39 Years, Many Obstacles, Still a Runner

Almost 40 years of running for me!
Almost 40 years of running for me!

Last week I shared an excerpt from my book about why I started running. I’ve been thinking a lot about why running continues to be so integral to my life. As I’ve encountered my body’s limits, especially recently having scrapped two half-marathons, I find I’m constantly reassessing my goals and objectives, but not willing to give up the sport.

Looking back, my running history is unremarkable. Before I became a mother during my mid- twenties to early thirties, I ran thirty to fifty miles a week. I ran in local half marathons and 10k races. I was the rabbit for friends training for marathons. I ran for the pure joy of the sport without much thought to optimal training, hydration, or nutrition. I’m not sure anyone would have thought I’d be more passionate about running all these decades later than I was then!

For the twenty-five years after I had my sons, my running was sporadic. I might run consistently for a year, then life would interfere and I’d only hit the pavement at the Thanksgiving Day charity run. I remained active, however, by bicycling, hiking, walking, and swimming.

I vicariously remained involved with the sport, encouraging my sons’ participation in cross-country and track. I cheered when Alex finished his first half marathon, winning his age division and a lovely handcrafted giraffe. My husband and I watched Christopher as he finished his marathon debut in the magnificent Olympic Stadium in Athens, soaking wet from the rain, a bright smile on his face and at 6’3”, towering over the Africans and many Europeans, and later when he and a friend tackled Pike’s Peak in Colorado.

Christopher: Summit Pike's Peak Ascent (half marathon)
Christopher: Summit Pike’s Peak Ascent (half marathon)

Through the years, I missed the friendships forged while running, the delight of loping along forested trails, the chill as I pierced the morning dawn before work feeling the miles under my feet. My sons encouraged me to try again, so in January 2009, I started jogging the one-mile hilly loop of my neighborhood. My body adapted within a few weeks, albeit slowly, as I found a rhythm after my almost ten-year running hiatus. I completed a local 10-k race in May, coming first in my age group (there was clearly no competition). I was inspired to set my sights on a longer goal: I registered for the July 2009 San Francisco Half Marathon, and began training in earnest.

Race day weather was typical summer San Francisco: cold, damp and foggy. The grids on the Golden Gate Bridge were slippery. The famed sunrise over the East Bay Hills was lost in the dark clouds. The hills seemed steeper than when we walked to and from the bridge. Despite the impediments, I completed the race just under my projected time. As I described the details later that day to my older son, he nonchalantly inquired whether I’d thought about running a marathon.

My only attempt at a marathon had been interrupted by the pregnancy of that same son who now motivated me. The opportunity to revive this almost forgotten goal was enticing. I didn’t presume that success would come easily at my age (then 58) or with my time constraints. I could think of many excuses, but I realized quickly how much I wanted to try. With little fanfare (and keeping the goal secret from all but the closest friends and family), I registered for the December 2009 California International Marathon.

CIM is perfect for an inaugural marathon as the course directors enthusiastically promote. The course is a fast point-to-point, net-downhill marathon. The weather is generally good. And, as an added bonus, the start was just miles from my house.

I had four months from registration to race day to train. I focused on steadily increasing my mileage, guided by an online training program. I had negligible time left for cross-training or core stability and strength exercises. In hindsight, this was the most glaring hole in my training; I didn’t listen to what I clearly knew about endurance sports.

Race day was cold, 31 degrees at the start, only warming to the mid-forties amid threatening skies and wind at the finish. I worried about fuel. I worried about the weather. I doubted my stated goal of finishing under four hours.

Despite my anxieties, I ran as planned, without undue effort, until the dreaded mile 21; my left knee and ankle started to buckle and wobble, torqueing in opposite directions. I struggled, stopping several times, until I realized I might not have the strength in that leg to continue. I coaxed myself (having fallen behind the pace group) with the mantra “You have to do this. You may not have another chance. This may be your only marathon.” The definition of “prescience” immediately comes to mind.

I forced my legs to work together as I neared the finish line banners. Somehow, I crossed the tape in 3:49:34, sufficient to qualify for both the Boston and NYC marathons in the women’s 40-year old group, even though I was 58! I was pale and stiff, tired and cold; yet, I couldn’t wait to run again!

California International Marathon (12/2009). It was very cold and windy, but still can't believe I ran in this heavy sweater!
CIM 2009. I still can’t believe I ran in this heavy sweater!

That afternoon, I noticed a bright red streak from my inner left ankle to the mid-calf as if a child had taken a thick marker pen to the area where my ankle and knee decided to go their separate ways. It disappeared but remained a mystery. None of my healthcare providers seemed to take much notice of it.

Within six weeks, I was running six to eight miles several times a week. My legs felt heavy, but I figured I was still in recovery mode. Undeterred, I ran the Austin Half Marathon on Valentine’s Day, placing third in my age group (a PR of 1:50.03). I had some pain in the left buttocks, but with my son watching (having already finished the run), I sprinted the last quarter mile around the Texas capitol building to the finish line. Another mistake: sprinting, like intervals, can accelerate hamstring injuries.

I thought about my next goals. I had missed too many years of running during my prime years to be of masters caliber; however, if I trained with a coach, focused on intervals, hill repeats, endurance, core strength and flexibility exercises, all those things I should have done the previous fall, I wondered if I might be competitive at local or regional events. This was clearly magical thinking.

In anticipation of a coach-led running class, I practiced a few 4×200 intervals. One evening, only a few strides into the first interval, my left thigh squeezed with a sharp, vise-like pain. I broke down in tears, as much from the pain as from the disappointment. I instinctively knew something was very wrong; I needed a professional opinion. In March 2010, I presented to a sports medicine specialist at an academic medical center. I described my running history and the pain, six or seven on a ten-point scale. Not debilitating, as I could walk, but not much else.

I had several range of motion and strength tests, but nothing to detect any biomechanical or structural deficits. Based on my unproven differential diagnosis, the failure early on at this point to note hip or pelvic issues was a critical factor in my slow recovery efforts.

The ramifications of my injury grew out of proportion to the initial trauma. I could not safely contemplate running across the street if a car were coming. I could not comfortably sit at my desk or on an airplane. The psychological impact of the injury was insidious, placing pallor over my daily life. Before the injury I did not think twice about bicycling or swimming or hiking. Now, I contemplated a disability that would not only prevent me from engaging in activities that are vital to my physical and mental well-being but are also important cornerstones of my relationship with my husband.

Months of physical therapy, continued doctors’ appointments, diagnostic tests. Feeling sorry for myself. Inaction so much worse than action. My exercise list grew almost exponentially to the actual injury, including hip and glute strengthening protocols (i.e. the “monster walk,” single-leg squats, hip adductor and hip abductor exercises, the “hip hike,” “clam shell” and “scorpion”) and a more robust core strength and flexibility program (crunches, plank, superman, lunges, bridge and “quadruped” exercises). The names of the exercises were almost as convoluted as what was being required of my body. I was overwhelmed with the regimen, but I was determined to do what was needed. I could not abide the constant pain or limited physical activities.

Some days, I believed that the triumvirate of discipline, focus and willpower would prevail over the injury. That is, after all, how I was able to complete the marathon. Other days, I doubted a full recovery. At that time, my last successful run was on February 14, 2010. My qualifying period expired for the Boston Marathon. I did not roll over my registration for the New York Marathon. I could not fathom running 26.2 miles again.

Fast forward two years and several different physical therapists, a running analysis at UCSF, complete with gait, nutrition, podiatric and strength testing, going from running/walking to running several 10k races (and placing in my age-group), only to be thwarted by any greater mileage or faster pace. The right leg, perhaps in compensation for the left side tilt and weakness, began to show similar signs of pain, weakness and distress. A new postural-focused physical therapist pulled me back with the sole focus on pelvic alignment and left hip strengthening.

Again, the running ceased and the exercises took on a life of their own, but the approach seemed sound. Once again, I started a running/walking combination, eventually running a 10k in Boulder, placing first in my age group at altitude. I was ecstatic and then, as I continued training with a 10-mile race as my next goal that fall, the right hamstring/glutes rebelled. I immediately stopped running, tears rolling down my face. How much more of this could I endure? How could I start again? Was I too old? Were my muscles and bones never going to give me the strength, endurance and power I needed to get beyond the baby steps to running fully and freely?

The initial four years post-injury confirmed my belief that the initial physical assessment should have focused on why the left hamstring overuse became so debilitating (and not merely due to the high mileage requirements of training for and running a marathon). My weak external hip rotators and pelvic misalignment (the “pelvic tilt”) magnified the hamstring overuse. The pelvic torque and weak muscles stressed the hamstring whether I was walking, bicycling, swimming, running or sitting for extended periods of time. I may have further damaged the hamstring when I started running again after the first corticosteroid shot, the pain lessened but the injury not healed, the time to recovery reset.

I’ve learned many lessons from this journey: the accurate etiology of an injury is critical before rehabilitation can be truly effective; hamstring injuries are very painful and slow to heal with numerous side effects; the biomechanics of the human body are complex and interactive; and patience is more than a virtue!

For all the analyses and diagnoses, the simple truth was that I missed the freedom, the joy, the solitude and beauty of running in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the trails of Boulder and the simplicity of Town Lake Trail in Austin. I missed the all-out tiredness at the end of a long run. Even though my actual running from injury during the next four years was limited in duration, it filled every fiber of my being. My heart ached as I slowly forgot how the lightness felt, how the miles slipped by on a Saturday morning run, how the joy from running permeated my daily life. How would I fill the hole if I were required to forego this beloved activity?

Boulder Goat Trail (route up to Mt. Sanitas)
Boulder Goat Trail (route up to Mt. Sanitas)

A year ago, I resolved to give running ONE MORE TRY before hanging up my shoes. I’d take what I’d learned from the past four years, layered with my early years and love of running, and fashion something that worked for me. If I couldn’t do it, then I would let go of this dream, no longer to be a runner. Until then, I will try my best to strengthen my body, find the sometimes waning endurance and power, rekindle the lightness of being that is within me each time I run, and let loose the unadulterated passion that is this sport.

What have been the biggest obstacles you’ve had to surmount to still be a runner?

I'm a senior masters runner. I write about my running journey and topics of interest to runners of all ages. My current goal is to maintain of steady base of road and (new to me) trail running, with some 5k, 10k, and half marathons throughout the year.

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  1. WOW. I am so impressed with your perseverance and dedication, and restarting so many times. (also frustrated with your not being able to get good diagnoses and help, happens to so many of us) So many pieces to the puzzle of injury, recovery, prehab/rehab and healthy running. I am learning this at age 49, thanks for giving me inspiration to keep working on improving everything!

    1. Steve, thank you. As you once asked, perseverance is critical to improvement. Small steps forwards and backwards. This is truly a journey.