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When Emily Infeld crossed the finish line of the Beach to Beacon 10K on Saturday in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, she was utterly spent. She placed fourth—the first American—in her first race in 18 months, post-hip surgery and the long, careful recovery that followed it.
“I haven’t worked that hard in a long time,” Infeld said, during a phone interview on Monday. “I was exhausted. It took me a little bit to feel excited for it and proud of it. Initially I was just depleted—I ran as hard as I could out there.”
It wasn’t a personal-best performance or a win, but it was a victory in every other sense for Infeld, who is an Olympian and world championships bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters. After spending most of 2018 injured and finally ending up in surgery to fix a torn labrum, she’s been cautious in her return to training and competition—although she had hoped to race at the U.S.A. Track & Field Outdoor Championships in July, it was too soon to spike up.
“[Bowerman Track Club coach] Jerry [Schumacher] thought that this would be a good introduction back to racing,” Infeld said. “And the thing about the roads is that you can’t always compare to previous performances and I’d never done this one. You just go and compete and that’s what I really wanted to do—I wanted to remind myself of that racing hurt.”
It was an important milestone on the way back to the top level of the sport. And a good time for Infeld to take stock of how far she’s come. She shared a few lessons learned on her comeback trail—advice that all runners can turn to when recovering from an injury.
Don’t look too far ahead. It’s easy for all of us to see race dates on the calendar and try to force ourselves out of an injury in a set timeframe. Unfortunately, our bodies don’t always cooperate. Infeld tried to break down her recovery into milestones: six weeks on crutches, walk/jogs on land starting 12 weeks post-surgery, and then running up to 40 continuous minutes about 16 weeks after the surgery.
“When I got to 35 minutes of running, I was so excited, but it was so hard—and it occurred to me that that’s why people don’t like running, because it’s really hard,” Infeld said. “When you have so much time off, you’re going to run so slow. It doesn’t matter. Gradually I progressed to running quicker, then more days in a row, then threw in fartleks.”
It wasn’t until mid-June that Infeld attempted any workouts on the track. And she still isn’t targeting specific interval times during her speed sessions, which are often some combination of 800 and 400 meters.
“Jerry just tells me to go how I feel,” she said. “He doesn’t want to give me a pace because I’m still getting fitness back, so I just go by feel.”
Talk it out. We feel injuries physically, but they can also wreak havoc with our emotions. Infeld found it imperative to talk to a sport psychologist and mental health counselors.
“I try to make sure that’s in my general routine, but in times like this it becomes more prevelant and more necessary,” she says. “It helps to talk through things and not harboring my feelings.”
In the past, Infeld utilized more of a “fake it till you make it” mentality, telling everybody she was fine when, in fact, she wasn’t.
“Injuries are hard things and it’s okay to admit that and talk about it,” she said. “Do whatever you can to ease your mind. For me, it was just looking at one day or one week at a time and celebrating my little victories, like the first day I got to walk for 30 minutes.”
The way back isn’t linear. Recovery doesn’t always build upon itself. Sometimes there are setbacks. Infeld distinctly remembers a run that didn’t go well while she was on vacation in Hawaii with her boyfriend, Max. It was shortly after she was cleared to start walk/jogs and she had built up to five minutes of continuous running.
“I was feeling good and positive all day and I tried to go for a run and felt horrible,” she said. “I was upset for like an hour, but then I said, ‘We’re in a beautiful place, I’m so lucky to be here, and it is what it is.’”
When coming back from injuries, the body may need more time to absorb and recover from running than it normally does.
“I was frustrated, but I had to remind myself that being tired is part of the process as well,” Infeld said. “Maybe I did a little too much and needed a few more days off before doing the next walk/jog—it’s totally fine and you’re being smart when you make those decisions.”
Lay off the Instagram sometimes. We know that it’s everybody’s highlight reel—it’s not usually an accurate reflection of a person’s entire life. However, when you’re struggling to come back from a long layoff, it’s important to set limits on what you’re consuming. Infeld realized she didn’t always need to look at what other runners were up to while she was just trying to run a nine-minute pace.
“Your journey is different than everybody else’s and that’s something I’ve struggled with,” she said. “When you see that everybody else is so fit and just crushing it, that’s a downfall of social media. You open it up and see everybody doing amazing things—and you can be excited and happy for that, but remember that it doesn’t take away from your progress.”
Alternatively, the countless notes that Infeld has received from runners all across the country have been a huge source of support. One, in particular, brought tears to her eyes, from a man who had similar surgery two months after Infeld.
“He sent me this long message and said, ‘I saw that you’re going to race. I showed my wife your Instagram and said, ‘F*&k yeah, Infeld’s back!’” she said. “It just made me feel so happy and so excited. It’s just an amazing community—most runs I’ve been doing by myself and it helps to have those reminders from people I don’t even know.”
Note the signs of progress. One of the major takeaways from Infeld’s return to racing was what wasn’t going through her mind during the 10K—she wasn’t noticing any injury-related pain in her hip or right foot, which had been another area that had given her trouble. She didn’t give them any thought during competition, which is a turning point.
“I felt 100 percent in the race and focused on competing—I wasn’t focused on whether something was hurting,” she said. “That was a huge victory for me, just feeling confident that I can run hard again.”