Ultrarunner David Laney speaks slowly. Thoughtfully. As though he wants to answer each question correctly, as if there is a right way. He leaves no room for rambling. When I let the space stand empty with silence, he doesn’t fill it. I start imagining that he approaches running in the same manner: methodically and thoughtfully and without room for error, as if everything is hinging on some internal standard of achievement.
Like an Addiction
When he talks about his relationship to running, he uses words like illogical, deep-seated, obsession, and addiction; when he talks about why he runs, he uses words like love, focus, freeing, and intrinsic.
It quickly becomes clear that Laney’s inherent love for running is in consistent and constant tension with his insecurities as an individual. He hovers in the space between freedom and imprisonment, ecstasy and agony, isolation and community, never fully landing in any one place for very long. For much of his life, Laney’s felt whole when he runs and incomplete when he doesn’t.
“I will readily admit running is like an addiction,” says Laney. “There’s been times where it’s something I have to do, and if I can’t do it, I’m not functional or present, and definitely not happy. Running will allow me to destroy myself. So, how do I manage running so it doesn’t control me, so that it’s more like a friend rather than a God? I’m still figuring that out.”
Running came early to Laney. When he was four, he fell in love with running laps at recess. By third grade, he was racing. When he was in middle school, his parents instated a rule that he had to take one day off each week and they limited how many miles he could run. In high school, he wasn’t allowed to run a marathon.
“A 5th grader shouldn’t be so obsessed with running that they can’t take a day off, but that was the situation,” says Laney. “I loved going running, and I hated taking a day off.”
As Laney outgrew his parents’ household and their rules, he started implementing his own. He figured that if an injury was bad enough it would force him to stop running eventually, so may as well run through any tolerable pain. He restricted what he ate to be as skinny as possible because he heard that this was a surefire way to get faster. And he ran. A lot. Without much rest or easy days or balance.
Detaching the Body’s Red Flags
Laney’s rules were far from perfect. Injuries happened so frequently that he created a new rule: running and injury exist simultaneously. He stopped categorizing himself as injured or uninjured. Unless it was excruciatingly, unbearably painful, Laney kept running.
“As a general rule of thumb, if you have pain with walking, have low level pain at rest that worsens with activity, and/or have pain that pushes into the next day after increased activity, you are not ready to return to running,” says Anna Wetzel who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and often works with injured runners. “The best thing to do in these situations is to see a healthcare professional for guidance because making the wrong decision could be the difference between getting better and suffering an exacerbation of your current injury.”
For nearly 20 years, Laney ignored what his body was saying and instead suffered from a host of injuries including rolled ankles, bone spurs, stress reactions, pulled muscles, soft tissue injuries, and a back injury that required a cortisone shot in his lower spine.
“I have to be limping pretty badly to take a day off,” says Laney. “It’s definitely past the point of knowing I’m doing damage to my body and this isn’t making me better at running. I don’t know what the point is, but it’s illogically past that.”
Running is intrinsic for Laney. Losing races to COVID-19 barely phased him. He doesn’t run for the attention or money or sponsorship. (Although, he doesn’t hesitate to mention his gratitude for these things). When Laney runs, his hyperactive brain calms down, and in its place is a calm rhythm. The landing of his feet against the trail; the vibration of his heart beating against his chest; the weekly pattern of 100 miles.
When Laney loses running, he loses his rhythm.
Why Injury Becomes an Identity Crisis
According to Ashley Coker-Cranney, who is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and has a PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology, athletes who navigate injury poorly are less likely to have other ways of defining themselves, which often prolongs the duration of the injury because they are so eager to return to their sport. For Laney, he started denying that he was even injured so that he could continue running regardless of what pain he was in.
Furthermore, these athletes tend to lack the social support they really need and instead gravitate more toward isolation, which was also true for Laney. He was always surrounded by runners, including living with a house full of runners. Whenever Laney was injured, he was left alone while all of his friends and teammates trained.
“If your confidence is only in running and you get injured, it’s horrible,” says Laney. “It’s super depressing to be injured because it’s what you’ve put all of your hope in. It will disappoint you every time if that’s what you do. I finally realized that running can’t be everything; I can’t live in this anguish every time I get injured.”
Laney’s never doubted that running 100 mile weeks is probably not good for him, but it’s taken him nearly 20 years to realize that his dependence on running to feel good is also not good for him. Slowly, he started to turn into what his physical and mental pain was teaching him rather than avoid it all together.
The mental and physical depletion from a restrictive diet taught him the importance of eating enough food. Recovering poorly from hard workouts taught him the reasons for easy days. Physical pain taught him the benefits of listening to his body. Feeling lonely and miserable taught him the benefits of expanding his community. With each new learning, a small part of him died to misplaced energies, and in its place was space for something new.
Now, when Laney is injured, he finds ways to stay connected to running while keeping enough distance from it so he doesn’t spiral into a deep, dark hole full of confirmation that he’s worthless. When he does his physical therapy, he wears his running clothes and shoes instead of wearing his sweats, something that’s been really helpful for his mental well being. He’s made friends with non-runners, helping him remember that some people don’t run at all – “and they seem fine”. He’s stopped ignoring every injury. He accepts the difficulty of being injured and hones in on what levers he can influence, letting the rest go.
“Before, when I got injured, I would have no idea what I would do to fill that void,” says Laney. “I was drowning in emptiness, and it just made everything worse. Now, I’ve gotten a little more perspective. I’m still working on [running not being everything], but it’s definitely better than ever before.”
When athletes have a diverse sense of self, they tend to manage their injuries better, according to Coker-Cranney. This helps them be more patient with the recovery process because they see injury as a temporary thing, and they have all the confidence in the world that they will be okay. It’s easier for these athletes to focus on other areas of their lives while they are injured, and to really take a transient approach to their injury.
“All experiences are transient,” says Coker-Cranney. “When we can be really curious about our experiences, that changes our experience with the injury, which changes the experience with ourselves.”
And that’s exactly what Laney is trying to do. He may always have a strong, internal drive to run, one that is nearly impossible to satisfy, but he’s realized that if he wants to run for years and years, he needs to make sure he’s not only physically well, but mentally well, too.
“I’ve learned a lot from my injuries so they are valuable, but you have to make them valuable. Don’t waste it. An injury is an opportunity,” says Laney. “I don’t know if I could ever get to a point where my self-worth isn’t at least somewhat tied to running, but I think at least trying to get to that point is valuable.”
Laney’s Suggestions For Making Sure Your Self Worth Isn’t Solely Tied to Running
Have a community outside the running community. “One of the greatest things that happened to me is I lived in an apartment with six runners and one other person who wasn’t a runner. We were genuinely good friends over something that wasn’t running. Having friends who aren’t runners is so good because people who don’t run have a great perspective on running, probably better than runners.”
Stop Fighting your Injury. “Being injured or unable to run is going to be really hard, and I don’t think fighting that is the best way to get over it. Instead, accept that it’s going to be difficult, create realistic goals, and celebrate any progress.”
When You’re Injured, Find a Replacement for Running. “Find other things to do during the time that you would normally run. I think runners are rhythm people, so it’s important to keep that schedule and do something valuable during the time you’d normally run. It may not be the same as running, but it can also be really great.”
This story is the sixth segment of PodiumRunner’s The Injuries You Can’t See series with elite athletes discussing how injury has helped them deal with larger issues in running and in their lives.