Battling My I Can’t Monster: Thoughts on Hypermobility

On Sunday I was supposed to run the Sport Relief 3 miler.  I signed up because 3 miles at a hard effort at this point of the year would have been a great test of where I am at with my running.  But with the clocks moving forward plus a really fun evening with friends for dinner on Saturday (also known as very late to bed!) when the alarm went off at 8am, I turned it off and decided to spend more quality time with my pillow.  Sometimes sleep is just more important than an organised event.  I rationalised to myself that as the purpose of my planned run was a hard effort, I could do this anywhere, and did not need a big event to do the work. I just needed to go running.

When we finally got moving we decided to stick close to home and headed for Victoria Park.  We got there at just about noon, just as the sun had burnt off the last of the morning fog. It was a perfect sunny day – cool, but warm enough to run in shorts and a tank top.  It was a good day to run.

We locked our bikes up and I got ready. Screwing my head on. Reviewing the purpose of my run:  go hard; maintain a solid effort the entire duration; no walking; no negative self talk.

This was an important run for me, mentally.  I am still learning how to run, and am using the treadmill to discover pace and speed, teaching my legs how to move, and building the confidence that I *can* run (all under the guidance of the fantastic James Dunne of Kinetic Revolution).  While on the treadmill earlier in the week I discovered a new way I was limiting myself.  I learned that for some reason, when the treadmill hit 9kph, and the time more than 1 minute, my mind just stopped cooperating.  On a 2 minute set, I found myself stopping short and taking a quick break “just to rest”.  I just couldn’t seem to be able to push past 1 minute 30 seconds at this pace.  It was completely bizarre, because I did the same speed with a greater incline without a problem for a minute, and I also ran faster at 10kph for thirty second bursts, again without a problem.  But when the duration exceeded the minute mark, I just kind of found myself stopping.

So Sunday’s run was a test. A challenge for me to run at a continuously hard effort.  To battle my “I Can’t Monster”.  To push without stopping. To trust the training. To learn.

When I started this run I thought of a few things.  The first was the Central Governor theory – that basically the mind shuts down and stops hard efforts as a means of preserving the body, and that the best athletes (like Chrissie Wellington) somehow master control of their central governors to push their limits beyond what the mind would normally allow. I thought about how I would need to focus. To zone out. To just push. I thought about what tunes I would put on to help me do this (I didn’t start running with music until October of 2011 – over two years after I started running. I don’t always run with tunes, but this time I chose “Staring at the Sea – the Singles” by The Cure, music from times gone past when I thought I could conquer the world). 

And I thought about F, and her courage, and what it meant to me.

Thoughts About F

F is the daughter of a lovely man Rob. I first met Rob on Twitter, and then had the fortune to meet him and his family in real life.  F has hypermobility syndrome or Ehlers Danlos Type 3, which is the same as what I have been diagnosed with.  When we met in late 2010, F had suffered one too many chronic knee dislocations and was on her way to meet with the top doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital to discuss potential interventions.

I have suffered my share of knee dislocations.  Profound dislocations.  I had intended to go onto google and post an image of what one of these looks like on this blog – to help you to understand what exactly I mean by a profound knee dislocation.  But every time I went to type “patella dislocation” into the search box I got a sick feeling in my stomach.  My knees start to ache.  My eyes started to water.  I got sweaty hands.  If you have ever seen the Joe Theisman leg break from the 1980s and felt sick when you saw it – that is what I felt like, each time I thought about searching for images.  I just couldn’t do it. (If you want to see what it looks like google “patella dislocation” and click on images – and try to find one with the kneecap on the side / almost back of the lateral side of the leg – it is gross, trust me.)

Anyway, I was thinking about F, because in 2011 she had reconstructive surgery on her knees with the best surgeons the UK has to offer, to rebuild her shattered ligaments to try to hold her kneecaps into place.  Each time I took a step while running, I thought of F, and I thought of me. 

I thought about how lucky I was, to be able to run.  I thought about how even though I have not had a profound dislocation in years how I STILL have a deep FEAR each time I push off and each time my foot lands when I’m running. 

I thought about F, and how that surgery she had in 2011 had failed.  How just a few months ago when she was walking – just walking! – she suffered ANOTHER profound dislocation.  When they said she would be fixed…

I thought about F and about how she was going to be having another surgery.  This time the treatment will (in layman’s terms) create an anchor for her knee, to prevent it from moving laterally and to forcibly stop her from suffering another profound dislocation. 

I prayed that someone would be able to help F, so that someday she could WALK, again, without RISK.

And I ran. As hard as I could.

Battling The I Can’t Monster

When I was cycling home from the park – after a run that saw me at a sub-12 minute mile pace for the first time EVER – I was thinking about how so much of what I am trying to do is to get beyond these deep physical memories I am carrying.  These CAN’T feelings.  The feelings and memories that my MIND seems to be holding onto to protect my body.

Last year when I did the Strong Like Bull training camp I asked John Hirsch (camp founder) for some honest feedback that I could take back to my coach.

“…When pushed you respond well. You can clearly do more than you think, which is common in many athletes. I also think it is important for you as there may have been a lot of people who instead of pushing you pulled you back because of your disability… You need to be more the boss of you. You know what you can do and what you can’t. You will need to keep pushing to find that edge. Once you go over it a few times you will have the experiences needed to know what you can and can’t do and where that line is…”

It is true. I have an “I Can’t Monster” living in my head. 

I think my “I Can’t Monster” is a monster whose heart is made up of memories of pain, whose head is full of the words from doctors who allowed me to do nothing physical, doctors who encouraged me to avoid doing things that put me at risk of pain and injury. My “I Can’t Monster” is a monster with flawed collagen, whose knees are on the back of his legs, whose elbows can’t support his own weight.  He has a body like Gumby. He is the monster in my head who stops me from pushing myself.

I am starting to battle the I Can’t Monster.  It is SO HARD.  Each time I confront the I Can’t Monster I am pushing into unknown physical territory.  I am doing things I don’t ever remember doing. I have underlying fear. Each step is a risk. But equally… Each step is a victory. I feel like I am nurturing a newborn called confidence. And it is VERY HARD.

In her own way, F gave me the strength on Sunday to fight my monster. To battle into the unknown.  To push my limits and to achieve new successes.  Knowing she is about to endure another tough operation – knowing that she is willing to go into the unknown with all the risks that entails – that helped me to get out of my comfort zone.

Thank you F.

I am praying the doctors can help you, that your next operation is a success, and that someday we can walk through the park together, without fear.

5 responses to “Battling My I Can’t Monster: Thoughts on Hypermobility”

  1. Nice post – you should read Steve Peters book – the Chimp Paradox. He’s the British Cyclist Psychologist and it completely covers the ‘I Can’t monster’ – will post it to you when I’m back from California if you are interested? Jos

  2. I had a student years ago with Ehlers Danlos years ago. He was an amazing kid. It sure put a lot on his plate. He loved sports, too, and was in constant struggle to find balance.

    I am not an ‘athlete’ but I have pushed myself for years, staying in a profession that my therapists said was very demanding physically- they are right, I teach young children.

    Having a disability does complicate the whole ‘conquer your mind’ scenario. I am still living with consequences of injuries that were preventable, and happened because I engaged in things for too long or pushed myself too hard. We do have to dance with our limits.  I am not recommending that you give up, or that we say I can’t more than we say I can, but just that caution can be a good choice too.

    I really hope that surgery works for your friend. And that your running finds a fantastic groove.  I haven’t run for years. Hearing your stories about athleticism makes me happy smile. Enjoy it!

    Best wishes!

  3. Donna, great blog post. Hadn’t really thought much about the mental aspects of racing, but will take some of the contents of this with me to my next training session.

  4. ‘Brain Training for Runners’  beautifully covers the Central Govenor theory and how best to utilize psychology to put to rest the ‘I Can’t Monster’ (ICM).

    Indeed my friend ..,, Keep Rising … It is the only thing that matters; each day to somehow, in smallest ways to find a higher vantage point and perceive ever greater vistas of ourselves and the world we marvel at.

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