Running: the long road run to recovery
This is me! No, I’m not about to start singing the back catalogue of ‘The Greatest Showman’, although if you don’t know what I’m talking about you should give it a listen… No, this is me after completing a 10 mile run last weekend. Please forgive me, I’m not trying to brag (although I am very proud of myself for it), but this was an important milestone for me in my progress over the last couple of years.
Late in the Summer of 2018, I was playing an innocuous game of 5-a-side football on a Thursday evening after work. In fact, it was the 1st time I had played with this particular group for about a year having, out of convenience over anything else, ended up being loyal to another group that played on a different weeknight evening. I’d had a slight pain in my hip the previous game I’d played but it felt ok and they were short on players so I put myself forward…
About 4 minutes into the game, having done all my usual stretches and pre-match warm-up routines that I usually do, I was put through on goal with one chance to take a shot on my weaker left foot before I strayed into the ‘D’ (within which any contact with the ball becomes a foul). I had to stretch to make a decent contact and as I did so I felt my left leg just ‘go’. I can’t really explain what it felt like. It was painful in the sense that I knew something had gone wrong but it was better described as really uncomfortable rather than agonisingly painful. The best description of how it felt was like a pipe cleaner being pulled out through a straw; that was the sensation I had at the top of my thigh where my leg meets my hip.
I collapsed to the ground instantly almost deliberately as self-preservation to not keep using the leg. I could tell I had limited movement but I could just about still walk on it. I, foolishly, offered to go in goal, hoping it would pass in vain. After about 5 minutes, having humiliated myself multiple times, saved a shot agonisingly with my useless left leg and struggled to even throw the ball out to a team-mate, everyone else suggested I sit out the rest of the match.
I sat at the edge of the pitch for a bit nursing my leg and my pride and then moved out of the leisure centre to go and sit in my car for a bit. However, what I hadn’t really realised was that I was actually in shock and as my body adjusted to the relative stages of trauma I suddenly felt very sick and in a lot more pain. I vaguely remember lying down on the tarmac of the carpark to try and stop the feeling of dizziness and pain; lifting my leg(s) to try and keep the blood in my head as I started to feel faint. In a state of increasing panic, I made the (probably foolish) decision to drive home to my wife (and Piglet) rather than drag out this drama scene any further. It wasn’t far but every gear change felt like major surgery and when I parked round the corner from our house; the 200m walk to my front door was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.
I pretty much collapsed through the front door in tears to my very surprised family who had no idea what was wrong. I was laid out on the sofa with an ice pack applied to my hip and felt about as sorry for myself as I ever have done. My son was acutely aware that something was wrong (he was only 2 back then) but decided the only way he could help was to climb on me.
I’ve had enough petty injuries and minor concerns to know that this was bad. Not life-threateningly bad but I think I knew that evening that it would be a while before I could play football again. The pain came and went in waves but as the swelling came out; the mobility disappeared. It’s too long ago now to really remember how the next few days went. I know I couldn’t make it into work for a few days but I can’t remember how badly I suffered. After a couple of weeks it was clear it wasn’t going to just heal up and go away, or at least it was taking long enough that I felt I should have it looked at. The swelling, if nothing else, was pretty spectacular:
The GP had a decent feel around and suggested what my own research (and well informed friend) had led me to believe was wrong: a suspected partially ruptured adductor tendon. I was sent for a scan to see how bad the rupture was and whether intervention was needed. I was lucky enough to see a specialist in this area and he put me forward for an MRI scan. The scan was largely unremarkable (apart from my overwhelming fear that I had at some point had a metal plate fitted somewhere on my body that I’d completely forgotten about). I enjoyed the music though (they put on music to try and distract from the utter noise of the machine) and even tried to create a playlist of some of the songs that I could remember.
When the surgeon had received the scan I was invited back in to discuss the damage and possible next steps. The good news was that it was (as suspected, I still had some movement) only a partial rupture and as such shouldn’t need surgery. The bad news was that it was still a pretty bad rupture to the tendon and on top of that I’d managed to partially tear all four adductor muscles! (For those that don’t know, the adductors are the muscle family on the inside of the thigh – you need them to close your legs together at the hip. Effectively I’m now even more prone to being nutmegged during football than I was before). The surgeon was surprised how much damage I’d managed to do playing a bit of social football but was confident that I’d make a full recovery in time. Until then though I was to do no exercise at all for 3 months, light straight-lined exercise for 3 months after that, and then anything but football and high intensity rotational sports for the final 3 months. In 9 months, I should be back to playing football – if I wished. He did also point out that looking at my genetic physique, I was probably always going to get injured playing football and might want to just give it a miss! Told to ‘retire’ at the age of just 33, gutted.
I was also given a recommendation to have regular sessions of physiotherapy to rebuild the strength in the leg. I found the exercises very difficult and, out of guilt, found myself cramming in a burst of reps the evening before each appointment to say that I had been doing them (sorry, Alex!). I was getting stronger and I think I was probably a bit complacent about how specifically I would have to target those specific muscles to achieve a full recovery. Even now, about 20 months on, I am still weak at any exercise that requires a lateral inwards force on my left leg.
The hardest part for me was the sudden change in my exercise levels. I’ve never been a fitness freak or gym addict but going from playing football once a week and cycling to work to absolutely nothing for the first 3 months and then remarkably little for the months after that was tough. I hadn’t anticipated the wider impact that would have on me. Not only did I lose fitness and, understandably, start to put on a bit of weight but I lost motivation too. I felt quite low – not just because I observed my body fail on me but because I need exercise to regulate my mood. As my wife will testify, I get quite grumpy when I stop exercising and conversely will be subtly euphoric after a long run.
I tried to play football about 10 months after the injury but it was clear my leg wasn’t right (my left leg wasn’t right – if you see what I mean). I was scared of re-injuring it and not fit enough to get the enjoyment out of football to make me want to take the risk. I concentrated on the two activities I seem to always fall back on: running and cycling. Cycling I could do fairly early on as it requires very little lateral rotation of the hip. Running felt uncomfortable at first but I could at least build up short distances without feeling like a major setback. Since the turn of the year I’ve been averaging about 20 miles a month with occasional short runs dotted across the weeks.
However the introduction of lockdown has seen a change in that. Trapped in the house all day, all week, whether working, looking after Piglet, or finding rare moments to ourselves, an excuse to leave the house for even half an hour has become attractive. I’ve started running a couple of times each week – if just to get some headspace for 30 minutes in an evening. Also, I found the beginning of lockdown pretty stressful: two of us trying to maintain two attention intensive jobs from home while looking after a 4-year-old and running a house just doesn’t fit. At first, I tried to work evenings and weekends to make up time but I quickly found that wasn’t sustainable. It took a few weeks to find a sustainable compromise (even if my work probably weren’t delighted that it meant a definite step down in working hours). In those first weeks in particular running was the only pressure release I could find; not just from the time management but also the craziness of the whole situation and seeing society as we know it come crashing to a halt.
Eventually a few evening runs had expanded into the desire to try longer distances at the weekend. At present I’m on about 65 miles across May with my pace and recovery speeding up all the time. Piglet having taken a sudden interest in cycling has given us a chance to explore our local area on a larger scale. Combining two of the cycles I’ve done with him recently, I realised that I could bolt them together to make what must be roughly a 10 mile route. Once I realised that, I couldn’t shake the idea of trying it.
I should say, one of the other inspirations I’ve found recently has been the guided runs available for free on the Nike Running app, particularly Coach Bennet – their Nike Running Global Head Coach. You can choose a timed or distance run and he will just talk you through bits of the run as breaks in whatever music you’ve put on. His insistence of starting each run slowly has really helped me ease into running longer distances and even helped me pick up my pace significantly.
So once I found that there was a guided 10 mile run and that I had route that pretty much matched it, and the weather was a glorious as it has been recently, I was desperate to give it a go. I set out with no intention other than to just get round if I could. There would be no expectation of pace or how many stops I would allow myself. And, as a consequence of the route, I would never be that far from home should I need to just turn in.
A quicker than normal pancake making session on Sunday morning and a warm up in the form of my wife’s 7-minute workout that we’ve been both been doing daily recently and I was all set up to go. A couple of recent purchases from the Asics website kept me perfectly cool despite the warm temperature (having the right clothes and footwear makes such a big difference) and I was able to set off at a decent relaxed pace with Coldplay’s Arabesque thumping in my ears (it’s a remarkably good running song!).
To my surprise, I found myself running comfortably for the first 5 or so miles and was confident going into the second leg (as I passed close back to my house) that I’d be trying the full distance. I walked for a short while to eat a third of a fruit and nut bar after Coach Bennett had persuaded me to start running fast for 400 or so metres at mile 8 but apart from that I ran the whole distance and even happily the extra half mile it took me to get back to my house from the end of the distance according to GPS. To my astonishment, I’d managed it in 1 hour 30 minutes which is 8:43 minute miles – quicker than my Oxford Half Marathon pace.
The reason it feels so momentous to me to have run this distance is that this is back up to the distances I was running semi-regularly when I was training for that half-marathon back in 2013. With various niggly knee injuries and this more serious one to my leg, I wasn’t sure that in my mid 30’s I’d ever get back to the position of being able to do this. To have completed the 10 mile run, not just in a reasonable time but with such enjoyment and pleasure at doing so, feels like a real victory.
I’ve already signed up for the Oxford Half Marathon later this year (I had done well before any of the pandemic had taken off) and I hope it will go ahead, although I completely understand if it was to be cancelled for safety reasons. My plan is to run it whether entirely on my own on a different day (and maybe even location) or whether cheered over the finish line at the actual event. If I can keep up my progress over the last month I’m confident I’ll be in a position to do so.
Why did I choose to start running? I don’t really know how I got into it if I’m honest. It certainly wasn’t love at first sight! I remember trying to run a mile when I first started back in Bath, 10+ years ago. My body seemed to fight it the entire way round and I never had any of the euphoria or endorphins during or after the run. But I think I’ve always struggled to replace the sport I used to play at University and, while I have turned a blind eye to it for many, many years, I have a sort of deep seated burning desire to get fitter. Also, at the time, I was pretty low in my life: struggling to build up a social life in a new city, working hard in a job that didn’t seem to give much back, and feeling sedentary for barely moving a muscle all week. Also, I have always loved an excuse to put on some headphones and listen to music and even a really bad run gives me the chance to do that.
Two years later and we’d moved half way across the country in the hopes of better jobs. By this point I was running semi-serious distances and felt like I would benefit from training for something. Despite having never considered entering myself into any of the typical medium distance races: 5k, 10k etc.., something about completing a half-marathon started to appeal. Also I felt that it would be perfectly satisfactory to just complete it. To just get around was something in itself. It didn’t matter whether I was first or last; sprinting the final half-mile or crawling it, I would just be proud to say I’d run one. Also I knew I could run 10+ miles, all-be-it at a slow pace, so it’s seemed a fairly safe bet to assume I could do it; even if I walked the last 3 miles…
Why do I enjoy it so much? I don’t really know the answer to that either. The truth is; I’m just constantly amazed what my body is capable of when I push it. To see a landmark on the horizon (the hills around Windsor are non-existent so the horizons are pretty close!) and know that I can run to and beyond it fills me with wonder and pride. Also there is something so all-consuming about focusing on breathing and form and effort while simultaneous overriding the complaints from tired muscles that makes it almost relaxing. Certainly after I’ve covered the first few miles of a long run, I slip into a routine not entirely different from a meditative trance; something I would really struggle with if I didn’t have a task to occupy myself. I also enjoy it. I enjoy the sense of control of pushing my body and, invariably – because I know by know what it’s capable of, achieving what I set out to do. I’m also a bit crazy and I’m sure that helps too. When a cracking song comes on and I feel my body naturally picking up the pace, I’m the kind of person who smiles (quite literally) at the absurdity of all of it. Also, just occasionally, you get a view like this, and that makes it all worth it!
One of, if not my all-time, favourite writers is a Japanese author called Haruki Murakami. He writes irreverent and unusual fiction mostly but has written some fascinating non-fiction as well. His book about the Sarin terror attack on the underground in Japan is fascinating but I’m mentioning him because he once wrote a book called “what I talk about when I talk about running”. He’s a passionate and clearly capable runner having done ultra-marathons and the like, but it’s fascinating to hear him talk about what it means to him. The best section of the book is him talking about what he thinks about when he runs – or more accurately, that he doesn’t think about anything.
The concept of not thinking at all when you run makes complete sense for me. I ran for an hour this evening and I can’t really reconstruct a single meaningful thought process that I went through in that time. I remember trying to calculate whether I’d have to extend the running course I’d planned significantly to get to the 10k I’d challenged myself to; but that was about it.
It’s funny but with talk of lockdown starting to be lifted, I do hope that I’ll be able to find the time and motivation to keep the running up; at least to a comparable level. I have absolutely no plans for my running in the next month but I know I’d miss it if I didn’t do it. The promise of a potential half-marathon later in the year keeps the motivation close to my mind. But for now, I’m perfectly happy just to get the occasional chance to get out there and stretch my legs, quite literally.
That is, until the mountain bike trails open up again… …but that’s a different post!