I am not a Runner, and That's Okay
By Diego Zarate
My name is Diego Zarate, and I am a runner. At least I thought I was. Starting way back in high school, I joined the cross country and track and field teams. Being less than 100 pounds going into my freshman year, there were not many sports I could choose from. But running was my bread and butter. Quickly I rose in the ranks; becoming one of the team’s top long-distance runners. Along with a coach that kept me humble, I eventually became one of the best runners in the state of Maryland. I won many accolades and awards and eventually signed with one of the top schools in track and field at the time: Virginia Tech.
Life was great coming down to my last few races as a high schooler. Things had been going great for so long, it was only a matter of time before they weren’t. And so, tragedy hit. Four weeks out from that state meet, as I had just run record setting races in multiple events, I woke up to find a tick on my leg. I completely dismissed it. Two weeks later I found myself bedridden the day before states with hot flashes and a terrible fever. I raced once and almost passed out, and my coach refused to let me back for the second day. My team lost the meet, my Senior meet, by the points I would have scored.
A few hours later I found myself in the emergency room going into a coma with a fever of 107. After many tests, including a spinal tap, we eventually found I had been diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease. As if the disease wasn’t bad enough, a rare occurrence with the spinal tap had left me with a spinal leak. This meant anytime I stood up, the fluid around my brain was draining and would give me an incredibly intense headache in which I would immediately throw up everything in my stomach. I did not run for months, and lost over 20 pounds. I laid in a bed and did not leave it for about three weeks. Eventually the hole was patched, and I was back on my feet. I told my coaches what happened and they told me not to worry about what happened and to just take my time.
This obstacle was just one of many. Through my career at Virginia Tech, I continued to train and work hard every single day. A terrible tragedy within the community of Blacksburg involving a former teammate my freshmen year scarred me for a year after. I was kicked out of the dorms and homeless for a short period of time until I found refuge on a teammate's couch. Sophomore year heading into indoor track, I got in a terrible bike accident, breaking my arm and injuring many other parts on my body. I then developed a very bad case of Achilles tendinitis and ran the entire season with both, getting multiple cortisone injections between then and Junior year.
As I was wheelchaired out of the hospital, I dared not to think if I would ever run again.
I raced through indoor and outdoor track my junior year with immense pain in my lower abdomen; to later be told I had been racing for six months with a tear in my muscles that my intestines were poking through. I got surgery, and as I was wheelchaired out of the hospital, I dared not to think if I would ever run again.
As I recovered, the news was broken to me that our head coach is leaving for Oregon. Along with him, the seniors I had trained with and looked up to were all leaving to run professionally. I focused on my faith and hoped there was a plan to everything, and I slowly got back into running. It wasn’t long until the next obstacle reared its ugly head. I had been having the feeling of electrical shocks in the surgery area. It was because my nerves had become tangled in the mesh they had inserted in my abdomen. Nothing a quick hydrodissection couldn’t fix.
I continued into the Outdoor season, stronger than I had ever felt. The feeling was short lived as the Achilles injury came back. I redshirted that season and decided to do a small check up on my pelvis. One MRI later, it was revealed that I had two massive cracks in my pelvis: stress fractures. I was not allowed to run for five months. I stayed in Blacksburg in the summer and most probably went a bit insane. I was all by myself and would go days without leaving the house. To make it worse, I had to undergo one of the most painful experiences I believe I will ever have in my life; a pelvic PRP injection.
What was bad about the PRP was not the insane amount of blood they took out of me to centrifuge. It was not the needles of all shapes and sizes, curved, long, and twisted. Or the fact they would be going through many layers of my body, including my spermatic cord, to reach the bone. It was not even the fact that I had to get around 20 of them. It was the fact that I was wide awake through both sessions, and that I could see the needle piercing into my flesh on the ultrasound screen displayed in the room. An injection does not sound like a terrible procedure, but the fact that I once again had to wheelchair out of the building should give a clue to how painful it was.
I felt a fire in me that I had never before felt.
No injury would get in my way.
After all these obstacles, I was finally back on track. I went slowly into my fifth and final year. Having gotten almost every possible procedure and injury known to runners, I felt anxious, but there was nothing that I would let hold me back. My grandpa passed away and it hurt, but I used it as fuel to keep pursuing my dream. His last words about me after all were: “Tell him to keep running; to run fast.” I felt a fire in me that I had never before felt. No injury would get in my way. And ironically enough, no injury did. This time it was a worldwide epidemic that would get in my way.
My last indoor season, the day of my individual mile race, one of the most prestigious NCAA races, was cancelled due to COVID-19. Soon after, we found out our outdoor season would also be cancelled. I was finally able to race, only to be held back by the most random unpredictable event of my time in college. If I decided to take the offer of staying another year to race outdoor, it would be an entire year until I raced again.
My college experience is unlike anyone else’s. But that is how it's supposed to be. No two people are going to go through the same journey. And that is all it is. Just a journey. It's not a mistake, it's not bad luck. It is simply life. To simply pursue something great, not even earn it, you must sacrifice a lot for it. If you ask my team about me, it is not the story above that they will share with you, but a different one. When you ask about the time I got kicked out from the dorms, they will respond with the story of how I made my first National team in track and field as a Freshmen living on a couch. When you mention my bad bike accident and the season I had a broken arm and busted leg, they will tell you about the season I ran only two races. My first being close to the school record, and the next getting third at ACCs as a redshirt Freshmen. Ask about my surgery and when my coach left. They will tell you how a surgery that typically keeps someone from ever being a long-distance runner again simply kept me out for a few months. And the coach leaving? They will tell you how I met almost everyday in the summer with the new coach to build back the trust in the team and work to rebuild the program.
The only reason the second story I told is the one that is remembered is because of the first one.
Now that you see the pattern, let me finish up with the stress fractures. No one really remembers that. What they do remember is how a few months after not running for so long, I ended up 7th in the entire ACC in cross country; the best ever finish for a middle distance runner at Virginia Tech. That team would make it all the way to Nationals, having one of the greatest team finishes in Tech history, going all the way back to the 70s. Everything was going great, all the way to Indoor Nationals when I was planning to make a name for myself in pursuit of a professional running career.
All of that has been put on hold now because of COVID-19. But it's nothing new. We need those tough moments to make the great ones all that greater. You cannot have one without the other. The only reason the second story I told is the one that is remembered is because of the first one. No one would care if I simply did that without any conflict. A great quote I recently learned is “This too shall pass.” And I can truthfully say it did. The bad eventually passes and leads to good. But with that, it only makes sense that the good will one day pass too. But that’s okay. Let it all happen to you. The good, the bad. Just keep moving forward, no feeling is final.
I wish I knew that when I was going through those times. But life happens how it is supposed to. Instead, I had other ways of getting through the journey. With every physical break I had, I experienced twice as many mental breaks. Being vulnerable to my teammates and my coaches was so impossibly hard to do, but without it, I never would have made it through. Seeking help via the Sports Psychology department was also an incredible tool in my journey. Everyone I knew, from my family to my high school coach, was always there for me. Do not be afraid to let them help.
It’s funny because I came to college to run more, but through all the injuries and setbacks, I have almost certainly run less. And when I was not running, especially in those long blocks, I was alone with only myself and my thoughts. I had to confront the most awful thought in my mind multiple times; that I may not be a runner again. Once I came to terms with this thought, I realized I never was. And I never would be. I was not made to be a runner. I was made to be so much more. A runner was just a piece of who Diego Alejandro Zarate is. If I lived every day thinking that’s all I was, which I did do, I would just end up digging myself into a deeper hole. Ironically, once I realized this, I unlocked my true potential in running and became the best runner I could ever be. And that’s where I am now. I am typing this story as I sit waiting for the next opportunity to once more set fire to the track.
Only about five months left to go.
- Diego Zarate
Photos provided by Diego Zarate