A gust of wind blew damp autumn leaves across Forest Mackenzie’s feet as he began his stretching. Mackenzie planted his right foot firmly on the ground and gingerly stretched the ankle of his left. His left calf muscle was noticeably smaller than the right. It will take some time for them to be the same size again.
It was mid-July when Mackenzie got injured. He was playing a pickup game of basketball and caught his foot in a crack on the concrete. Mackenzie managed to finish the game and assumed it was a minor tweak.
“It was killing me. But I’m like, it’ll loosen up because, in the past every other time it loosened up. And then I remember a couple moments later, I sat down again, took my shoe off, I’m like, this is not [good], something’s wrong here.”
Something was very wrong. Mackenzie is a member of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) cross-country team, and he had just broken his left foot. The doctors told him it was a spiral fracture of his fifth metatarsal. He would be spending the next six weeks in a cast.
At the time of Mackenzie’s injury, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was raging. Mackenzie said even before his injury, the days were all blending together and it was a struggle to pass the time. Then he got hurt and it became much worse.
“Well, the only way out for most people was to go ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk, let’s run, or let’s do some form of exercise.’ Being on my bed with a hard cast that was up to my knee and pain in my foot, I kind of just laid in my bed and really did nothing… and I would just sleep all the time,” he said.
Mackenzie said he became depressed. He felt that sleeping was the fastest way the time was passed. The usually hyperactive athlete was now sleeping upward of 12 hours a day. Most of his attempts to get some workouts in failed. Mackenzie tried riding a bike, but his cast was too big and bulky to use the peddles.
“I was just going crazy. I’d rather just sleep until it’s over. Maybe I’ll wake up from the nightmare. And so, I really didn’t do much at all… So, I just kind of sat down and told myself “Alright, it’ll eventually be over. These months have been going so fast anyways that eventually, we’ll be back,” he said.
Mackenzie was looking forward to the start of the year at UNH. He wanted to be back around his teammates even if he couldn’t train with them. The pandemic made it a harder task than he expected. The team’s camp that usually takes place a week before classes start was canceled. The chance to share meals with his teammates was lost as well with the closure of UNH’s dining halls. Even team meetings were now over Zoom.
Jamie Wilkes, Mackenzie’s captain on the Cross-Country team, said Forest’s experience would have been different and probably better had it not been for COVID-19.
“The training room isn’t operating as it usually is for treatment. If all the trainers are booked, we can’t just wait [in line] so it would require much more planning to get treatment from the trainers. A lot of the comeback process is then more alone which can definitely be challenging,” he said.
Wilkes recognized the isolation athletes can feel when injured. He fractured both his tibias in high school and was sidelined for six months. Wilkes said Mackenzie has done well staying connected to his teammates.
“Forest in particular doesn’t have any problem staying connected with people. He has one of the most outgoing personalities on the team and even the campus,” he said.
When it comes to what Mackenzie can do to feel less isolated, Wilkes said it’s all about maintaining the feeling of being on the team.
“The most important thing is for him to keep showing up to official practices where he can interact with the team. Even though he isn’t able to do the workouts and runs that we are at the moment, him showing up and getting that social fix in is crucial during any injury healing process, but especially now during COVID,” he said.
Life at UNH remained a struggle for Mackenzie for the three weeks he was stuck in his cast. His normal concerns about how fast he could run a mile were replaced by an everyday struggle to just get around campus. Mackenzie blew out the heel of his cast within days of arriving on campus. The division one athlete even came close to falling down a flight of stairs.
Mackenzie finally had his cast removed in late September after nearly two months. He found that despite this renewed freedom, he was still confined by what his body could do.
“The first thing you want to do is like, I want to move it, I want to move it. And I found I couldn’t. I couldn’t if I wanted to move my foot forward because my leg was that weak. And my first steps, it felt like a little newborn baby. Like, there was no shot I would be able to walk normally. And my calf on my left side was atrophied like crazy. It was so much smaller than my right because it hadn’t been used in six weeks,” he said.
It took some time for Mackenzie to regain his footing. He is still not back to where he was, but he said the first few days were the hardest.
“I can remember walking to [Holloway Commons] from my dorm in Congreve. And it felt like I raced. That’s how tired my calf was from walking around. And I think anybody who’s had a leg injury can relate to that where It’s crazy how weak your muscles get from not using them,” he said.
As the days and weeks passed, Mackenzie was able to do more and more. His first run came in mid-October. Mackenzie said the experience was like nothing he’s ever felt.
“It’s euphoric, it’s so hard to explain like it’s crazy.”
Mackenzie said he was at a loss for words when describing it. Those that know him best know that doesn’t happen often. On a rainy day, Mackenzie took to the practice field alone.
“You don’t realize how much you love a sport, and you need a sport until you don’t have it. Like I remember my first run back was on Tucker field. It was like a walk-run mile at about a nine-minute pace, 9:30 pace. And it was pouring rain… I was the only person out. And I don’t know if it was rain running down my face or tears. Probably a mix. But it to come back, it’s a beautiful moment,” he said.
As he continued to ramp up his training, Mackenzie said he found a new determination.
“It’s that live like you’ve lost something mentality. And that’s how I was running. I was running like I lost something. And man, that gave me fire,” he said.
Now, Mackenzie is targeting the America East Championship taking place March 5. The competition was delayed due to COVID-19 but Mackenzie has taken that as a blessing in disguise. He now has enough time to get fully healthy.
“I have more fire now than I’ve maybe ever had. And it’s just because I’ve experienced life without training. And I’ll take life with training 100 times out of 100,” he said.
Today Mackenzie is running alone in the wooded trails behind UNH. He’s not fully healthy. That will take more time and work. Today is just one more step in the long road back. Mackenzie begins to jog. He picks up speed. This run today won’t be long, just two or 3 miles. But two or 3 miles is enough for Mackenzie to feel just a little bit more normal. As the wind blows against Mackenzie’s smiling face, he puts his head down and disappears around a bend in the trail.
Photo Courtesy of Brackett Lyons