Six Things I Learned From Falling off a Treadmill

Oh, how I wish this wasn’t a true story. But, here goes.

A few years ago, I was home in North Carolina from Washington, DC for a few days. I went to the gym with my mom. She was going to swim and I was going to run on the treadmill, then we would lift weights and stretch. Good plan.

We wished the other a good workout and went our separate ways. Those days, I was really into running fast on the treadmill. I liked adjusting the speed and elevation. I felt cool and fast. I put my headphones in, cranked the music and took off. Towards the end of my run, I took a misstep, wobbled a little but recovered… then I dropped my iPod. I looked down to see it fly off the back of the ‘mill and as if time were accelerating, saw my legs quickly fly out from under me.


I shot off the back of the treadmill. I landed on the ground, face up. I patted myself to see where I was hurt. I had only two skinned, bloody knees and the confidence of a kid picked last for the kickball team. I felt like I scurried away from the scene quickly but as time slowed down, I realized that I laid behind my still-speeding treadmill for a while.

The worst part though was nobody said anything to me. Not a single person… until I saw my mom. And here’s what she  — directly and indirectly — helped me learn:

It’s totally fine to laugh at yourself. As I walked over to my mom, I started to crack up. “Mom, look at my knees! Look what I did!” I shouted (as if my bloody knees needed more attention). As I laughed and said that I was thrown off the treadmill, she asked if I was alright. Before I even answered she just started to bellow with laughter. I twirled and tumbled in space, and made loud (not-so-lady-like) noises as I reenacted the experience. We both laughed and joked. I was thrown from a treadmill and it was alright to admit that it was hilarious.

It’s okay to fall. First, because she’s a mom, my mom reminded me that maybe running fast, playing with the elevation and adjusting my music was a little much for one treadmill. Ha, agreed. On the other hand, she reminded me that the harder we push ourselves, the more likely we are to crash and burn but also, the more likely we are to learn something we wouldn’t have had we played it safe. Maybe a few tumbles just mean we are brave enough to try.

You can take your time getting up. (But you gotta get up!) As I laid on the ground after the fall, listening to the buzz of the treadmill still operating at full-speed, I think I thought “Maybe that was just a little too fast.” I took a few breaths and collected myself. I caught my breath. I started to laugh. I made sure I wasn’t seriously injured. But then I slowly lifted myself up and started to stand. I think this is symbolic. If life beats you down, please, give yourself the time to breathe and brush yourself off. But we can’t lay behind the daggum treadmill forever. We have to get up. It’s okay to take our time but goshdarnit, we have to get up.

We’re allowed to acknowledge someone else is hurt. One of the most bizarre parts of this experience was that nobody on the treadmills around to me said anything. Nothing! Maybe I’m being too presumptuous, thinking everyone was watching me but between the obnoxious speed I was going and the thunderous “OOOMPPHHH” sound I made on my way down, I don’t know how they could have missed the spectacle. Nevertheless, either everyone missed it, they didn’t want to embarrass me by asking or they just didn’t know what to do with me.

I think it’s clear that falling off the treadmill was not the ultimate goal of the workout. If someone would have asked if I was alright, maybe I would have brushed it off with something like “Oh, yeah! Meant to do that! Just trying this new time-saving way to get off the treadmill. Trying to keep the workout efficient, ya know? BYE.” In all honesty, maybe it would have embarrassed me but also given me the freedom to say “Actually, my knees are a little achy and that hurt a bit. But I’m alright. Thanks for your concern.” Showing little care and concern for others is freeing and disarming.

It’s alright (and brave) to admit that you fell. That year I was working at a school in DC in a role similar to that of a PE teacher. Bright colored gym shorts and t-shirts were my life. So when I returned to work with bright purple shorts and two very large scraps on my knees, it didn’t take more than a 2.3 seconds for the first student to shout, “Coach Emily! What’s wrong with your knees?” Yay.

I’ll admit: I tried to lie. I wondered what story I could tell that would make me cool with skinned knees. (I’m hardly cool without skinned knees.) But as is the way it usually goes for me, I couldn’t think fast enough so I told the truth. I told them I was trying to work hard by running fast and fell. And they laughed. And so did I. It was a bigger and scarier story for me than anyone else. Once I shared, they accepted and we all moved on.

Later that day at recess, one of the second graders fell playing tag. He came to me with a little tear in his eye and a skinned knee. I asked him what happened. “I was trying really hard to catch Victor.” I showed him my knees and gave him a high-five.

Scars may take a while to heal. I can still see the darkened spots on my knees from my fall nearly three years ago. The summer after I fell, I went to weddings with pretty dresses and skinned up knees and — as silly as it might sound — heightened self-awareness. I was so self-conscious of my knees. But as time went on, I learned that my skinned knees remind me of humility, humor and working hard. My scars reminded me that I have fallen. They remind me that I can get hurt. But my scrapes remind me that even with bruises and cuts, I’ve been able to get on with my life. (I know we’re talking about mere scrapes on knees.)

I’ve even gotten back on a treadmill.

But you know what? I’ve learned that maybe I don’t change the elevation, adjust the speed, turn up the music and try to turn the fan on all at the same time. This is important.

The scars I have today are still pretty raw. Loosing my mom felt like a sharp, immediate blow to the heart and it took a little while to stop bleeding. But as my wound begins to heal, even in pain I see that nothing we go through is wasted. My scars remind me that learning through experience can be demanding and leave you beaten down. But scars remind us that we have made it through once, and surely will make it again. And for that I don’t mind my scars as much. They remind me that I have stories to tell, and lessons to learn.

Whistling: Three summers with my favorite accessory: Scared knees. Bring on wedding season!



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