Running the Road to Recovery
I started running in high school. I ran the mile, two mile and the occasional 5k. I was too slow to be a “racer” but the running habit stuck. I really do enjoy a good run. A good morning run can set my day off in the right direction and an evening run can clean up a messy or frustrating day. I haven’t been a consistent runner, running would fade in and out as a part of my lifestyle, but whenever I wanted or needed to get back into it, running was there. That is until this past year.
At the end of 2011 I was in the best running shape I’d ever been in. I had just completed my first marathon and was looking forward to a few half marathons and keeping up with the miles. All that changed in March. I began to have some lower back pain. At first I wrote it off as bad posture, too much time in the car or time sitting behind a desk, I took a few Alleve and sucked it up. and I kept running, not much, but I felt better when I ran. Unfortunately the pain grew worse and started moving down my left leg. By summer time I was having trouble walking and the pain had moved into my foot. I finally went to the doctor.
“You have a classic case of sciatica” the doctor told me at my first appointment. Sciatica is a essentially a pinched nerve. I had thrown out my back in November of 2011 so this seemed a reasonable diagnosis. The doctor’s advice was don’t drive (this right before my brewcation road trip to Maine and back), stretch and come and see me in a month if things haven’t changed. After a month things had changed but only for the worse, by then I couldn’t even run. I’ve been hard on my body from time to time but until then it had always done what I asked of it. I was frustrated and angry that I was having so much trouble doing even the shortest runs. I had been running all along my trip, slipping in a few miles every few days each progressively a little more difficult until a quarter mile into a, fingers crossed-hopeful, three miler on Assateague Island, I pulled up lame and hobbled back to my camp. I finished out my trip without running again and as soon as I returned home I was back at the doctor.
My second trip to the doctor was a bit more productive than the first. I left with prescriptions for some new pain medications and a course of steroids. These actually seemed to work and my pain was lessened. Finally, I said, now I can get back to running. I knew baby steps were in order so I tried a few short jogs, each leaving me feeling great during the run but bent over in pain after. I was finally fed up with passive waiting and scheduled an appointment with a neurologist. My impatience led to x-rays and ultimately and MRI. The MRI revealed that I had a herniated disk, the disk right where my lumbar vertebrae end and the sacrum begins (L7 S1).
This was good news! I finally had a diagnosis and a plan of action. I was told surgery was out of the question; the hernia was far too small to warrant such drastic action. I had two options; I could go with a epidural or I could try physical therapy. I’m not much on needles so I chose the later. I figured if I went to physical therapy I could at least learn the exercises that would help me later on even if I did need an epidural.
My first training session was nothing like I expected. The first thing they did was hook a few electrodes to my back. A small charge was sent through the electrode, causing what felt like a spasm in in my lower back muscles. The intention was to activate the lethargic muscles. After that I learned a few stretches, that seemed to work right away, and made my next appointment. I was pretty excited about my next trip in; I get a massage, I stretch a little and I come out feeling great, physical therapy is going to be awesome. My second session was completely different though, no massage, lots of stretching and no more electrodes. The second session they had me running. This wasn’t run of the mill running though. I was running on a zero G treadmill. The principle of this contraption is easy enough to understand. They strap you into a bubble that inflates; enough inflation and you neutralize your own weight (zero g). The level of inflation can be manipulated to allow for any range of weights. I started off at 75% of my weight and ran a few miles. Future sessions involved more weight and longer distances until I was up to a 5K.
I had missed several races because of my injury, the Atlanta Marathon relay and the Savannah Rock and Roll Marathon to name a few. My therapy goal was to be able to run the Savannah Bridge run double pump, a 10k and 5k back to back involving three trips over the Talmadge Bridge, Savannah’s answer to Mt. Everest. My last physical therapy session was all planning, I was to run a 5k in Roanoke, Virginia on Thanksgiving day – that run would determine if I could pull off the Double Pump.
My Turkey trot went well. I finished sub 30 minutes, a time I was proud of considering they have hills in Virginia, something I’m not used to running here in Savannah. That said I was pretty beat afterwards and the double pump the next week was looking a little intimidating. I eventually opted out of the double and just ran the 10k. A disappointing decision but knowing that I needed some more time and I shouldn’t be pushing it was probably the right decision.
Injuries are frustrating but I learned this year that there is no sense in pushing a recovery; every time I did I had a setback. My back still isn’t a 100% but I’m back to running now and there isn’t any reason why I can’t get back up to 26 miles if I want to eventually, so I have something to look forward to.