Justine Fédronic is professional athlete with a 2:00.41 PR in the 800m, representing Nike, The Beasts Track Club, EFCVO and the French National Team. Up on the blog she shares a very personal insight into the highs and lows of her career. The Stanford Graduate writes about coping mechanisms through the hard times and the methods she has learned that allow for adaption, growth, and overcoming the frustration of injury. Justine has evolved from the process a happier and healthier person. Gaining a positive perspective and a grateful heart
– An amazing read showing how strong the mind and body can really be.
The Warrior Princess Chronicles – Or, My Path to Becoming One
By Justine Fédronic
“My journey has been bumpy.” I’m not in love with that phrasing – is it really considered a journey if only nice, easy things happen?
While we may not appreciate the lows, they give us the perspective that makes the beautiful moments radiate. People are infinitely adaptable, people are survivors, and overcoming obstacles is what allows us to swell with pride and beam honest smiles.
I love running and I love track and field, but that does not mean I have always loved it. There were moments, sometimes for months on end, when track was anguish and torture. But the beautiful moments that track have given me are so addicting that my body has held on to the memories of itself flying and refused to let go.
Prior to my senior year of college, I had only managed to stay healthy for more than four consecutive months once in my entire career. I’ll spare you all the medical report, but I will tell you that it was more than 400 pages by the time I graduated college (I know this because I tried to print it once). I never had an eating disorder, my bone density was healthy, yet I specialized in presenting my doctors with new unique problems with alarming frequency. I was no stranger to pain and days off, nor to coping, nor to ambiguity. I thought I was an expert in managing injury. I prided myself on the grace and ferocity of my comeback. I had a different coach almost every year of college and consistency was an elusive dream.
As college drew to a close I thought that I had found my rhythm. We were conservative and careful and racing was fun and fast. Most importantly, I was loving the process. My training group was magical: we were a fully functioning, optimal tribe, each with our own roles, and all having so much fun at practice it seemed like we were getting away with something sneaky.
Unfortunately I got hyper-focused on crushing the clock. As competitors, we have to learn to control our inner greedy fighter, and in the summer of 2014, my greedy fighter dominated patience and reason. It was my first summer out of college and I started it by racing reasonably well, but of course, not well enough. I was out to prove my worth as a professional athlete, and running with the rage of a recently uncaged animal. And then my health started to crumble, and I galloped on blindly until I yanked it all into an avalanche.
In September 2014 I tore my adductor and my hamstring at multiple sites and have spent the time since patching myself together. While I was working on walking like a functional human and desperately searching for the help I needed to heal, my competitors were getting fitter, faster, stronger. I was angry, disappointed, frustrated, depressed, hopeless, and jealous of anybody at all who could move without pain. Many pathetic days I just hoped I could one day move and play like a normal human my age. It felt incredibly unfair. My hamstring wouldn’t heal and we kept discovering old, unresolved injuries contributing to the chaos. My left leg felt hollow, like a piece of it was missing, but its ghost still managed to emit pain. For many weeks walking took extreme focus: I pictured each strand contributing to a process I had thought of as so natural and intuitive for most of my life. I racked up the parking tickets as I desperately avoided walking any extra step. It was impossible to plan ahead: I did not know how mobile I would be a few days into my future, never mind a few weeks. I struggled to find activities I could commit to. I struggled to find activities I could do without pain. I struggled to find things I could do with my friends and family without inconveniencing them. The ambiguity was sometimes overwhelming, as was the guilt I felt knowing that there were many people in the world far worse off than I, yet I was full of self-pity. I though often of Pandora’s box, of the hope that refused to be extinguished. When was the right moment to give up and embrace a new dream?
I fought to smile and laugh and mask the turmoil of negativity. The weeks and months ticked by and I alternated between wallowing on my bed in front of a computer screen and burning with a determination to prove that it was not the end of my running career.
With time and the help of some very wise and angelic people, I made the very crucial decision to make it the beginning. And so, as a coping mechanism, we eventually developed the idea of the warrior princess, an idealized self that I strive to be every day whether the going is hard or easy, and who I hope to be especially when I am healthy and on the starting line.
The warrior princess: She never gives up, she is courageous, and she will fight ruthlessly for herself and for her tribe. She is not afraid of the pain, but embraces it and has the courage to work with it and through it. She is a princess because she comports herself with grace, self-respect, and respect for her tribe and competitors, no matter what the context. She is intelligent, glamorous in her intensity, and driven. She believes in herself and her process, she is patient, and she is simultaneously a predator and a nurturer but she is never ever the prey.
My warrior princess is named Kacela, or great huntress. She runs free and wild and fierce. She loves her people and makes them feel appreciated. She is the queen of her kingdom and she believes in the positivity of her process. She has excellent biomechanics and she is both hyper focused and full of love for life.
At first, when I was still relearning simple movements, she only came to the track with me. She was a separate mind and she helped me to focus on the tasks of the moment without vexing Justine the person with the frustrations of learning how to walk consecutive steps while other people were crushing 200s. She was new and didn’t have any of my track background, and she was full of gratitude with each new accomplishment. At least that was the idea, and it did help tremendously when I was able to successfully take on her character.
As my health has progressed, I have worked to assimilate her traits into my daily being. I’ve realized that Kacela’s knowledge and attitude lend themselves to most relationships, interactions, and efforts. I would love to be an empowered warrior princess 100% of the time. I would love to truly internalize all the wisdom that Kacela has. She is within me, but I require reminders. Kacela, the complete alter ego, the warrior princess ruler of the track and of her world, is summoned during moments when I need her strength and wisdom most – tough workouts, personal issues, hamstring flare ups, and eventually, racing. Maybe it’s the fact that playing pretend was a favorite past time when I was younger, but it has made running, and life outside of running, more fulfilling and fun, and has (hopefully) eased the burden on my friends and family.
Kacela is adaptable and happy because she believes in a few key tenets of warrior princess life. My rational brain, the one that has learned from experience and listened to advice, knows these tenets to hold true. I am still working on acting on them and accepting them fully in my heart. I tell myself these things often and hope that they imprint.
Believe in yourselves, your preparation, your process, your hope, and your tribe-
You have to believe in the long-term: this is a fickle sport and really all we have is our hope, our belief, and our hard work. Injuries test our commitment and reveal our true heart’s desire. There is no shame in walking away from the sport if you are more passionate about something else. Track is an all-consuming lifestyle and there are many other worthwhile pursuits. I think sometimes we are indoctrinated not to believe that.
If you find that your heart truly wants to continue exploring how far and fast you can possibly make your body go – believe you can do it. Believe in the steps you are taking to get there. It’s hard to really know if something is or isn’t working unless you are committed to it through time.
As people we like certainty – we like knowing that the thing we are doing will definitely for sure get us to where we want to be. Reality is not like that. I struggled to fully believe in my treatment plans, and to know when to give up on them. When is giving up on a plan the same as not committing? When is committing when it doesn’t feel completely right just wasting your time?
Neither Kacela nor I know the answers. I tackle things as they come. I do know that healing and running fast are both so thoroughly tied to our state of mind that neither will happen unless you are at peace with your decisions. Sometimes that means letting go of the harness, or just having the right conversations. I had to learn to allow myself to be convinced. That, I learned via four coaches in five years. It was still very difficult to apply to my recovery, especially as the process stretched on. We can only control so much, and our bodies will ultimately heal at their own rate. Some things just take time.
In my heart of hearts I know that I can be healthy and run fast and competitive. And that’s what keeps the ambiguity at bay.
Warrior princesses bop to their own harmonious beat and progress at their own pace. They accept their current context and then ameliorate it to suit them. They absolutely do not back down in the face of fear or obstacles. If you dare yourself to persevere and endure, you will usually surprise yourself. Remember perspective – in the grand scheme of the world, not being able to run one day is a miniscule blip of hardship. Create your own soundtrack to your journey – your progress is your own special rhythm and the notes that follow are dependent on your outlook. Most importantly, warrior princesses endure with grace and a smile. They are grateful for what they do have and what they can do to work towards their goals. And they are especially grateful for their people.
Lean on your tribe, appreciate your tribe-
A warrior princess is a crucial element of her tribe: identify the people you love, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Express your gratitude, appreciate them, and allow yourself to be inspired by them. There are many incredible stories in any tribe, listen to them. Allow yourself to laugh with your tribe and celebrate their accomplishments.
I was extremely lucky to have a network of people who had unconditional belief in me, appreciated me outside of track, and accepted me whether I spontaneously burst into tears or cackled like a madwoman. Thank you for listening to me blubber, for watching me try to walk up and down a hallway countless times, for pushing me around the hilly San Diego Zoo in a wheelchair, and for being my sunshine when I could not be that for myself.
I have been blessed to be a part of multiple tribes of inspirational warrior princes and princesses with whom I floated around ovals and trampled trails. I love them all, and they continue to inspire me with their resilience, will power, and drive. My soul remembers breathing with theirs and that is not a memory easily forgotten.
I have been a part of many tribes, and played many different roles within my tribes. My core tribe is fluid, expanding and changing depending on people’s contexts and geographical locations. Asking for help is a hard thing. People prove to be surprisingly kind and supportive when you appreciate it most and that is a beautiful thing in itself. They know when you ask for help without asking, but it is okay to ask. A warrior princess asks for help when she needs it, but she also gives: although you may not be able to join your teammates for their workout, there is so much more that goes into being a happy, successful person-athlete. Tribal roles are fluid, but everyone’s base role is to be supportive and positive for others.
Coming back from an injury, my coaches and physios were crucial members of my tribe. The past many months have been frustrating, and they have helped me relentlessly pursue solutions and make connections with the people who could help me. I don’t know how to express the gratitude I feel for them. They said the right sarcastic things when I was being truly pathetic, and the right kind things when I legitimately needed it. Kacela tells me to be authentic, to strive, to smile. I hope they can feel what it has meant to me.
This is maybe the most important one. We can be infinitely adaptable if we choose to be. A warrior princess’ life is an adventure, and all thrilling adventures involve obstacles. Love your story, love your obstacles, and learn to work with them. Be the author of your adventure. Be assertive and purposeful, and seek out the help and information you need. Being adaptable does not mean aimlessly meandering with the flow. It means understanding the situation, being open to a solution other than what you had previously envisioned, and making an informed decision.
Love your decisions –
Accept the contexts you cannot control, and be creative in your solution-finding. The perspective you choose enables your attitude and guides your actions. Adaptability is an assertive process: accepting, seeking, and doing.
Be assertive and diligent-
Kacela helps me maintain a balance between controlling my process and allowing my process to happen. While a huge part of healing and recovery is rest, there are ways to guide things along more productively. That means finding the right advice and the right people, being diligent about your rehab, and asking the right questions. You can be assertive about your recovery by creating situations in which you can rest, making time to roll, to get massages, to do your exercises, to laugh a little and a lot.
I have dedicated so many endless hours of the past year to rehab. It can feel incredibly mundane and useless. Kacela has helped me to see it as an art form: each little repetitive movement is a sculptor’s contribution to his masterpiece. In this case you are your own sculptor of your own masterpiece. Dare to picture how this masterpiece will move and appear and believe that each day of rehab (or each workout or run) will get you a little closer to its reality. Ultimately it is consistency that creates the incredible performance – every day of purposeful work brings you closer to it.
Be an apex predator, become an apex predator –
Warrior princesses, at their core, are the fiercest of competitors. We as people are products of evolution. So much of our daily lives stray from the lives of those of the past, but running connects us to the history of humans. Although we are advanced in many ways, we are still mammals. Allow your races to simplify you to pure mammals, ones with guided purpose but instinctive animals just the same. Allow yourselves to feel while you run. Feel your pack, your teammates, and run with them. You are freed to channel the instinct to compete into your racing. Be the apex predators. Run like past people ran to survive. Appreciate and rejoice that you run by choice. Appreciate that it puts you in touch with basic survival, feel your heart beat and appreciate your health and that you are alive. Be assertive, be tactical, be instinctive. Allow yourself to be chased just so you can escape. Allow yourselves to chase so that you can conquer.
Embrace your journey –
Kacela believes her adventure ends happily, and she will work hard to create that ending for herself, whatever that may end up meaning and however it will look like to get there. She accepts every moment of her journey as precious, and looks for the positive in each event.
Kacela has helped me tremendously in this regard – this series of injuries has been an opportunity for my long term development. This year I have worked to resolve old injuries, to ameliorate my biomechanics, to strengthen areas that desperately needed it, and refreshed my desire to be an elite track athlete. Thanks to this injury and the adventures it has led me on, I have met some incredible people whom I hope to continue being friends with for a long time, and lived in places I would not have thought to otherwise. My quest for health has taken me through France, Palo Alto, Eugene, San Diego, and Seattle. I tell myself every day to be adaptable and embrace the adventure, especially in the moments when things seem to go wrong, and it really seems to help. Every new twist is an opportunity if perceived in the right state of mind.
Being injured is a crucial part of almost all track athlete’s journeys: in many ways, it is inevitable. We will all experience it in some magnitude. We don’t get to choose the timing, or the event, but we do get to choose how we react, and how we prepare for it.
Explore who you are-
Take the opportunity to discover the little secrets behind yourself. What makes you special, what do you really love? What makes you ferocious and sassy when it matters? And what else are you, other than a runner? This part can be the most complicated, difficult piece of the journey.We are multi-faceted people: track does not define us completely. I really struggled to open up my mind to that possibility, but it has allowed me to enjoy my moments independent from my track life, which in turn has had positive effects on my physical health.
Allow yourselves to enjoy the process-
Allow yourselves to enjoy the hard work, knowing you are moving towards your goals each day. When it comes down to it, track is a game, allow yourselves to play it! Play it with intent and smile that you get to play. Challenge yourself to find something to love and laugh about in every situation. It might feel forced for a while but it is possible to smile yourself to happiness. When you are healthy, appreciate that you have been gifted with a life that allows you to prance around under the sky every day! If you are the ones out there having the most fun, and striving with intent, how can anyone say that you have failed?
At my worst in the past year, it was often very difficult to enjoy the process. On the surface, my process was not, per say “fun”. Being injured is not fun. You literally can’t jump for joy and you spend hours doing seemingly mundane rehab exercises. It affects the rest of your life, especially if your list of hobbies involves mostly active things. But – I did get to learn a lot about myself that I might not have otherwise. I got to catch up on reading and movies, and spend quality time with my people. I learned to spend time with myself.
Kacela reminded me often that just because I was hurt, did not mean I could not enjoy my life with its current context. It often didn’t feel real or authentic to smile and laugh, when I couldn’t actually participate in the thing I was most passionate about, but eventually that feeling wore away and those moments were much more enjoyable than they would have been otherwise. We are surrounded by beauty – in nature, in cities, in human life, and it is okay to focus on them even when there are reasons to be sad.
Healing and recovery are intertwined with happiness in mystical ways. Several months into my recovery, my healing process plateaued, and we were not sure why. I know that healing is not a linear progression, and some lulls and dips are to be expected, but in this case there didn’t seem to be a tangible physical reason. And it was at this point that we created the idea of Kacela. I was really struggling to manage my happiness. Every time I moved it was a reminder of my failure to stay healthy, of what could have been if I had not gotten hurt, of all the things I was missing out on. It was the summer, when all my friends were racing fast and World Championships were looming. It was sunny and beautiful and I wanted to go for hikes and play volleyball on the beach and make the world championship final. But I still couldn’t even walk to the bathroom without pain. This cloud of negativity followed me around everywhere and every event in my life was filtered through its lens. My physio Jon Pierce was the first one to suggest an alter ego, to compartmentalize the track competitor side of myself until I could re-unite it with my other self. Kacela did her rehab and drills. Justine cheered for her friends as she watched their races. And miraculously, it worked. Obviously they clashed once in a while, but Justine cried less and laughed a lot more, and Kacela progressed to running and running farther and faster each day.
Since then I have progressed to a full practice workload and my fitness has come along in stutters and massive bounds; a couple of times I have been reminded what it feels like to really fly. Kacela is crucial to my daily happiness and performance. I have many things and people to be thankful for, and I am inching towards race day with each additional sunrise. Although I haven’t raced in 17 months now, my brain still has big dreams. I don’t know how this year will go, none of us do. I do know that I will try my best to be a warrior princess in every mode of preparation. Turns out those tenets spell out BEAST – an easy way to remember how to be. It may seem silly but it’s simple and it sticks. Sometimes I even employ a little temporary visual reminder to be like Kacela the great huntress.
Justine raced for the first time in 18 months this weekend at the UW Husky Invite, it was amazing to watch her perseverance, hard work, positive attitude and fierce huntress come to life as she circled the Dempsey Stadium, putting herself in the mix amongst Olympians and other pro competitors.
Justine clocked a 2:05.18 debut in the 800m amongst a stellar field of professional women, it was a huge step forward for Justine to be healthy, toeing the line and racing well. Justine’s Olympic year is looking very bright and the ‘A’ standard is there for the taking. We wish her all the best in her pursuit to being one of the best 800m runners in the World and representing the French National Team at the Rio Olympics this summer.
A big thank you to Justine for writing this piece, especially prior to her debut race. The Belle Lap contributors are phenomenal women, and writing about the not so pretty parts of their career when many aspects of it are still uncertain can be a soul searching experience. These athletes contribute because they want to give hope, inspire and support others. This insight is so valuable and I know it can positively change the life of a reader who is struggling to process the reality of a chronic running injury.