Amy Yoder Begley is facing her worst nightmare: she cannot run without potentially disastrous long-term ramifications. In short, she is mired in an existential crisis that few people face. She is a professional runner who cannot run—an athlete unable to compete.
Begley, 34, lives in Portland, Oregon, the final stop in a career that has taken her across the United States and back in search of the best training base since her 2001 graduation from the University of Arkansas.
Her current injury is the culmination of two years of nagging achilles’ tendon problems that required multiple surgeries. The first operation, in October 2011, was performed with the expectation that she could return to full strength by the 2012 Olympic Trials. Unfortunately, after complications in January and again in March, Begley’s doctors told her that she needed to stop excercising altogether, the worst news a runner can hear. Not running is difficult, but the inability to cross-train is the death knell.
“The first three weeks were really hard,” Begley admits. After four weeks her foot still wasn’t responding the way her doctors wanted, so they prescribed another four weeks rest. “I decided to focus on being a normal person,” says Begley. Rather than worry about her diet, lack of training and the many things her injury prevented her from doing, she spent time with friends and family, trying to ignore running entirely.
“After three weeks of doing nothing, you start to understand how people can get so lazy,” she jokes. “The first few days are normal. You’re tired; you want to rest. Then after another couple of days, you start to feel sluggish. You have withdrawal from training. But after that, doing nothing gets easy.”
The 2012 Olympics would have cemented Begley’s spot in the top ranks of American female distance runners. A 2008 Olympian, Begley has had a long and unconventional career. She started to run as a young girl in Indiana, entering a Mother’s Day five-mile road race when she was 10. She completed the course in forty-five minutes and still has the red ribbon for finishing second in her age group.
In 1996, she represented the U.S. in the 5,000 meters at the Junior World Championships in Sydney, Australia. That marked her last international race for twelve years. Despite winning multiple NCAA titles at the University of Arkansas, Begley was considered a dark horse in 2008. “I was third at the Trials, making the team just by 1.6 seconds,” she remembers. “That’s probably the highlight of my career. Not everyone thought it was possible.”
The 2009 World Championships in Berlin followed Beijing. There her Olympic experience paid off and she placed sixth in the 10,000 meters. Having raced at such a high level, Begley is well versed in championship racing, which she says is entirely different than other meets.
“The Olympics are different just because there are so many steps, so many rules,” she says. Officials have to check uniforms to make sure they conform to regulations. Some competitors don’t even bother putting on their uniforms until after the second or third uniform checkpoint. “The process of getting to the track is so long that you have to warm up two hours prior,” Begley says. “Emotionally it’s weird because you spend an hour alone going through check-in and then you get to the track with 90,000 spectators.”
Once on the track, the Olympic race is a beast unto itself. In many track meets, competitors are concerned with achieving particular time goals, whether to better a personal best or to meet a qualifying standard. At the Olympics and World Championships, the chief concern is getting a medal.
“Beijing was the first time I’d raced internationally since the Junior Worlds. I was intimidated,” Begley notes, reflecting on her Olympic experience. Most championship races play out as “sit-and-kick” affairs, meaning that the top racers bide their time, running a sustainable pace until the final kilometers, where they “kick” to the finish. Beijing, Begley says, was actually a faster race than she and her coach had expected and she suffered because of it.
In Berlin the next year, she was prepared for a faster race, and what transpired suited her strengths. “I don’t really like a slow sit and kick race,” she says ardently. “I like to keep a good tempo and then go in the last 3k. But in Berlin the Africans ran the last 3k faster than my 3k PR.” After the dust settled Begley had finished a solid sixth and looked primed to contend at the 2012 Games had complications not arisen.
A silver lining to Begley’s current condition is that she has had time to explore Oregon without having to worry about training and recovery. When she spoke with 1859, Begley was on the coast with her parents. She says that she loves having the Oregon Coast or the mountains just ninety minutes from her home in Portland.
All the free time has also given Begley time to indulge at some of her favorite restaurants and cafes. A celiac, she has been gluten-free since 2006. Her favorite spots include the Corbett Fish House for the gluten-free fish and chips, Crave Bake Shop in Lake Oswego for its gluten-free pastries, and Tula, a gluten-free bakery on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Though she cannot run yet, Begley is down but not out. She is planning to begin running again in early July and hopes to race again in January 2013. “I’m going to take [my recovery] as slow as possible,” she says. “I only have a few years left in my career. I don’t want to waste them.”