“What’s that thing sticking out of your shoe?”
Me: “Umm, that’s my foot.”
These are not the normal questions you get asked after finishing a mountain bike race, but they have been normal for me for the last 8 years. I have Taylor Bunions; bunions on the pinkie toe side of your foot. You get them from having high arches. Mine actually started when I was 17. I wasn’t a cyclist at the time, but I was a new runner. One of my first races was a marathon. I had improper insoles for my feet and wasn’t aware that I even needed them. Fast forward 16 years (damn, that makes me feel old!), tens of thousands of miles on a bike, and those little bunions literally looked like 6th and 7th toes. Docs have been telling me for years to get surgery, but instead I just cut gaping holes in the sides of my shoes.Lesson: Take care of your feet early!Did it hurt when I rode my bike? Yes, frequently. It was excruciating at times. My feet would hurt way more than my legs! For some of my races, I’d carry a spare water bottle to try to put out the fire by dumping water on it. It had limited success. Because I race 100+ miles or stage races, some days I couldn’t walk for hours after I finished. It didn’t really matter because I was in pain anyway! I just dealt with it as one of the challenges of being an ultra endurance athlete.
Recently, I got one of them operated on. I decided that it was ridiculous to keep putting it off. Plus, I moved to British Columbia 3 years ago and rumor has it that there is epic skiing! I can’t wait to explore the mountains this winter! I haven’t been able to wear a ski boot in many years. The surgeon opted to simply cut out the scar tissue instead of realign any bones because I requested for the easiest surgery with the quickest recovery. The chunk they cut out was the size of a ping pong ball (I’ll spare you with photos, but it looked like a mini brain!).
I’ve had my fair share of setbacks and injuries over the course of my career. I sheepishly admit that some of my actions around my injuries were incredibly short-sighted; trying to race with concussions (actually, I was on my way to a brutal 7 day race in Brazil and the airline lost my bike for 5 days and I ended up not racing because my bike didn’t make it to the start line. Something was looking out for me!) and even racing with broken bones. What was my deal? Why was I being so stubborn and somewhat self-destructive? Was I being brave or stupid?
The reason we prematurely rush to get back to activity is fear.More specifically, fear of missing out, fear of losing fitness, andloss of sense of identity and purpose.We also do it because it’s frustrating and inconvenient not to be able to use our body like we are used to.This year, I went to New Zealand to defend my 24-h World Champion title. I had a stupid and unfortunate crash 2 days before the race and landed on my head. It was disappointing to say the least, but I showed up as a volunteer the day of the race instead of with the defending champ number plate on my bike. I was shedding secret tears behind my sunglasses as I cheered and watched the race take off without me, but I knew it was the right long-term decision. It’s always disappointing when things like this happen, but it’s important to think big picture.
After some of my ridiculous “I’ll just race 100+ milers with broken bones or brain injuries” escapades, I took some time to analyze why I was doing that.My sense of self was coming from my activities and I was afraid I was going to miss out on an opportunity.Also, I had to participate in physical activity to feel good about myself. The cause was deep-rooted in my later teenage years, using running to manage angst and anxiety. It was the only thing I knew to make those feelings go away and it worked like a charm. I grew up playing music, so I decided to learn a new instrument – guitar. I spent a lot of time reading non-fiction books and learning about things I was interested in; I love learning.Through a regular self-awareness practice, I was able to come to a place where I was comfortable being Sonya, not “Sonya the Athlete.”It was an important time because I learned how to self-soothe and feel good when I couldn’t move my body (with yoga, cycling, running, hiking, tennis, gym, etc) Of course, my preference is to move my body as much as possible!
These stories and realizations bring me to now. My recovery from my foot surgery was incredibly quick compared to a lot of other injuries people endure. I was only off the bike and off exercise for a month. I couldn’t walk at all for 2+ weeks.It was the longest I have gone in my entire life without exercising.I had never spent so much time on a couch, or in my living room for that matter! This stint has been the longest I’ve been home and not traveling in 6 years. I needed the break.
People would say to me, “Oh, you must be SO depressed. You must be going stir crazy!” The truth was that I was perfectly at ease and happy. I was excited to have more time to do other things I loved to do, or simply nothing at all! I actually sat on the window seat and simply watched people go by outside or the bright yellow leaves slowly fall from the trees. I took time to reflect on my goals and on my reasons for those goals. I also took time to let my brain and body rest. There’s a lot more hours in the day when you are not training! I saw my accountant a few weeks before my surgery and I told him that I was excited to get surgery. He was perplexed, “I’m never seen someone excited about that before.”It’s all a matter of perspective.
Most of the time, we can’t anticipate our injuries or time away from our sport. What can you do to make the most of your injury or recovery? People ask me how I stay so positive, so I wanted to share it with you.
DON’T throw a pity party. It’s a downward spiral of negativity. It’s okay to feel disappointed, but don’t tell yourself stories around the emotion. It is important to process and feel your emotions rather than bottle them up, but don’t let them consume you.
DO realize that nothing is permanent. Once you are better, the down time will seem far away in the past. Even if your injury was life-altering, there are always a way to find happiness. You see people do ironman triathlons with one leg or people in wheelchairs who still ski. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to go through a change like that, but there is always a way.
DO spend more time with friends and family. Having support and feeling a sense of community is important. Feeling isolated will make you feel worse.
DO take up new hobbies or re-visit old ones. Maybe it’s time to develop some new interests that help enrich your life
DON’T worry about losing fitness. Part of the fun is building it back up again. The reason we set goals is so we have something to work towards. If you had a setback, you improve rapidly and seeing that improvement is rewarding.
DO take care of your body. Eat a plant-based diet, sleep 8-10 hours per night. It’ll make you heal faster.
DO make the choice to be happy.
It’s not always easy. When negative stories and thoughts come into your mind, try to retell the story in a different way.
Example. It’s raining outside.
Negative: “I hate the rain. I’m going to be cold and wet. I’m going to be uncomfortable. I would rather ride in the sun.”
Positive. “It’s raining! I’m going to have an adventure (work on skills, work on my mental edge, appreciate the different smells, try this new rain jacket out, feel good about myself because I went out in the rain anyway, the rain will help me appreciate the sunny days even more..etc etc.) It’s actually easier for me to think of positive explanations than negative ones. It’s not always easy to do reframe a situation in a positive way, but if you work at it, it gets easier!