It’s New Year’s Eve at Across The Years, and Jess Mullen hasn’t slept. She ran 110 miles the day before, plans to run another 100 tomorrow, and needs only 27 more to join the 100-hundreds club. She’s run six since August.
At 47, she’s back to setting big goals and feels good, she says. In October, she ran the fastest 100 in a career of more than 160 ultra finishes. This time last year, however, Mullen was at a standstill, smacked by a 2×4 from the universe, telling her to listen up, to make a change.
She was transitioning into multi-day events in 2021 at Three Days at the Fair, when everything fell apart. In the past, Mullen never cared what happened to her body. It was always second fiddle, subjugated to her mind. “There’s always stuff that is pissed off and tight,” she said.
But this was different.
It was around mile 35 when other runners began to notice Mullen was talking to herself. Hopeful at the start for 200 miles in 48 hours, the limping runner was now more concerned with just staying upright. Emotions welled up, but she tried to tamp them down.
She’d started the race with nerve damage in her feet, a bit of plantar fasciitis, posterior tib tendonitis in her left leg, and scars on both knees—dark, dime-sized spots from healed scabs. Her shins were just as marked up—line-like indentations from over enthusiastic box jumps. Both hip flexors were still tight, too. This was all to be expected since she was only a week out from her last race, a 24 hour.
A bandage on her right thigh hid a gnarly patch of shingles. As the clock ticked down, she took it off. She was there, like the old movie says, “to chew bubble gum and kick ass.”
The sharp pain in her left thigh was quickly making the shingles on the other leg feel like a massage. “I used to put pain in the ‘discomfort box,’” she says, “but this was pain.” She began her mantras. “I love you no matter what,” she was overheard saying to her legs.
She pushed through the first day with 103 miles, but after a nap, she was limping badly, her leg suddenly buckling. She would have to sit. “I don’t quit,” she reminded herself. “I thrive on discipline. The challenge. I like hard things. It’s what drives me.” When day two came to a close, she was still on the course, having covered a meager 35 miles in the last 24 hours.
After the race, downtime—something she loathed—looked less like a temporary respite and more like a new existential reality. Leaning on a pair of crutches with a stress fracture in her femur, she received more bad news. She had osteoporosis.
She was finally faced with the repercussions of not getting her period for 16 years, a result of pushing her body fat too low. To the doctors, the solution was clear. She needed to gain weight. To Mullen, it was like being told to drink poison. “I’ve created this painting, this athletic body that I’m proud of,” she said with contempt in her throat. “Now, I feel like I have to set it on fire.”
She had time on her hands to think things over, a lot of it, but self-talk had always been a one-way conversation, her mind telling her body what to do. She stared at the horizon from a beach condo and listened to the metronomic wisdom of waves crashing. Their ephemeral coming and going reminded her of the puzzle of a mandala, specifically the Native American sand paintings—intricate works of art created with enormous care, then wiped away like a metaphysical Etch A Sketch.
Meant to work like software, each piece has meaning, but it’s in the totality of the completed art that it’s power can be activated. That was why, even to respected and trusted anthropologists, the Native Americans never showed the completed work. They’d always leave a key piece out. Only with that final piece would the power come alive and heal and transform.
Mullen needed her missing piece.
She wrote her thoughts down and some relief would come. Each time got a little easier, and each day her leg got stronger. Journaling in the morning grounded her, got the crap out of her head.
“I’ve never liked to feel emotions,” she admitted. “I just wanted to feel numb. When I felt emotions, it was usually too much.”
“As long as I’m not dead, I’m okay,” she told herself. “All I need to do today is act in ways that will be good to me tomorrow.”
She was surprised at how much fear she had traveling through her—afraid of all the possible negative things that could happen in the future. She was holding on too tight, needed to allow things to happen.
Then one day during her recovery, she was in her car doing errands. Music was playing older stuff from the ‘70s and suddenly feelings came hard, spilling over and down her cheeks. Like waves, they went in and out, crashed and receded. She breathed. In her mind was a singular vision of her father. Not the dad that lay dying in 2003 from alcoholism, but the healthy one that played basketball with her in the backyard. He was silly and fun, always making sure to encourage her. Her parents divorced early, and she’d see him on Wednesdays. One morning, he’d found that she had wet the bed. Scared to feel the scorn of the one person who was in her court, she cried. He hugged her and told her it wasn’t her fault.
The realization fell over her: like her father, she too had fought addiction, nearly succumbing to it. To get sober, she had hardened herself. In the 22 years of sobriety she’d earned, she’d never given herself permission to grieve him. By avoiding her inner life and repressing her feelings, she’d created a cyclic wave of healing and hurt.
This year, she still pushes but listens to her body. She’s changed how she trains and takes better care of herself: less weekly training miles, lots more daily food and has added supplemental estrogen. “I recover so much better and faster,” she says. “I didn’t even know you could recover that well because I never knew anything other than how I felt before.”
If she’s learned anything on her journey, it’s that an injury isn’t the book but merely a chapter. And what may seem like a setback may in fact be the key you need to get where you want to go.