I’ve never been very good at asking for help in any area of my life, and seeking care for running injuries is no exception. Like many runners, I live in a semi-permanent state of denial about my aches and pains, making half-efforts to manage them, but without ever really giving them my full attention, perhaps afraid that if I do, I’ll have to actually change my behavior. As Don Sutherland’s Bill Bowerman famously remarked to Billy Crudup’s Steve Prefontaine (in “Without Limits”), “It hurts to change, doesn’t it Pre?“
Unlike some injuries that turn up unexpectedly, this one announced itself with great fanfare moments before an indoor mile in March. It was a sharp, unambiguous pain down the side of my right leg where the peroneal tendon winds its way around the ankle. Not being in the habit of missing races out of considerations for health and wellness, I ran the mile (which did hurt, by the way) knowing that I was probably going to buy myself a prolonged recovery. It was a choice I made in the moment — not the wisest, perhaps, but I’d probably make that same choice again.
I didn’t consider anything about this episode out of the ordinary. It’s familiar to any runner. And in the hours and days after the race, I wasn’t worried. I thought to myself, “I’ve got this” because I knew what to do: I would stretch and ice, take several days off to let the tissue heal, and then return gently to running again. I knew I’d have to lay off the speedwork for a bit. Not a big deal.
That was three months ago.
At first, my recovery progressed pretty much as I expected. The pain subsided until it was only a mild discomfort. There was nothing terribly alarming, and I started running again. But just as the first few steps on the path to Hell are paved with relatively banal transgressions, the first few steps on the path to chronic injury are ordinary and unremarkable oversights. It’s only in retrospect you see that those first few steps were leading you inexorably into the dreaded injured runner’s quicksand, where all your energetic efforts to escape just suck you in deeper.
So with me. I wrote up and filed away the race experience, took a little break, and then began running again. I even ran the An Ras Mor 5K a couple of weeks later, to help fill out a CSU Seniors team. The ankle didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel any worse, either, so I assumed all was — or would be — well. The only thing that worried me a little was that, although it was no longer a sharp pain, the discomfort in my ankle seemed to be affecting other areas of my leg. My right calf and right hamstrings became tighter. My right Achilles became tender.
That Achilles thing wasn’t a good sign. But it was a busy Spring and I had other things on my mind. There was upheaval in my job situation and there was the constant pressure of coaching. When I wasn’t at work, and even when I was, coaching was taking an enormous amount of mental energy. The nagging discomfort in my right ankle was nowhere near the top of my list of worries.
Throughout April and early May I continued a chaotic pattern of running and exercise. I tried to run regularly on the weekends, but weekdays were a different story. At Track practice I would try to do some of the warm-up with the kids, but this was inconsistent. Then I would find myself demonstrating some movement or other for which I wasn’t prepared. Finally, I might run after practice or — more often than not — skip it. I wasn’t going to the track, wasn’t stretching or rolling after my runs, and wasn’t getting enough sleep. I think a good summary of my running during this period is that I was doing just enough to ensure that the ankle pain never went away.
When the season ended in mid-May, I felt a tremendous sense of relief tempered by a rueful realization that I was really out of shape. The day after our last meet, I ran three miles. I felt more relaxed than I had in months but I also labored. After only a few minutes, I was breathing hard even though it was an easy pace. My foot hurt, and so did my hamstring. Afterwards, I made sure to stretch and roll. This wasn’t going to be easy, but I still thought “I got this,” and made up my mind to run a little every day until things got better.