Be grateful.

5 10 2009

There has been a long silence on this blog.

A very long silence on this blog.

(Insert crickets chirping HERE.)

I’ve avoided updating this blog for fear of jinxing myself.  It seems like every time I start blogging again, I get injured again and again.  I’m challenging my own superstitions by writing tonight.

About a year ago, I felt the very first twinges of pain in my Achilles tendon.  At first, this would occur after a long run – but only during the drive home from the mountains.  I would get out of the truck after my ritual consumption of an entire can of Pringles and a bottle of 7-up and hobble the first few steps back into my condo.  I wasn’t a pretty sight; in fact, my upstairs neighbor spotted me a few times and gave me looks of grave concern.  “No worries,” I’d say, limping along, encrusted with salt all over my face, drooling, and covered in potato chip crumbs, “I’m fi-i-i-ne. Just ran 35 miles in the mountains.  No problem.”

However, within a few weeks, the problem became too painful to ignore.  No more 35 milers in the mountains on Saturday mornings.  (And no more post-run Pringles binges.)  No more mid-week 18 mile runs.  No more blaring alarms at 4:15 am before putting in a twelve hour work day.  I seriously had no idea what to do with myself on weekend mornings if I wasn’t getting up several hours before dawn to go run.  What – I don’t need a headlamp today?  Utter confusion.  Despair.  Boredom.

I reduced my mileage after taking a few weeks off.  By the holidays, I was steadily building again in hopes of running a 24 hour event in June.  By April, sixty mile weeks were beginning to appear on my training schedule once again, although I was doing the bulk of my training on the roads.  The week before Easter, although I had hardly been running ANY trails at all for the prior six months, I was invited to join several friends for an “easy” 22 mile run out in the Cuyamaca mountains.  “Don’t worry – we’ll go slow,” I was told.  Of course, I should have known better.  Starting out a 22 mile run at 5000 feet elevation on mountain trails at a 9:00 minute/mile pace is assuredly NOT slow.  I held back for the first couple of hours, but was able to keep up by the end of the run and felt like I was healthy again.  I had very little pain or discomfort in that Achilles tendon at that point.

The next week, I went for a 24 mile run on the roads – after all, the 24 hour event I was going to be participating in was a road run.  I remember my calf beginning to feel tight at about 14 miles.  I would stop and stretch, run another half a mile or so, and feel the knot start to tighten again.  Stop, stretch, run, then another “ouch,” then another breather and so on.  At 18 miles, I had the sudden sensation of a knife stabbing into the outside of my left ankle, above the ankle bone.  This was some of the worst searing pain I have ever experienced.  I’m no pansy – this HURT.  I had over six miles left to go to get back to my truck and had to walk every step.

I went home, iced the area, applied my trusty arnica ointment (which is great for inflammation), and prayed for the best.  The next day, I felt like there was a red hot swelling underneath the skin, some kind of other-worldly throbbing gristly being with a mind of its own, bent on tormenting me, just buried inside of the side of my ankle.  More ice, more arnica, more praying.  After a week, the gremlin inside dwindled to just a whimpering nuisance, so I thought I’d give a little baby six mile run a shot.

I headed out to Fiesta Island, an infinitely boring, flat route around a man made island in the middle of Mission Bay.  After two miles, the throbbing began again.  “Hey, it’s not STABBING, at least.  I’ll keep going.”  Smart.  Not.  After four miles, I threw in the towel and headed back to my truck to find that yet again my vehicle had been broken into and all of my credit cards were stolen (third time within a year, each time while running.  Is this a sign?).

After dealing with the credit card emergency at home, I contacted my coach about my injury and was told emphatically that I needed to get right back into my orthotics and to call my podiatrist right away.  I made an appointment, and headed into the foot doc during the first week of May.

The prognosis was peroneal tendonitis, or basically an inflammation of the peroneal tendon.  The peroneal tendon wraps around the outside of the leg and ankle bone, and attaches to the fascia at the bottom of the arch on the outside of the foot.  I was told that this was the “worst injury a runner could have,” that I “may never run again,” and that I would most likely have to face surgery.  Oh yeah, and don’t even think about running.  AT ALL.  No running, no hiking, no cycling, no elliptical trainer, no lower body weight training, no ANYTHING that placed any stress on that tendon.  In fact, if I could just not even use that leg, that would be great.  Don’t stand up.  Sit.  For how long?  Oh, a few months or so…maybe forever since your leg is now useless, Steph.

Holy crap.

I sat in the truck before heading home from the doctor’s office and just cried and cried.  Are you kidding me?  Never run again?  EVER?  I’ve been running since 1989.  That’s twenty years – this is an enormous part of my life.  I live for the solitude of the trails, the sweat and the blood, the challenge of climbing a mountain, the gorgeous sunrises, the falling on my ass.  No running?  No backpacking?  No hiking?  I remember just being in a daze for a few hours.  I sent emails to some of my running buddies saying that I was giving up on running.  It was a good twenty years and a good time in my life, and now I had to say goodbye.  I was utterly devastated and heartbroken.

It was a rough few weeks.  On top of the injury, both of my grandparents passed away (within five weeks of each other) and my husband and I went through more drama with his job situation.  I had no escape from any of the other tragic things that were going on.  For one of the first times in my life, I was forced to deal with issues up front.  Consequently, I decided to face my injury head on and take every bit of advice that the podiatrist had given me in the vain hope that someday I might be able to run a little bit again.  Even a 5K would be satisfying.  I went to my wonderful acupuncturist, Adrian, who tried to keep my spirits up.  (For the record, he thought the doctor was too hasty in his diagnosis.)

I also went to physical therapy as had been prescribed.  It was a horrible experience. The first words out of the therapist’s mouth were “if it weren’t for people like you, I wouldn’t have a job.”  (Sadistic chuckling.)  Hmm.  Then there was, “Oh, I found the bad spot,” and pointing at the tiger tattoo on my leg, “it’s right by the third toe.  At least that tattoo is good for something.”  By the third session, I got up the nerve to ask a few questions about my treatment and what I should be doing at home, and was answered with an angry voice shouting, “Stephanie, if you continue to ignore everything I’ve told you to do, you just won’t get better.”

That was it for me.  The guy was a jerk, and I had had it with being injured.  I wasn’t going to take anyone’s word that running was over for me, and I certainly wasn’t going back to physical therapy with this [insert appropriate expletive here].

The next few weeks I did a great deal of soul searching.  I went to acupunture three times a week and felt the pain begin to recede.  I went to a psychologist who helped with some of the stress I was experiencing.  I tried visceral manipulation, which had astounding results beyond helping my injury (my crooked jaw is now perfectly straight for the first time in almost twenty years!).

The big lesson I learned – beyond there’s more to life than running – is that you just have to take care of yourself.  Simple, cliché, yes.  But you can’t go at such a frenetic pace, always running away from the issues that may plague you.  By running higher mileage, I literally had been trying to run away from some of my personal problems.  Mind and body are so interlinked; this gets ignored frequently in Western medicine.  But stress can cause a HUGE toll on your health.  Here’s an illustrative example:

In the fall of 2008, my husband moved to Massachusetts (a long way away from San Diego) to take a temporary position at Amherst College.  This was terribly stressful.  I was worried about our marriage, whether or not we’d “make it”.  Add to this financial problems, huge issues at work, and beginning my part-time tattoo business on top of everything else.  I was working seven days a week, most days around twelve hours or more, all while training.  I slept maybe four to five hours a night.  Something had to give, to snap, to break.  And that was my health.  I was continually sick – I was plagued with sinus infections for well over nine months.  And I got injured badly, never letting myself fully recover from that Achilles injury.  I never realized that it’s OK to take a day off now and then, that it’s OK to cancel a gig (even though you THINK you need the money) because you’re just completely exhausted, and that you can say no once in a while to a job or gig because you need to sleep more than four hours at a stretch.

Thanks to acupuncture, visceral manipulation, and a lot of energy work (based on Donna Eden’s wonderful book Energy Medicine), by June, I was beginning to jog a very little bit.  I remember getting up the morning of the San Diego 100 mile run, where I was going to crew for my fried Jill, and going for a three-mile jaunt where I walked for four minutes and ran for one.  I was so proud to finish that three miles without a smidge of pain.  Within a month, I could run three miles at a stretch again…slowly, but I could do it.  Within two months, I was back up to eight to ten miles on the weekends.  Laughably short “long runs” for an ultrarunner, but I wasn’t upset by the lack of mileage.  Rather, I felt humbled, knowing that I’m NOT invincible…

Nearly six months have passed since that day in April where that imaginary knife sliced into my peroneal tendon.  Yesterday, I ran my first twenty miler since returning to training.  I chose a challenging route – a solo trail run ascending Mount Woodson, then through the Blue Sky Reserve and an ascent up to Lake Ramona.  It took five hours even (5:00:38); for perspective, in my prior training on flat roads, a twenty mile run would take about 3:30 at a conservative pace.  This run was HARD; over 5400 feet of vertical ascent, and some rocky trails on Woodson.  But I smiled every step of the way.  My quads are aching and sore as I write this; I can’t even remember the last time I was sore from a training run.  Fabulous!

I’m back.

I’d love to talk to that podiatrist and physical therapist now.

What’s the moral of the story?

Be grateful for every moment that you have.  Be grateful for your health.  It’s a gift that can be taken away at any time.

As a religious person, I thank the good Lord for my return to health and for helping me to find the tools to maintain my physical and mental well-being.  Whether or not you believe in a higher power, I think gratitude is always a good thing to have.

What’s next?  Stay tuned…

on the trail, Ramona in the distance

on the trail, Ramona in the distance

Elevation profile for 20 mile run...

Elevation profile for 20 mile run...

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