The Bow and Arrow

My running career has been pretty short—just over five years—but I’ve been injured 11 times.

By Madison Neuner

At the beginning of my career, when I joined the cross country team in 10th grade without knowing anything about running, I learned almost right away that I’d be fighting an uphill battle. My chronic knee pain began less than two months into summer training, which certainly made cross country even more difficult than it already is. And as it turned out, this was only the first of many tests challenging  my physical and mental fortitude.

I discovered quickly that running was the sport for me. I loved the kinship that was fostered on the team and in the running community as a whole, and I knew I could see success in the sport. The catch: I’d be running in pain. It’s taken a huge toll on me, more than I’d like to admit. Several times throughout high school, I finished a race or workout in tears, saying, “I can’t take it anymore.” Yet, my ambition and my love for my teammates kept me from quitting.

My first year of running included two injuries: my knees, which I learned would plague me for the rest of my career, and both of my hip flexors, which had tightened up and were in so much pain that I couldn’t walk up stairs without crying for the entire indoor track season that year. I ran through the pain, and was even successful, but to this day my hips flexors haven’t gained their full strength back and my knees continue to ache.

The next year was even worse.

My junior year cross country season was very successful on paper. I made it to the cross country state meet, received regional honors, and competed at Nike Cross Nationals with my team for the first time in school history. But this high level of competition came at a cost—my foot nearly broke.

After nationals, I was a breath away from a stress fracture due to overtraining. To prevent serious damage, I was kept in a boot for three months, and missed the entire indoor track season. 

It was my first ever season-ending injury. I had no clue how to handle it. After being a runner for a year and a half, I had come to love the sport more than anything, and I didn’t want to lose it. I felt like I could see it all slipping away.

I’ve heard some people say that when they got injured, they never gave up—but I gave up, hard. I stopped caring about training, hydration, and sleep. I barely did PT. I isolated myself from my teammates—my best friends—and my family. My grades suffered. I was depressed, completely and utterly hopeless.

My recovery took over three months, and eventually I believed I no longer had a chance of reaching the goals I’d set for myself. I’d wanted to be an All-American. How could I do that if I couldn’t even run?

I’d never had an injury that took me out of training, and I started telling myself I’d never gain back the fitness I’d lost, so I didn’t even try. I waited it out, full of frustration, envy, and self-pity. Even when I could finally run again, I’d already almost convinced myself that my outdoor track season was over before it began. I started going to practice again once I was healthy because I didn’t want to miss out anymore, and because deep down I still loved the sport.

You may be surprised, then, that I reached all of my goals that season—and I was, too. After weeks of easing back into training, starting to take PT seriously, and preparing physically and mentally for the season ahead, my first race back wasn’t nearly my best. It wasn’t supposed to be. But it was a starting point that later allowed me to run personal bests, win races, and even earn my first All-American honors in the steeplechase. My confidence returned, and my love for running reignited and became stronger than ever. This was when my dream of running professionally was born.

But my trials were far from over, as  my senior year brought forth another winter injury (broke my toe stubbing it on a chair—seriously?). This time, I didn’t completely lose hope. “I’ve gone through this before, I can do it again,” I told myself. I was still upset, but I managed it better because I knew that I didn’t want to go back to that dark place I’d been in the previous winter.

That mindset—telling myself I was capable of coming back stronger, that I loved the sport and I could achieve whatever I put my mind to—made a huge difference. I still had days when I felt like the world was falling apart, and I had my doubts. But at the end of the day I could always hear the voice in my head, no matter how faint, telling me I was going to get through this and reach my goals.

Finishing high school with a school record, three sectional wins, two All-American performances, and a number of other honors confirmed that everything I’d been through for the past three years—clocking in at four injuries and countless hard days—was worth it.

Unsurprisingly, college hasn’t been much different. I finished my freshman year adding two more injuries to the books: one concussion and one painfully stretched patellar tendon (both from tripping over things—I’m not joking). But I also came out of it with some personal bests and a tougher attitude. When I got injured again (clocking in at seven injuries) in the fall of my sophomore year, then learned I’d had a chronic injury in my foot for over two years (clocking in at eight), I tried my best to focus on doing everything I could to be the best athlete and person I could be.

Since then I’ve been injured three more times, including a femoral stress reaction that shut down my junior year cross country season before it even began. I constantly joke that my body really doesn’t want me to run because it just keeps breaking. But each challenge I’ve encountered has only increased my love for this sport and my determination to come back stronger.

I still have high ambitions. I learned in high school that setting goals is a major motivator for me when times get tough, so I continue to set my sights high. I want to go to NCAAs in the steeplechase, and I’m chomping at the bit to get the chance to compete on the national stage.

Given my history, I’ve started to anticipate setbacks. The road to success is fraught with obstacles, twists and turns, peaks and valleys. But every single challenge has made me a stronger runner and a better person.

My experience with injury, I’ve found, is like a bow and arrow. In order to make an arrow fly, you have to pull it backwards first. The further back you pull it, the further it will fly. The more challenging the setback, the stronger the return.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that getting injured will always be terrible. The key isn’t always being positive; that’s a fool’s errand. The real key, during those times when you think your life is over, is knowing you can come back stronger, and never completely losing hope.

I had moments in all of my injuries where I started to give up, believed it was over, or thought that I may never recover. But in each successive injury, those moments got shorter. That’s why I’m still here, going to practice every day,doing draining workouts and learning to overcome the struggles I used to say I couldn’t handle. Through my injuries I have found the strength to handle any setback, and I know now that this strength will propel me toward my greatest goals.