In case you’re new to my running story, let me catch you up. Last spring I became single after 12 years and was sad. As a newly solo dog mom, I endeavoured to tire out my high-energy Labrador retriever/border collie mix (cute, isn’t she?) by taking up running again after a very long hiatus. It changed my life. I ran my first half-marathon, began training for a full marathon, and realized the joy and confidence I feel on the running trail applies to everyday life. Running makes me happy, keeps me sane, and lets me believe anything is possible.
A former 100m, 200m, and occasional 400m sprinter, I never expected to be a decent distance runner. My grade-school track coach nicknamed me “Thunder Thighs,” and though he meant it as a compliment — something’s got to power a girl down the homestretch straightaway — all it did was make me wish my body type was a little less classically Eastern European (I could definitely hold my own working on a farm). By the time I got to high school, I coveted the lithe shape of the girls who ran far. Especially since it meant I could have trained with the boy I had a crush on, who was a 1,500m and 3,000m specialist.
My preconceived notions of body type meant that as I dabbled in running for fitness off and on through adulthood, it never occurred to me that I would ever run a marathon. And yet there I was, having just turned 40, lopping off 7 minutes from my 10K race time between September 2012 and April 2013. Then I finished my first half-marathon in well under 2 hours, taking 15th place in my age category. In early summer I ran 5K straight down a runway, finishing in 9th place in the 40–49 age bracket. Other runners would say to me, “Whoa. You’re fast.” I would blink bewilderedly a few times as their words sunk in. Then I would smile. Not only did I love training for and racing distance, but it turns out I wasn’t bad at it!
As this summer of 2013 wore on, my mileage pushed higher and higher as marathon training got serious. Every long training run I tackled on weekends saw me break my personal distance record — 20K, 22K, 25K, 28K — and I was right on track to run a strong 30K at the 2013 Midsummer Night’s Run, an important physical and psychological milestone in preparation for my October 20 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. My long-run times were such that the 4 hours I originally estimated for my finish time at STWM was probably a bit generous. There was a real possibility I might run my first marathon in 3:45 — 3:30, even, if I had a great race day.
Then the email showed up.
“You’re in the fastest 10%, Jodi!” trumpeted the subject line. It was from the team behind the application I use to track my all my training stats. They invited a section of their user base to participate in an international competition to determine the world’s fastest city. Participants agreed to track their runs over the course of a week and the results would be tabulated to determine the speediest runners from participating cities and an overall city winner based on collective average pace.
Of course I was in.
You don’t go through the ending of a 12-year relationship without a bit of damage to the ol’ self-esteem. Throw in a healthy dose of career frustration and perpetual impatience with how slowly it can feel to get back on one’s feet after major life upheaval, and it’s not hard to see why steady training improvements and racing achievements had become my lifelines. I might not be exactly where I want to in other parts of my life, but every successful run I have makes me believe I’ll eventually get to where I want and need to be off the trail, too. It’s why I was practically drunk with giddiness the afternoon I got the invitation to participate in the multi-city competition. In the fastest 10% of the app’s users? Amazing. It was proof I had something going for me, after all.
Aside from some pretty common runners’ issues — a missing toenail, a black toenail, a split foot callus — I’d made it through 10 months of training in good health. With my competitiveness now sparked into overdrive, I took it all for granted and went a little off the rails, embarking on a week of intensive speed training that a more rational me would’ve known better not to do. In the days leading up to my 30K race I decided to do four tempo runs in a row, all in the name of doing well in the competition. (All you runners out there know that most training schedules allow for just one tempo run and one track workout per week.)
I felt great at the end of those four runs. At distances ranging from 5K to 10K, I dropped my average per-kilometre pace time by about 25 seconds (I don’t quite know why I felt the need to run that fast, when, doing regular training, I was already in the fastest 10% of the app’s users). And I had a day and a half of recovery time before the Midsummer’s Night Run. Everything seemed fine.
The afternoon before race day, I was downtown picking up my race kit and running a few errands. Resuming my walk south on Yonge Street after waiting out a red light, I felt a stabbing pain in my right shin. It appeared out of nowhere. Having been through shin splints and a stress fracture in my sprinter days, I knew what those felt like, and how the pain build is gradual. This was sudden. So I chalked it up to a strain from having walked with an odd gait all week in an effort to baby the fissure (the split callus) on the bottom of my right foot. At worst I thought it might be the start of a shin splint, and I vowed to rest my leg for a week after my 30K.
Speaking of, I had a great race. Conditions on Toronto Island were perfect: it was sunny, not too hot, and the views of the island, the mainland, and the lake from the course were spectacular. I took two ibuprofen before the start horn to keep the pain in check. I ran 2:36, just shy of my 2:30 race goal, but had an excellent last 2K and finishing 800m kick. A runner who had sat on my shoulder for the last part of the course pumped my hand in the finish chute, congratulating me on my final sprint. “I really tried,” he said, “but I just couldn’t catch you.” Perhaps most important of all was knowing that when I crossed the line I could have kept going. Running another 12K would have been daunting, yes, but I could have done it. I could have run a marathon that night. It was a critical piece of mental training to have achieved in the lead-up to October.
But about that right shin. I could feel it throughout the race. It didn’t bother me enough to interfere with my performance, but in the moments when my mind drifted a bit out of focus, I was reminded that something wasn’t quite right down there.
I learned just how not right things were the next morning. Up early to walk my dog, Tilda, I was in a fair bit of pain by the time we covered the 1.2K to Riverdale Park, where we often go for off-leash play. My right lower leg was swollen, and I was bruised from the mid-calf down through the ankle. I iced it over the course of the day and hoped with rest I’d be back to normal soon.
That right there is called denial.
A work colleague who is a five-time marathoner took one look at me on Monday morning and flipped through her contacts file, handing me a sports physiotherapist’s card. “Call him,” she said.
Two days later I was being examined, wincing as said physiotherapist pressed on my severely inflamed tibialis anterior muscle. “Have you heard of compartment syndrome?” he asked. Of course I had. I had Googled every possible shin-related injury since the day after my race. Despite knowing that severe compartment injuries can take months to heal, I asked the question anyway. “Will I be ready for October 20?”
He looked at me, looked at my shin, and pursed his lips. “I’m not making any predictions today,” he said. “Let’s start working on this inflammation first. The next appointment will be the critical one in determining your running future.”
I did everything he told me to. I iced the injury for 10 minutes every single waking hour of the day, with frozen peas and ice cubes directly on the skin to send the cold as deep into the muscle as possible. I did three different sets of stretches twice a day. I visualized running, being happy in the middle of a comfortable distance, for 5 minutes twice a day. (I loved that last bit of therapy. It was meant to keep the parts of my brain normally engaged with training active.) By day five my leg was almost back to its normal size and I could flex my foot up and down once again.
With the online support of the STWM community, I kept a positive outlook. But having been injured before, I know that the early days of healing can be deceptive. Things feel good when you’re sitting or even walking, but a few earnest strides into a run and the pain can be back with a vengeance. I started to consider the real possibility that I’d have to sit October 20 out. I thought about all the work I’ve done this year and how a silly training decision driven by ego could have undone it all. I vacillated between wishing I could have a do-over on the previous week and feeling resolved that I wouldn’t let this obstacle drag me down. It might slow me down, but slow is not the same thing as defeat. Then I made the smartest decision of all: I took one day a time, doing what I could in the moment. My mantra became “Ice, stretch, visualize. Believe.”
Six days after my initial consultation, I was walking back through the clinic’s door. My hands were clammy. My heart was pounding. The din of the busy room faded to silence as every cell of my being trained its focus on my physio, waiting for him to deliver a verdict.
“Well, that’s better,” he said, nodding approvingly as he palpated up and down my lower right leg. I passed the flex and strength tests I had failed miserably the week before. It appeared I was a very lucky girl. I had grossly overtaxed the muscle with all that speedwork, and running a 30K race on the injury in its early stages made things even worse. But all the intensive icing had broken the cycle of inflammation and pressure buildup, and it didn’t appear that I had done any terrible permanent damage. The next words out of the physio’s mouth were the magic ones: “Let’s get you back up on your feet.”
So far I can only run 1–2K, at an excruciatingly slow pace (“Slow enough so that it feels like your grandma could beat you,” was the exact direction), but I’m running, and pain-free at that. I will continue to build slowly from here, and that means I will be toeing the start line with 25,000 other runners on the morning of October 20 as we run the 23rd Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon.
In the meantime, I was notified that of the Toronto participants in the fastest-city-in-the-world contest, I placed in the top 10. Am I chuffed by that result? Yep. Was the injury worth it? Nope. There’s a fine line between pushing your limits in order to be better and doing something you know could risk injury just to see your name in lights. I learned this lesson the hard way, but it could have been much worse. While these few weeks will put a dent in my training schedule, I should be pretty much where I need to be on race day in October.
It was a close call.