It is every college athlete’s dream to come in as a freshman and improve each year until he/she is at the top of the conference, or maybe even top of the nation. To say that my running career was not even close to that dream is an understatement.
I chose to run at Lipscomb University because of the incredible team culture and collective ambition to achieve success. I committed to help the team build into a program that would become competitive on the NCAA Division I level. That was my promise. That was my goal.
As Division 1 athletes, we don’t know what it is like to fail athletically until we reach college. We are the stars in high school, win conference championships, and compete well in state meets. Similar to many college athletes, success in cross country and track was part of my identity.
This identity was molded as every year of college finished. I wasn’t hurt very often in high school and I never had an injury that kept me out for more than a week or two. That may be hard to believe if you look at my college career. During the first week of practice, I sprained my ankle by stepping in a big hole during a workout. A month later I sprained the same ankle, while wearing a brace.
Right after the cross country season, I broke my big toe on a freak play during a game of pickup basketball. Eventually, I saw a doctor and was put in a boot for three months but needed surgery to fix the chip fracture and MCL strain in my big toe.
After a long and slow recovery, I finally got back for half of cross country season in the fall. I had one really good race and then wore down by the end of the season. I was okay with that result because it was the first time that I wore a Lipscomb jersey.
Towards the middle of indoor season, I started having issues with my left hip and running laps around the track only made it worse. I could not finish workouts and had pain during regular parts of my day. After months of putting up with the pain, I decided to see a doctor when I could not finish my first race of outdoor season. An MRI on my left hip revealed that my labrum was torn in three different places, along with some other minor issues. I had my second surgery of college in April of 2017.
After months of rehab, I eventually got back to running a little bit, but I was stuck in the return to running plan. After not progressing for a month, I had an MRI on my right hip because I was experiencing the same pain as my left side. Unsurprisingly, my right labrum was torn as well, and I had another surgery only six months after my first hip surgery.
At this point, I expected to have a gradual recovery during my junior year to prepare me to race again my final year of college.
God had other plans.
As I approached 30 minutes of running, I went through weeks of extreme pain in my left hip again, but then felt fine for a month or two. Over six to seven months, I had two negative MRIs that left me questioning my body more than ever. After months of the same cycle and reoccurring pain, the doctor decided to perform another left hip scope, so my dad and I kept our yearly surgery get together alive. I did not know what to expect going in since every MRI was inconclusive. The recovery options varied from a couple weeks to multiple months depending on the scenario.
When I woke up from surgery, I found out that everything that could have gone wrong from the previous surgery on my left hip went wrong. He found a loose anchor from my first surgery, scar tissue and a new tear in the labrum. In other words: my collegiate racing days were over. That last surgery was in October of 2018. Because of different setbacks from this surgery, I was not healthy enough to race my final track season. I am sure I could swing multiple medical redshirt seasons on top of Covid-19 delays and still compete, but my collegiate racing days ended when I finished college. It was clear that my body could not handle any more competitive running.
The toughest part of all the surgeries was realizing I never finished my last race. I never expected a random 5k during my sophomore year to be the last time I would ever compete on the track. I never thought that would be the last memory I would have racing in a Lipscomb jersey.
Today, I try to run a little bit, but I have transitioned more to the bike. My hips still bother me on some days, so I am forced to take days off when I need to. I would like to compete in something on a small scale in the future, but I will need a few years for my body to catch up.
I know I am not the only person who has gone through big surgeries or injuries. I am not the only person whose collegiate athletic dreams did not pan out. Every injured athlete has different experiences when his/her favorite past time is taken away. I had different emotions and states of mind during each recovery.
In the beginning, I experienced frustration. During my early ankle sprains freshman year, I complained and longed to run when I was only taken out for a couple of weeks. Little did I know that would only be a minor setback in the scheme of four years. I fostered the greatest amount of frustration when I broke my toe and needed surgery. I questioned why I had to experience a six-month recovery for a little toe injury. I solely focused on what I could do to make it back because running was where I found my identity.
I felt happier when I raced fast. I felt appreciated when I raced fast. I thought I would get more attention if I raced fast. Now, I realize that I would much rather be known as a Christian, brother, son, and reliable friend than a great athlete. I learned that life is more like a cross country course than a track. A track has nice smooth ovals with a finish line that is easy to see. A cross country race has winding turns with different ups and downs that eventually lead to an end. Life is never going to be like a turn on a track. Life is going to have different twists, hairpins, and inclines that will test your patience. As much as you would like to preview the course of life, you will never be prepared for every aspect of the race when it hits you.
As someone who likes to control my life, I did not know how to respond to so many setbacks. I was so set on running fast that I kept trying to pursue that dream. I was so obsessed with my plan that I ignored God’s plan. I told Him that He could wait while I pursued what I wanted. Doors closed, but I kept trying to walk through them. I questioned quitting on about 10 different occasions, but I never followed through. It is an unexplainable feeling to have something you are extremely passionate about taken away from you time after time. It is even harder to hear after a surgery that your collegiate running career is over quicker than you expected. You do not know what to think, say, or do. I told myself sophomore year that I would be done if I ever had a torn labrum, but I never followed through when it actually happened.
As each surgery came, I began to realize the blessings instead of focusing on the goals that were taken away. As I look back on my collegiate career, I know that I had opportunities that I would not be able to follow if I were competing. God brought me to Lipscomb because of running, but He did not bring me there to win conference championships. Those rings were reserved for my friends. He brought me there to be much more than a runner. I helped start the Finance Club on campus, I have gone on mission trips that I would not have gone on if I were racing. I built relationships at a refugee community in Nashville and built other friendships because I did not travel on the weekends. Looking back, I can see the way that God shaped my college journey. In the moment, I was frustrated. In the moment, I was confused. In the moment, I did not know where to turn. Now I see that my plan was pathetic compared to God’s. Closed doors just mean that other doors open. I do not necessarily believe that one door opens as another closes. Sometimes you are in a room full of closed doors for a while before one opens. On occasion, God teaches me with closed doors. He closes a bunch of doors and forces me to rely on Him before He opens the next. God was writing, and is still writing, a story I did not know I would be in.
Because of these setbacks, I do not like to plan the big things in life. The more I planned, the more those plans went wrong. The more I wanted my life to go one way, the more God sent it in another direction. I planned on going to school on the beach in North Carolina; I chose a school in Nashville. I planned on using a 5th year and immediately pursuing an MBA; I started a job at one of the largest banks in the country. I planned on working a job in Nashville after graduation and I moved to Atlanta in July. God has better plans than I do, so I am learning to just follow where He takes me.
Greater Than Your Circumstance
I am not defined by my circumstance. Before, I would see myself as a cripple. Now, injuries are just things that happen to me instead of who I am. I could have been negative, but that seems like a terrible way to live. Being frustrated and negative about each surgery would guarantee failure. I would not want to be around someone who complains about being hurt all the time. I am not perfect about being positive. I have days and weeks where I get frustrated and complain, but I try to limit those. I hope that others can say that I did not sulk in my setbacks. I joke about my old body all the time, but I try not to bring others down with my pain. I hope that others can look at me and keep a positive perspective when they get hurt because they saw me do it. When you are hurt you provide hope to those watching you. If you keep your head up, others will keep their heads up. If you find hope in your situation, others will find hope in their battles.
I had four surgeries in college, but I also had four incredible years of growth and knowledge. I went through days where I was frustrated and close to quitting and days of joy and camaraderie. I saw some of my best friends transfer and I grew close to others over four years. Even though there were many hard times, I would not trade it. The setbacks and surgeries made me the person I am today.
Anyone else facing surgeries, injuries, or setbacks, know that you are not defined by your sport, major, job, or salary. Your identity does not come from how well you perform. You are bigger than the time that flashes when you cross the finish line. You are more valuable than if you hit the big shot at the end of the game. You are more important than your next performance review. My perspective may be different than others, but I care a lot more about the person you are than how well you perform in your sport or your job. Your sport may bring you to a school, but it may not be the actual reason you are there. A job could take you to a new city or company, but it may not be the real reason you are there.
Someday your sport will fade. Someday you will not be able to exercise at a high level because your body aches too bad. Those days came a lot earlier for me than I expected. You will be forced to live without athletic competition. Will you be satisfied with who you are? Build your character now with that person in mind. Your purpose is much more about who you are than what you do.
Someday you will be sitting in a job after college and you will face the same battles in different form. I still face the challenge of separating my identity and performance. I catch myself constantly competing against my coworkers as if my performance is tied to who I am. Instead of facing hours of physical therapy, I am faced with random projects and tight deadlines. It is all the same as athletics. Someday you will not be sitting in the office all day. Will you be satisfied with who you are? Your purpose is much more than the corner office or how much money you make.
Maybe you are going through tough family times. Maybe you do not understand why bad things keep happening. Know that you are not alone. There is a greater story being written. You probably will not recognize why you had every setback until later.
Find the positives. Keep perspective. You are greater than your circumstance.
I appreciate you.
Jared Peters is a blogger and writer from Atlanta, GA with a passion for helping other people reach their full potential. He shares weekly encouragement, inspiration and personal development tips on his blog and social media sites. When he’s not working his day job or writing you can find him biking, running, or doing something active outdoors. You can find him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Steven Lelham.