Wednesday, January 28, 2009

always starting over: running (part 3)

The second time I started over was after my June 2006 MRI. And then, I started over twice. I took six weeks off that summer, tried aqua jogging, and then hurtled myself at the sport again in August. My first mile after that rest was 7:20. We'll work on that, I thought. When my leg started going numb, typically midrun and lasting through the end, I ignored it. Ate more ib profen and slapped an ice pack on after.

After the December race in my college town, I went to another sports medicine clinic. I was worried after the December race. I'd hobbled out of the finish chute, my lower leg pins and needles. This isn't normal I finally admitted. The new doctor was great, very personable and incredibly practical. He told me what I needed to hear. Not necessarily what I wanted to hear.

"So an MRI?" I said.

"I don't think so." Instead, he asked about my running habits, times, goals. My regular run pace usually wasn't far off from what I raced. I talked about qualifying for Boston but postponing it now. Finally he interrupted, "How long do you want to be able to run?" I immediately thought of a woman I met around mile twenty of my first marathon. She was sixty. I told her I wanted to be running a marathon when I was sixty. So that's what I said.

"I want to be running when I'm sixty."

"Then you need to slow down." He showed me a diagram of the lower leg. I'd seen a few of these on the Internet, my forays into self-diagnosis. I even knew the terms. Muscle fascia. Compartment syndrome. What I was hoping was not the problem but secretly suspected was. He pressed a thumb between my tibia and fibula, found the point. "When pain comes, it hurts here?" he said. I nodded. He nodded. "Why do you think the last doctor said it was a stress fracture? A fracture way up here?" He nudged a spot about three inches below my knee. I didn't have an answer but he did. He explained that he thought of stress fractures as stress reactions. It's okay for them to happen. In fact, he said, they make our bones stronger. Sometimes sports medicine doctors just want to attribute pain to an obvious fracture. But those tiny breaks weren't the root cause of my running pain. The recurring injury was related to a muscle fascia defect.

And suddenly, it made sense: the predictability of my pain - always the same place, often culminating near the end of training when I was pushing it, picking up speed for a race. I imagined my muscles choking.

There was good news though. "Surgery doesn't do much," the doctor told me, "People get mixed results. The pain usually returns." I didn't have compartment syndrome. I just had a bubble in my muscle fascia that put a limit on my speed. Well, a limit as long as I wanted to enjoy pain-free running. As long as I wanted to avoid a more serious injury. The doctor looked at me, "You aren't professional. You don't need to do this to your body. You can slow down now."

"And quit taking ib profen. It masks pain. You need to know what's going on with your body. You need to feel it."

I ran sporadically for a couple of months before starting fresh, healed, in April 2007. Muddy April. I was so happy. I didn't feel like I needed to race myself on my regular runs anymore. And I dropped my mileage a bit. I started running without a watch, just to enjoy my routes. I want to be running when I'm sixty. And for me, that meant slowing down, being kind to me.

September 2007 I ran the Medellin half marathon. I didn't train much for it but had enough of a base to know I'd finish. The altitude finally got me the last three miles. I walked and ran those miles, encouraged by an old man who would catch up to me on my walk breaks and pat my back, tell me to run, run. It was my friend Katy's first half marathon and we celebrated. I felt bummed about my time (1:4?). How would I ever get that 1:25 half and that 3:15 full? And then I realized: I ran this one without ib profen. I didn't limp out of the finish chute. I guessed I could be happy with that. So I was.

To be continued. Only once more. That'll bring us to present.