Från den lilla stugan: Sidelined

by Chrissy Larson

No one likes to be sidelined.

It’s a dismal place to sit – jealous and frustrated – forced to act excited while watching the game go on all around you. Sometimes we are excited about what we see, but other times we are left wishing for a turn.

For a while now, I have been battling a running injury. I thought maybe a week of rest would help. After a long bout of denial, however, the pain was so intense I could barely walk. I finally admitted I was looking at some serious time off.

Normally this would be less of a big deal, except that I had just signed up to run a half marathon – literally the day before it started to hurt. So I became “determined to heal quickly.” I had six weeks to cross train, hoping I would eventually be working my way back up to longer miles.

The worst part of being sidelined is that for me, running is a total package. It’s more than just a physical outlet. It’s something that keeps me sane. It’s stress relief. It helps me sleep better. It’s time when I hash out my life, solve problems, get new ideas and process where I’m headed. But it’s even more than that.

Last year I started running with a small group of women, and all of our miles together on the road have caused us to be a pretty tight-knit group. Without the shared stories and laughter and constant conversation, being sidelined suddenly made me feel lonely and left behind.

With running stripped away, I quickly realized how much of my life was wrapped up in it. I tried to stay positive, but in all honesty, being sidelined week after week was wearing me thin. I was feeling defeated, frustrated, jealous, and angry – why was something I depend on being taken right out from under me?! Life felt unfair. I deleted emails about getting together to run. I resented every runner I saw on the street. I was trying to stay positive, but the idea of actually being able to run that half marathon was feeling more and more out of reach.

The next morning was Sunday. I woke up early, and the sky was clear, so I took my canine companion Morton on a walk. The streets were devoid of people and the air was brisk. When I got to the park, I could hear robins chattering, and I watched a few in the trees for a minute. Then one flew out to the quiet, abandoned baseball fields. It poked around in the grass, hopping randomly, hunting for worms. Then I noticed two more birds. Then a few more, then a few more. When I actually looked closely at the field, I realized it was FULL of robins. I tried to count them. I grouped them into fives, then tens. There must have been close to 100 robins in the fields and trees around me! All busy hunting for worms. All finding what they needed. I stood there stunned for a long time, just watching all the robins exist comfortably, simply gathering food and things for their nests. “Where are all their nests going to fit?” I wondered.

As I stood there, an image of my father entered my head. He died in 1996, but he is often still present in my thoughts. In the memory, I was young, and my dad was reading something from the Bible during our Sunday family breakfast. I could hear his compassionate voice: “Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, but the Creator feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to God than they?” It echoed around in my head a few times. Look at the birds...even though there are hundreds, they are finding what they need... they are all okay, and you will be too. As I paused on the sidewalk at Berkeley Park, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had to let it all go – the race, the training, the routine. Running was not what made me valuable. I am a runner, I admitted, but I am so much more. And right now I have to stop pretending that running is what makes me who I am.

It was one of those deep, reflective, metaphysical moments. I watched the birds for a few more seconds, and I knew it was time. Standing there with the robins, I started to list all the sad parts of letting go: there would be no race; there would be no more miles on the road; there would be no early morning carpools; there would be no morning greetings to the former students at the school when we met to run; there would be no funny conversation on the Springwater Corridor, no complaining on the hills of Mount Tabor; there would be no breathless interval running, no muddy ruts on the trail, no stopping for water at Portland city bubblers, no sneaking into the bathrooms of random restaurants.

And I cried. I let myself feel the grief, and it was raw and frustrating and sad. But I kept my eyes on those robins, and with each loss I listed, I gained hope for whatever would come next. I was still hopeful that running was somewhere in the “next,” but I knew that even if it wasn’t, I would be okay. Running social life..let it go. Half marathon... let it go. Hills runs, fartlek runs, trail runs, road runs...let it go. I don’t know what’s next, but I will trust that it will all be okay. I have value. I am taken care of. I am okay.

The birds are okay. I’m okay. I’m okay …

Wait, what’s that noise? In the middle of all these deep thoughts, I was woken up out of my “valley-of-despair-and-mountain-of-hope” moment. I looked down to see Morton happily munching away on a whole, spilled, dark chocolate cake that someone had dropped the day before. “Morton! no!” I yelled, as I yanked him away from his piggish snarfing. I dragged him off against his will as he worked and leaned to pull me back to the chocolaty goodness laying there before him. Picking up the pace, I headed quickly down the sidewalk to head home.

And then I started to smirk and broke quickly into a full out-loud laugh. I could hardly stand the juxtaposition of these two scenes. As humans we are reflective, intelligent, and emotional. We are meant to try to make sense of our worlds, both inwardly and outwardly. We are driven by the will to change and the hope of magical moments that suddenly allow us to see.

But here’s what else is real: chocolate cake. As hard as we try to come to terms with our own fates — lost in some magical moment brought on by our past, present and future all colliding in time and space — we will still be drawn to the temptation dangling in front of us.

I did give up running for a while. For the remaining weeks before the race I cross trained at the local community center. I bought a bike. I took up swimming with my friend Kate, and it became a new, social Saturday morning routine. And every time I had the guts to give the short run another try, those running buddies are there in a heartbeat, even if it means a very slow two-mile run without hills. Their support has been utterly amazing. On many days a pain-free run still feels out of reach, but I go back to my moment with the robins, and I relearn the act of letting go. In fact, the day before the half marathon I switched to a shorter option and ran a strong 6.2 miles. The best part, though, was that I was able to watch my four friends break all their personal bests, some finishing 13.1 miles in under two hours. I was ecstatic for them! And after becoming intrigued by all my biking and swimming, we have decided to attempt a triathlon.

The metaphysical moment is poignant, but it isn’t the full picture. The full picture also includes the deleted scenes: the grace we experience from others, the vulnerability we experience in ourselves, and the humility and happiness of cheering for someone else’s goals. The full picture is sort of a mess of robins and chocolate cake. But it’s okay, because inside our mess we are valuable. We are okay. And we are sidelined just long enough to see where to go next.

Chrissy Larson is an Early Childhood Environmental Educator for Portland Parks and Recreation in Portland, Ore. Chrissy writes from her little urban stuga (cabin) in Portland.

See all articles by Chrissy Larson