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Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

I was never a serious runner. At least, I was never as serious as club runners, or marathon runners, or even friends of mine, who are both marathon and club runners (and have the times to prove it).

Instead I am a slogger. At my peak, and the peak of my cartilage, I was managing about 60k a week, running home from Dublin city center to our Raheny apartment five days a week. I never monitored my times, I just ground it out, day in, day out, along the Clontarf Road. In the years before that, I’d do the same around the Phoenix Park.

Then the injuries started. The plantar fasciitis first, followed by the diagnosis of hallux limitus, which became hallux rigidus, all of which I’ve blogged about previously. I kept running, but ran less and moved my workouts to a stationary bike. It wasn’t the same, but at least I could read and listen to music.

As time passed, the runs lessened and the bike work increased. By the start of this year I was shuffling through 5-10k a week, and feeling a long way off the pavement-pounder that I used to be.

This wasn’t helped by a visit to a podiatrist last year, who confirmed my worst fear – that the arthritis in my left big toe needed surgery and the sooner, the better. This has yet to happen, and managing the pain was the single reason for the fall off in my running.

Until last month. On a whim I joined a group of Nike colleagues who’d signed up to run the 5k Shamrock Run in downtown Portland. This mean training, and training meant a return to running. Over the course of February I moved from 5k to 30k, pushing my time down and spending a lot of rest time with an ice pack.

Last Sunday I ran the 5k, pulling in a not-bad time (despite the strollers – baby and human). It was enjoyable on the day, but the prep was even more so. For the first time in a couple of years, I’d accessed that clean, good feeling that – despite the foot pain and the burning chest and the rain and the traffic – reminded me of why I’d often ran 50k a week without blinking.

Over the years I’ve hiked, swum, walked, and cycled, but nothing matches the sweat-soaked, mind-clearing experience that comes of stepping out the front door and going for it. Even if my times aren’t anywhere near the old days.

What’s more, my foot’s holding up. For now.

_____

 

 

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The two words that will stop me running

http://www.parkrun.com/

Running in Tokyo, 2014

In the beginning was the burn – and the burn was sore.

A sharp, annoying type of sore, which radiated through the joint of my left big toe. First I felt it while running, then while walking. Eventually I couldn’t shake it off, it stabbed at me as I lay in bed at night.

So what did I do?

I ignored it, at first. Until it got so bad that – in a chain reaction of injury that doctors warn about but those who know better, like me, disregard – it kicked off a bout of plantar fasciitis.

That was over two years ago. At the time I reckoned – as did my then physio – that I’d sprained my toe and that rest, stretching and incorporating some cycling, would be fix me.

It didn’t. After two years of stretching, bathing, ibuprofen, heat rubs and an increasing sense of annoyance, all the while running less and less, I found myself with a new physio and the same old pain.

This time the news wasn’t good. She didn’t need an X-ray to diagnose hallux limitus, a form of early onset arthritis which leads to (the far more debilitating) hallux rigidus (two words that may eventually stop me running). Fun fact: ‘hallux’ is Latin for big toe. Less fun fact: ‘limitus’ translates as ‘oh dear’. (‘Rigidus’ is unprintable.)

Now that we had a diagnosis for the sharp needle jolt through my joint we could go about trying to stop it. But hallux limitus goes beyond just physical discomfort.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle.

Big toe, big joint, big niggle

As I started treatment I found (correction: I still find) myself looking at 40 and 50-something runners in the park now and thinking – jealously – how can you still do that?

Of course, they may ache too. They may, while lacing up, wince and curse God, or their antecedents, for handing them shaky knee joints, tight hamstrings or a weak left ankle. But still I look at their feet, particularly their big toes, enviously.

And so began the last six months – a period of painful massage, podiatrist appointments, endless fiddling with inserts and, finally, the arrival of spanking new orthotics.

This culminated in a command from my physio – no running for 10 days.

Did I feel better? Am I limiting the limitus? It’s too early to say. My mandated 10 day break ended this week with a meekly-jogged 5k.

Of course this is the point at which I feel duty bound to warn of the dangers of not seeking treatment quickly for running injuries, the benefits of rest and the advantages of gentle walks.

But I can’t. In the past 18 months I’ve been lucky enough to experience solitary, mind-clearing dawns break over some wonderful places – Tokyo, Bordeaux, London, New York City, even Galway – something I could never have experienced without running – or without feeling that old familiar burn.

Lesson learned? Not yet, I’m afraid.

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

Dawn run, Galway, 2015

_____

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How it took me 93 days to run 10k

Back on track.

Back on track.

THE REALISATION came 40 minutes in, just after the service station and before the yelping terrier.

After 93 days of pain, rest, stretching, rolling, cursing and – slowly, slowly – running again it struck me: I was going to complete the 10k.

Thirteen weeks after I limped into my physiotherapist’s clinic I was finally back to my regular running distance.

I’ve written before on how I was injured. A sprained toe broke the camel’s back of my bad habit of not stretching, which kicked off plantar fasciitis (PT) in both feet.

I was ordered off running and onto foam rolling, with a shot of dry needling thrown in for a bit of variety.

In the weeks after I moved from walks to 5k jogs to 7.5k runs. I even hiked Lugnaquilla on a 13k loop.

But, until last Saturday I hadn’t attempted my usual distance in a run.

The final couple of kilometres weren’t easy, and running half the route on concrete was foolhardy, but I made it over the line.

Initially I felt good. Twenty-fours hours later darts of pain through my soles warned me not to overdo it.

That’s the odd thing about this habit. I spent the summer recovering and re-training to reach a position where I could easily injure myself again.

The plantar fascia, on the sole of the foot. Pic: Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body

The plantar fascia, on the sole of the foot. PT causes it to swell.
Pic: Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body

Strangely, the risk of another serious injury doesn’t bother me like I thought it would. Perhaps the hours of stretching, glute lifts and other tedious exercises have finally taught me patience.

But there’s something else.

As I’ve gotten older the spectre of pain has loomed larger in physical exercise, be it running or hiking.

If it’s not to the fore it’s always out there somewhere, 10 or 50 or 100k down the road, at the bottom of the next hill.

When I first blogged on my injury back in May my friend C wrote to me, observing that many runners, as they age, appear to be hooked on battling pain.

This is somewhat true, I think. My youthful 20s are a distant memory and I’ve now factored discomfort into my running routine; it’s another element, like weather or time of day.

Writer Haruki Murakami, in his running memoir, recounts advice he once came across in an interview with a successful marathon competitor. “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional…The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself”.*

Good advice, but still I didn’t repeat last weekend’s 10k the following day. Not wanting to take a chance with pain, or suffering, I jogged out a cautious 7.5k.

I’m still not fully recovered. But I have that fresh 10k in my back pocket.

That’ll do – for now.

_____

*Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Vintage, 2009), p vii

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The aching is the hardest part

Here’s two things all runners hate.

ibuprofen

Runners’ little helper.

Anti-inflammatory meds and empty shoes. One of these is bad enough, both means you’ve either overdone it or been unlucky.

And so it’s been for me this week.

What started as a careless impact onto a piece of cracked pavement three weeks ago became, by last weekend, a darting pain in the joint of the big toe of my left foot.

The two weeks in between were where, as they say in the west of Ireland, Aughrim was lost.

I continued to run on the sore toe, and this led to a sore foot, which led to a second sore foot (as one overcompensated for the other), a sore leg and, eventually, (there’s a pattern developing) two sore legs.

There’s a simple question here, of course, that you don’t even need to ask.

But why couldn’t I stop running? Despite the darts of pain, the dull ache afterwards, the stiffness, the interrupted sleep and the frustration of all of the above, I kept it up.

Shoes

Kicked to the kerb.

So, 120k later and in considerable discomfort I eventually decided to take a week off.

It’s my first week’s break in 21 months, a period which encompassed two Irish winters, one Irish summer (indistinguishable from an Irish winter, for the most part), my wedding and a couple of transatlantic and other trips.

It also covered a couple of weeks of shin splints and sundry bloodied toes.

So I’m probably due a break before I suffer one – at least that’s what I tell myself. But, as most runners know, a short-term injury spells at best boredom, at worst outright frustration.

In my case it’s constantly checking my foot and counting down the days to the end of my time off (having self-diagnosed the injury as a minor toe sprain).

As I’ve waited this week, fidgeting, glancing at my running shoes and thumbing through my albums, I’ve wondered why no-one’s written a suite of songs about sport injuries.

Perhaps they have. I vaguely recall seeing a Tom Petty interview in which he spoke of writing his song The Waiting while he recovered from a broken arm, unable to play his guitar.

Beyond that though there’s no Chariots Of Fire for the hobbled set.

Maybe it’s time to write one.

Or crank up Blood on the Tracks.

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