When life has other plans
Lessons on dealing with disappointment, from Kara Goucher + Mikaela Shiffrin
If you’ve been a reader of this newsletter for any length of time, you’ve probably heard me mention Kara Goucher’s name many times. A former Olympian and a beloved ambassador of long distance running for the past couple of decades, she’s become nearly as well known for sharing her struggles, in both body and mind, as she has for her amazing athletic career.
Yesterday, she posted an announcement to her Instagram account that took those of us who’ve followed her career by surprise: over the past year or so, she has struggled with a difficult-to-diagnose neurological disorder that, at least for now, means she will have to stop running for the foreseeable future.
Here’s the full text of the post:
“For the past year I have been quietly battling for my health. After a fall in December 2020, I had a hard time staying on my feet while out running. It felt like I was slipping and it was scary, I’d throw my arms out for balance. After falling while crossing a road into traffic, Adam made me go to my doctor. This lead me to a neurologist who discovered lack of sensation in my legs and lesions in my brain. I had a lumbar puncture that was negative for MS. My doctor encouraged me to get back outside and slowly I started to feel better.
This fall the symptoms came back in a more intense way. I started drifting the left and falling again. A brain scan showed no changes. I began to struggle to walk outside, unable to control my legs or have confidence they would stay planted. I saw a new neurologist and she gave me an EMG. The test diagnosed neuropathy in my hands and feet. She got me in to see a neurological movement specialist. He diagnosed me with focal dystonia, for me runners dystonia. I started a Parkinsons medication and slowly improved. I could walk normally and run on gravel surfaces or my treadmill. But running on a road or a sidewalk would cause me to be pulled to the left and slip.
This past week I was a patient in the neurology department at the Mayo Clinic. The doctor confirmed repetitive exercise dystonia, and tried to tell me, as gently as possible, that the more I run the worse my symptoms will get. I have to drastically cut back or not only will I lose the ability to run at all, I will struggle to walk as well.
I am thankful that it isn’t MS or ALS or some of the other things we had to rule out. But losing running in the way I love it, is something I’m struggling to accept. People have said I’m addicted to running and they are right. I loved running before I knew I was good at it. It made me feel alive, to push, to feel my lungs expand. It has been one of the most glorious aspects of my life. From the silent meditation on a solo run to representing my country at the Olympic Games. I’m not sure where running ends and I begin, we are so intertwined as one. I’m unsure what the future holds, but I’m trying to embrace it.”
To say I was shocked to read these words is a huge understatement. I’ve written about her so many times because she’s been such an inspiration to me over the years, including as recently as last month.
Yes, she had already wound down her competitive career as an elite runner a few years ago. But she continued to participate in events here and there as her schedule allowed, like Colorado’s grueling Leadville Marathon a couple of years back. And because she’s still only 43 years old, I assumed she had many, many more miles of running ahead of her.
I share this with you because yesterday, in the span of a few hours, I heard a number of stories like Goucher’s from people in my own little orbit that reminded me how fragile we are. One was a friend-of-a-friend who’s just discovered, at age 50, he has late-stage colon cancer. Another decided to pay a visit to a relative who hadn’t been heard from in weeks; when they showed up at his home, they found he had passed away, presumably in his sleep.
As I was listening to these stories on the phone yesterday, while I was still contemplating what Goucher had written in her post, what popped in my head was a conversation I had many years ago with an artist I profiled for a magazine story I wrote (and which I shared with you all last year).
The artist was Grainger McKoy, a sculptor who lives in a tiny town in South Carolina and creates some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve ever laid eyes on. And he only sculpts one subject: birds. “People ask me to do mammals or [other animals],” McKoy told me when I spoke with him. “I say, I don't do fur, I only do feathers.”
At the time I met him, McKoy had recently accepted a commission to craft what he called Recovery Stroke, an eight-foot-high sculpture of a single pintail duck wing, designed to stand outside the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina’s teaching hospital.
He explained to me that when birds move their wings, they do so in two basic motions — a power stroke and a recovery stroke, which for him brought to mind everyone who might pass by his sculpture at the center:
“With the power stroke and the recovery stroke, the whole idea is that it's the weakest wing position a bird can be in… It’s not one you would choose to be in. Yet to me, it has a grace that [the power stroke] doesn't have.
It’s not in our strength that He is seen, it’s in our weaknesses that He is seen, but yet, we never want to show our weak side… When somebody goes to reveal something about themselves, there’s something attractive to that, in that weakness. Therefore this whole thing with recovery — and all of us are in recovery somewhere, in relationships, physical, all of us — we’re all in that, we don’t like to admit it, but somewhere in our lives, we’re all in recovery.”
(You’ll notice the capitalized “He” above; McKoy, a devoted Christian, uses religious language to describe what he’s saying, but there’s a universality to it that I think also connects to what Goucher said yesterday.)
So often, in our running — and in our lives, really — we focus exclusively on success and achievement. And so much of running is about achievement; the miles we run every week, the challenges we take on, the distances we’re not sure we can run, but end up doing.
We’re like a bird in motion in a power stroke, in other words.
Embracing being in the recovery stroke, whether that’s in our running or in any part of our lives, isn’t something I like doing any more than anyone else. But I think the reason Goucher’s words have resonated so strongly with me — in the interviews she has given and the articles and books she has written — is that her struggles with self-confidence and self-belief have been my struggles too.
Her willingness to be open and candid about them has shown me I’m not the only one; that we all fall down from time to time, even those who scale the highest peaks of accomplishment:
I was heartbroken for Mikaela Shiffrin when I saw her DNF in the women’s slalom event at the Olympics last night. Seeing her stop her run after only a few seconds was confusing at first; once it sunk in for me what had happened, it was as if a bunch of loose threads — all of these stories I’m sharing with you — had suddenly been pulled together.
There’s a part of me that wishes we never had to go through the experiences Goucher, McKoy and Shiffrin describe. (Life would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?)
But we do, it seems. Nothing keeps difficulty at bay forever. The only answer I’ve ever found is to reach out to each other when we're in the place McKoy describes, to help one another through recovery as best we can. And, with luck and hope, come out on the other side.
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running is going — and if you’re training with us, here’s our plan for the upcoming week:
Thursday, Feb. 10 — 5 miles/45-50 minutes
Saturday, Feb. 12 — 6 miles/55-60 minutes
Sunday, Feb. 13 — 2-3 miles/20-30 minutes
Tuesday, Feb. 15 — 5 miles/45-50 minutes
Below, I’ve compiled some of the best advice I’ve found that Kara Goucher has shared over the years — if (or when) you find yourself in a similar place, I hope these helps you find peace too.
(Lots of) wise words by Kara Goucher
Kara Goucher Shares the Secret to Finally Finding Her Confidence. In the preface to her 2018 book Strong, Goucher tells us why despite having success as a collegiate and professional runner, she still believed she was never good enough to be on the same stage as her peers. What changed for her? Writing down what she’d done right for each practice, each race, chronicling what she calls a confidence journal to help remind her of why she belongs
Mind Gains. This great profile takes us back to a time when Goucher was nearing the peak of her professional running career, before she’d had a chance to do the mental work she writes about in Strong. The opening lines set the stage: “Her head has always messed with her. For as long as she can recall, it's thrown hammers at her feet. Some runners have trick knees or fragile hamstrings. She has an undermining psyche.” This pulls back the curtain on how our minds can work against us, and how we can turn that around.
How to Strengthen Your Mental Game. In this, Goucher shares what its like to face the voices in the back of her mind that never believed. (Sometimes those voices weren’t only inside her head, she adds: “I have been called a ‘crybaby,’ ‘overly emotional,’ and a ‘total head case’ more times than I can count. It used to hurt my feelings because people said it under the context of it being a weakness. But now I just don’t care. I feel things in such a deep and intense way. It’s just the way that I am wired.”
Things to try
If you experience the same struggles Goucher has, she put together a set of suggestions in Strong that I’ve found always help me — especially when my mind is in a grumpy place:
Record every run. Whether it’s automatically via your Apple Watch or Garmin, or writing pen to paper in a notebook, create a journal to record everything you accomplish as a runner, from a short 2-miler all the way up to your race day. Taking notes on how you felt allows you to look back at how you’ve succeeded and handled challenges over time.
Talk to yourself with intention. A river of thoughts is coursing through your mind (and mine) right now, influenced by everything you’ve seen and done — as well as your reflections on them. I’ve found that trying to emphasize the positive in my own mind follows a flywheel effect — it’s really hard to get it started, but once you do, that movement seems to reinforce itself.
Visualize the finish line. You want to feel strong and vibrant when you finish a race, right? Starting with the end in mind both allows you to focus on the thing you want to achieve and on breaking it down, smaller goal by smaller goal, so that your experience will live up to your vision for it.
Wear running clothes that make you feel strong. One of Goucher’s tips is to always have clothes ready that make you feel good and look good, that you have the strength for the challenge in front of you. It may sound like a small thing, but in my experience it works better than you think it should.
I really, really hope these help, especially if you find yourself struggling. It can feel so lonely to be in that place, I know from experience. If you’re there, I hope you know you’re not alone, and that all of us find ourselves there sooner or later.
Words to run by
“Never underestimate the power that one good workout will have on your mind. Keeping the dream alive is half the battle.”
— Kara Goucher