Hark The Sound
It was my dream to run in the Carolina jersey. I remember sitting in my playroom as a sixth grader, roster-stalking the UNC team before I knew what roster-stalking was. The ability to sign and run for this University was the opportunity of a lifetime. I love this school and this town, and my Chapel Hill people. I love saying “Go Heels!” to someone I spot wearing a Carolina shirt on vacation. I love hearing the Bell Tower strike 11:00 from my apartment. I love the long spoons and sitting on the brick wall at YoPo. I love “Don’t Stop Believin” played in the fourth quarter at Kenan Stadium. I get butterflies every time I near exit 266 on I-40. I’m bound to tear up when I hear “Carolina in my Mind.” Chapel Hill is a part of me.
In high school, I was not an injured athlete at all. My sole injury was a single stress fracture in my left fibula. In fact, the neon yellow pre-wrap I wore around my thigh became more of a superstition rather than a sports medicine prescription. Things changed in college, when over the span of three years, a broken fibula, broken sacrum, surgery on my plantar fascia, and battles with disordered eating caused me to have growing concerns about my long-term health.
For any 17-year-old who feels she doesn’t look exactly like the majority of the girls on the starting line, you are not alone.
In high school, I was acutely aware I was not the smallest runner on the starting line. But as I continually put up a fight in races, PRd, and won state championships, I tucked away these thoughts. I was running well, very well, so whatever I was doing seemed to be working -- why would I change?
But the summer before I started college, things began to change. I started thinking about cross-country season, when as a freshman, I would be the new kid in the ACC. I looked at the starting line of ACC meets and saw a bunch of girls smaller and skinnier than me. I became hyper-focused on the idea of doing everything I could to maximize my performance in college. I came to believe my “sleep well, eat normally, run hard days hard and easy days easy” method of high school training wasn’t going to cut it in college. It was too simple. There had to be something more I could do to give me an edge. In my mind, this “edge” was exercising more and eating less. I would make myself look like these girls on the line, and I would be as fast as them. Self-discipline in workouts and races had taken me far on the track, and I told myself that this new “self-discipline” relating to food would take me just as far. Truth is, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The fall of my freshman year, I remained in denial that my preoccupation with food was not normal. My body was sending clear signals to me. Sleep was impossible, I couldn’t recover from a common cold, and my running performance was less than impressive.
But I refused to see my need for help.
I considered these physiological markers as evidence of becoming the elite athlete that I had imagined for so long. But, surprise! None of this meant I was training on an elite level. It meant that my body was breaking down.
Still, I denied to myself, and to others, that anything was wrong.
I told my mom and people I loved that I felt strong. They believed me. The thing was, I believed me too.
One part of disordered eating is that you often don’t recognize your own need for help. It took a fibular stress fracture for me to admit to myself, and others that I needed help. Once I did, friends and coaches lifted me up, and professional help guided me back to health. Although I consider myself in a much better place now, I think about that year-long period of restriction every day. It was so clearly a catalyst to the end of my collegiate running career. As I deprived my body of the very thing it needed to function, it slowly began to break down. The recovery process is anything but linear, and I think I knew that at the time. But I had no idea the enormous toll that this would have on my collegiate running career and long-term health, even four years later.
Two weeks before I broke my sacrum, I went home for spring break. I attended a service at my church where the Lenten theme was “Unbind.” We were asked to reflect on the things in life that were weighing us down, the things that were beyond our capability to control. Immediately I thought of my journey with running. For three years I dreamed of the comeback narrative: The resilient athlete who battled injury, put in hours of rehab, and came out on top. I imagined this storybook ending to my career as I harmonized to the sound of MRI machines and scribbled cross-training plans on the corner of psychology notes. However, in the exhausting cycle of injury, rest, rehab, repeat, the reality of the “comeback” became elusive.
I began to realize that this romanticized story is not reality for many athletes.
During spring break, I did not yet have a sacral stress fracture and did not know the fate of my college career. What I did know was that this running thing was weighing me down. The disappointment, confusion, and unknown from a situation that seemed so wildly out of my control was exhausting. I knew I wanted freedom from this thing that was binding me. And I knew that meant I had to embrace the uncertainty of what would come next.
So, I did. I returned to school, and on March 18, 2019, after a few weeks of lingering back pain, I was diagnosed with a sacral stress fracture. As Dr. Ciocca explained protocol for a stress fracture, I robotically nodded. Yes, I understood what a stress fracture was, how to use crutches. I think I was numb from the shock of yet another blow to my health and don’t remember much more from my time in his office. What I will remember is the drive back from his office – the moment when I knew it was over. I was in my car in front of the Ackland Art Museum on South Columbia and I just lost it. It was this small voice in my head, and I knew exactly what it meant. That day, between tearful conversations, the possibility of medical retirement became real. The next week, I made the decision to medically retire and prioritize my body and long-term health over the possibility of another race in Carolina Blue. I felt a freedom but had no idea what this next season of my life would bring. That was tough then. It is still tough now.
One of the hardest parts of my medical retirement has been seeing things and places that remind me of running. I get a lump in my throat every time I pass by A&T’s track on my way home to Greensboro. I haven’t made it back to UNC’s track or the American Tobacco Trail. Merritt’s doesn’t taste the same as it does after a long run. I don’t have a use for random safety pins or eighteen pairs of Nike Pegasus shoes.
In my race-day backpack, I found a tattered plastic bag full of handwritten post-it notes that my mom would stash in my spike bag on race day.
They read things like “Each lap is new” for my favorite race, the mile. Another read “Has someone told you lately everyone deserves the chance to fly?”, referencing my favorite musical “Wicked.” There were so many of them, from meets at Hagan-Stone Park to Hayward Field. Going through each one of them was both humbling and overwhelming. At the time of each race,
I had no idea that there would be a limited number of them.
I knew the handwritten notes in the spike bag weren’t going to last last forever. I just had no idea they would end so soon. I sent the rest of my gear home except my jersey that I PR’d in one last time. It is hanging on the wall in my room in my apartment now. I try to look up at it and remember “I did that.”
And 12-year-old Blair, studying the UNC team on her desktop in her playroom, would be so incredibly proud.
I came back to Chapel Hill this fall and things were a lot harder than I imagined. Some things haven’t changed. I still dabble on the piano to Train and Taylor Swift, enjoy a good Netflix documentary, and drink too much strong coffee. But parting ways with running, and running in Chapel Hill, is a change and a loss and a void that I feel to my core. I miss a teammate’s hand on my shoulder after a tempo run, the fourth lap feeling of a mile, a prayer on the starting line or in a porta-john, smelling gardenias on the Gimghoul Castle loop, or the last 100m of a race. That’s the good stuff. That’s what I miss.
Coming to terms with my dream to run for North Carolina, the outcome of my collegiate running career, and disordered eating in the context of medical retirement has been complicated to say the least. The type A in me would love to know what this season of my life means. I keep trying to find a word to sum up these four years and I keep coming up short. Yet through it all, I have found some weird kind of freedom in releasing this burden that was weighing me down for so long. It feels incredibly uneasy, liberating, daunting, and right, all at the same time. It comes from listening to that small voice inside my head – the same one that whispered to me in front of the Ackland Museum, on the starting line at Hayward Field, and from exit 266. Hark the sound.
- Blair Ramsey