As the London Olympics get underway with earnest, there have already been some incredible performances, surprising upsets, and heartbreaking disappointments as one might expect from such a global spectacle. Sadly, as this story was published, one of the most potentially devastating developments concerned U.S. women’s marathon hopeful, Desiree Davila.
Davila, along with marathon teammates, Shalane Flanigan and Kara Goucher, represents one of America’s greatest distance running prospects for an Olympic Marathon medal. Unfortunately, a nagging hip flexor injury is threatening to bring all her dreams, and America’s hopes, crashing to the ground, as talk of Davila pulling out of the race has not yet been completely dismissed. Late on Sunday, July 29th, Keith Hanson of the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project, which sponsors Davila, announced that Davila had withdrawn from the race, only to have Davila herself counter with an announcement that she intended to tough it out and continue training for a few more days before ultimately deciding her Olympic Marathon fate (See: http://www.freep.com/article/20120729/SPORTS17/120729031/Rochester-Hills-Desiree-Davila-bows-out-Olympics-hip-injury).
As the world awaits Davila’s final decision, and as America, in particular, prays for the best-case scenario, it is perhaps easy to lose the real perspective of this story, and that is the perspective of Davila herself. After her recent success at the Boston Marathon in 2011 and her runner-up performance at the U.S. Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston last January, Davila had garnered worldwide respect from her competitors while building her own confidence that she could compete with the world’s best for an Olympic medal. Yet after all of the training, preparation, and dreaming, to suddenly be hampered by the gut-wrenching reality of an injury is perhaps the harshest form of emotional and mental anguish any athlete can face. Without question, Davila has done everything she could possibly do to proudly represent her country in the Olympics, but unfortunately, she may soon become a victim of unforeseen, if not uncontrollable, circumstances that may leave her sidelined and unable to fulfill her personal goals and aspirations, not to mention fulfill the hopes of her nation and fans.
Davila’s problems are magnified on the global stage of the Olympics, but her anguish is no less real than that of the average runner and weekend warrior who may be facing similar frustrations due to injury.
In the immortal words of the late John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans,” or to put it in another oft quoted manner, “We plan and God laughs.” To the injured runner, with personal goals and race aspirations, who has sacrificed so much time and effort to training and race day preparation, such sentiments certainly make sense.
Even the least competitive among us know that everything worth attaining comes at great personal expense. To attain a personal racing goal, one often must literally invest one’s own blood, sweat and tears, as Thomas Paine reminds us in The American Crisis: “[T]he harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value” (See: http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/singlehtml.htm). Yet it is exactly this sort of devotion to training that leads to manifest disappointments and heartache, and sometimes even outright depression, when a runner unexpectedly finds all her hopes dashed by uncontrollable circumstances. All the dedication to training schedules, all the miles logged, all the toleration of sweltering heat and exasperating cold are worth it when race day arrives and the runner is reasonably fit and prepared to take on the challenge. For many runners, the day of the big race is literally like payday, when the paycheck for all the hard work completed has arrived. But what about the runner who has done all of the above and cannot race because of an injury or other unforeseen glitch?
Life clearly comes with considerable, if not calculated risks, and any runner who trains with regularity knows that sustaining a debilitating injury is certainly one of them. But as with most risks associated with life, the natural human tendency for many of us is to assume an air of invincibility in our running and training; injuries occur to everyone else, not to us personally.
In reality, injuries, be they insignificant nagging aches or long-term debilitating pain, are commonplace and as much a part of training as summer sweat and winter chills. Recognizing the difference between an ache and a pain might also be the difference between a short stint on the sideline or a running-ending disability. Regardless of how well a runner might have weathered and tolerated the years of aches and pains along the way, each subsequent ache or pain that arises is a message from the body that must be paid heed. Taking the proper precautions can often lead to quick recovery and even greater gains once the injury has healed. And a runner should not be afraid to seek counsel of fellow runners who have suffered similar setbacks and if necessary, seek the advice and treatment of a sports medical specialist or trainer.
Depending on the nature of a running-related injury, strength training, stretching, and deep tissue massage might also be in order, although some sorts of treatments might work best for some runners but not others. When in doubt, it is always wise to consult the proper specialists.
Still, overcoming and sustaining a running-related injury in the first place can be a devastating blow, especially when a runner has taken all of the necessary precautions and assumed the inherent risks of hard training. When such a setback occurs, the emotional pain is often as unbearable as the physical pain, and consolation may be difficult to obtain until the injury has healed and training resumes again. In the meantime, the support and encouragement of loved ones and fellow runners is indispensable. For the most part, nearly all injuries—often even those resulting from traumatic and near fatal events—will heal or significantly improve with time, proper rest and recovery. Running lore is full of stories about athletes whose doctors told them they might never walk again, much less run, who went on to achieve great and glorious accomplishments in running.
At the basis of every successful running story is the heart of the individual athlete. Overcoming setbacks and rising to new and greater heights is as much a part of what it takes to be a runner as purchasing that first pair of running shoes. From time to time, obstacles will cross our paths, and how we deal with them may be the lasting legacy others will judge us by when our running days ultimately come to an end.
As we await the final word on Desiree Davila’s Olympic Marathon decision, none of us can truly appreciate the agony and distress she must be experiencing, but we can all be certain that her injury is not the result of reckless or daring behavior on her part. And surely no one is more hopeful for a full recovery and a chance to compete than Davila. So, as fellow runners would do for any running mate, let us join in wishing Desiree Davila, and all those unfortunate athletes sidelined by injury or uncontrollable circumstances, all the best toward total recovery and a shot at their dreams.