“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise, so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
-Me to my doctor when he calls and says I need surgery (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.)
The phone rang and despite the speaking-on-the-phone-averse millennial that I am, I picked up. This was a call I’d been anxiously awaiting. I was greeted with “the doctor would like to speak with you about your MRI results, please wait while I transfer you”.
That simple sentence triggered my body’s fight or flight response. My heart raced and my palms shook a little. I had to take a deep breath to calm myself down. It sounds so dramatic in retrospect, but I’d been waiting for an answer for so long. I wasn’t afraid of what might be wrong, I was afraid of what might not be.
How’d I get here?
The last time I can remember running consistently pain-free was training for and running the 2018 Boston Marathon. Some vague time after that, that I’m unable to pinpoint, the niggles began. I trained for the NYC Marathon in 2018 relatively unscathed (or so I thought) but ended up in a boot with a stress fracture a week later. I recovered from that injury and made it to the 2019 Boston Marathon pretty healthy with some background noise-level hip pain. I rested a week or so after that race like usual, and then got back to training. A deep dive into my Strava log points to consistent running between spring and fall of 2019 but looking back, I know there were cracks. In the fall of 2019 I trained for and raced a half marathon. I was in the best shape of my life with a renewed sense of determination for my marathon goals, but there were still signs that something wasn’t quite right. So I took some extra time off around the holidays to stifle my concerns before beginning my spring training cycle.
As I trained for the 2020 Boston marathon I staved off and managed pain until the race was cancelled due to the pandemic. At that point, I finally admitted to myself that whatever I was dealing with, was getting worse, and I stopped running. Thus began an on and off cycle of running and cross-training that didn’t end until August 28th of this year.
Throughout the (peak of the) pandemic (that we’re still in) I ran in spurts, often with what began to feel like consistency, and even frequently enough to solo a time-trial last fall, but again and again I found myself furiously typing into my running log to my coach about ankle pain that would pop-up out of nowhere.
Searching for answers
Finally, this past March, with COVID numbers down, I felt it was reasonable to go see a doctor and try to get answers. I was loosely diagnosed with achilles tendonitis, given some ultrasound therapy and custom orthotics, and sent on my way. After a couple rounds of treatment and no pain relief, the doctor gave me a cortisone shot that worked like magic for about a month, but by June, I was right back where I started. For a few weeks, I gave up and resigned myself to the idea that I just needed to learn how to deal with the pain. I convinced myself there wasn’t an answer and it was something I was going to need to learn to live with. Quickly, I began to hate running.
After months and months of running with pain, I was just sick of it. I was losing motivation to get out the door because I knew it wasn’t going to feel good. I couldn’t push myself during workouts or long runs because it hurt too much. I felt guilty that I didn’t want to run but then I felt guilty for running when my body was clearly telling me to stop. I began to believe that training hard and setting PR’s was a thing of the past for me. I was over it, but kept pushing through because what else was I going to do? The doctor didn’t tell me to stop running, so I figured I must be fine! Then in July I rolled my ankle harder than I have in years and after that, the pain got worse.
At the end of July, I began working with a physical therapist who has a practice specializing in runners. I had no illusions that it would be an easy or quick fix, but I had really high hopes. He analyzed every detail about my running form and we began working on my weaknesses and my (very poor) cadence. However, in the meantime, the pain got worse. After more than two weeks of cross-training didn’t alleviate the pain, I finally stopped running, determined not to start again until I truly addressed the issue.
Finally, in September I found a new doctor and advocated for an MRI. I felt strongly that there was something more serious going on than I had previously believed. Which brings me back to that phone call in October.
When the doctor called I wasn’t afraid of something torn or broken. I wasn’t even scared of the idea of surgery. What was making my heart race and my hands shake was the possibility of nothing being wrong at all. This pain I’d been dealing with for so long was starting to make me feel like I was crazy, as if I were making it up or I just wasn’t tough enough to deal with a little tendinitis. I needed my pain to be validated and to my relief, it was.
I learned that I had two torn ligaments and bursitis caused by a Haglund’s Deformity. I also had slight achilles tendonitis. The verdict was that unless I was ready to give up running, I was going to need surgery. (I went on a 15 min run the next day, just to get it out of my system because I knew I was about to embark on a long road and hey, the damage was already done, right?! It hurt, 10/10 would not recommend).
Two weeks ago I had the surgery to repair the ligaments and remove the Haglund’s deformity. Today, I had my first follow-up and I am now in a walking boot, with two more weeks of non-weight bearing to go. It’s not easy but I am so happy that I got it done and I’m on the path to recovery.
Right now, I haven’t done any exercise in a full two weeks and won’t be able to return to cross-training like swimming or biking for 3-6 more weeks. Two weeks doesn’t sound like much, but I don’t think I’ve gone that long without some sort of exercise since middle school. As someone with a history of disordered eating and a past unhealthy relationship with running and exercise, this is really hard. I am managing it much better than I thought I might and significantly better than I would have if this happened a few years ago, but I won’t sugarcoat it, it’s tough. I actively have to fight off thoughts of restriction and negative self-talk as I navigate this process. Every few days I worry that I’ll never be the runner I was a couple of years ago when I was running fast and more importantly enjoying it. I think this is all probably a really normal part of the recovery process, so I am trying to take it day by day and stay out of my head as much as possible. Right now, I’m 2 weeks into a 12-week recovery timeline. I’m sure it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I think I’m prepared to ride the highs and lows.
I’m extremely grateful to have a strong support system to make it all feel a little easier. My fiance to help me with…everything, friends to take me to and from work, my coach to tell me to eat pizza, and my PT to get me ahead of the game on exercises. I’ve still got a long road back to running and an even longer one back to feeling fit and ready to race but I know when I’m running fast and pain-free (knock on all the wood) 6 months from now, these 12 weeks are going to feel like a drop in the bucket. I want to run for as long as I possibly can and right now, my relationship to running is fixing what’s broken properly so that I can keep at it for many years to come.
For us runners, injuries can feel all-consuming. They can be down-right devastating and they often lead to telling ourselves lies about our abilities and our futures. I think most of the time we feel this way because we care a lot. It’s normal to mourn a bit when we’re injured, I’ve learned that enough times. But fortunately, I’ve also learned that there’s always another start line in the future.