Currently I’m reviewing the copyedited manuscript of my forthcoming book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life, which is available for preorder. (Subtle, eh?) Chapter 6 tells the remarkable story of Jamie Whitmore, a dominant professional off-road triathlete in the 2000’s who later overcame a Jobian cancer ordeal to win a gold medal in cycling at the 2016 Paralympic Games. One of the things that makes Jamie’s story so instructive for other athletes is the can-do attitude she brings to bear in dealing with setbacks. “I’ve always been the type to say, ‘What can I control?’” she said when I interviewed her just over a year ago. “Even with cancer, it was, ‘Well, what can I do?” Because there’s so much you can’t do.”
When something is taken away from you, it’s natural to think about and regret what’s been lost. But beyond a certain point, this natural response is unhelpful, standing in the way of making the best of the situation. Successful athletes like Jamie Whitmore do not waste time and energy brooding on what’s been taken away from them. Instead, after acknowledging what they can no longer do, they identify what they can do and then do it. In this way, if their problem is solvable, they solve it faster than the brooders do, and if it’s not solvable (like the permanent damage done to Jamie’s body by her cancer surgeries), they at least make the best of the situation.
The most common type of bad situation endurance athletes encounter is injury. Most athletes get upset when an injury takes away their ability to train normally and remain in a funk until they’ve fully healed. Indeed, this reflexive emotional response to injury is so normal that a lot of athletes assume it’s ineluctable, but it’s not. Some athletes don’t get upset, or at least don’t remain in a funk, when they get injured. After an initial pout (which is only human), they pivot from a problem focus to a solution focus.
I like to say I’ve suffered more injuries than any runner my age, and over the years I’ve come a long way in terms of my ability to manage injuries emotionally. I’ll never forget the 2002 Boston Marathon, which I watched on television, grief stricken, having suffered a hip injury in training just 10 days before, when I was fitter than I’d ever been and couldn’t wait for Patriots Day to roll around so I could prove it. I remember thinking (naively) that I’d missed a chance I might never have again, little knowing that my lifetime-best marathon still lay 15 years in the future.
From where I sit today, I find it hard to believe that grief-stricken runner was me. I suffered my latest injury—an acute strain of the peroneal tendons in my left foot—three weeks ago, and it really hasn’t bothered me in the slightest on an emotional level, even though this one happened during a marathon PR attempt coinciding with another magical fitness peak. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve been indifferent to the injury. It hurt quite a bit for quite a while, and I’ve missed running, but overall I’ve maintained emotional equanimity by doing what I now always do when I suffer any kind of setback, which is to emulate the can-do attitude of the likes of Jamie Whitmore.
Specifically, in this case, I cross-trained with a mix of bicycling, elliptical biking, stand-up paddling, and deep-water running. I modified my strength workouts to work around my pain and consulted my friend Ryan Whited of Paragon Athletics in Flagstaff, who guide me through some diagnostic tests via FaceTime and showed me some rehab exercises that would not only help me get back to running but also reduce my risk of suffering future injuries resulting from lack of mobility in my left ankle. Additionally, I signed up for a 40K cycling time trial race to give my damned-up competitive drive something to focus on and alleviate the emotional burden of knowing I was losing running fitness.
In the first couple of weeks after the injury occurred, friends and family members asked me frequently how my foot was doing, and when I told them I was still limping, they expressed sympathy. But while I appreciated their concern, their underlying assumption that because I was in pain and limping and couldn’t run I was upset was erroneous. Sure, I heard from that fearful inner voice telling me I should be deeply worried about the lack of improvement in my symptoms, but whereas 15 years ago that voice might have gone unchecked, I was now able to tune it out, knowing the injury would heal in due time, as injuries always do.
And it did. Three weeks to the day after I suffered the injury, I completed a short, slow test run on my treadmill, pain free. Injuries happen to everyone; they’re part of the sport. But not everyone copes with injuries equally well. Next time you get hurt, channel your inner Jamie Whitmore and negotiate your way through it with maximum aplomb by manifesting a can-do attitude.