The power of positive thinking

After suffering a leg injury, marathon runner Rachel Grunwell chose not to let her injury get her down.

Words Rachel Grunwell. Illustration by Janelle Barone, Makers MGMT

I am passionate about running. It makes me feel fit, healthy and strong; it allows me to reset, clear my head, destress and come up with lots of creative ideas. I thrive on being out in nature, and running is a massive happiness booster for me. It keeps me sane. In fact, I liken running to a form of ‘moving meditation’. So last year when an injury forced me to stop running for a while, I had to make a conscious effort to rewire my “mindset” and look for the positives in my situation.

The injury came about when I was running the Christchurch Marathon with TV3 presenter Mike McRoberts. It was an amazing race until I reached the 34km mark, when suddenly my left leg was in so much pain I couldn’t run any further and had to stop. I told Mike to run on without me and walked the last 8km to the finish line.

The following day I was in agony and could barely walk. Physiotherapist Vaughan Craddock, from Sports Lab, diagnosed a “stress reaction”. While this sounds like something I might feel when the kids are mid-tantrum I learned that a stress reaction is the precursor to a stress fracture, where the bone becomes weak at a cellular level and causes pain. And I mean eye-watering pain.

The only way to treat it was to stop running for at least six weeks, possibly even 10 weeks. Running is a big part of my life. I run three times weekly and not being able to was a big deal. 

But rather than feeling down about not being able to do something I love, I decided to shift my mindset towards positivity. I chose to view the injury as an opportunity for growth in other ways and so I focused on what I could do, not what I couldn’t.

Putting things into perspective, I knew the injury would heal in time and I just had to be patient (not easy for me!). I also knew that my pain was temporary and therefore I was lucky. I volunteer as a guide for runners who have disabilities (as an ambassador for Achilles New Zealand) and so I know others who face permanent and much tougher barriers in life, like blindness. 

They choose not to let their “can’t dos” overwhelm them and they have taught me so much. Fitness-wise I could still do pool running, weights, cycling and yoga. During the 10 weeks it took me to recover I still showed up every week at my run club, GetRunning in Auckland. I cycled on the club bikes, did strength work or stretched with mates when they came back from their runs. So, I kept up my ritual of when and where I worked out, and felt happy seeing friends. 

Importantly, I listened to my physio Vaughan’s advice and did all the exercises he recommended. Vaughan also advised me that staying positive can influence healing timeframes, once again confirming that my mindset really did matter. 

I ended up coming through that injury period stronger in mind, body and spirit. While an experience like this can be frustrating and difficult, slowing you down on your path to progress, it can give you opportunities to focus on other things, and help you develop greater resilience. Ultimately, I chose to see adversity as a challenge, learn from it and grow. Or maybe I’m just stubborn – I hate giving up.

I now have a huge appreciation for being able to run again. When I’m out there in the mornings with my run buddies, it feels almost like I’m flying; I truly believe that feeling healthy and strong is a gift. Meanwhile, I will be tackling the Macpac Motatapu Marathon next with a group of friends, including Mike McRoberts. We will be running through stunning Wanaka to Queenstown high country on trails that are not normally open to the public, and hopefully this time I will be at the finish line smiling.

Rachel is a mum, marathoner, writer, yoga teacher and director of inspiredhealth.co.nz

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