Running is the best mental-health treatment I've found. I know this because I am currently injured – and miserable. I feel like I have lost a friend. Strava and the Nike running app have been deleted from my phone. My Brooks shoes are in the cupboard, gathering dust. Depending on how long my rehabilitation lasts, I may start seeing runners everywhere, glaring jealously at them as they zoom effortlessly past me.
I feel as though I am in arbitrary – and sedentary – detention, being cruelly and unusually punished for the weakness of my Achilles tendon. There are elements of the breakup to being an injured runner. You look at your mile split times with a mix of nostalgia and sadness, peruse photos of yourself triumphant at various finish lines, as though they are from a past life. It is akin to being dumped: you want to cry, wail at the injustice of it all and desperately ask your Achilles to give you one more chance, promising you'll do better by it this time. You may even feel the need to go on to some sort of online platform to tell a wider audience just how difficult everything is for you.
Even for people who are not members of running clubs or run alone due to personal preferences or time constraints, being injured is a lonely state. My sadness at being unable to go as far and fast as I could several weeks ago is compounded by the fact that I may have to miss out on running for charity in the London Marathon, the ballot for which I have applied for years without success. All because something I used to do without any difficulty can now inflict an almost comical level of pain on me. Injuries also bring on a dose of running hypochondria: I live in fear of any new soreness in my legs and shy away from even the gentlest hill.
But the injured runner's sense of loss is deeper. I have been forced to go cold turkey from a drug that I have increasingly used as a crutch for my wellbeing. I wouldn't say running has saved my life, but it has done more than anything else to keep me in tolerable spirits during a very difficult few years, and continues to do so. It has come to define me, at least in my own head. I am a runner. Popping out for a casual 20-miler on a Saturday? No problem. Running is also key to my self-esteem, which often flags in other areas of my life, but not when I am out there on the pavement or towpath, feeling strong and often, foolhardily, invincible.
The rehabilitation process is enough to test the patience and resolve of a saint. Especially when you follow it to the letter, try to run, and find yourself back at square one. I believe I am now in the grief stage, and I hope to soon move on to acceptance. Unfortunately, like Snakes and Ladders, it is not necessarily a continual progression. Although I am determined to make it to the start line (and, ideally, the finish) on April 22, I cannot confound medical science. With my dreams of a personal best gone, all I can do is try to load my calves with weight in the gym, attracting the strangest glances from the top-heavy men around me as I inelegantly balance increasingly heavy objects on my thighs, in an attempt to get back to double-figure distances.
In carrying out a needle-in-a-haystack search for a positive from all this, I have determined that when I am fully fit again and no longer feeling a twinge when I flex my ankle, which only occurs thousands of times a day, I will be a better runner, more in tune with the stress I place on vital muscles and tendons. And there's always another race I can enter.
Not being able to run a marathon isn't the end of the world; it just feels like it.