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Out There: The Rehab Room

Susan Lacke experiences what it's like to be on the sidelines, nursing an injury with other broken runners.

Susan Lacke experiences what it’s like to be on the sidelines, nursing an injury with other broken runners.

We sit on a row of padded tables, introducing ourselves:

“Jenny, ACL.”

“Tom, IT Band.”

“Susan, Ankle Reconstruction.”

It’s as if our last names (and identities) have been replaced by our injuries. In a way, they have. Jenny ACL has been a runner since she was 11 years old. Tom IT Band is baffled by his glut of free time now that he can’t go on long runs—what do normal people do during the weekend? As for me? I’d like my last name back, please and thank you. “Ankle Reconstruction” is a real mouthful.

But for now, it’s my identity: Susan Ankle Reconstruction. I’m a part of a ragtag bunch of injured runners in a physical therapy office.

As we chat over the hum of E-stim machines, everyone sympathizes with everyone else, and everyone agrees everyone else’s circumstances are BS. Everyone complains about insurance, doctors and missing races. We talk about the alternative treatments we’ve tried and how if one more non-runner casually suggests, Why don’t you just find a different hobby? we’re liable to take a bat to the windows.

Mostly, we talk about how much we want to run again.

All the while, we rotate through the rehab protocol: Graston, Exercises, E-stim, Ice. Every day, the same routine. We are an assembly line of broken runners, waiting for our parts to be fixed. One of these days, we’re promised by doctors and therapists, you won’t have to do this anymore. Until then: Graston, Exercises, E-stim, Ice.

When healthy runners jog past the picture window out front, our heads turn in sync to follow them, sighing wistfully. One of these days …

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Eventually, a broken runner comes in with a dozen donuts and announces it’s her last day at physical therapy. The rest of the group congratulates her as she distributes the celebratory maple-frosteds and chocolate long johns. We smile until she walks out the door, then we slump on our tables.

“That’s BS.” Tom IT Band sighs.

“Total BS,” I agree.

“We’re gonna be here forever,” says Jenny ACL before gesturing to the Dunkin’ Donuts box from under the wires of the E-stim machine. “Pass me that apple fritter.”

The following week, there’s a new person (“Lindsay, Runner’s Knee”) in the row of tables. There is never a shortage of injured runners.

I like these people. I don’t know their true last names, but I like them all the same.

Injury can be synonymous with loss—of routine, of stability, of identity and community—and isolation only amplifies the loss. But with my fellow injured runners, I see how injury can be synonymous with opportunity—to rebuild, grow and come back stronger than ever. Runners have built a strong, supportive community, and injured runners perhaps more so.

Alone, I dwell on the BS and construct a pitiful, self-loathing narrative where my injuries are so unique, no one could possibly understand how I feel. In my row of tables, we refute all cases of Special Snowflake Syndrome and marvel at how quickly the self-loathing dissipates in the camaraderie.

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In isolation, I’ll scroll through a Facebook feed full of Strava segments, race reports and photos of group runs I’m missing. As Susan Ankle Reconstruction, I best bring my “A” game to my exercises, because Tom IT Band makes everything a competition (he is, after all, a runner).

And though I huff every time another runner leaves behind a box of donuts on her way out the door to reclaim her identity as a fully functional runner, I need to experience that feeling. It inspires me to work harder so the next person through those doors will be Susan Lacke.

As I reach across the aisle to pass Jenny the box of donuts, we share a knowing smile. I know she’s thinking it, too:

One of these days …


About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke