By Joe Ainsworth

Under the bright lights of Vermont Park on a cool October night we were gearing up for another competitive playoff tournament. Two wins and we were champions. We had been here before and knew how important it was to reestablish ourselves as the top team in the league. This was competitive kickball and no one on our team was going to back down from the ultimate prize of a championship. Having placed 2nd two years in a row we were determined to not let history repeat itself. It would come at any cost.

The summer of 2018 before kickball season I had one hell of a training cycle. After finishing out graduate school and refocusing on my running I was starting to turn my own head with some impressive workouts and some even more impressive race results (Grumpy Cat at Highland Night Flight anyone?). I was ripping up road miles in the summer heat, had secured a job as a high school counselor, and looked forward to the epic Blue Ridge Relay where a team of Asheville runners strove to beat the course record in the 12-person mixed category (Spoiler Alert: we missed it by 51 seconds!). That may have been the start of the downturn for me.

After running my heart out at the BRR I could not quite get my speed where it had been a few months back. Racing was secondary as I was thrust in my new career and doing my best to meet my high expectations. Soon after my friends encouraged me to play kickball again to help our ascent to the top of the league once more. Base runners were an asset and my speed, developed from all of those interval trainings, was my golden ticket to team value.

And yet that speed I was so highly touted for alluded me this year. I had a hard time generating power like I used to, which seemed odd to me because my workout times were not that much slower than in other kickball seasons. It wasn’t until that night where we played a semifinal and championship game that I realized what I had done to myself. Something felt off in my groin and abdominal region. When bunting, I immediately felt this dull ache upon sprinting to first. I was thrown out more often than not. My asset of speed, the main reason why I was being recruited, turned into a liability. There were many reasons why we lost (again!) that season and I refused to blame it exclusively on myself however something was wrong with my athleticism and I needed to address it. 

After months of trial and error high-impact and non-impact activities I found out I had torn my lower abdominal in two different places. It didn’t happen suddenly but I think the combination of hard summer training, continued impact on a weak body, and the sudden jerk movement of kickball activity contributed to my being out of running for 7 months. For 7 WHOLE MONTHS I resigned myself to aqua jogging, using the recumbent bike, and stationary rowing. It was a grueling 7 months of rehab without knowing when I would be able to tolerate running again. I know others have had it much worse but to me this was mind-numbing and I longed to lace up my running shoes again.

It is now September and I am slowly reintegrating running into my weekly routine. If my injury has taught me anything it is that if I ever want to run long-term I need to take a more holistic approach to running. I need to incorporate better strength training methods in my routine. I need to improve flexibility and stretching exercises. For so long my running consisted of ripping up road mileage and trying to push myself cardiovascularly more than ever. I forgot that the more I pounded the pavement then the more I ultimately weakened those muscles which help sustain running and provide balance and power. The absence of proper strength training only made matters worse. It was a naive oversight and it took injury to appreciate the running fortune I enjoyed for many years.

For me, running has been an outlet and a lifestyle stabilizer. Running is so inherent in my core identity that to be without it makes me somebody I do not recognize. Throughout this process I have learned that to be a runner is to do something you love for the length of your life (barring serious injury). My new goal, more so than 5:30 repeats, a race PR, or negative split, is longevity. My previous routine was unsustainable and seeing this whole new perspective has given me a better appreciation for running.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been the young star athlete working through a stress fracture. We’ve been the runner who just had a baby and after several months of pregnancy strives to get out running on trails again. We’ve been the person undergoing a career change, divorce, or sudden death and been rattled off of our running routine. I’m not one to tell you it was easy sitting on the sidelines, letting my mental health escape me, and remaining patient as I healed from injury. And yet, somehow, I persevered and find myself in a better place now and wiser in the process. 

If this is you someday just remember: running saves. You can do this. And when it’s all said and done you’ll appreciate just the ability to run and be more knowledgeable about your approach the next time.