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When You Can No Longer Run, Welcome To The Not-Running-Anymore Support Group

In her new series for Women's Running, seasoned non-runner Dimity McDowell invites you to meet the heartfelt challenge to stop running.

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This is the first in a six-part series at Women’s Running, offering support to runners who can no longer run

Welcome to a group that, like most support groups, you didn’t really want—or choose—to join.

I’ll start by stating the obvious: It sucks you’re here.

I’m guessing you didn’t start running to stand on a podium or wear a singlet with a sponsor’s name across your chest. You started running because you needed something in your life, and the miles flooded in to fill that space.

The gap was soon filled with this healthy thing that reliably brought you peace and confidence after just 30 minutes. You now were devoted to this athletic pursuit that brought pink sunrises, strong quads, and sweat-soaked sports bras into your life; this activity that made you feel like Serena Williams at Wimbledon, like Bruce Springsteen at the Meadowlands, like you were, mile after mile, exactly where you were supposed to be.

And then, somehow, running came back to bite you. I know because I’m part of the group, too.

Dimity McDowell on one of her last trail runs. (Photo: Courtesy Dimity McDowell)

You might relate to Gretchen Gibson, who started running in 2009 after having her second child. Her first marriage dissolved as her confidence in herself, sparked by running, grew. Twelve years later, she’s got a solid second marriage, as well as a hip and knee replacement. “Running gave me strength I didn’t have as a teenager, a young woman, a mom,” she says, “Am I that same person without it?”

Maybe you are like Stacy Bruce, who picked up a flier for marathon training in 1996 and told herself she’d just train with the group until the training got too hard. It never got too hard—until recently. Issues in her lower back, knee and hip have accumulated to the point where she knows so clearly she needs to stop running, she recently told her athletes at a track workout she coaches to hold her accountable. “I’m still processing it though,” she says, “It’s so heavy.”

You might identify with Sylvia Utecht, who started running in college while listening to REM on her Sony Walkman. Severe arthritis in her left knee, compounded by a tibia fracture from being leveled by her dog from behind while on a walk, has sidelined her from running for the previous 18 months. She’s mentally taking things day by day. “I’m exhausted by dealing with the pain,” she says, “But I also miss absolutely everything about running.”

Or maybe you see yourself in Dana Mitra, who used to go on 8-milers with a work colleague and a meeting agenda written on a tiny post-it note. She loved her training group and ran along with her daughter’s goal to run monthly half marathons from 2015 to 2017. “I’ve done a lot of pounding on my body over the years,” she says, “I’m in search of a gentler way to find that post-workout calm, relaxed state.”

RELATED: The True Finish Line: How One Runner Finally Accepted The End of Her Running Career

Wherever you are on the continuum from Gretchen (not yet ready to give up the dream of slow, easy miles) to Dana (signed up for two cycling events this summer), let me assure you: you are in good company here. I am the co-founder of a running-based company, Another Mother Runner, and have been surrounded by enthusiastic runners and endurance athletes for nearly 30 years. Yet, at least a couple times of week, I hear of runners (mostly 40+ women who picked up running as an adult) waffling: should they stay or should they go? The decision elicits tears on par with true heartbreak, and for good reason: the benefits of being a runner are so profound, they are willing to ignore—or at least minimize—chronic pain and its detrimental physical effects. “Running is how I process everything,” says Bruce, “I feel peace and rhythm it provides in every bone in my body.”

My last run was in January of 2020 and I promise you this: not running gets easier with time. But I’d be lying if I told you one day, you’ll fully come to peace with it. I think of it as the death of a friend I deeply loved. Always ready to go, she was reliable, insightful, and uplifting. She could soothe and challenge me, often at the same time. When we were hanging out, she could randomly summon decade-old memories, help me sort out jagged conversations, and remind me that all is fundamentally good; and she introduced me to both lifelong friends and my inner self. Who wouldn’t mourn that friendship forever?

I also need to come clean on something else. Nothing else gives you the feeling running does. Hiking has fresh air in spades but doesn’t get your heart pounding unless you’re climbing straight up. Riding a Peloton gets your endorphins flowing, but you’re likely surrounded pedaling solo in your dark basement. Cycling outside checks both boxes, but also requires serious equipment expense and carries the fear of traffic and potential flat tires. Swimming, especially outside, is lovely, but is high maintenance with lane sharing, erratic pool schedules, and multiple clothes changes. Plus, chlorine. I’m not saying they’re not very acceptable substitutes for running, but if running clocks in for you at 100 percent, they’re likely going to feel around 85 percent on your best days. (Better to be aware, right?)

But there’s one more thing you should know. Once you have decided to close the door gently but firmly on your running career, you will feel lighter. Your tears will flow less often. Your body will feel more whole and capable, because you won’t be fixated on the pain in your knee/hip/back/____. Your perspective will shift (most of the time, anyway) from craving a refreshing 4-miler to gratitude for all the miles you’ve run.

Over the course of the next five columns, I, along with the insight of runners in similar situations and appropriate experts, want to ease the burden of the shift from regular running to not running anymore. We’ll talk about everything from the initial sting of a not-running diagnosis to the loss of community—and help you thrive as you look to your next chapter of sports and fitness.

So again, welcome to the group. If you’re struggling right now, you’re in the right place. My advice is to approach the transition the same way you’d approach a tough tempo run: tap into your grit, tune into your inner voice, give yourself some grace, and take it step by step.

RELATED: How To Know When It’s Time to Quit Running

Dimity is currently working on her next book, Running to Stand Still. Follow her at DimityOnTheRun

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