It sounds like the set-up to a bad joke: What do you call a runner who can’t run?

But that’s a question I’ve been asking myself almost every day since this summer, after not one but two orthopaedic surgeons told me my right knee had a “defect” thanks to an unexpected cartilage injury.

Last fall, I started to have some knee pain that made even walking nearly impossible. I was diagnosed with a patella stress fracture and thinning cartilage. After some physical therapy, I found myself back on the run for only six months when the knee pain started again.

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Another MRI later, I learned that while I didn’t have a new stress fracture, I now had chipped off some of my patella’s cartilage, something known as an osteochondral lesion. The doctor explained what this meant, as I tried desperately not to cry: It’s like a pothole in your knee where cartilage used to be. The pain I’d been feeling was the bones rubbing over one another where cartilage had previously smoothed a path, aggravated by my runs.

Physical therapy can ease the pain, but due to the size of my knee’s damage, there’s no long-term solution or guaranteed fix—just the option of an intensive surgery that my doctor (who specializes in knees and works with professional athletes in Los Angeles, where I live) said wouldn’t necessarily get me back to running without pain nor would it keep the pain away forever. So I was left with the realization that I would probably never run again.

Fifteen-plus years as a runner and in an instant, it was all gone. The plans, the goals, my identity—pushed to the rear view before I barely had time to process what had happened.

The diagnosis meant my running days as I knew them were over—a permanent end to all long runs and racing due to the pain and possibility of worsening the damage. While my {very optimistic} physical therapist thinks I may eventually get back to running short distances on very flat surfaces, the reality is that even just one 10-minute treadmill walk/run at a slower pace than my usual now causes pain for days after.

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My Running Life

I started running when I was in college, just to see if I could do it. I was the kid who had to skip gym class more often than not because of a chronic illness, but grew up watching my dad run laps around the track across the street from our house.

As it turned out, I loved running immediately, and have been running ever since. A middle-of-the-pack runner, I’ve started most mornings with a run since college, usually chasing miles solo as an opportunity to clear my head and prep for the day. I ran to mark holidays and personal milestones, and to sweep away life’s stress and hurdles.

Running has wallpapered my life since that first time lacing up. It’s the subject of podcasts I listen to and the newsletters I read, the content I surround myself with on social media and the main thread in many of my friendships. So I don’t think it’s even possible to peel off that layer.

While racing was never central to my running experience, I usually did one or two a year, mainly because I loved the energy and working toward a goal. My next race was supposed to be the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in April 2022, which was postponed and rescheduled from 2020 due to the pandemic. But now I had to cancel.

Remembering the Last Run

what happens when you can no longer run
Joelle at her last (non-virtual) race, the 2019 Lululemon 10K in San Diego.
Joelle Zarcone

It’s now been months since my last real run—it was at the end of June, and it wasn’t anything particularly remarkable. In fact, I had to check Strava to recall how many miles I’d done (five, saved with the now semi-ironic title, “Beautiful morning to be a runner!”). My knee had hurt during, as it had for the past couple runs, but I’d pushed through. The pain and limping, though, had persisted for several days after, flaring up even on walks with my dog.

Had I known that would be my last run, maybe I would have done something different—run longer or spent it somewhere extra special. Talk about an unceremonious finale; there was no easing in, just a swift rip of the bandaid and suddenly I was standing on the other side of this community I’d been a part of for so long, peering in through a window.

I know that it’s an immeasurable privilege to be able to move my body at all, and I don’t take that for granted, but at the same time, losing running has felt like a deeper loss than giving up some disposable workout. It feels like a part of myself has passed.

What Running Means to Me

Maybe it seems dramatic, to feel so lost without it, but running was my compass. It’s been the thing I looked forward to; the thing that centered me when life felt overwhelming and a way I found purpose and strength. When I lost my mom to cancer last year, it was one of the only ways I found peace while I grieved.

I still remember the run I went on after learning she had unexpectedly taken for a turn for the worst and was likely not going to survive. I sobbed my way through my neighborhood, music blasting in my ears. Those five miles gave me the courage and calm to handle the turmoil I knew was waiting for me. She passed away two days later, and running was one of the only things that held me together.

For me, and so many others, running has been a lens through which to see the world, and the practice of it has taught me how to become a better, stronger, more resilient version of myself. Since my first run, even more than the endorphin rush, I’ve loved that sense that I’m part of something larger than myself—that feeling of connection and community, like I’m on a team, even when I’m running alone.

And now, while I miss the miles and the sweat and the routine, I’ve realized that what I miss most of all is not necessarily the motion of putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s the culture.

From the little waves when you pass someone on the road, to the grit and determination of interval runs and trying to hit new distance goals you once thought were unattainable, to the extraordinary camaraderie running offers both on regular runs out with friends and at the start line of a half marathon.

That’s what makes being on the outside looking in so difficult to come to terms with.

As I get the “why don’t you just pick a new hobby?” question, I emphatically shake my head because it’s not that simple. It can’t be, not to let go of that magic—that inimitable spirit that makes you so proud to call yourself a runner. It’s not easy to give that up, even when you don’t have a choice.

But if you’re no longer doing the thing that earns you that sense of belonging, what then? Where do you fit in?

Finding a New Connection to Running

what happens when you can no longer run
Joelle cheers on runners at the 2021 New York City Marathon.
Joelle Zarcone

This is something I’m still trying to figure out—the details of my new relationship to this community. I’ve struggled to find the best way to stay connected to this world without seeming like an interloper, the runner version of that weird adult who’s trying to prove to another generation that she’s still hip. How much can you continue to share or relate to other runners when your weekly mileage is consistently zero? Liking your friends’ running photos online only goes so far.

While I’m still not totally sure what this all looks like in the end, I do think there is a place for those of us non-runner runners (former runners, whatever you want to call us) in the running community. Maybe it’s simply as fierce advocates of the sport, gracefully accepting that while we can’t be on the run ourselves anymore, we can still support the runners who are out there, lifting them up and cheering them on.

I decided to give that a try earlier this month at the New York City Marathon. I traveled there with the sole intention of celebrating strangers on the run and to feel immersed in this community at least one more time.

I thought I might be sad being there, with FOMO from being unable to run the course myself. But during the race, all I felt was excited and proud of everyone out there. I let that familiar energy soak into my bones, and by the end of the day—my voice hoarse from cheering and my legs tired from hours standing and moving to different spectating points—I realized I was so damn glad to be there, to be a part of the runners’ journeys who were finishing the race, if in a small way.

So, what do you call a runner who doesn’t run? Well, me… and anyone else who’s had to hang up their running shoes for good.

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