Written by Shannon Payne for the summer 2020 issue of our Trail Times newsletter. Shannon is a Colorado native currently residing in Auburn, California. She was a two-time qualifier for the US Mountain Running Team, two-time winner of the Mt. Washington Road Race, and a seven-time All-American at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
There are two types of runners: runners who have been injured, and the ones who will be.
We’ve all been there, it’s nothing new, and it hardly warrants yet another How-To-Be-Injured 101 article. Getting hurt is the other side of the double-edged sword that occasionally comes with loving anything just a little too hard and wanting it just a little too badly, an especially easy thing to forget in our digital-media saturated world highlighting only the triumphs and rarely the struggles.
But, while it’s rarely linear and often fraught with frustration, the path from the sidelines back to the trails is – thankfully – generally straight-forward in most situations: cool your jets, address your weaknesses, and sooner or later you’ll be back at it full-tilt and very often better for it, no doubt about it.
Except for when there is doubt about it. Sometimes the prognosis is not as upbeat, sometimes the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is nowhere in sight, sometimes the path is anything but linear, sometimes there is no path.
Certainly we don’t like to contemplate it, and it is a rare although unfortunately not entirely non-existent circumstance when a runner can find themselves suddenly facing what can feel like a mortality of a different sort: when the thing that has partially defined them and brought them more freedom, joy, and satisfaction than many things in this life threatens to be curtailed or worse, brought to a halt for good.
Whether it’s the outcome of a sudden incident or a lingering niggle that perhaps seemed innocuous for years, but gradually worsened and evolved over time to result in MRI films that would make a seasoned orthopedic surgeon cringe, there is no way around it: however much it may feel like it when we are at our best, we are not invincible and our running can indeed be finite and a gift that can be gone in a single misstep. In that moment, we are faced with the realization that running itself was always the easy part, it will be the efforts at re-building from ground zero to simply have the ability to do so at all that will be the true challenge. Even more challenging than that is figuring out how to fill the gaping void left behind should re-building not be an option.
Running into a ferocious headwind up a relentless grade for miles is one thing, but braving the possibility of a comeback trail that stretches ever onward for months or even years, or facing the reality of a running life cut short where there may be no epic comeback, requires mental and emotional fortitude of an entirely different kind. To many, it’s far more than simply an inability to participate in a form of physical activity that’s easily replaced by something else, but rather the absence of an integral part of the self and the closing of the door to a world in which we may feel most alive and at home. The sense of isolation and loss cannot be overstated.
Are you depressed yet?
“It has been the worst thing that has happened to me,” Peter Maksimow said, reflecting on the last four years’ worth of battling a severe injury to the cartilage in his knee that has kept the former US Mountain Running Team member and inov-8-sponsored runner from running a single pain-free mile, much less pinning on another race bib, after years of traveling to all corners of the world to race internationally. “How it happened is one of those unanswerable questions. The most promising treatment options either aren’t available in the U.S., or they cost absolutely enormous amounts of money. I don’t know if I really see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
With any luck, most of us will never find ourselves in such a predicament. If we do, it can be a dark place indeed. They say that you should never place much of your happiness into something that is easily taken away, but some sentiments realistically fail to hold much water.
But the sport of running seems to attract personalities that are nothing if not resilient, where success is impossible without relentless hope, drive, and maybe a sprinkling of delusion: all of the required ingredients to remain ceaselessly optimistic in the face of adversity and in the search for the answers to getting back in the game, or — if those answers never present themselves — to be every bit as great at something else.
Few runners may be more intimately familiar with continually fighting their way back from the point of no return than Michele Yates, and she does it knowing that every comeback might be the last.
The seasoned ultra-runner has donned many a Team USA singlet on the international stage, earned a handful of world championship titles at various ultra distances, and notched numerous course records including that of the illustrious Run Rabbit Run 100 mile in Steamboat, which she won three times.
Suffice it to say, Yates had more than made her peace with pain. Until a spring morning in 2016, when she woke up with her hips positively wracked with it, alarming and debilitating enough to land her in the ER.
There, the specialist who looked over her MRI was taken aback and delivered less than hopeful news. “He had no idea how I had been able to do what I had been doing,” Yates recalled. “He said to me, ‘Your running career is over, you need immediate hip replacements. You are done.’ I would not, and could not accept it. I wondered if he actually realized what he had just said to me.”
Thanks to the genetic lottery, Yates’ hips had grown abnormally. That factor, combined with lots of miles, had given her enough damage and deterioration throughout the joints and pelvis to give her, as doctors informed her, “the hips and pelvis of a 90-year-old,” despite being only in her 30s.
But Yates wasn’t ready to hang up her running shoes and go quietly. Having spent years clawing her way up and over mountain passes covering endless miles, fighting uphill battles was in her wheelhouse of things that she knew best. “I decided that I would get a second, third, or even a fourth opinion.”
Through that process, Yates eventually connected with Dr. Mei Dan in Boulder, the only surgeon she had met with who would entertain the idea of her being able to return to running again, if only a little. But a little was still something, and Yates conceded to what ultimately ended up being 16 hours of surgery to clean up and repair her hips as much as possible, along with 20 PRP (plasma rich platelet) injections in the hopes of buying them a few more years. During those years, it is Yates’ hope that hip replacements will be developed and become available that will be durable enough to withstand the demands that come with being an elite endurance athlete.
“He couldn’t fix everything,” explained Yates, “But I was really grateful. I knew it would be a long, hard battle to get myself running again. He told me maybe 10K at most, eventually. But I educated myself to the best of my ability and got to work.”
As the founder and coach of the Rugged Running (photo top of page) trail running program with dozens of athletes under her tutelage, combined with a background in kinesiology, Yates already possessed a wealth of training knowledge. Regular strength sessions intended specifically to address her weaknesses and prolong her hips’ functionality —thus prolonging her running — became a staple in Yates’ training, and still are. But it would be over a year before she would run another step. Towards the tail end of that time, she picked up mountain biking and took to riding and racing. “It gives me the freedom that most runners long for so much,” she said of her newest endeavor. “Just not without the price of having to use equipment and understand bike mechanics.”
Eventually, Yates found herself inching her way back into running, while also still riding, and her 2017 race calendar was largely comprised of mountain bike races, with a couple of her favorite ultras optimistically penciled into the latter part of the year, one being Run Rabbit Run, at which she owned the course record. “That race has a really special place in my heart,” she said.
That September’s Run Rabbit Run would be Yates first real test to see if her body still possessed the ability to grind it out for over 100 miles’ worth of grueling climbs and technical descents. Still within the ever-ongoing process of rehabbing injury combined with having worked herself into minimal fitness as best as she could, she figured it was worth a shot. Though she led for the first 50 miles, she was heartbroken to have to drop at mile 70, yet the effort proved to be just the turning point that she needed.
“Every step was excruciating, I felt like my pelvis had shattered,” she remembered of the race, “It took two weeks after the race just to be able to walk again, and it would have been easy at that point to give it up, and I’m sure that would have been respected, but I couldn’t. This was my turning point: I was no longer doing this just for me. I wanted to do it for my clients, my friends, my family, and my daughter so that she knows to keep fighting. If you make it about others, that drive is more powerful than you know.”
That approach led Yates to devise ways to optimize what running she was able to do, taking a quality-over-quantity approach and being as creative and intelligent as possible with her implementation of cross-training, strength training, and mountain biking. Maximizing her running longevity and her chances of success meant far fewer miles than she would have preferred, but she knows that given the circumstances, any running at all is a bonus. “I might be running on borrowed time,” she said, “but it won’t be without a fight.”
However, fewer miles have not seemed to translate into fewer successes. Yates has since returned to win Run Rabbit Run not once, but twice in both 2018 and 2019, and has her eyes on becoming a Leadwoman (completing the Leadville 100 MTB race as well as the 100 mile run on consecutive days), having another run at the USATF 100 Mile Trail Championships, and of course another victory at her favorite race, Run Rabbit. Outside of her own running, she’s an inspiring figurehead in the trail and ultra-running community and continues to coach her Rugged Running athletes to reaching their own goals. “I believe that I’ve been given my challenges to help others,” she said.
Similarly, Kim Nedeau is no stranger to being innovative with training to work around the body’s limitations. Herself an elite level runner for many years with a thorough knowledge of biomechanics, she combines both of those passions within her own coaching, with the goal being to maximize the potential of athletes who previously often found themselves injury-plagued and falling short of their goals, often unable to effectively adhere to traditionally high mileage approaches to training. It’s a fitting pursuit for Nedeau, with her passionate investment in it stemming largely from having spent so much of her own running career on the sidelines and always working to understand her weaknesses and make a comeback, being better than before. With that, Nedeau can certainly relate to her clients who reach out to her seeking guidance.
“There’s something about struggling through just about every injury possible that puts you in a unique position of having compassion for the runner who is desperate to get back to running,” she said. “Part of my job is just listening to them because they need someone to talk to.”
Despite numerous setbacks over the years with a body that responds less than ideally to high running volume, Nedeau is arguably one of the most under-rated mountain runners in the country. When she’s on a starting line, she makes the most of it and races like she means it, never wasting an opportunity. Along the way, she’s notched impressive top-3 finishes at the Mount Washington Road Race, made the US Mountain Running Team, and in her most recent international race, was the top American woman at the 2016 World Mountain Running Championships, taking ninth.
Shortly after that dream year however, Nedeau found herself once again warming the bench, sidelined with a peculiar hip and low back issue that was initially diagnosed as a stress fracture, but that proving not to be the case, has since evaded diagnosis while waxing and waning in intensity for months at a time. Every bit as frustrating as having no concrete explanation and thus no real direction for treatment, she often finds herself taken out by her vexing ailment just as she gains momentum, despite every effort at cautious training and fortifying every weakness.
“I basically get side-pain, extreme low-back pain, foot tingles, and quad sensations,” she explained, “but all of my MRI’s are clear. I’ve tried all kinds of prehab, rehab, soft-tissue work, and joint mobilizations and nobody really seems to know what’s wrong, I just know running is the biggest trigger.”
Despite an inability to run anywhere close to the mileage that she would prefer to be accumulating, what Nedau has going for her is that she simply loves the act of training in any physical form. Running may be her first love, but anything that enables her to move and make herself hurt in all the right ways she pursues with gusto, with or without a race looming on the horizon. “As much as I love to race, I also love training. I can train without a goal race because there’s so much joy in just moving every day,” she explained.
Finding herself able to run reasonably well for much of 2018, Nedeau came up swinging for some of 2019 to have a stellar handful of finishes, finishing third at the Mount Washington Road Race and winning the USATF New England 8K Championships. But maddeningly, the enigmatic injury returned in full force to knock her out of contention once more for the better part of the last year and counting.
While previously her primary way of keeping her edge from a cardiovascular standpoint had at one time been cycling, this time she found that even that method of scratching the itch to get the heart pounding aggravated her injury as she crouched over a saddle for hours a time. That’s when she discovered the Elliptigo: a stand-up bike that allows the rider to emulate running, sans impact. “I’m always encouraging my athletes to find that second form of training that they love nearly as much as running, my world kind of opened up when I found the Elliptigo,” she said. “Training needs to be fun, and this is extremely fun for me. I wished that I would’ve bought one of these years ago.”
So enamored was she with her discovery of the Elliptigo, that she would log hundreds of miles per month on the gravel roads around her home, enthusiastically preaching the gospel of her favorite newfangled contraption. Eventually, even the Elliptigo brand took notice, and as a side-gig to her coaching, she now works as a representative for the company, acquiring a fleet of the bikes in their various models and offering demo rides to anyone interested. “My love for these bikes was too much to keep quiet, and I didn’t realize that Elliptigo was paying attention,” she recalled. “It felt like this gift just fell into my lap and I get to have this cool side job with such a cool company.”
Nedeau has the Elliptigo World Championships on her calendar for the fall, but even with that carrot paired with her dedication to her own athletes, her incremental gains back towards running have not been devoid of any moments of melancholy. It has been a long year.
“I’ve always wondered what kind of runner I could be if I had uninterrupted training,” she said. “I throw myself into everyone else’s running because my own running sometimes means thinking about a broken heart. But I’ve had some major successes over the years even with limitations, so I can’t complain too much.”
Maksimow also spends much of his time nowadays more invested in running that is not his own, and he can be found behind the camera lens photographing trail runners at countless races across the country throughout the year.
“I try really hard to stay involved in the running community locally, regionally, and globally. It’s one way that I can still be part of it all without doing the running. It’s not the way that I would want it, but I’m happy to still get to be involved.”
If he’s not globetrotting to capture all of the best racing photographs, Maksimow’s energies are poured into directing the Barr Trail Mountain Race in his hometown of Manitou Springs, right at the base of Pikes Peak, where he ran his last race four years ago. The dramatic backdrop of the town consists of mountainsides, many of whose faces up until recently have featured a bleak landscape burned to a crisp during the Waldo Canyon Fire several summers ago, with thousands of acres hopelessly decimated. Or so it would seem.
It might have taken years, but it’s nearly green again.