Diary of an injury-prone runner: Week 5 training for the New York City Marathon

I have good news and I have very, very bad news


No need to keep you waiting, right?

I am bowing out of the New York City Marathon. This is my last week of in-denial training and my final post on the subject.

This may not come as a gasping shock to those following along. I am in week five of my marathon training. I have run zero miles. For the mathematicians among us, that leaves only 11 weeks until race day. Unless I was some sort of magician or Olympic goddess, the chances of my being able to build up to at least 18 miles over nine weeks (allotting for two weeks of tapering) is nearly impossible. Especially considering the injury.

And, ah yes, the injury. For the past month and a half I have been working under the theory that my right calf's relentless soreness stems from an accumulation of micro-tears. I believed it was the resulting scar tissue that was making my calf so inflexible and uncomfortable.

After four weeks of physical therapy and two weeks of acupuncture, I have improved, but only slightly. Two weeks ago, I successfully ran five minutes on the treadmill before pain set in. Last week, I managed to extend that jog by a minute. But six minutes of running, however pain-free, does not a marathon make.

Nonetheless, I have been quite cozy in my state of denial, imagining that no matter my slow progress I would still be joining tens of thousands of runners in Staten Island on November 3.

I had planned to test out my meager treadmill success with a full blown run this past Saturday. Under the suggestion of my acupuncturist, I was going to try the Galloway method — run, walk, run — which would alleviate some of the stress on my muscles. If I felt good, I'd simply up my mileage significantly each week.

But before that could happen, I had to see an orthopedist. It was a courtesy call, really. My physical therapist suggested I go just to confirm the diagnosis and also get another prescription of physical therapy to pad my initial, now-dwindling allotment.

But the two doctors who swiftly examined my leg did not confirm my scar tissue theory. Instead, they said it is likely I have chronic or exertional compartment syndrome.

Chromic compartment syndrome is the build-up of pressure within a muscle, usually the calf or shin, which results from ongoing or overuse of said muscle. The pressure can't be released during activity, which is why the muscle will feel tight, achy, or worse.

This is not a good diagnosis.

The problem (that's generous, really. There are so many problems. But, one step at a time) is that this syndrome is not easy to diagnose. The doctors I saw merely suggested I seek out another specialist — an orthopedist focused entirely on this issue. There is only one such doctor in all of New York City. This specialized doctor could better diagnose the syndrome with a test — though it's still not 100 percent accurate — that measures the pressure in my calf before and after a run.

If the test is positive, the only "cure" for the syndrome, is surgery.

You read that right: Surgery.

Surgeons would slice open my leg, relieve the pressure, and rearrange some of the muscle tissue so that it is more elastic. But not even this is an absolute. So, I could go through months of appointments, painful tests, surgery, weeks of recovery only to suffer from the same affliction some time in the future. Great.

All of this information, by the way, was rattled off to me at a stunning clip during that Thursday afternoon appointment. I couldn't keep up, let alone digest and ask the list of clever, productive questions I thought of later in the quiet of my apartment. Instead, I just sat there in my hospital-issued bloomers looking down at those damn calves.

"But..." I finally mustered. "Can I run?"

Basically, yes, one of the doctors said. It's just a matter of pain management. If it ever got unbearable I should consider the specialized doctor and the surgery. Alternatively, they said, Google it.

Google it I did.

This is not actually good advice, despite the fact that it came from the mouth of a scrubs-clad doctor. On forums, runners plead for a solution that could get them to successfully complete a 5K when they used to regularly run marathons with ease. I do not recommend this internet rabbit hole when you are emotionally on edge.

Inconveniently, I had scheduled an acupuncturist appointment the same evening. So instead of curling up in a fetal position on the floor of my bedroom, I had to return to the world to interact with happier people. This acupuncturist was new to me, but when she brightly invited me back to the dimly lit room and asked me nonchalantly how I was, I sniffled and said, "I've been better." With my chin quivering, I explained my story. She listened and nodded and then said a diagnosis is not the end all and be all. She said if I had been feeling like I was improving with the physical therapy then that is all the information I needed.

It was the best kind of pep talk, but I couldn't absorb it. Instead, I laid on the table, needles poking out of the useless calf, wondering how on Earth I got here.

Four months ago, I ran a half marathon in under two hours without pain or injury. And now I'm trying to come to grips with the fact that I may not be able to run long distances ever again.

Oh, right, I said I had good news. Now might be the time for that.

I ran on Saturday.

It was only 30 minutes, about a 5K distance, but it was the most I have run in six weeks. I felt shaky on my feet, like they were not my own, but I eventually fell into a rhythm that was blissfully pain free. The diagnosis, the doctors, the sad running forum vanished from my mind. I felt... happy.

So, I have to believe all is not lost. I may not be able to run this marathon, but I will not be without running.

Don't get me wrong. I'm incredibly disappointed if not completely depressed about my situation. But I have to hope I will one day be behind the starting line of one of the biggest and most respected races in the world. New York City Marathon, this is not done yet.

I just have to figure out how to get back there.

I have made an appointment with the specialist to discuss my options. And I've surveyed a few doctor friends about the diagnosis. One talked me off of my cliff. He suggested I first try out orthotics. If that doesn't work then surgery is actually a viable second option.

It seems completely absurd to consider surgery when running is only a hobby for me. But even typing that I know it's not the full truth. I don't know what I would do without being able to strap on my sneakers and hit the road. So, I'll do whatever it takes. If that means a year of no running, pricey orthotics, or even going under the knife, I will commit to recovery as I would have the marathon training.

This weekend I picked up the magazine Running Times, which had an article called "The Running Machine Myth," by John Kiely, about the body's miraculous ability to adapt. Here, an excerpt that felt directed toward me and my sorrowful state:

We often compare runners to machines. But machines can't accomplish this trick. They can't continue to function after key components are damaged or removed. Humans, however, can survive ill-fitting, injured or missing parts. We accomplish this trick thanks to our ability to shape coordination habits around our individual peculiarities. [John Kiely, Running Times]

So, I'll get back on the road because I love to run. Though my body would rather I didn't, it will eventually adapt and strengthen and help me get back to my sport.

It's a form of survival. So, yeah, I'll be back. I have to.

Happy running!

Read more training diary entries:
*Diary of an injury-prone runner: Week 4 training for the New York City Marathon
*Diary of an injury-prone runner: Week 3 training for the New York City Marathon
*Diary of an injury-prone runner: Week 2 training for the New York City Marathon
*Diary of an injury-prone runner: Week 1 training for the New York City Marathon


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