How to Finish with a Broken Toe

Susan Donnelly uses mental toughness to run the Bigfoot 200-mile ultramarathon

The pain was so intense, I knew something was seriously wrong this time.

It must have sounded bad too, because my friend Doug and another kind woman I’d been running behind all of a few minutes stopped and turned around to check on me as other racers passed us by.

“Are you ok???”

I couldn’t answer. 

Heck, I almost couldn’t breathe. My toe hurt so badly, I couldn’t even tell by feel how bad the damage was. I looked down and everything seemed bizarrely normal. My stomach was about to lose it and the rest of my body tensed like a board against the pain. I could barely pull myself together to answer them.

“Fine! You go on,” I replied, waving them away with a half smile and praying they’d hurry.

Here I was, three whole miles into the Bigfoot 200-mile race, one of the biggest of my year and my life, and I couldn’t stand on my right foot.

Only 3 miles in.

I had 203 miles left to go.

And this was my big toe. A hard-working toe on steep, rocky trails like the ones ahead.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. How am I going to finish this??” I wailed inwardly.

I opted for what usually works after a toe stub - run it off. I limped slowly, placing my foot carefully on each rock and standing aside to let other runners pass. I'd never make cutoff this way but it was forward motion. 

Eventually, I sped up the limp. Then tried a slow shuffle. Then a real shuffle, and after 45 minutes (yes, I timed it) managed - miracle of miracles - to run.

One mile, 5 miles, 20 miles. 

It still hurt but with trial and error, I found a way to hold my toes so the pain stayed merely uncomfortable rather than intense. 

Except when I'd re-stub it of course, in which case I’d start the 45-minute process all over again. Cuss, get myself together, shuffle - holding toes just so - and move as fast as I could while the throbbing subsided, all the way back to a run.

That’s how I finished 203 miles with a broken big toe. 

I’m sharing this story because it’s a great example of a simple but hugely effective practice that pays off big in endurance events and in life. 

Remember the question I asked myself - “how am I going to finish this?” 

In the pain-blinded moment after I broke my toe, I had a choice between two opposing thoughts:

“How am I going to do this?” or “I can't.” Two very different ways of thinking that lead you down very different paths. 

“How” is about possibilities. “I can’t” is about the lack of them.

“How” is an open road. “I can’t” is a dead end.

“How” requires thinking and work. “I can’t” is all too eeeasy.

Believe me, asking “how” kick starts creativity you never knew you had. Some of the solutions inevitably sound crazy, but you never know...

“I could buddy tape that toe to the next toe.”

“Can I run with a splint?”

“Maybe using poles would help.”

“I wonder if loosening my shoe be enough?”

“What if I stop to soak it in every cold stream I pass?”

“I might be able to find a way to shuffle so my toe doesn’t hurt as much.”

If you naturally lean toward “I can’t,” don’t despair. With practice, you can train yourself to default more consistently to “how.”

And as my big toe can attest, it works.

Be no-holds barred creative,


PS - I'm heading to the Moab 200 (really 238 miles) next week so my blog may be on hiatus for the next two weeks but I'll have some great stories to share when I get back!