On a Tuesday in May my husband had to help me into the GP surgery as I couldn’t put weight through my right leg. Every time I tried to move I felt like a bolt of lightning went through my back as it spasmed. This was then followed by equally nauseating pain in the back of my thigh. I’d been having back pain since lifting furniture and boxes around the house. I’d been coping with hot water bottles and pain killers but as the pain in my leg referred further into my leg and my foot went numb I knew this was something else.
Right then running or any form of exercise was the last thing on my mind. As a physio with a background in treating back pain I had self diagnosed myself with sciatica. The GP was in agreement and gave me medication to help manage it. I declined an MRI scan referral as I didn’t think it necessary. I needed pain management and I needed to get moving once the pain was under control.
For the rest of that week the boys, the dog and I stayed with my parents. Once the pain relief (mainly anti inflammatories) helped the pain to recede I was able to shuffle walk around the park across the road from my parents. A couple of months before I had been running the perimeter of this park but running was not even in my mind then. Being able to walk was enough. I would walk the mile perimeter while the boys would go off and play and my dad would walk my dog. Sometimes it would be a bit much and I’d feel the ache down my leg again but by and large the treatment plan I’d worked out for myself was helping me manage.
As the pain started to ebb and flow away and more and more activities became pain free my thoughts turned to exercise and inevitably to running. The first few weeks the pain had clouded me so much that running had not even entered my thoughts. But at week 4 and 5 into recovery a horrific thought occurred to me: was running over for me?
I have been running in some form or another since I was eleven years old. Track, road, cross country, middle distance, hurdles, marathons. I have done all these things at some point in the last twenty six years. Not running is abnormal to me but this time returning to running the way I love to run didn’t seem possible. I started to make peace with the fact that maybe running was over for me. To admit that hurt deep down in my soul. I had a little cry to myself about it and then scolded myself for being upset about something that seemed so trivial.
I was lucky that during this time I had other things to distract me. I worked at the World Para Athletics Championships as part of the medical team. I attended my graduation to accept my masters degree in sports and exercise Physiotherapy. I found a new base for my physiotherapy practice to work from and set about moving in. I enrolled on a course to learn how to teach Pilates exercises to patients and enjoyed it. All these things helped to distract me from my decision to ‘retire’ from running. I didn’t even have pangs of jealousy when I saw people out running. I saw this as an acceptance of my decision. Walking, Pilates and body weight exercises at home were going to be enough for me, I was sure of it. It was just running. I’d get over it.
I don’t think I consciously remember putting my running kit in a bag when we were packing for our holiday in France. It was likely out of habit as I have always packed my running kit when we’ve gone away on holiday. When I pulled my trainers out of the bag there were no thoughts about running to start with. I used my kit to play tennis with my eldest son. It was fun and hard going. He’s nine and has lessons so sent me dancing around the court. I felt a burn in my chest and my muscles contracting in a way that they hadn’t for at least three months. When I moved the next day and realised there hadn’t been an increase in pain other than an exercise muscle ache something stirred and I asked myself: could I run?
I didn’t spring out the door. The thing is with an injury is that even though physically you feel okay, mentally you become hyper vigilant. A fear of running had developed. Not just a fear of being in pain again but the fear that it might go wrong and you end up disappointed, frustrated or even devastated all over again. Pain and emotion are so intertwined in our injury processes and trying to dampen down that hyper vigilance over my every move had become hard. And so I waited. I had another game of tennis. I played in the pool. I ran about with the boys. I just played and played. Playing is so under rated but I found a joy again in just being able to run around with the boys with no real purpose. I then realised that in the back of my mind while we were around the camp site that I had planned a route.
And…..I ran on my holiday. Not once, but twice. I allowed myself two very slow 20 minute runs. I kept my stride short and went even slower if I needed to. It was hard, so hard, but I never thought I’d be even trying to run again. Two months ago I was happy just to be able to sleep through the night! I was grateful. Grateful for the body’s ability to heal in it’s own time, grateful for my background knowledge that had allowed me to take a step back and enabled me to heal and grateful that I was able to do this again and feel the sensation of running again.
I called this blog The Long Haul because it was about the length of time it’s taken me to get to this point, but it turns out it could apply to the length of this post. It took three months to get to the point where my tissues were able to tolerate running. I had tried about 6 weeks previously but going by the fact I seemed to go backwards in my recovery it was too soon. For now twenty minutes will be enough For now every other day will be enough. I want to enjoy running again. I want to make myself stronger mentally and physically. There will be no races and no running groups. Running has been a part of me since I was a little girl and I need to find that piece of me again. This injury has been a long haul and it’s not over yet but with some self care and maybe a little bit of running selfishness I’ll be out of my self imposed retirement and calling myself a runner once again.