On being a (former) runner

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

I felt like an archeologist last week when a friend showed me a well-worn  copy of a magazine article I’d written that, for some reason, he had been saving for years. It had been published in Runner’s World. As I re-read my guest column, it hit me that this was back in the publication’s heyday of iconic writers (all men) like marathoners Amby Burfoot, and Joe Henderson, and Dr. George Sheehan, before the magazine published its Runner’s World Complete Book of Women’s Running, and almost 20 years after I had first taken up distance running myself.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 7.10.19 AMWhile revisiting this essay I’d written, I was struck by its over-arching theme of loss. It’s a universal concept common to both heart patients mourning their loss of “normalcy” and to former distance runners mourning their loss of identity as runners. 

I used to be a runner, but I’m no longer a runner now. This was how I told Runner’s World readers my story of that surreal transition: 

Running Past

by Carolyn Thomas, Runner’s World, Vol. 33 Issue 11

“I watch them now with different eyes. Runners on Sunday morning long runs. After work runners in motley, laughing groups on their way through the park. Pre-dawn runners alone with the darkness and their thoughts.

“I used to be one of them.

“I remember clearly the Sunday morning when, after 19 years of running, I stopped being a runner, when my persistent heel pain suddenly, shockingly, made it impossible for me to run even one more step.

“At first I chalked it up as a minor injury. Off I limped to a podiatrist, demanding orthotics. He frowned at me, sniffing:

   You realize what you’re doing wrong, don’t you? You wear high heels at work. And you run.”

“Undaunted, and armed with my new $400 custom orthotics, I hit the sports medicine clinic next. I asked the sports medicine guys:

“Ultrasound, ice, heat, exercise – just do whatever it takes to get me back up and running.”

“When the pain grew worse, I had to look at other options. I tried acupuncture and cortisone injections. I lived on anti-inflammatories, trying to dull the teeth-grinding pain of plantar fasciitis that had become my constant companion.

“Weeks of treatment stretched into months. Slowly I realized what my body knew all along: my running days were over. Run? I could barely walk.

“Worse, I was even beginning to think of myself as a former runner.

“My longtime running partners were now running without me. For 19 years, our group would meet every Sunday at 9 a.m. for two hours of running – followed by two hours of eating. During the winter, we took turns hosting the group, each of us leading the others along urban mystery routes. During the summer, we circled Elk Lake on a woodland path, driving to our favourite coffee shop afterward for gooey cinnamon buns.  We also met Tuesdays and Thursdays after work at the downtown Y for our training runs.

“We were a wildly diverse group of women, ranging from lawyers to pub servers – some single, some married, some fast, some much less fast – bound by the support we had discovered in group running. We didn’t run to win race medals or improve our times, although as the years went by, we did. In fact, we never seemed to have any particular training goals. Mostly, we just wanted to run together as one unwieldy mass of colorful Spandex and flying ponytails.

“And how we loved to talk! We explored each others’ lives like documentary filmmakers. Divorce. Death. Co-workers, men and teenagers driving us crazy. Everything that was tearing at our hearts or delighting our souls would turn up on Sunday morning’s topic agenda. Sometimes we all talked at once; sometimes just one of us talked for the entire run. When I was going through a painful separation from my husband, our group sometimes had to stop running and walk for a bit because I was unable to run, talk and cry all at the same time.

“Immediately after my heel injury, I would still join the group for our usual post-run Sunday brunch. There were hugs all around when I’d arrive, but gradually something began to feel different.

“As summer turned to fall, then winter to spring, one Sunday at a time, I got too busy to meet them for breakfast. I was now an outsider, a foreigner to the land of speedwork, pulled quads, and the latest in running shoe technology. Some of us still got together socially, but at parties I was now introduced as their ‘former running buddy.’ I was no longer one of them.

“When I first stopped running, I would watch runners on the road with curiosity, identifying familiar faces. Months later, I’d feel only a wistful pang as I studied the beautiful stride of the distance runner, fearing that I just might never again be one.

“Now, I feel oddly resigned to my life as a former runner.

“These days, I can walk to work, five miles round-trip, at a moderate pace. I’m thrilled to be able to walk without limping now, but the very idea of running is still unthinkable.

“Last weekend, I had my runner’s ponytail cut off. I gave away my old running magazines.

“And now, as runners pass by, I watch them with different eyes (and shorter hair), from that strange, uneasy place that hangs between my running past and my unknown, non-running future.”

© Runner’s World

Q: Have you had to stop doing something for health reasons that used to be a big part of who you were?

See also:


13 thoughts on “On being a (former) runner

  1. I had tears in my eyes while reading this lovely essay, Carolyn. I too went through similar feelings, although with me it was being diagnosed with MS and playing tournament tennis, respectively. I have to admit that I always did identify myself as a tennis player first and foremost, that’s how much I loved that game since I first played at age 8. It was in fact more important in many ways than things that should have been #1 – not the least of which was my marriage (non-tennis-playing hubby), my social life (outside of tennis) and even on many occasions, my family. I think now that I was grieving twice: for my lost health and my lost identity as a tennis-playing jock.


    1. Thank you Carla. You were hit with two idenity-shaking traumas: both your health and your tennis. Good luck to you on your journey.


  2. Wow. Wow. You are telling MY story here. Different injury, same end result. I kept thinking that this physio treatment or this stretching regimen or this sports medicine clinic would finally solve the problem until one day, as you write so well here, it hit me that I hadn’t run for almost a year and it was unlikely I would actually get back. I still get choked up just thinking of that time when the realization started sinking in. Thanks so much for this, I hadn’t identified what I was feeling as “GRIEF” but that is absolutely what was happening. Again, just WOW.


    1. I think you’re right, WSC. I think all major change carries with it some sense of loss, which is why my Runner’s World piece also reminded me of the similar grief I felt about my “old life”, pre-heart attack. Thank you for telling your story here too.


  3. Carolyn,

    As I read your excellent (as always!) post, my little toe is throbbing (broke it) on my left foot, my right hip pain is radiating down my leg (or is it my leg pain radiating up to my hip – or maybe it’s back pain . . .?)

    I ran before running was “in”. Now that walking is “in” I am sitting — guess it’s my lot always to be ahead of the curve!

    All that aside, I believe that life is a series of loss starting with losing our cushy place in the womb. Loss is simply meant to be.

    My challenge is how to respond to my inevitable loss. I don’t face loss always gracefully (as evidenced by my little toe), willingly or gratefully, but at least now I do it with less (I didn’t say “no”) lament.


    1. Q: how is it possible that something as tiny as a toe can cause such pain and disruption when it’s injured?! Hope your toe (and hip, and leg) feel better soon. 😉


  4. How did I know JetGirl would relate to this?! 🙂

    When I first understood that I had heart problems, I was devastated that I could no longer run up mountains or do an “ordinary” 80 km bike ride. As time goes by I have to keep changing the goalposts of activity levels, but I was feeling pretty smug about my acceptance of these limitations until the other day it occurred to me what was happening.

    More and more often I don’t do anything or very little because I am too exhausted, too short of breath or just plain too sick to want to do it! I guess this is progress??!


    1. I hear ya, Lauren! Those goalposts keep moving, for sure, back and forth between smugness and dismay. For me, it’s also about timing: I can fit in almost any kind of exercise as long as it’s early morning for no more than one hour. Then after that, I’m beat for the rest of the day – but one day it hit me that I’d be beat anyway, whether I move in the morning or not. So might as well try to move something. Anything…


    2. Ahhh, Lauren, you know me too well! Loss is becoming a BFF, I think ! I follow my marathoning friends on the race websites instead of being out there with them.

      And missing the post race meals?!? Come on, universe, REALLY?!?



  5. A big round of applause for you, Carolyn. You got published in Runner’s World? I’m so impressed! You’re so right about that sense of “loss” that accompanies any major life change that affects who we are and how we think of ourselves and our place in this world. I’m not a heart patient, but this is true in so many areas of life.


  6. Carolyn,

    Yet again, spot on!!

    Running, open water swimming, and races involving either or both are no longer on the agenda. Now, just being able to WALK is an accomplishment and, if I can scurry across a neighborhood street, that is a GREAT day. Being well enough to swim laps on any particular day is so wonderful, but the day I quit the team was so painful. The competitive atmosphere was too much for my battered vasculature.

    Being able to exercise for hours and eat without counting calories was a gift that was rudely taken from me. Some days the loss is SOO much greater than other days. But I do get nostalgic now that marathon season is in full swing.

    Progress!! I didn’t cry as I write this!!



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