My surgically repaired knee and the winter of 2013-14 have two things in common: both have brought me pain and neither has shown real signs of improvement. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. Much of this winter’s snow has melted over these last couple weeks and I’ve had some good, pain-free days and even a couple longer runs this last month, the longest being a 7-miler in Boston, which included me storming up (and walking back down) the one and only Heartbreak Hill three times. But on my last run (and you don’t know how scary it is to put those two words together until you’ve had a serious injury like mine) I had to stop because my knee hurt.
Though it’s generally been achy afterwards, this was the first time I had to stop mid-run. I’d made it just over 4 ½ miles of a planned 6-miler from home. It was going to be the first time I’d run this old, familiar route since the fall of 2012 and I was curious what kind of pace I could maintain. I’d had a decent track workout earlier in the week with my friend Russ: 8 300’s at an average of 58 seconds, not bad, but then we’d done a mile and I’d struggled to run 6:06 (Russ blasted a 5:36). No endurance, I told myself, I’ve got no endurance. It makes sense. Running 2 times and only 10 miles a week is no way to build endurance. Even with all the cross training I’m doing, nothing else is quite like running, and it feels like my body just doesn’t remember how to find a comfortable, maintainable rhythm.
But I can get that back, I told myself, which is why I decided to run the 6 miles. I’ve also got some races penciled in to my calendar, the Steamboat Classic in June, the Pleasant Prairie Triathlon the week after that. While I hadn’t planned on running great times, I had little doubt I’d be able to complete the distances. Most of my workouts since I started running again in fall have been shorter repeats, but I’ve done 22 runs of 4-5 miles since October and have been seeing improvement. That’s how it supposed to happen when you come back from an injury, right? It’s tough getting started again, but then you get stronger and it gets easier. That’s what I’ve been telling myself has been happening. Of course, with a microfracture, the possibility exists that each of those 22 runs, while maybe helping to strengthen my leg, has been simultaneously deteriorating the “cartilage” that developed after the surgery and those 100 miles is all the knee has to give me.
That’s a depressing thought, and I’m not saying that is the case, and I don’t think that’s the case, but I’ve got to acknowledge that that may be the case. At least it sure felt that way when I was limping home last Saturday afternoon. After a few minutes, I tried to run again, but it hurt too much. I had to walk and as the cold wind blew on me and turned my sweaty run clothes into an icy blanket, I began to shake, shiver, and swear. Really, I asked myself. Is this really happening? As I walked through the neighborhood, which was still too far from home to feel like my own neighborhood, it seemed certain that not only was my knee never going to get better, but that winter would never end. For those fifteen minutes, probably the longest fifteen minutes since all this began, it was like all of 2013 had been wiped away: getting off crutches, doing rehab, strengthening my leg with long walks through the nature center, biking though the summer, starting to run again, it was like none of it had ever happened. And even my life events, like getting married, our honeymoon, our trip to Alaska, were like memories were from years earlier. Because all I knew for sure was that I’d had surgery in the winter and now it was still winter and my knee still hurt and it seemed inconceivable to me that the surgery could have been 15 months ago.
In a way the two bad things in my life, or maybe I should say the two major inconveniences–the facts that my knee was still not healed and that winter was apparently never going to end–had actually made the other easier to take. My knee still hurts, I’d think, but the weather is so bad I wouldn’t be getting in shape yet anyway, so I’m not missing out on any good training weather. Likewise, when I’d look over the forecast and see that the cold, crummy weather was sticking around, I’d think, yeah, this sucks, but my knee is not ready to do much running yet anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I’ll just keep doing my other workouts. I think I’ve been expecting both things to improve at the same time: when spring finally came and the weather was good, my knee would be good too, I’d be able to run like I want to, and everything in the world would be right again.
And just before things went badly, they were going so well. One day I was feeling so good I felt myself almost begin to skip down the hallway at work. I held myself back, but took this as a good sign. A week before that failed run I’d gotten a comment to one of my blog posts from a fellow runner who was 5 weeks post-microfracture surgery. Her doctor had told her, as mine had told me, to plan to go forward without running. She said she was so glad to have found my blog, that my progress, my running, had given her hope. I replied to tell her that all was not lost, that it was possible to run after microfracture. I even offered to send her my training log, all the boring details, so she could see how I’d done it, gotten back to running, not the same as before, but still running. So when I was walking home last weekend, getting colder, more depressed and frustrated by the minute, I didn’t just feel bad for myself, I felt badly for her too, like I was letting her down, like I was letting all my fellow injured runners down.
Maybe she’s reading this right now (maybe you’re reading this right now), limping around, fresh off her crutches, and thinking to herself, oh no, all hope is lost, I can never run again. But no, no, that’s not the case. Because when I got home and peeled off my cold, damp sweatpants and tights I was happy to see my knee was not swollen at all. The pain was gone too. It was achy the next day, but just like it usually was after a run, nothing more. Why had it hurt during the run? Maybe I was going too hard, maybe because it was the hard surface, maybe I misstepped and twisted it a bit. I always pay real close attention to my form now, making sure everything is moving straight ahead, but just before the pain forced me to stop I was thinking I had just over a mile to go, was buffeting myself for the incline that was coming, was telling myself I needed to keep pushing, that it was hard work but that it would pay off in the end. So it’s very possible my form went awry and I misstepped. You’d think that wouldn’t matter at this point, 15 months out, but it might.
Part of the challenge of returning to running is the fact that I don’t know exactly what’s going on in there. It seems there’s no clear path to follow coming back from microfracture because everybody responds differently. I also had a stress fracture in my femur, which should be healed by now, but who knows? When it hurts now, when it hurt that day, it felt like a sprain. I’ve sprained my ankle a few times and after the initial bout of pain, there’s always that period after the fact when it’s susceptible, a wrong twist here or a misstep there and the pain comes back—not as bad as the initial injury, but just as a signal to the brain that things are still not back to full health. It feels kind of like that so I’m going to treat it like a sprain and see what happens. What this means is I’m going to put as little stress as possible on it for 2-3 weeks, minimizing the impact, and then hopefully 1) the pain will be gone, 2) I’ll focus more on strengthening exercises, and then 3) return to running again.
So in a way I’m starting over. This is a medically sound plan, but it’s true I’m also “hoping” it works. It’s kind of like restarting my computer when it’s not acting like it should. I’m going to allow the pain, or inflammation, or whatever it is, go away and then start fresh again. This is a little frustrating, but as I look out my window and see it has snowed yet again, and as I look over the forecast and see the winter weather is going to continue, it seems we’ve got more time until spring arrives, and then, well, we’ll see what happens then. In the meantime, I’ll bike, swim, use the Nordictrak and Ellliptical, I’ll keep doing my 10 hours a week until I can get back to running.
I wish I hadn’t had to spend this whole post writing about my knee. Of course, that’s what this blog is about–my knee, returning to running, or not, so I’ve got to deal with that before I can write about anything else. But I’ve got some other things to write about: my perfect, lovely wife convinced me to join her Masters swim team and now I’m even signed up for my first ever swim meet (scary!). Even more exciting, I am now the distance runners coach for my son’s high school track team (we’re 2 weeks in) and I’ve got lots to say about that. But alas, you’ve already given me more time than I could have asked for, so you’ll have to come back next time if you want to hear about all that (and my knee, of course, always my knee).