When A Runner Must Walk

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Mackie Wellford

By Megan Hollomon

October 28, 2017 was a great day to race.  I had just completed my first half-marathon since becoming a mom to two children. I felt proud and accomplished, like I finally got my groove back. Arguably the toughest workout since childbirth, I “left it all out there” on the Chessie Trail in Lexington, Virginia.

My younger brother Mackie was the first person I called following the awards ceremony. I gave him a quick race recap and proudly shared my time. Mackie has always been “my person” in all matters running related. Over the years, we have come to know an authentic experience of catharsis through running and the mental benefit it provides. We both agree therein lies the proverbial “runner’s high” sought after by beginner and seasoned runners alike. We share the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to running. From my nagging hip pain to his GI issues on a long training run we completed together in early September. I suppose if you run long enough, it can quite literally bring out the best and worst in you!

I last ran Sunday, November 26, 2017. Our family had just spent Thanksgiving together at my Mom’s river house in the northern neck of Virginia. That nagging hip soreness had unfortunately morphed into a debilitating pain that I could not ignore. No amount of stretching, ice or ibuprofen could provide me with the relief I needed to run. I was discouraged but remained optimistic, knowing the busyness of the upcoming holiday season would provide a good distraction.

Then, Mackie died in a car accident a week later on December 1. He had just set a PR in the Richmond Half Marathon two weeks earlier. He was 27 years old.

Distracted doesn’t even begin to describe the month of December. I felt broken. Truly damaged to the core without the first clue of how to cope. Like many of us, my go-to for some of life’s biggest challenges has always been running. The day after my dad died, 13 years ago, I set out for a quick 5k around the neighborhood and vividly remember a car slowing down to ask who was chasing me.

I made an appointment with Dr. Wilder at the University of Virginia Runner’s Clinic just before Christmas. He sent me home on conservative treatment to include rest and anti-inflammatories as needed. I begged for permission to walk and he reluctantly agreed on the terms that I would stop at the first onset of any discomfort. Okay, he had a deal.

Previous early morning runs turned into moderately paced walks on the treadmill where I would barely even work up a sweat. If you’re a runner, then you might understand the level of frustration and degree of impatience this brought me. There was no cathartic release, no mental escape or “runner’s high” to pull me out of the depths of my grief. Even worse, there was no Mackie to share the disappointing news of my injury with; no Mackie to crack a bad joke and lighten the mood.

An MRI of my left hip would later confirm a stress fracture that did not show up on my initial X-ray. I hung up the phone with Dr. Wilder’s nurse that Monday morning feeling both overwhelmed and relieved all at once. Dr. Wilder ordered nearly a month on crutches. To finally have a diagnosis to explain the pain that had side-lined me since November was a relief. But the reality of life on crutches with two small children while managing responsibilities both at work and home overwhelmed me. I knew I had to establish a “new normal” but I had no idea how that would look or feel. Life without Mackie and now, life without running. You don’t go through life expecting ever to know that kind of struggle until it suddenly becomes your reality. It felt like someone handed me a test I was in no way prepared to take.

After several days of self-pity (and enough ice cream to sustain a small dairy farm), I began to realize the healing had to begin in a place where my running shoes could not take me. On so many days since he died, I have found myself asking, “what would Mackie tell me to do right now?” I’m certain he wouldn’t want me digging for the answer in a carton of Breyer’s. It has become clear to me that “running away” from the reality of Mackie’s death is not a viable coping mechanism. No matter how badly I want to lace up my Asics and slip out the front door, my injury prevents that from happening. Likewise, no matter how hard I try to distract myself with work, friends or family, the reality of life without my dear brother prevents me from experiencing a familiar joy I once knew.

Although I am still in the early stages of both grieving and rehabbing this injury, I have come to find a hope that was unknown to me in the days following Mackie’s death. The initial shock is wearing off and I’m now facing the crippling reality that life must go on—without him. Similarly, I find restored strength in the promise of healing that each new day has to offer as I inch closer to a time when I can begin running again. It’s slow, but it’s progress. I will run again and I will find joy again but both will take time. Time gives us hope. No one can be certain when time will run out. With hope, our time is better spent. In terms of running, isn’t it always a race against the clock?

In grieving and healing, time takes on a different feel. It moves forward and leaves you clinging to the past, the memory, the “remember when.” I reflect back on that long training run Mackie and I did together last September. He was so strong, so full of life, how can he really be gone? What will it feel like to run without him? I don’t know. I suppose the only way to really find out is by putting one foot in front of the other.

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