What caused my post-marathon knee injury

Dallas Marathon 2014 finisher's medal

It was all for this.

I’m an amateur runner who’s been at it for about a decade now. I’ve always tried to absorb as many do’s and dont’s as I can from fellow runners and industry publications, to keep myself as injury-free as possible. I try to be smart, so I can run as much and as long as life lets me. But sometimes that diligence just isn’t enough. Sometimes, you get injured and not even your doctors really know why.

The Dallas Marathon in December 2014 was my first full marathon. That was 17 months ago. After, my knees totally crapped out on me. In fact, I could feel it beginning to happen around mile 20 of the race itself.

I still don’t exactly know what happened except that it completely sidelined me. Until now. Besides an eventually-abandoned attempt at 5K training a few months after the marathon, I’m only beginning to re-emerge and, so far, only on dirt trails. My ultimate goal is to get back to running wherever I want, whenever I want.

While I work on that, maybe my peek into the possible culprits will give you, fellow enthusiastic amateur, perspective and warning.

My training

I ran my first marathon in December 2014. The training for that took up the majority of that year leading up to the event. I enjoyed every last minute, even the ones when I wanted to die. I followed a training plan, but I fully admit that I played fast and loose with it some weeks. Cross training — what’s that?

I love strength training, but each week’s miles already overtook so much of my waking hours that I decided I didn’t have time for much else on the training plan. I told myself that wearing out my legs with squats and lunges while also racking up high mileage might cause injury. I decided that achieving the plan’s miles was the only thing that mattered.

Toward the end of training, I was struggling to just meet the miles. The last two weeks of the plan, I didn’t.

My shoes

Thing is, not only was I not building a solid infrastructure to support the crazy distance to which I was subjecting my body, I chose to do something else even cuter. I decided I wanted to run my first marathon in lightweight shoes. First, Brooks PureFlow. Then Brooks PureConnect. I don’t know why. I could have been subconsciously influenced by an old 2009 story I wrote about barefoot running. It seemed to make sense at the time. I had no business being in anything but a structured shoe, though: I’m the world’s worst over-pronator. I didn’t put that together until later, that over-pronation required a structured shoe, especially for a first foray into marathon training.

2014 Dallas Marathon

All of us awesome amateurs in the 12-minute corral freaking out before the 2014 Dallas Marathon gunshot.

My pride

When friends, family and colleagues saw that I was for real-deal training for a for real-full marathon, most everyone gave me smiles, encouragement and back slaps. It was humbling and inspiring. One loved one, however, gave me a well-intentioned but uninformed word of caution: You’re 38. You’ll be 39 when the race takes place. You’d better be careful, because you’re getting a little too old for this sort of thing.

Never in my entire life had I ever thought that 39 would be too old to do anything, as long as that 39-year-old body was properly trained and ready for it. I had had the privilege of interviewing so many amateur athletes for stories who were well older than I was, and many of them hadn’t even become active until later in life. And now, they’re beasts at their chosen focus: running, cycling, bodybuilding. I at least had a foundation from high school sports, and I’d kept my body generally familiar with movement into my 30s. I’d at least somewhat strengthened along the way. Then, newspaper colleagues introduced my sitting-at-a-desk-all-day body to the joys of actually, really challenging myself physically through running. Many of them were older. I’ll always be indebted to to those interview subjects and those co-workers for inspiring me.

Dallas Marathon 2014

Before the gunshot.

Normally I’d brush off such an uninformed idea as “you’re too old to jostle yourself at your age,” but this person meant a lot to me. I politely countered her advice, but still: It stuck with me.

It stuck with me, meaning: I’ll show her.

I was blind with defiance. Whereas before I hadn’t even considered that I wouldn’t get a finisher’s medal, now it was imperative that I finish. Having to skip the race, quitting in the middle of it, or, worse, having race organizers pick up orange cones all around me as I crawl like a sloth to a finish line that isn’t there any longer weren’t options.

My name would be Google-able for “Dallas Marathon 2014 finishers,” even if it took hell, high water, and the full six hours to get there.

At mile 20 of the marathon, my knees began sending me signals that I knew were red flags. I had been running at a pace that I hadn’t trained for, because I was completely paranoid about not making the time cutoff. By the time I hit the finish line, I had barely skated in under six hours. I got the medal, but I wondered if my knees would pay the price.

A couple of months later, I headed out the door for my first post-race run. No dice. They ached. I went to a nearby sports medicine place, where the doctor said my menisci were torn. Surgery in September 2015 revealed that they actually weren’t; my cartilage simply looked like crabmeat and needed shaving down. Was it the marathon that did it? He said no, absolutely not. It’s genetics — you just have crappy knees. 

Ok. Well, I want to come back strong so I can start running again. What should I do during recovery?

Eh, do some squats.

“Some” squats. Ok. How many? How often?

Just as many as you can do. Whatever.

Injury No. 2 … or was it?

I was just about all the way recovered from surgery in December 2015. On Christmas day I played with my toddler niece, getting more physical than I had in a long time. It was great. That evening, sharp pains shot through the underside of one kneecap and through the back of my other knee.

I went back to my doctor, and he confirmed my Google searches: loose bodies. He said that it wasn’t related to my previous injury, just more of my knees being crappy. We’ll need to do surgery — let me know when you’re ready for another.

My husband, Brian, suggested that be our last visit. Besides this tale, there were other red flags that raised our eyebrows with this guy, including a nasty post-op infection and literal 30-second follow-up visits.

I ruminated a few months over having another surgery. I decided to make an appointment with the orthopedic practice at Baylor Hospital here in Dallas.

Before my first visit, just a couple of weeks ago, the weather was getting nice. That and the fact I’d gotten properly fat in the past year and a half prompted me to take a walk at a nearby nature preserve, to begin moving in some small way again. I ended up jogging a bit — and being totally delighted at the near-absence of pain. It had never dawned on me that running on dirt might have been an option this whole time. I went to my appointment and told my new doctor the whole story.

I don’t think this is loose bodies, he said. You should have gone to rehab after your surgery, or you should have been outfitted with a thorough at-home exercise program post-op. Your quads and hips are totally weakened from surgery and were never built back up. That will cause all sorts of pain. Let’s get you into rehab first, get you strong, and see if that helps.

I haven’t had my first rehab appointment yet, but I’ve been trail running and squatting like mad ever since. I was so excited at the prospect that this could be the answer.

So, my advice for avoiding 17 months of dormancy due to injury:

  • Let your training talk to you. If you’re not on track and are starting to skip or badly struggle toward the end, that’s a sign. Either you or your body isn’t ready. Maybe you’re caught up with other, more pressing things in life right now. It just might not be the right race at the right time. Wait for the next one. Seriously.  You’ll be that much more beast at the next race.
  • Properly outfit yourself with the shoes and other gear your body requires. If you’re beginning something much more strenuous than your body is accustomed to, then awesome. Do it. But balance it out with conservative, wise measures. You can get weird, funky, or experimental later, when you and your body aren’t so new to that beastly level of activity.
  • Don’t listen to other people. Just don’t. Unless what they’re saying supports your goals, and if you know that what they’re saying is coming from a place of jealousy, ignorance or naïveté, just keep doing what you’re doing. That includes listening to your body when it’s trying to clearly tell you to slow down or to stop. Don’t let that other person’s bad juju influence your choices — whether it’s to keep going or to quit.
  • Strength-train. Just do it. Do it when you’re training for a race. Do it post-op. If your doctor won’t help you figure it out, find someone who will, or figure it out yourself. It’s so important, especially for us women. You have to have strong, solid scaffolding upon which to build your body’s Beast Empire. Make time. Don’t skip this step.

What I’ve learned in the past year about running (and not running)

Been a long time! And it’s been a long year. Lots has happened in the life of Christy, and unfortunately, most of it has had nothing to do with running. Maybe I can share some of those things in a future post.

But as of May 7 I’m back in the saddle, and I’m mulling my previous inactivity so I can better understand how to stay consistent moving forward. I’ve let my lack of movement discourage me and even depress me at times, but I can’t afford that anymore. I’m done.

So, in no particular order, here’s what stands out as I look over my shoulder.

1. I need external motivation.
As much as I’d love to lace up and pop out of bed before the sun on nothing but sole gumption and discipline, I’m not that person. I need a cattle prod (“Omg, I’ve gained 10 pounds and can’t afford to gain any more”) or a shiny, sparkly object dangling in front of me (“Cool! I get a tan even on a 6:30 p.m. run!”). I love running for the sake of running, yes. But it simply isn’t enough to crack me out of my calcified state and put me back on the road or trail, at least not at first. I know this about myself, and I don’t beat myself up for it anymore. I simply seek out sources of external motivation now, harness them, and use them to my advantage.

2. Gear and technology matter to me.
I’d love to be an unencumbered runner who doesn’t care about carrying music or GPS or other “things” with me. But yep, I’m that runner. If I’m going to put in the effort and the miles, I want to know exactly how many miles I ran, what the elevation was that tortured me, how many calories I burned in the process. And I don’t want to have to manually map out my route before or after to find that out, either. I want to know I’m not going to crash and burn early because I relied too heavily on infrequent water fountains in the searing Texas heat, so you’re going to see a water bottle in my hand, and likely you’ll see a G2 packet sticking out of the little zippered pocket on the bottle’s hand-wrap as well. And yes, if I need that extra push, I want to know Gaga or Bun B are just a “play” button away from giving it to me.

In fact, I credit two pieces of gear that I discovered recently with getting my butt of the couch again. They were the external motivators that got me going, and I’m grateful to them. More on those in a near-future post.

3. Clothes matter to me.
Not necessarily the cuteness of the clothes, really. But having comfortable, functional and non-homely ensembles that I can quickly throw in a bag or throw on as soon as I come in from work is key. If I need a new sports bra or if my usual running shorts are too tight right now, those are barriers. Where I spend money is on good, hearty sports bras and quality shoes: Even though I didn’t pay for them, I can now vouch for the greatness of Nike Frees for both support and lightness. Under Armour makes great pullover bras that keep me still (as much as possible). The Nike running capris in this review were too big for me when I first got them, but now they fit perfectly. Sigh. But I can at least now vouch 100 percent that they’re comfortable, airy and supportive. I also found some gray and bright fluorescent yellow running shorts from Target: cheap, really comfortable, the cut is great, and they’re darn cute. I also bought a package of colored men’s Fruit of the Loom A-line undershirts (tank tops), trimmed the hem at the bottom since they’re super-long, and wear those over my sports bras. They’re cotton but they’re so airy and comfy that it doesn’t matter.

4. Route variety matters.
I started off in May walking and running around my neighborhood here in Deep Ellum (northeast of downtown Dallas). It was great, it was exciting, it was easy to just walk out of my door …. then it wasn’t. It got old real quick and I realized that I needed to branch out. I’m ADD when it comes to routes, and I know that now. And it’s ok. I simply make sure I don’t wear out the same old paths. If I think I’m going to see or experience something a little different from before, that gets me out the door more quickly.

5. Marriage can really wreck a routine. At least mine.
I married in my early 30s. That meant I had my solo routines down pat before I aligned myself with another (albeit wonderful) human being who had different solo routines. It became a clash of the solo routines. Part of my adjustment period was re-learning some solo routines and carving out a separate, solo mindset even though I was no longer solo. It was difficult. But now I’m no longer a newlywed, and I’m learning to compartmentalize better: No, the person I’ve aligned myself with doesn’t run. No, that doesn’t mean I have to stop running, or only run with the same frequency that he does (read: hardly ever). Yes, the two shall become one, but remember: There are still two people in the equation. Christy the individual didn’t go anywhere. She can still do the solo things she used to do (sans other men! Rimshot), even though it doesn’t feel that way. For some reason, that break from an enmeshed mentality has been difficult for me.

6. I must have grace with myself or not even do this.
Without getting into a bunch of navel-gazing on how harsh and critical I am with certain aspects of myself, I can be pretty unrealistic. I haven’t run or worked out much in a year, I’ve gained 10 pounds and it’s 100+ degrees outside; I can’t expect a 10-minute mile out of myself. I can’t expect myself to finish a run without stopping and walking some for now. My big goal has always been to be able to run around the 10-mile White Rock Lake loop. A few weeks ago I completed the loop, albeit with many walking breaks and one large sit-down break where I paused my GPS/timer altogether to rest for 10 minutes. I have to be happy that I completed it and slowly work toward straight-up running the loop. Slowly. As slow and as long as my body needs. My other goal is running __ miles per week — the __ needs to be realistic, not idealistic. That fill-in-the-blank is set at 10 miles a week for now. If I run three days a week, I make that goal. It makes me feel good, and I pat myself on the back. If I don’t make that goal? I’ll smile and tell myself “next week.” The Nazi Running Marm act I’ve given myself in the past hasn’t worked as well for me as I’d like to think. It’s ultimately sidelined me in the form of discouragement, and I see that now.

Inactive and dealing with runner’s envy

Big ‘ol overachieving running nerd! Most of us have to work our glutes off to keep up our running routines, and this dude’s complaining about his 7-day “vacation” from it. Which I suppose is why he’s an editor of a little magazine called Runner’s World and I’m not. But hmm … I guess if I had scenery like << that << to run around in, I might complain just a bit about the absence, too.

Pout time. Here’s the sad happenings since my last post: My body has been amazingly immobile this holiday season. Well, except for my hardworking mouth, which has done nothing but masticate gluten-free-crust pumpkin pie smothered in Cool Whip, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls and other epicurean badness for the past 30 days. Continue reading