During the second day of the gruelling Action Asia Mongolia 100k last year, on the edge of Siberia where competitors traverse vast green fields, Hong Kong trail runner Leslie Van fell hard.
Pumped full of adrenaline and the desire to win, she picked herself up and carried on like a warrior.
Van ran all the way to the podium, claiming first, but when she got home something felt off in her right foot. The price of grit and determination, of pushing through pain to victory, cost her dearly this time.
"The fall and the following kilometres I ran in Mongolia are believed to have caused one or several muscles tears in the arch of my right foot," said the 34-year-old expat, born to a French mother and a Cambodian-Chinese refugee. "I stopped running for a month, came back progressively with rehabilitation and strength training, but the pain was still there."
By August the injury had moved to her heels and she was diagnosed with one of the most dreaded injuries - plantar fasciitis. The Mayo Clinic describes it somewhat innocuously as "inflammation of a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects your heel bone to your toes".
But ask any runner who has dealt with it and they will regale you with horror stories, an inability to run, pain at the points in the body the most crucial for success. For Van, it tested her mental resolve like no other injury she'd had before.
"I remember going for a sightseeing jog while on a weekend escape in Kyoto in mid-August and my heels were on fire. It burned. This is how it felt. It lasted until October. I was unable to run consistently because I would never know if my feet would hurt."
One of the most frustrating things about plantar fasciitis is there appears to be no consensus for treatment. Some studies recommend surgery in severe cases, but others adamantly oppose going under the knife. Sadly, for hard core athletes, the best option for recovery and rehabilitation is the one that drives them mad - rest.
Van said her physical fall from grace was followed by a mental one, where the ecstatic feeling of gold around her neck was followed by the chilling thought of not racing for the foreseeable future.
"What happened last year was extreme and brought me down from the highs of running to the lows, in a very short time."
Van did what any good athlete would do, soldiering on, and worked her way back. But then she found herself dealing with a new enemy, one squarely between the ears.
"What hit me the hardest was once I started properly running again, I realised my fitness was no longer the same. Experiencing exhaustion on a short hill when you know you can do better, made me feel like I was back at the beginning. It made me doubt myself, it made me think my fitness would never come back, it made me feel like a fraud and suddenly all that self-confidence was gone. That hurt me more than the physical pain."
A US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health study found that college-level athletes sustained, on average, two injuries a year while competing, a number found to be a common across multiple demographics, from professional athletes right down to amateurs, hobbyists and weekend warriors.
To put it bluntly, anyone who partakes in a strenuous physical activity or competes in a sport is either coming off an injury, or on the road to a new one. In Hong Kong, running remains the most common pastime. As the world embraces more active lifestyles and healthy living, injuries tag along for the ride.
While physical ailments are generally straightforward, mental recovery can at times be complicated and complex. The NCAA Sport Science Institute lists a barrage of negative emotions athletes usually encounter after a serious injury. This includes sadness, isolation, irritation, lack of motivation, anger, frustration, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances and disengagement from family, friends and teammates.
Hong Kong badminton player and Tokyo 2020 Paralympic hopeful Tim Wong Chun-yim, who was born with dwarfism, knows all about overcoming physical boundaries and limitations. When he first started competing in 2013 after being discovered by a coach playing with friends, he felt deeply uncomfortable competing in front of an audience.
Wong, who trains under the Hong Kong Paralympic Committee and the Sports Association for the Physically Disabled, saw a psychologist to try to help with his fears and nervousness, and said it helped him overcome his biggest injury to date.
At the tail end of 2015, Wong tore a muscle in his right knee. He required three hours of surgery and set his sights specifically on returning to action - for Wong it was a tournament six months down the road. Confined to crutches at the start, Wong said it was his mind that became the biggest hurdle as he chased an imaginary, arbitrary date he had set for himself.
"I was worried about my recovery process," said the 31-year-old. "But I realised worry can't help me improve the recovery process. Although I can't train on the court, I can still watch the videos of myself playing to find out what I can improve on."
Wong said he developed a mantra that helped get him through his injury: "Never afraid of losing".
"In high level sports," he said, "no one can win all the time, losing is the beginning of the next win."
The NCAA Sport Science Institute recommends coaches, trainers, friends and family pay close attention to an athlete's emotional reaction to an injury, as depression can be a serious threat to someone who is used to being constantly active and doggedly goal-oriented.
One of Hong Kong's most recognisable faces in trail running is Denise Le. Having competed in dozens of premier races, from the Oxfam Trailwalker and TransLantau to Moontrekker and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the 41-year-old's Facebook page is full of race photos with friends and shots of her smiling as she treks along various courses.
Le is no stranger to injuries and her last one left a lasting impression. Racing on her birthday in November, she slipped off a trail with only five kilometres left. Le was rushed to the hospital where the bad news was delivered as friends made their way to help her celebrate her birthday.
She had shattered her ankle and would need metal plates and screws inserted to rebuild the bones. Le was confined to a cast for the first month and quickly set about a plan to make sure her mind stayed healthy as her body recovered.
"I shut down all of my social media sites, and just focused on eating and sleeping. That one month was the most difficult period for me."
She knew going on sites like Facebook, where runners are constantly posting pictures of races and hikes, would drive her mad, so she had to detox from it as well to ensure her own mental well-being.
"It was so hard to see all of my friends out, and the weather was so attractive and nice out, but I can't do anything but rest. It was very depressing to be honest."
Once the cast was off Le credits friends for helping her rebuild her mental fortitude as they would come and take her to the movies and do regular activities to help cheer her up. She then graduated to yoga and cycling, and now finds herself slowly building towards the next step.
Le said she has learned some valuable lessons from the whole experience, the most notable being that she needs to listen attentively to her physical side, and not simply try to push through mentally without gauging the potential ramifications.
"No one can give you advice on your own body, you just have to listen to it."
One of Hong Kong's toughest athletes is undoubtedly rugby player Jack Neville. The 27-year-old, who got his first cap for Hong Kong at the Asian Sevens Series in 2017, is known for his hard-nosed defensive acumen, making tough tackles where failure often means the other team will score.
But Neville has paid a price for this warrior reputation. Currently rehabilitating back-to-back fifth metatarsal fractures in his feet, he's also had a concussion, torn his hamstring, ruptured his bicep, sprained the acromioclavicular joint in his shoulder, had shoulder reconstructive surgery, and fractured his sternum and a rib.
Neville said he's lucky to have trained physiotherapists at his side via the Hong Kong Rugby Union, but he still encounters a common question every time he goes down with an injury.
"I often get asked, 'When will you be back fit?' But thinking like that creates issues as it's too long term. The physios with the union are great at giving short-term progression to focus on which you can approach as wins that are little and often."
Neville said these small victories keep the larger goal in mind, but shoo away the daunting thought of months of gruelling recovery ahead.
"It could be something like progressing from two crutches to one, or from coming out of the boot, or being able to do a new exercise in the gym. It maybe sounds like tedious things to people on the outside, but it keeps you focused on the fact that you are making progress."
Van, who returned to her first race after 10 months off, completing the Sai Kung King of the Hills in March, said talking about the mental anguish that goes along with a physical ailment is tough, but a necessary evil on the eventual road to recovery.
"It's not sexy, it's not victory, it's dark and leads injured athletes to doubt - but it's the reality."
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.Artikel Asli