love story if nothing else. The last two years have been a drama, but does it finish in tragedy or triumph? Whatever happens, I’ll be sitting back, rooting for Billings to emerge as the hero.