One lady’s journey to and from running and maybe back again someday…All runners have heard it at least once before: “don't over train or you'll get hurt.” I know I had. Strangely though, my running journey actually began because of an injury. I suppose this is one of those lessons about balance we learn in life? My story began over 23 years ago. It was just a few days past my 10th birthday, but I can still feel that first time my left knee dislocated like it was yesterday. I was taking tennis lessons at the local racket club and had actually grown quite fond of the sport. For whatever reason, (maybe it was the fact that I forgot to bring my gym clothes to school with me that day and was wearing jeans) or it was bad luck. Maybe it was genetics or combo of all of those things, but that day changed everything for me. I remember going after the ball then falling to the ground shortly after. It was like my thigh went one direction and my calf went the other way. The pain was piercing and was like nothing I had ever felt before.
After a couple of minutes, I was carried off the court and placed in a room where my mom and about ten bags of ice met me. I have always had a high tolerance for pain, but even then, even being so young, I knew this was different and something was terribly wrong.
After a few weeks of rest, I “sort of” healed up, but had to quit tennis immediately. The doctor said the cause was too much lateral movement. I also had to quit many of the other activities I loved so much. I started playing soccer at 6 or 7, skied with no fear, rode horses as much as I could, and was playing two seasons of softball a year.
My knee started dislocating more regularly, and by the time I reached fall softball of my 8th grade year, I had to give ups soccer and softball and temporarily give up horseback riding and skiing. I was devastated. At the ripe age of 13, on Halloween Day, I was admitted to the operating room for my first knee surgery; a Tibial Tubercle Transfer or what medical professionals dub the “Triple T,” for many of us who find the name of the actual procedure a tongue twister.
At the time, (all I really knew) my surgeon felt assured I had finished growing and told my parents I needed the surgery to avoid all the completely excruciatingly painful knee dislocations which were happening more and more frequently. Sometimes the pain seemed to come from nowhere. I would literally appear to collapse with no cause. Because I was in middle school (and kids are at the peak of their cruelness around then), these collapses sometimes put me in the middle of nasty jokes and uncontrollable laughter… as if the pain weren’t enough.
After my bones were fastened back into place by a long screw, I spent several months in a l brace that kept my leg completely straight. It was hard. I missed all the activities I loved and looking back, think I fell into a little bit of a depression. It was hard for a middle school kid who loved to be a part of things. My parents must have sensed my sorrow and my dad suggested I join the Cross Country team that fall when I entered high school. I always loved the running part of soccer and there was simply no way I could ever return to that sport…again that lateral movement. Plus, I figured joining the XC team would be a great way to be a part of a team sport again. So with nothing really to lose, I showed up on that first afternoon of daily doubles in the fall of 1996.
Cross Country didn’t start out so great. I had hardly walked in the past 10 months; how could I possibly start running several miles at a time? But, with some time and the help and encouragement of some excellent friends and one coach (who, rest in peace) will always remain an essential part of my story. He taught me to never give up and to “run like an old man” if I had to. I crossed the finish line of my first Freshman Cross Country race… with the last few stragglers I’m pretty sure, but I finished and I was hooked.
I never reached “All Star” Cross Country or Track status. I am competitive by nature, but aside from finishing decently in a few JV races, I was never a track star and definitely never ran on my university’s team. Running was always more about what I could personally push myself to do than it ever was competing against others.
After a few more seasons of track and cross country, I was sidelined by more agonizing knee pain. However, I managed to make it through high school and running casually through college a few miles here and there, with no additional surgery. I actually made it 11 years before my second surgery! That second surgery was to replace my patella tendon with part of my hamstring because the darn thing started dislocating again.
I took a year or so off after that, but right around my wedding in 2009 I got bit by the running bug again. Running was fun—but I knew it was also a great way to shed some unwanted pounds too. A much better choice than diet pills anyway, right?!
Looking back on all these years, I know running fell into my life without intention. But kept it there, I am not entirely sure. It could have been my desire to stay active, the peaceful calm of running on an open road and I’m sure, the free beer at the end of most of the races I ran. One thing that I know for sure, is the more I ran and the more times I went back to the sport, the harder it was to be away from it.
About three years after going under the knife the second time, the peak of my story journey really started. I knew that running wasn’t the best choice of activities for me, but there was something about pushing myself beyond what my body was supposed to be able to do, that kept me hooked…and made me push more.
My first 10K led to my first half marathon, then to a goal to finish at least one race per month, for an entire year. While I was at it, I thought why not throw in a 26.2? I mean I had gone that far. Running had become like a drug to me and I seemed to be getting more addicted every week that went by. So I did what I sought out to do and all was groovy. I crossed trained a bunch, lifted weights and took boot camp and cycling classes. I couldn’t believe how great I was performing in spite of all the injuries I had been through. So I suppose I got a little cocky and sort of “forgot” about my injured past.
After my year of races, I kept at it–throwing in a half whenever I could. Around this time, I started to pay attention to my race times and then began to focus on pushing myself harder. I even stayed active up until the day I gave birth to my first child; running a half marathon at 19 weeks pregnant. It thought it was super-cool and imagined a sassy little kid bragging to her friends about “running” 13 miles before she was even born. It made my heart smile and I was really proud of myself for continuing to run though pregnancy when I knew I could have easily used it as an excuse to quit for a while.
Inevitably everything changed once my daughter was born. I started working again a few hours a day, four weeks after her birth and back to full time at two months. Like most working moms, finding time to exercise was a huge challenge for me. So I did what I thought was best. I bagged all the “extras”. Who needed squats, sit ups, and lunges anyway? I could wake up before work and get a quick run in before my husband and daughter woke up. I could load my baby girl up in her B.O.B stroller and push her 10 miles if I wanted to. While I was at it, why not push for faster times and run another marathon?
Some days my knee hurt so bad I couldn’t even make it a quarter-mile down the road before having to walk home. Stop?! No way! Not me! I’m not a quitter! Pop some Advil, rest a day and try again tomorrow. Then repeat. As the baby weight started shedding off and my weekly miles stacked up, I just kept on pushing, often ignoring all the warning signs I knew so well. To my credit I did visit my doc who suggested I tweak my training, run my marathon then come in for a quick scope of my knee. No big deal, right?
Leading up to that fateful marathon, I continued to discount all advice I had been given, and forgot all the pain I had endured. Run 16 miles as my long run before the big race?! What did the doctor know anyway? Every seasoned runner knows a 20 miler is key before crossing the marathon finish line. So I ran 20 and squeezed in some more half marathons and hilly 10Ks before the big day.
April 26, 2015 is undoubtedly a day I will never forget… up there with that first day my knee “popped out.” I was in Bend, OR for the inaugural Bend Marathon. I was (what I considered) well-trained and ready to beat my goal of 4 hours. Then BAM! Somewhere around mile 6 something happened. What exactly I’m not totally sure, but I sure as heck was not going to quit. I called my husband and had him and my (then) 15-month old daughter meet me at mile 15 with a handful of Advil. Every step was agonizing, but every step pushed me that much closer to the finish line… and made me less and less likely to listen to my screaming body to give up and quit.
By mile 25 I thought for sure I had a golf ball stuck under my foot and actually ripped my shoes off, thinking I would be better off trying to run barefoot. Two steps more and the shoes went back on and I pushed onward. I crossed the finish line around 4:50 with tears streaming down my face. Many of the tears were because of the pain and some were from a broken heart of a disappointing finishing time, and facing the fact that something was really, really, wrong with my right foot.
My foot had turned blue and I wore a boot for a week. X-rays showed nothing and I waited a couple of months to recover more fully before scheduling my third surgery…this time for my other knee. After surgery the knee got better, but months later the foot was still throbbing. I finally scheduled the MRI and had to face the truth; it was not bad tendonitis like I thought, but a stress fracture that never healed properly.
I spent the months that followed the Bend Marathon secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) sulking and feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t even put on tech shirt from one of the dozens of races I completed without tearing up a bit. It was dumb and I felt pathetic. I had poured every free second away from my family and work, into something to do with running. And it was gone. Maybe even gone forever. My decision to keep running that fateful day hurt me and my family in more ways than I could ever have imagined.
It’s been well over a year since the last time I ran in Bend, Oregon on that beautiful April day. Once it was confirmed I had a stress fracture, I was in the operating room within 48 hours. My husband drove me to work for two months and had to take over all of my motherly duties. My daughter grew distant from me and I was a bit low for a while. After the ten weeks that followed surgery, I was finally able to get the boot off and began riding a stationary bike again. At 12 weeks my doctor confirmed that my bone had finally fused back together and there is a very small a chance I can run again.
My husband and I have had many conversations regarding my return to running someday. He made me promise not to go under additional surgeries for at least 12 months, allowing my body to rest properly. He hopes I never run another marathon, and I can’t say I blame him. He deserves a medal more than I ever do, for dealing with the repercussions of my actions and decisions. I would feel like a terrible person if I ever knowingly did what I did to my family again; not listen to my body and train properly.
But, even if you are still reading after all of this, chances are you have been injured before. You might even be a fellow runner obsessed with pushing your body to its limits like I was, who is now sidelined by your own decisions. You might have a hard time listening to your body, too. If this sounds like you at all, I beg you to please listen to your body and listen to your doctor– if you are in the care of one. Cross training is much more important than racking up a hundreds of miles. Strengthen your legs and core. Rest and recover. Running is a great way to push yourself, but as most of us have learned in life, too much of anything can backfire. Now get on out there and run a couple of miles for me!